THE MARATHON READING OF SOLARIS BY STANISLAW LEM
PRESENTED BY MAI AND THE ATLAS REVIEW
I attended the marathon reading of Solaris by Stanislaw Lem presented by Marina Abramovic Institute and The Atlas Review on August 3rd, 2013. The reading was scheduled to last eight hours, so I intended to sit in the theater below the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn as long as I could and attempt to write while the performance occurred. The reading went over schedule, lasting nearly ten hours, but I remained seated for eight hours. The rules I chose to abide by were: I could cut text after the performance but I could not add to it. All writing occurred from the audience of the performance. Anything in italics are quotes from Solaris. Each instance of a new time recorded after 3:30 indicates a new speaker on stage.
2:30: Arrive at Wythe Hotel after taking several loops around the hotel in an attempt to not be too early. Woman resembling St. Vincent (musician, not the saint) at front desk tells me she doesn’t know where the reading is. I feel a guy next to me listening for the same information, but I do not look at him. He talks to me anyway. After a few minutes outside, we are let inside. I sit in the back row, all the way against the left wall.
3:05: The theater is about half full. The wall on the left has exposed brick. There is stadium style seating. Most people are here in couple form. A few people have purchased cocktails.
3:07: A man in front of me asks who wrote Solaris. I look up to the event flyer projected onto the screen ahead of us. “Stanislaw Lem.” “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” I have never read Solaris, nor have I seen the movie. I brought one bottle of water and two small packages of honey roasted peanuts.
3:09: I’m already cold, so I put my cardigan on.
3:11: The Kickstarter video for Marina Abramovic Institute plays. Marina begins talking on the video & I remember how much I love her accent. It’s possible that I stayed with my last therapist for a year because her accent reminded me of Marina’s, & therefore I perceived her to be wiser than she was.
3:17: A man comes up to introduce Solaris. He shows a first-edition paperback to us. He gives a shout-out to the sound guy. The sound guy has read the book.
3:22: A telephone rings. It takes me a minute to realize it’s Skype.
3:24: It’s Marina. She says, “I love shepherds.” She tells a story about asking a shepherd a question. [The shepherd closes his eyes when he answers her question.] When she asks him why he does this, he responds, “But when I talk to you, I don’t need to see.” She talks about doing only one thing at a time. She advises you to close your eyes while listening to Solaris. White blindfolds are handed out. I put mine on, then take it off.
3:27: A video of Lady Gaga plays. She is the first reader. The video is black as she reads.
3:28: Two people leave. A third person wearing a yellow dress leaves. Then the hiss of air entering the shock absorbers. I tensed my muscles instinctively but nothing else happened. “When do I take off?” I asked.
3:30: Someone is standing behind me &, insecure about how my documenting will be perceived, I raise my body forward to cover my laptop screen. I feel like a spy, except no one has hired me & the information I am obtaining has yet to be determined. Almost everyone in the room is wearing their blindfold. I change my font size to an unreadable “8.” So far, everyone has read much too softly. People seem to already be getting restless. Is this sustainable?
3:34: A woman in a perfect white dress stands in the aisle to the right of the seats. She puts her white blindfold on, then puts it on her forehead and takes a sip of a beer. I am trying to make out entire sentences from the reading to put into this essay, but this reader is really soft. The last thing I was able to see… A few people have taken off their blindfolds. A few are tinkering with them. A man is holding his puppy in his lap. I stepped onto it.
3:38: The fourth reader: finally, someone speaking loud enough. Torn papers and trash… led to a corridor so narrow that two people could have barely passed one another. This reminds me of Marina & Ulay’s performance piece, “Imponderabilia” (1977), in which they stood nude, facing each other, standing close enough that each visitor to the gallery had to choose which gender to face as they walked through them. The blood drained slowly from his face…. I don’t know you, I don’t know you, what do you want? I wonder what kind of day Marina Abramovic is having. From her Skype view, it looked like she was in a sunny kitchen. I am craving the nuts I brought, but make a rule to not begin eating them until 4. I wonder how many people can actually be following this reading. There are so many distractions. What’s strange about that? Nothing, he said, blinking rapidly, Nothing…. What do you mean you weren’t expecting me? All I can think about is my nuts. For the moment, it’s just me…
3:47: A couple sits down with their baby. When? Today at dawn. The baby begins hitting the seats, which I can feel all the way at the other end of the row. The parents look on adoringly for two minutes, then the baby begins talking and they leave. No, I haven’t gone crazy… In any case, remember, you’ve been warned. This reader is giving good eye contact to a largely-blindfolded audience. Don’t attack – remember. He reaches Chapter 2. I imagine the entire audience wonders, “How many chapters are in Solaris?” My best friend calls me. In an effort to ignore the call, I accidentally unsilence my phone & it begins to ring.
