It was a Sunday evening, and the sun was setting over downtown San Diego. On the patio of The Periscope Project, people milled about waiting for the book reading to begin. Some knew the author's previous book -- and had an idea of what they were getting into. Others had done some research on him -- and thought they knew what they were getting into. But most had no idea at all what was in store for them. Although the event was billed as "free and open to the ADULT public", no one was really, fully prepared.
Things started slow and steady -- always the mark of a good evening. The audience was treated to a base of quality prose and personal stories with beautiful and heart-felt delivery that made us all genuinely like the author, Jason Stoneking. He began reading to us from his newest book, Audience of Twelve, which was written at a fairly stable point in his life and career, but later in the evening he also read from his previous book, Audience of One, which was written at a more challenging time and is, lets just say, darker in tone and subject matter.
I will stray from my story for a moment to point out the books' structure; both books are composed of a series of story/essays, and each title was designated by someone other than the author. Someone gave Stoneking the titles, and he was then bound by the rules (of the structure of the book) to write a story for the given titles. In Audience of One visual and conceptual artist Markus Hansen feed him titles, and for Audience of Twelve there were twelve different individuals feeding him titles. The main point here is that the titles, and therefore the themes of these stories, were not chosen by Stoneking but given to him as a kind of writing assignment.
So far, so good. The evening was shaping up as a traditional kind of book reading. We took a short break to enjoy some wine and cheese. It was at this point that a woman approached Stoneking to complain about something she had read on his website. She was a mother, and she brought her drug-using son to the reading. She was upset about a particular story, from Audience of One, that she had read online, and she had come to the reading with her son to tell Stoneking how his work was irresponsible and detrimental to those, like her child, who had a problem with illicit substances. The story in question was called Crack and Stoneking subsequently decided to read this work to the audience.
So it was at this point, as the sun set and the night began to creep in, that Stoneking's stories began to take a more ADULT turn.
"I think crack cocaine gets a bad rap..." is the opening line of the story, which goes on, in a very humorous and honest way, to describe what crack is like (from a first hand experience) and to suggest that crack is not as bad as the world makes it out to be. Stoneking's piece is not a glorification of crack, per se, but more of an honest, experiential, perhaps cathartic justification of why some people might want to smoke crack.
"For most of them [guys Stoneking used to smoke with], if they ever got off the pipe, the only thing waiting for them – in the sober light of day – would be a precarious dead-end job as a janitor or a fry cook. And I couldn't look one of them in the eye and say that either of those titles was any more luxurious than crack-head."
The pointy end of the story's thesis is that crack is like a tool for extrication from reality -- and maybe not that different from others in common usage (alcohol, TV, Facebook... ). Near the stories' end Stoneking writes, "I think people look down on the crack-head not because of what he's doing, but because he's escaped the structure of what everyone else is doing."
People laughed wildly, clapped, and nodded their heads in agreement. The stories' description of and investigation into crack were so very convincing that I if a glass pipe were passed around at that moment, there would probably be a few interested parties (self included). After hearing Stoneking's description and delivery of this story, the mother, who had approached him earlier, hugged him. Then they (mother and son) purchased both of his books and left.
"Wow," I thought. What an interesting evening. But it wasn't over yet.
Egged on by the audience to continue in adult themes, Stoneking read a story titled Dude, I need to hear about the Boulder chick and the Orgy one more time -- an absolutely hysterical analysis of a kind of baffled orgy, complete with all the nakedness, strangeness, jealousies and downsides inherent in (most?) group sexual experiences.
"Dude, Jason, your girlfriend's got dank muff," is the funniest and most memorable line from this story that also begins the tales' U-turn into the dark side of things. But it was when Stoneking was deciding what to read that would satisfy this audiences' apparent desire for adult themes that he happened to mention another dark story from Audience of One-- "The Aristocrats" story.
Some members of the audience who had read this story made some noise (one of them was me), and the rest of the audience became curious by the Stoneking's reluctance to share it. He continued on with other stories and said something like, maybe he would read it at the end, but it had been a serious source of controversy, and he wasn't sure it was a good idea.
Now, the audience was intrigued.
It's true that Stoneking's version of "The Aristocrats" actually titled, The Famous Joke. Version: Jason Stoneking, was indeed so problematic that it almost caused the book not to be published and engendered much debate about whether it could be included. In the book, the story comes with its own disclaimers:
"Publisher’s note: This piece is a version of an old and well- known dirty joke that traditionally aims to shock, offend and disgust, and is here written in the spirit of satire. Neither the author nor the publisher intends to advocate, glorify or condone any of the acts that are depicted therein."
