Author and Wesleyan alumnus Alexander Chee ’89 read two extracts from his new and second novel, “The Queen of the Night,” at Russell House last Wednesday. The reading lasted a bit less than an hour, and afterwards, coffee, sundry cheeses, grapes, and some sort of pastry were made available to attendees in an anteroom.
Chee is a businesslike and focused reader, perhaps a bit shy Wednesday night, and kept his eyes glued to the page. Then again, perhaps this habit of his relates to the material he was reading. By comparison, Elif Batuman (the last reading I attended at Russell House) performed amidst frequent chuckling and editing out loud as she read from “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them,” which recounted her melancholic-comedic adventures with eccentric academics and intellectuals at past Tolstoy conferences. Hers was material meant to be read out loud, to be chatted about—digressive, winding, cheery, and self-aware.
Chee’s “The Queen of the Night,” on the other hand—from what I can gather from the reading and some scanty Googling—is a rich, strange, and dense confection. It is a heavily fantasized faux autobiography of a rags-to-riches soprano-adventurer named Lilliet Berne.
The book opens with Lilliet arriving at a lavish ball. She is a public figure in her prime, universally adored and famed for receiving so many diamonds, jewels, and rubies from prospective suitors that she’s begun throwing them out. A nervous young playwright pulls her aside and asks if she’d be willing to star in an opera that he’s writing especially for her that chronicles the rise of a young woman from the muddy ditches of poverty to world-wide acclaim. What irony of ironies! What shock of shocks! This is Lilliet’s tale as well, and of course she wants the part!
The high point of the reading was an episode in which Lilliet, wandering back to the ball and away from her conversation with the playwright (an encounter conducted in private, since she has vowed never to speak in public with the goal of generating even more mystique and fascination around her image). She finds herself in a hedge maze, confronted with two famously fraternal dukes whose very specific fetish involves slicing off women’s ball gowns with their sabers. Crazy, crazy stuff.
So why would Chee maintain such a hushed and furtive manner of reading in recounting this wacky tale? It turns out to be a very strong move, and a powerful way to present the material. If the reader leans into the flamboyance of the narrating voice and the events it relates, then what stands out about the material is its daring and moment-to-moment invention.
By speaking in a near-whisper, Chee pulled us into the personal component. We get the invention and audacity, yes, but it’s cloaked and framed by memory, and by how revealing the performance becomes. If I may briefly digress (of course I can; this is a week-old report on an event in the newspaper of a liberal arts college), the switcheroo that Chee performs by recontextualizing the fantastic as the deeply intimate brings to mind a movie called “Flaming Creatures,” made in 1963 in New York by a Warhol contemporary named Jack Smith.
The late Smith is a highly underappreciated progenitor of American underground and queer cinema, of whose oeuvre there are exceedingly too few films preserved. “Flaming Creatures” is undeniably his magnum opus, which entails a scraggly black-and-white anarchic orgy set during an earthquake, and takes place in some sort of perverse Greco-Roman hypersexed window. It’s ridiculous and deeply perverse, and, upon its release, caused audience riots and was at one point banned from theaters. However, it’s not an intentionally political or shocking work. Its power is derived from how personal a sex comedy it is, just as Chee’s work is strikingly, unsettlingly specific. It is a revolutionary work because it is an ardently apolitical vision of one man’s erotic utopia.
Tangent over. Much like the individualism of “Flaming Creatures,” the energy of the prose in Chee’s reading was accentuated by the author’s meditative, lowdown reading style. His hushed tones and outlandish content packed an intense stylistic punch, rendering the evening altogether a unique, refreshing experience.