3:54: A soft-spoken woman comes up to read. She is not wearing a white lab coat, which seems like an oversight. I wanted to be alone. I am shocked by how much noise is coming from the bar. I eat five nuts.
4:18: I can’t believe there are six more hours. I want to laugh, but do not. All suddenly seemed unimportant. My feet are freezing. I try to refresh my Twitter feed but I don’t have any reception. It was this movement that seemed to free me.
4:02: I see a girl in a floral dress leave & a guy coming back with drinks shakes her hand. He starts to follow her, then stops and returns to his seat. He puts his drinks down and hurries upstairs as she walks away and then when he’s 10 feet behind her, stops following her. She leaves, he returns to his seat. Unlike terrestial organisms, he did not adapt to his surroundings…. this was highly unoriginal. Someone walking behind me grinds their purse against my neck without noticing – it’s the girl with the sundress! She’s back, comes back and sits next to the guy who brought them drinks before. I’m relieved that he did not miss his opportunity. I misread the situation. I plunked the big book back on the shelf… I mistype “shelf” as “self.” I plunked the big book back on the self.
4:18: I can’t believe there are six more hours. I want to laugh, but do not. All suddenly seemed unimportant. My feet are freezing. I try to refresh my Twitter feed but I don’t have any reception. It was this movement that seemed to free me. A reader sitting in front of me takes off her blindfold, looks at the door behind me, then at me, I smile at her, she puts her blindfold back on. I found a pair of sunglasses and put them on.
4:29: Chapter 3 begins. Was this some kind of important information?
4:39: A reader wearing face glitter gets up to leave. The theater remains about half full. I saw the wild look in his eyes. One of the readers takes a seat next to me & begins attempting to read my 8 point type. No can do.
4:45: The man who chased after the woman in the sundress is now reading. What difference does it make? I turned and left without a word.
4:48: Neil Gaiman reads via prerecorded video. I had to fumble for the light switch… A red light came on. The room Neil recorded this video in looks really cozy. His desk seems to place him with his back to a large window that overlooks tree tops. The room is olive green. It could be an English countryside or Park Slope. When Neil switches pages, he looks directly into the camera to make sure it’s still recording. He pulled himself up from the superstructure from which he had fallen into the ocean… They searched for his body without success. It has just now occurred to me that I don’t know why this particular book was chosen to be read in its entirety. No reply.
5:03: A man begins reading with his hands in his pockets. It occurs to me that time is going by more slowly because I am paying close attention to time. I sat there for perhaps 15 minutes… I didn’t even have it in me to stand. I just used my blindfold as a napkin to wipe sugar away from my mouth after eating some nuts. I wonder how Marina endures these long stretches with nothing to do, & probably quite tired, hungry, thirsty. Why all the secrets? You’ll understand when you have your own guests.
5:20: I’m glad this is one of those dreams where you know you’re dreaming.
5:11: I admire the body of a woman in a strappy dress. Her body was tranquil and not especially cold. The bar is really loud now, & it occurs to me that I should go in & see the people I know. My introversion helps me to stay seated. My therapist once instructed me, in her Serbian accent, to battle my social anxiety by going to a party or bar & staying there for a long amount of time. Yes I must have gone mad immediately after I landed. I decide this is my favorite reader. She has a deep soothing voice. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the plot. That might not be true: I have gathered there are two characters: Gerbarian & Kelvin. Gerbarian might be the narrator. Outside, a red dawn was breaking. The project is facing major budget cuts. Solaris is a planet. It has two suns.
5:20: I’m glad this is one of those dreams where you know you’re dreaming.
5:24: The scene being read now is of a dead woman appearing & not leaving. I was expecting not to succeed. This reader reads about dreaming a dream to an end. This is a sensation I experienced just last night. A dream shower wouldn’t wake me up. I was having a terrible dream of illegal activities I would never engage in within my waking life, but I had the dutiful notion that I had to finish the dream. Waking up early would be another law broken.
5:30: A couple two rows in front of me clinks their cocktails and whispers, "Cheers." They get up and leave. I pretended I didn’t understand, but I understood perfectly well. What would I do if faced with a woman I had killed? If she appeared to still be living & I appeared to be dreaming? I would kiss her & assess her warmth. I might reach for a pulse. You mean you only have that dress?
