After workshop, one of my students once asked, “How does it feel to have had such a limited success?”
Such moments are awkward. Another was at my mother’s funeral when her best friend took my hand and said, “It’s for the best.” Patting my hand, she went on, “Your mother was terrified that the pain medication would make her say what she really thought of you.”
I mean, What do you say in these moments? Really. To my student I pointed out Shirley Jackson. She’s in the pantheon, for sure, but if you asked most people about her work they could only cite The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery. My argument was that a writer only needed one memorable novel and one short story to be golden. By this I meant to suggest that Fight Club was enough. And of course, Guts.
Which brings us to Brighton, England in 2006. The Brighton Festival, where I was to read aloud in a program with Irvine Welsh1 in the Corn Exchange building. The festival booked us into a hotel where each room was given a wine name instead of a number, and I could never remember mine. No, I’d wander the hallways trying my key in the doors of Merlot and Malbec and Muscatel and Medoc. At the time the Corn Exchange was a cavernous, black-painted barn with little of its neo-gothic detailing left to show. The program would be Irvine and I alternating short stories. We’d climb ladders to stand on narrow towers of scaffolding above the heads of some eight hundred listeners. A violinist played haunting music to underscore us. On paper the concept sounded great.
In rehearsal the microphones kept cutting out. To read two stories over and over trashed my throat until I could hardly talk. The program ran too long, and the violinist was signaled to start too soon and cut us off as if we were yammering movie stars thanking too many people at the Oscars. The actual performance went worse.
Leaving home in Portland, I’d printed my stories: Hot Potting and Guts. My printer had been running low on ink, and Guts printed only in red ink. Not a big problem, I figured. Not until the Corn Exchange hall was near-dark and I was perched above the crowd and Irvine tossed the show to me. A red spotlight hit me, and in that light my pages went blank. In red light the red printing was invisible. I knew the first few words by heart so I recited them, hoping that the color of the spotlight would shift to blue or white. The red stayed on, but I could remember the next few words. In all I recited the entire eleven pages from memory. Between stories, I tossed the attention back to Irvine and climbed down to hide beneath my tower. A big cup of ice waited for me, and I sucked the cubes to recover my voice. A beautiful young woman was also standing in the narrow space under the platform. There, she and I just smiled and looked into each other’s eyes as we listened to Welsh.
After the show, my British editor burst into the dressing room and said, “I’ve never seen anything like that!” He said eighteen people had fainted, and the St. Johns Ambulance service was tending to people on stretchers in the lobby. He said, “It looks like a war zone out there!” He was thoroughly delighted.
The newspapers reported that a dozen people had collapsed. One minute they’d been laughing, and in the next they were limp on the floor. A witness in the audience protested to the festival that reading such stories aloud was “irresponsible and dangerous.” Which is what I expect from a good short story.
While we’d stood nose-to-nose in the dark under that platform, the young woman and I hadn’t traded a word. But a huge part of me will always be standing there with her, looking into her eyes and smiling with my mouth filled with ice.
Shirley Jackson would’ve loved that night.
A Housekeeping Item: To Suzanne R with the University of Nebraska Press, best of luck with your collection of essays. I’ve no objection with you quoting Fight Club for your section title.
Among Irvine’s friends was a – and I mean this in a nice way, because I liked them – yob or lad or hooligan, one huge guy in a track suit and gold chains whose face looked lopsided and a little asymmetrical because (the guy later told me) his skull had been chopped in half by a machete blow to the forehead, and surgeons had done their level best to realign the split-apart left and right sides of his head. He was a sweetheart and dogged Irvine’s steps like a great, menacing pit bull.