When one of my favorite authors makes a public appearance, I’ll put up with a lot to be in the audience. For instance, when Hunter Thompson came to Cal some years ago, I sat through an endless hour of Alice Donut, followed by a tape recording of jackrabbits being tortured with fire, to witness the good doctor drain a bottle of whiskey and mumble poisonous answers to stupid questions. So when I heard that Neal Stepenson would be launching his latest novel in San Francisco, under the aegis of the Long Now Foundation, I jumped at the chance to attend.
Drive an hour to get there? Not a problem. Stand in line for another hour to get in, even though I bought my ticket in advance? Sure, because I am a fan. I’ve read all this guy’s books, even the crappy ones like Zodiac and Snow Crash. Even (and especially) the 2,700+ page Baroque Cycle, which I chomped down like a Costco-sized bag of tasty, tasty popcorn.
An hour and a quarter after the scheduled start time, and they still can’t get the sound system to work? I am filled with benefit-of-the-doubt, generously dispensing Slack. After all, I am a fan of the event organizers and their crazy clock project. If they skipped a step here or there, like the sound-check, who am I to point fingers? It’s an old, historic hall, and they’ve never done an event here before, and they are my friends.
Plastic folding chairs rammed too close together? No big. Crackberry junkies taking each others’ pictures and Twittering like there’s no tomorrow? Cool. Crappy five-dollar beers? Believe me, I’m used to that. But then things start to get Truly Weird.
Emcee Stewart Brand, the fine fellow behind Long Now, announces that the Main Event will be prefaced by “music.” A group of humans dressed in brown monks’ robes then take the stage and proceed to sing, a capella, notes corresponding to the digits of pi. Or something like that. Lots of digits. Lots and lots. The sound system seems to be working now, because they are amplified and extremely loud. Rock-show loud.
This is one of those high-concept acts that sounds better in print than in person, and loses its novelty very, very quickly. By the time the “monks” have gotten a dozen places to the right of the decimal, I am beyond trying to figure out what this has to do with literature, and gritting my teeth in anguish. The caterwauling continues, on a droning pitch-line that only a computer (or a circle) could possibly love. Slow, stately, and stultifying, like fingernails dragged at funeral-march across an endless blackboard. Talk about the long now: time has completely frozen in its tracks.
Thirty or forty or fifty digits into the exercise, all my goodwill has evaporated. My head hurts, and my teeth are moving around in my jaw like icebergs. Suddenly there is nothing the author could possibly say that would be interesting enough to make it worth another minute of this torture. Life is just too damned short. I am out of there as if fired from a cannon, dragging my copy of Anathem behind me.
Who knows? Maybe it’s a good book. But at this point, it had better rock me right out of my socks. Then make me breakfast.