5:36: How are things between us? Good or bad? I just realized the narrator is named Henry. It has taken me three hours to obtain this knowledge.
5:44: Am now realizing Henry may not be the narrator after all.
6:10: A woman comes up and begins breathing really deeply into the microphone. Many people straighten up in their seats. She’s saying “Chris” over & over while something plays over the speakers. You’re diagnosing me is one thing I can make out. I can’t quite hear the rest. Science is only concerned with how something happens, not why it happens. She points at the audience, asks, "Are you Chris?" I see now that the audio is actually being played from a megaphone being held by a guy walking up the stairs. I don’t know what I’m gonna do when she appears again.
6:19: A guy sitting a few seats down catches me looking at how many calories are in the bag of nuts I brought. I’m not even hungry, I just feel like I should eat, just like if I were running a real marathon. It’s not a matter of what I want, but what’s possible. I haven’t kept up on my running, but right now I have the urge to run in the sun, anything to imagine myself warm. I remember watching a movie about scientists at Antarctica. The film was shown in the middle of summer at a non-air conditioned space in Phoenix, Arizona.
6:27: It occurs to me that I have written 3,000 words in four hours, which is more than I’ve written in the past month. It was intuitive, I didn’t think about it. This reader is very good & has assigned different voices for each character, but not in a cartoonish way. People are laughing for the first time in this reading. How do you know how long it lasted? Did you check your watch?
6:35: I seem to be annoying the man sitting one seat down from me with my typing, which is funny, because the noise from the bar persists, and loudly. Is what we’re saying going to be transcribed? Yes.
6:27: It occurs to me that I have written 3,000 words in four hours, which is more than I’ve written in the past month. It was intuitive, I didn’t think about it.
6:44: The guy sitting a seat down from me has been scrolling through his phone for twenty minutes. Another row down, someone is posting a photo on Facebook. Only three people still have their blindfolds on. It’s hard to keep our focus when the door to the bar opens & all that noise spills in. In our decision to remain, there was nothing heroic.
6:51: Are we going to be here for a long time? My computer has only used 15 percent of its energy, despite being used for four hours straight. The theater is fuller now. Something quite incredible was happening to the door. How does one become a science fiction writer, I wonder? Probably no different than the way someone becomes a personal essayist: they are drawn to a thing. Lem is inclined to invent other worlds the way I am inclined to create an entire world out of my own mind. The wound was fading, almost, as I watched.
7:06: So I think Marina sat for 10 hours at the MoMA during “The Artist is Present” (2010). That sounds right. Seeing her there was the moment I really fell in love with her, a reaction I know is common. I read an interview that asked if she was a vampire due to her looks, which do not seem to be fading. I took a drop of her blood and prepared it for analysis. Marina has an other-worldly gaze, one that I dreamt about for an entire night after seeing her show. Things I’d rather be doing right now: walking. Anywhere. A test tube of the blood. I shook it.
7:15: This woman reads about G-formations & “disconnection of consciousness” which causes me to lose track of the story even more than usual. How do you explain these perpetual returns? Out of context, I think what perpetual returns could mean.
7:23: I see someone I know sit down in the row in front of me. I touch her shoulder & say hello. She motions for me to sit next to her, but I whisper, “I’m writing an essay about it,” & point to the stage. She twirls her finger around her ear & says, “You’re crazy.” I know. I perpetually return to this concept. I like to think I am too high functioning to be crazy, but I study the habits of women I admire (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton) to make sure we don’t have too much in common. But can one become crazy by studying habits of crazy people? Perpetual return: a bad habit. Perpetual return: comfort in routine. I realize I have not been listening for eight minutes.
7:23: She motions for me to sit next to her, but I whisper, “I’m writing an essay about it,” & point to the stage. She twirls her finger around her ear & says, “You’re crazy.” I know. I perpetually return to this concept.
7:42: A dark-haired woman holds her paper really far from her body and looks down, nearly closing her eyes to read the text. I’ve begun yawning & my vision is becoming a little blurry. If I round down, which I will, I have two more hours. I can do it. This pulsation is not visible to the eye. My pulse is slow and cold, perpetually returning to my heart like a dog (the most loyal thing I can think of).
7:53: At such times it looks like the planet is giving birth to another one. I remember photographs being received from Mars when I worked as an image caption writer on the Phoenix Mars Mission. Computers would receive images every morning in the form of zeros and ones. I never bothered to find out how that translates into a photo, I just accepted its magic & followed the rules. I was once instructed to refer to part of one image as “white stuff” because we didn’t yet know it was snow. However they may compliment each other is beyond us. Eventually it was not beyond us. Eventually the robot stuck its arm into Mars, put the white stuff into an oven, & officially declared it “snow.”