At the reading, the story also came with many disclaimers by the author, but each just seemed to intensify the curiosity.
I should break from my story, again, to point TO the famous joke,"The Aristrocrats", if you have not heard it, and the documentary about this joke if you have not seen it. Commedians such as Chris Rock, Drew Carey, Bob Saget and so many more have done it, and the infamous joke is not told for the humor of the punch line but for the shock value of the scenes that happen before the punch line. The audience at The Periscope Project seemed to be split on their ability to recall the joke, but they knew they wanted to hear this story-- whatever it was. Stoneking was hesitant, but he eventually gave in and began reading.
His story is told in the first person: I being the father of a poor family. And I believe this sets up some of the intimacy and subsequent horror the audience may feel upon its telling (especially in person). We had been listening to Stoneking's personal, first person stories all night. Now we were listening to him put himself into this fictional story, and we identified I with this sweet, funny, and vulnerable man before us.
Since shock value is the ultimate goal of each telling of this tale, Stoneking success was marked by our shock. The game of rehashing the joke is that each time its told, it gets worse-- and the game was played well. The story/joke in a nutshell: A poor family needs money; they go to an evil man in the entertainment industry to see if they can do a performance to earn them money; the evil entertainment exec gets them (the family) to do various kinds of perverse, abject and weird sex acts with each other; the punch line is that the title of their performance is "The Aristocrats" (play on the tradition of the aristocracy using incest to keep the power in the family).
Stoneking's version takes the audience on a horrific and graphic journey into this joke's story. It goes into disturbing details that really bring the reader, or listener in this case, into the story. We can relate to the pathetic father who must perform these incestuous acts on the daughter-- acts that we could hardly imagine, but all of a sudden we are there in the father's shoes. We are the mother performing deviant acts on our own son. And we relate to and with the characters because Jason Stoneking has such a compelling way of luring us on, against our will, from sentence to sentence. The horror story (14 pages long in the book) goes on, and on, and it fills us with disgust for ourselves for even thinking such things and picturing such mayhem.
The audience at The Periscope Project fell silent. We all suddenly become very self-conscious. We sat on the ends of our seats passing only surreptitious, sideways glances around the room. After the story, people either loved author Jason Stoneking or hated him. There was no in between. He had taken us somewhere very dark and uncomfortable, and then he left us there to witness the manifestations of this discomfort and shock -- in a group setting. Most of the audience clapped. Most stayed to have a glass of wine, shake the author's hand, and purchase a book. But some absolutely couldn't handle it; even though they had stayed late and enjoyed themselves before this story, they left angry and/or confused after this story. One woman refused to shake the author's hand when he extended it to her. He had shocked us to our very cores -- a difficult thing to do in this day and age when sex scandals, internet porn, and nightly news atrocities give us all the graphic stories and images we could ever imagine.
But these moments of uncomfortable and emotionally heightened realization (those moments of being shocked) are very interesting to reflect upon. Of course "going against the norm" (and having the capacity to cause shock) has been done in all manner of art forms since there were rules to be broken. My obvious example choices are Duchamp, Picasso, Shakespeare -- they all shocked their critics. Shock can cause anger, hostility, confusion, but then gives us a chance for reflection and greater awareness once the object or idea causing shock has been examined. Was Duchamp's Fountain really offensive or was it a work of art that changed the way the world thought about art? Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon outraged the Paris Art Scene, and Cubism was instantly shrouded in controversy. Shakespeare left devout critics up in arms with works like Macbeth that portrayed religious controversy in all of its horrors. But these are the most discuss, most written about, most influential works of art in the world. Shock causes discussions -- sometimes with others, sometimes internal discussions (like the one I am having with myself as I write this) and these help us to better understand ourselves, perhaps learn something about our own beliefs, and facilitate the asking of some very complex questions not only about ourselves but about the world, censorship, morality, and art.
And on a more basic level, when I personally read something dark and twisted handled by a gifted author (like Stoneking), and it's something that I don't really want to be experiencing, but I am compelled to keep reading against my morally-conscious, left brain-reasoning, I think, "Wow this is a talented author."
And that's is exactly what I was thinking on this particular evening.
Jason Stoneking is very a talented author. He was capable of forcing all kinds of intense emotions upon his audience. That night his memorizing, hilarious, and painfully honest works horrified me, they've brought tears to my eyes, and I damn near pissed my pants a few times from laughing so hard. That's exactly what a good author should do, and that's exactly what a good book reading should be like.
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