On Thursday night, Bennett Lovett-Graff, George Kulp, and J. Kevin Smith smuggled two epic poems into the Institute Library, disguised as 20th-century American short stories.
The two stories, Harlan Ellison’s “Along the Scenic Route” (1975) and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” (1964), were the featured works in February’s installment of Listen Here!, one of the Chapel Street upstairs haunt’s several now-regular events.
As Lovett-Graff explained at the beginning of the night to a rapt and encouraging audience, Listen Here! is a collaboration between the library—specifically the New Haven Review, which is part of the library’s programming — and the New Haven Theater Company, a troupe of actors and directors that puts on plays throughout the city, including an upcoming production of Doubt to be staged at the neighboring English Building Markets.
For Listen Here!, Lovett-Graff selects two short stories, united by a theme, to be read aloud by New Haven Theater Company actors in front of a live audience. Thursday night’s theme: “Where Ya Going?”
George Kulp began the evening with “Along the Scenic Route,” written by American science-fiction author Harlan Ellison and first published in his 1975 collection Deathbird Stories. Macabre, abrasive, and bitterly satirical, Ellison can be a difficult author to read. Deathbird Stories, which opens with a warning from the author that “the emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting,” is a dystopian examination of the new gods and devils of modernity, among them sex, gambling, speed, callous indifference to brutal violence. “Along the Scenic Route” describes one such deity manifest in a world of intense road rage, where every commuter is a potential highway warrior.
Ellison’s prose is a hybrid of advertising lingo, technology fetishism, and a jumbled, futuristic slang reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange. But it is as affecting as it is provocative. “Ellison, and Deathbird Stories in particular, helped change science fiction from space opera to literature,” Lovett-Graff said, drawing attention to the author’s stylistic rebellion against the workmanlike prose of such predecessors as Isaac Asimov.
Kulp’s reading helped elucidate that “Along the Scenic Route” does not simply point forward, or sideways, toward a terrible future that is dangerously close to the present. It also points backward and inward, toward the stories we have been telling since the very beginning of literature. Using his body and voice to draw attention to the escalating drama, Kulp narrated a story that could have been set in ancient Troy as much as on the anarchic highways of Los Angeles. Two relentless opponents are pitted in battle: one young, insolent, brimming with eager ferocity; the other a little older, a little slower, aware of his mortality but just as short-tempered, and unable to resist a good fight. Most of all, these characters, much like their epic forebears, lack a sense of free will and self-control. They are buffeted by fate, governed by gods whose preeminence is deemed inviolable.
Ned Merrill, the main character of John Cheever’s 1964 “The Swimmer,” also resembles the heroes of the Ancient Greek epics, though more the perilous journey of the Odyssey than the brutal warfare of the Iliad; as Roger Ebert noted in his review of the 1968 film adaptation, “the journey Cheever’s swimmer makes has been made before in other times and lands by Ulysses, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn and Augie March.”
J. Kevin Smith delivered an authoritative and entrancing performance, by turns a counselor at a campfire and a preacher at the pulpit, wielding pauses and inflections to illuminate the story’s harmony of form and content. Cheever never lets the reader entirely into the mind of the story’s protagonist, primarily because that mind is largely unreflective. Merrill does not think about the past or the future; he does not think about his morality, integrity, or responsibility. He is caught in an eternal present, with the world defined by his senses: “He had been swimming and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously, as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure.”
During the talkback, Smith said that “most of the signposts” on Merrill’s journey “are related to weather events; to the feeling of cold, to the feeling of season change. … The subject of the story continues along his way with the same level of enthusiasm until he ultimately gets beaten down.” The responsibility of the actor, Smith noted, was to give hints about what’s happening without giving away what ultimately will happen.
Each Listen Here! is only a little over an hour long, but the discussions that arise from it resonate for much longer. Expertly curated and professionally presented, side by side, works of literature have a way of shining a light on how we tell stories, and how that method of storytelling is part of a tradition that goes back to the early days of recorded art. Listen Here! is helping preserve the tradition of using storytelling to both look inward and build community.
The next Listen Here! takes place on Mar. 11 at the Institute Library, 847 Chapel St.