Literary Death Match
40 Brattle St., Cambridge
When I think of a literary reading, I think of cardigan sweaters, stuffy rooms, and restrained academic earnestness. When I think of a death match, I think of an all-out, no holds barred, brutal and unholy spectacle.
So if I hear of something called a "Literary Death Match," there's a 100 percent chance I'll attend.
Literary Death Match describes itself as "part literary event, part comedy show, part game show," and I had to read the event description more than once to try to piece together exactly what was in store. The event features a mix of established and emerging authors who perform their work for five minutes each in front of a panel of three judges who then riff reactions which range from profound to nonsensical. Two readers battle off in each round. The winners of each round then battle it out for literary immortality in an absurd and unrelated showdown.
The battle at the Brattle was hosted by co-creator Adrian Todd Zuniga, who entertained the audience with his comedy, high energy, off-the-cuff comments, and endless assortment of fun literary facts. This was not the straight-laced "bookish" event you might expect, but something more closely resembling a stand-up show mixed with a British panel show mixed with a literary fever dream.
Writer Desmond Hall kicked off the first round, and his paced, quiet, and serious reading was initially jarring in its wild departure from the jovial tone that had been set for the evening. Hall set the scene in 2020 as he watched his daughter preparing to attend a Black Lives Matter protest. As Hall read about his own interactions with police and recalled lessons learned from his father, his mostly even tone was occasionally cut through by passion, his voice rose almost to a shout before calming again. He let the pages he read from fall one by one onto the floor around him. When he got to a list names of people killed by police, all written on smaller cards, he threw them into the air and let them flutter onto the stage like snow.
Hall's opponent, Aube Rey Lescure, read from her forthcoming novel, River East, River West. She transported the audience to Shanghai, introducing us to Alva, a ninth grader making her way to school and speaking with her friend about her many concerns, including her mother's new boyfriend. After some banter from the judges, Zuniga read off fun Maya Angelou facts while the judges deliberated (including that she loved wearing Uggs), and the round ultimately went to Hall.
JD Debris performing "Voice of Hercules:"
JD Debris began the second round with "Voice of Hercules," a spoken word poem set to song which Debris performed on guitar. He sang of a gym rat named Hercules who one day took a pause from his preening to sing a Spanish ballad which caused his boxing gym to go silent. The audience, too, fell under Debris's spell. Up next, E.B. Bartels read from her book Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter. She painted a surprisingly poignant scene of the beta fish Wanda she had freshman year of college, and the agonizing decision she made when it developed dropsy to euthanize it in Poland Spring vodka. The judges brought their hands to their mouths as the audience gasped and shrieked at the visceral retelling.
Debris received praise from the judges, who appreciated hearing "lingua franca" in the same verse as "fuckin' shit." Bartels was treated to a long-winded story about Egerton's college-aged daughter's fish named Testicle, with Egerton reading back lines from Bartel's story replacing "Wanda," with "Testcile," so that the piece ended with "one final shudder, and Testicle was still." Ultimately Bartels took the round.
In a final showdown, Bartels and Hall rallied teams of their choosing in a lightning round of "Arithme-lit" or literary-themed math questions, such as "Around the World in Eighty Days + One Hundred Years of Solitude?" (180). As per the rest of the evening, the questions got more and more ridiculous as the round went on (2666 divided by Slaughterhouse 5 came out to 533.2, and 1984 x 1984 turned out to be a very guessable 3936256). After a tense tie breaker, Hall took gold.
The night ended with Zuniga's earnest appeal to the audience to read, noting that books are the difference between what "could be coming in 2024," and a happier end. "Make out with literary people!" Zuniga exclaimed, "That's right, we used to do this for fun, but now it's to save the world!"
As its title implied, the stakes were high and the implications macabre, but if any show were capable of saving the world I could believe it would be one this hilarious, inspiring, and thought-provoking. And, if not, at least we'll go down laughing.
Review from the Independent Review Crew.