The PEN World Voices festival in New York featured Paul Auster and Guillermo Arriaga, Vikram Chandra and Kiran Desai, Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Caryl Phillips and a tribute to Ryszard Kapuscinski. Gore Vidal was the recipient of the PEN/Borders Literary Service Award. Among those attending was Bookslut editor Jessa Crispin, who reports a certain degree of ritual self-flagellation about the fact that only 3% of books published in the States are translations – but it cannot be said that Britain exactly leads the world in that regard, either. Vidal was stuck in traffic before an event at which he was supposed to be talking about his latest memoir, Point to Point Navigation, but when he finally arrived at Columbus Circle he announced: “I never do readings, but I’m happy to talk. What’s on your mind?” A deliberate pause, to milk the inevitable laughter. “We’ll get to Bush later.” It didn’t take long.
Vidal’s looping memory took him to his native city, District of Columbia, “where cherry blossom blooms and blooms and wars with Japan are prepared. I suppose there’s one being prepared right now to give young kids a shot in the arm.” Is it time for a revolution? “They don’t turn out very well. I have to pretend that ours did. But you know, from George Washington to George Bush makes a monkey out of Darwin.” Huge laughter. “I’m now a creationist.” What is to be done? “Normally – it used to be this way in the US – you hold an election and you get them out … But we’re an abnormal country now.”
And so it went on, with invocations of habeas corpus, an announcement that he’d vote for Gore if he ran, bitter railings against the distorted views of the press, the hijacking of the republic by an oil and gas lobby. There were appreciative “yeahs” when he suggested impeaching the vice-president (“this is something weird, we have never had a rogue vice-president”). “I don’t like this period. We have rogues in high office, and no one wants to do anything about it. We’re facing stormy times. Stormy times.” All of it was peppered with memory – of Hillary Clinton’s mother (“a tough unrepentant New Dealer from the 30s”), and of reading the Congressional record to his grandfather when he was a child, and leading him on to the floor of the Senate. His grandfather was “elected six or seven times to the Senate – from Oklahoma, of all places, and he was an atheist. Not that he ever let them know. He was blind, you see, and that covered a lot of sins.”
There was not time for all the questions. If Gore had won? “He did win. Had he served the term to which he was elected in 2000, we would have had no war in the Middle East. Gores do not like foreign wars. They’re perfectly happy with civil wars, though.” Why did a plane hit the Pentagon and not get shot down? “I’m not a conspiracy theorist – I’m a conspiracy analyst. Everything the Bushites touch is screwed up. They could never have pulled off 9/11, even if they wanted to. Even if they longed to. They could step aside, though, or just go out to lunch while all these terrible things were happening to the nation. Yeah. I believe that of them.” AE