8:02: As a woman begins reading, there’s a loud bang on the door & a woman enters barefoot, facing the wall. I witness it from the back row, but most of the audience have dismissed it as a background noise. She begins slowly walking down the stairs, alternating between facing the wall & putting her back to it. As the reader says Slowly upward, the performer clings to the wall & moves her fingers & toes upward. She moves with utter grace and fluidity. Utter deadness, the reader says at the same time I am typing “utter grace.” The dancer leaps onto the narrow ledge on the front wall. I am mesmerized by her toes, which bend and contort with absolute control. Now she has put her body into an X against the wall, then crouches and appears to wrap herself in something. Then she lies on one side, facing us. The only part that moves is her hand, then her neck until she is kissing the ledge. Her arm lowers until it is straight, then her leg does the same. She begins to drip off as if made of a thick liquid, something which oozes. She falls & makes a loud thud. Only one person moves to the edge of their seat to see if the dancer is OK.
8:28: The theater is emptying out a bit. Even the pair who I believe spent six hours blindfolded in the same seats have left. What is it darling? The reader announces it is now Chapter Nine. I’ve missed the last few chapter announcements. You can feel sorry for yourself, but not her. I just took the first sip of water I’ve had in hours. I’m hitting somewhat of a stride though. Time has gone by so slowly, yet now that I’ve been here six hours, I know I can endure two more.
8:40: The tape recorder isn’t on the shelf. I don’t know why I felt compelled to document this event today. In a way I think I did it as a tribute to Marina Abramovic & her devotion to concentration, which I respect so greatly. Have I spoken about the theater besides its seating yet? There are eight rows of seats with eight seats in each row. There’s a long red booth in the back that people have been lounging in. There are two doors behind the back row: one on the left, behind me, and one on the right, which I believe leads back to the main hotel kitchen. There is a large projection screen on the front wall, which sits above the readers. There is a large metal air conditioning tube that hangs and runs along the right side. The air filters are quite loud & have a slight whistle.
8:28: ... I just took the first sip of water I’ve had in hours. I’m hitting somewhat of a stride though. Time has gone by so slowly, yet now that I’ve been here six hours, I know I can endure two more.
8:48: I’ve remained in the back row, far left seat, & have been relatively undisturbed besides the noise from the bar & people hitting me with their purses as they walk in. The woman reading now is the one who let us into the theater. I took her wrist, she had no pulse. Is Chris the narrator? I’m not surprised that I have been unable to follow the story. I’m often unsuccessful at remaining focused during regular short readings, much less marathon ones.
8:53: The woman reading now has her arm hanging stiffly to her side as if it were fake. Perhaps it is. I begin watching it slowly, waiting for it to move. She sat up. She was watching me. So… it didn’t… work? She lifted her hands, wiggled her fingers. Is this me? It’s hard for me to describe how the text from Solaris has been weaving into my thoughts all day. In instances like this, it’s almost too perfect, as if I knew what text was coming next. I knew to look at her hand. I want you to be here with me, I don’t need anything else.
9:25: And what did we actually decide–nothing? What did I learn today? Is there anything left to learn? With any luck, there will only be one more hour & the sun will have set long ago & I will have run the marathon. There are worse ways to spend a day. Chapter 11 is announced. I try to Google “how many chapters are in Solaris” but I still don’t have any service. A man has lost a book & asks me to look for it. I do not find it.
9:51: I check the clock, convinced that this reader has been reading for 20 minutes, but has only been reading for nine. I’m burning out.
10:02: We may be at the turning point of all history.
10:12: I’m so tired that instead of writing “begins reading” in my notes, I write, “begins singing.” I close my laptop & stand up in the back of the room.
10:31: The microphone battery dies. The reader continues in a loud voice, yells only the sound of heavy objects…
10:34: A new microphone is found & brought to the stage. A man in the audience is smoking an e-cigarette & I am so mesmerized by its artificial smoke that I completely tune out.
10:40: I realize there are at least three more readers, which means at least another half hour, & I had my heart set on leaving at 10:30. I think, “What good is writing about the marathon if you don’t run the whole marathon?” I console myself by imagining the finish line is arbitrary, a suggestion.
The race is: I remain seated for nearly eight hours. I lose my balance in my heels more than once on the way back to the train, forgetting the muscle memory of being upright. I go home, exhausted but determined to participate in another long durational work. I sleep for 10 hours.