So I saw Catherynne Valente read last night. This was a come-to-Jesus moment for me. Patty and Matt went with, and they were amused by my rampant geekery. Apparently I’ve gotten better at hiding it? Which I have mixed feelings about, like I’ve sold out. There was a boy at the reading who reminded me too much of Giando. He even managed to spill a beer into my lap, and all over my brand-new shiny book. What is it about science-fiction/fantasy circles that attracts the awkward? He was very apologetic, so no harm no foul, but I couldn’t stop thinking about my undergraduate and M.A. social circles, and how much I’ve always had a tribe of such people surrounding me (with all their accompanying clumsiness and oddity), and how much I miss that, and don’t miss it all at once. I feel terribly isolated in my program, with rare exceptions–one woman who I admire muchly actually studied with Samuel Delany at Temple, and her work speaks to my atrophied, brittle soul. But everyone wants to write realism, or to attack capitalism, or to do experimental stuff involving found language. I like and admire my colleagues’ work, and it is undoubtedly challenging mine, and changing it for the better. But oh, I miss playing monkey-on-the-ground drunk at 2am on the playground. And improv. And talking YA fantasy. And doing theater. And world-building. And speaking in Joss Whedon references, instead of Kantian/Adornian ones. But I don’t miss interminable D&D games wherein nothing happens. Or listening to boys pontificate about their novel, or Warhammer army, or Magic cards. I do not miss the antifeminist aspects of geek culture, but oh I miss the childlike wonder of it all. I miss feeling like people liked my shit, yo. Graduate students are known for their criticism, not their joy in life.
Where was I? Catherynne Valente. She straddles both worlds–geekery done right, to me at least. If Kaufman’s right and aesthetic experience is that moment of stretching when a work moves beyond itself, opening to new possibilities, then I can SO defend her work to all comers. He broke that down (this is a miserable paraphrase, but I’m going to try) into the reader feeling simultaneously like he or she could have written this text/is writing this text in the act of reading, while knowing that he or she did not in fact write the text, that it’s an object outside the self–creation and noncreation all at once, and/or the understanding of the self within a relational frame. Which is how I feel reading Valente–like she’s writing words I’ve already written or want to write, like she speaks my language, even while she’s translating the world for me into a language I can understand. And there’s the quandary of aesthetic experience, because I’m sure her work doesn’t resonate for everyone (certainly not the many flavors of my colleagues as listed above). But for me, her prose is magical. Hearing her read aloud, her work is even funnier than it is on the page (she’s always witty, but her cadence set up her jokes perfectly). She was unassuming and very kind, and (most impressive in a formal social situation like a reading) remembered my name when I went up to get my book signed. My memory-full-of-holes is deeply envious of people who can do this. She has a wonderful, deep reading voice–the red velvet couch of voices, you just fall into it. She was an utter, inspiring delight.
And late that night, two of my Chicago girlfriends sent me sweet emails, one about aesthetics, and the other about shared misery (implicitly, though, about kindness in the classroom). My tribe may be smaller and less prone to drunken abandon, but it is still lovely. Maybe we’re just getting older.