Fran Lebowitz at Massey Hall in Toronto, February 8th
On Friday, in the midst of a big snowstorm here in Toronto, Rachelle and I went down to Massey Hall to see Fran Lebowitz be interviewed by CBC Radio’s Jian Ghomeshi. We felt kind of heroic doing so, traveling bravely toward culture through snow drifts and empty streets, when the rest of the city was doing what we really wanted to do, which was cozy up inside, drink some wine and watch a movie.
Lebowitz is in possession of a verbal brilliance that’s brusque and clarifying. Without hesitation or doubt, she can distill complex matters into weighty yet witty gems that are so elegant you want to wear them as if jewelry.
Massey Hall, which is as beautiful as an old movie, was about half full of her acolytes, and we all awaited her arrival in happy anticipation. Unfortunately, the talk was a brief, superficial and epigrammatic “Show.” I suppose I’d been hoping for something more along the lines of a conversation, an organic flowering of thought that wasn’t bound by subject, time or convention, but what Lebowitz delivered was more like a greatest hits, as if she was a tribute band of her own best material.
Ghomeshi, who was affable and charming, was little more than a straight man, with Lebowitz, like some Vaudeville comedian, delivering the punch. There was nothing that she said on Friday that I had not heard her say before. She was the Fran Lebowitz persona throughout, and that was kind of exciting in itself, but overall it was a thin and disappointing experience, leaving me feeling the way I usually do after leaving the Ex.
Taking the subway home, I couldn’t help but feel kind of sorry for Lebowitz. She burst onto the New York cultural scene back in the 70’s, amidst much fanfare and expectation, and has been unable to produce a written work (she considers herself a writer, not a Hollywood Square wit) since 1981, when she published a collection of essays called Social Studies.
Now 62, she complained– with customary charm– about other people’s children, how suburban New York had become, our impoverished arts culture, and information technology—a revolution she’s heard about rather than participated in. It was stellar cocktail party chatter, but not very sturdy, lacking in any desire toward self-awareness or examination.
When I think of her now, I imagine a ghost living in a timeless, self-created limbo. Pacing the same 15 Manhattan blocks, too frightened or unsure to realize her genius, she remains in the golden age of her potential, locked in a glittering city that will always be bigger, better and more real than any subsequent iteration. It’s ironic that New York, a city defined by velocity and constant change, is the place that Lebowitz, who seems the very opposite of these qualities, has chosen as a professional avatar.