Review of Stephen Elliot’s “Fiction and Politics” BathHouse Reading

Submitted by Sarah Smarch: 

As I sit in the Halle Library Auditorium waiting for Stephen Elliott to approach the podium to read, the girl behind me loudly “Can’t believe!” how quickly her hair has faded from blonde after dying it only two weeks ago. Following the exclamatory shock is an exchange between the girl and the guy sitting next to her about the whereabouts of the sign-in sheet, which verbally affirms my thought that they must be here for extra credit, and I hope that my inclination to peg them as freshman is also true because accredited universities already graduate enough people who are more concerned with Hollister than the war in Iraq –a topic that is of primary importance to the writer they have been somewhat coerced into seeing here tonight. Before I took my seat I waved at and quietly said hi to Elliott whom I had met the night before at a house-party in honor of local writing legend Jeff Parker. Because of this prior meeting I am not surprised by the ease with which he replies hi, and wears his loose, button-fly blue jeans with running shoes; ease that effortlessly translates into high level sex appeal.After brief public service announcements and an introduction that heralds his publication credits and 2001 fellowship at Stanford University, Elliott approaches for the audience to decide whether or not they care about his list of accomplishments. The first piece he reads is about the unlikely camaraderie found by a female author of an “Any marine” letter and the letters’ soldier recipient. It is quiet in the room as he reads the piece in entirety. Short-short fiction by any standard, his voice carries the listeners through the piece the way it is intended to be heard; the soldier proud of his kills, the girl trying to make sense of the empty sentiments offered by her peers who don’t support the war but drive gas guzzling SUV’s. They both reach for something un-had and Elliott recognizes that the reaching is what will compel us to listen, not the writing of his political opinion into the piece. Elliott was a writer before he was an activist so he doesn’t write to preach but his interests tend to invade his topics of choice. He confesses from the podium that politics and sex are primary interests and jokes that chess is a distant third. When questioned by an audience member about the piece’s inspiration Elliott cites conversations around the poker table with friend Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead. The extent to which Elliott invests himself in his work is made clear when he mentions that it isn’t always easy to candidly discuss his sexual experiences as he does in his book My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up but he feels it is important to own these acts publicly so people involved in cultures which are not mainstream aren’t marginalized and silenced.The next piece he reads is also political and again uses the vehicle of loneliness to create enough tension to illicit interest from his listeners and distract us from the political commentary included. The story is about a man who realizes he is alone in life and begins to talk to whoever might be listening in on his phone calls in a post-911 privacy breaching U.S. of A. The commentary is transformed into a humorous exploration by the protagonist while remaining scary as hell—the makings for engaging sardonic narrative. The story includes a conversation between father and phone-wielding son during which the son questions the father about the time when he tied him up and shaved his head. I am confused by this incidents’ inclusion as Elliot has been quoted that the same events happened to him in real life though a slightly altered version as the shaving and tying up were separate occasions and the tying up was actually him being handcuffed to a pipe. Is Elliot himself the man with the phone obsession, or could he not resist the opportunity to explore the insanity with which his in-the-story father shrugs off the incident? In either case his venture into the fathers’ defense about his actions does prove interesting.During the Q & A portions of the reading a girl with curly hair and no make-up asks Elliott about his pieces written for The Believer –some of the many pieces which relay his strong connection with the Eggers empire–, an older gentleman asks several politically focused questions, and I sit contemplating what Elliott really intends his role to be. He is a man who has achieved recognizable literary success but he is also an educator and essentially a politician. He talks a great deal about his involvement with fundraising for progressive candidates and the importance of registering new voters yet he talks to a room of youngish Midwestern students about George Bush and Republicans in a way that assumes they agree with him, not out of peer pressure but from a place of intellectual reasoning, an assumption that is not safe in a world where people vote strait ticket, and are only 45 minutes away from the Ku Klux Klan capital of Michigan. In the end I hope that Elliott’s words inspire more than they perpetuate ignorance. And for the already educated and those lucky enough to have an informal conversation with him, I am sure they do because his personal life supports the principle of critically analyzing those who will govern. As far as Elliott the writer goes, I know that I wore a smile throughout both his stories, the exchanges that ensued, and the random bout of laughter from freshmen unaccustomed to sexual conversation. If you missed him live, his stories are worth the read and will provide for some interesting dinner-table discourse.