Writers at the PEN/Faulkner gala at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Front row, left to right: Joan Silber, Kate Christensen, Karen Joy Fowler, Lorraine López, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and Alexus White. Back row, left to right: ZZ Packer, Michael Cunningham, David Bradley, Jeffrey Brown, Tobias Wolff, James Hannaham and Jensen Villaflor. (James R. Brantley)
Critic, Book World

Don’t be surprised if everything seems better this morning. An epic exorcism took place last night in Washington. Nobody expected it, but members of both political parties participated in a cosmic assault against the forces of darkness.

A binding spell was cast by James Hannaham at the annual PEN/Faulkner gala in the Folger Shakespeare Library on Monday night. Hannaham was one of 12 writers invited to deliver a brief reading on this year’s subject: magic. Other fiction writers, such as Karen Joy Fowler and Michael Cunningham, remarked on the miraculous elements of the natural world or the magic of creating fiction.

Hannaham, author of the novel “Delicious Foods,” took an entirely different, explicitly spellbinding approach. Towering over the lectern, he told the audience of bookworms, wealthy donors and political leaders to join hands. Honorary benefit committee members Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) weren’t sitting in the same row, but by the transitive power of hand-holding, they were joined, too.

“Oh hear this spell, thou who wilt and especially thou who wilt not, upon this, the September full harvest moon of the year 2018,” Hannaham intoned. “Hear this spell, a spell made of language, activity of most obscure origin, most mystical of human endeavors. I call not upon angels nor upon demons, I call not upon the many gods, I call not upon the ancestors, I call upon the people!”

And then he began a breathless litany that soared out over the audience for the next six minutes:

“With this incantation, let us bind and banish the evil spirits that have taken hold of Washington, D.C., the United States and the world — the evil spirits not only in our adversaries but in ourselves!”

His list of evil spirits, incarnate and intangible, bound and banished, thundered on through rising laughter, gasps, applause and hallelujahs. He called out the evil spirits of substance abuse, trolling, gaslighting, celebrity culture, sexual slavery, gentrification, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, homophobia, narcissism and self-absorption.

He bound and banished the evil spirits “of having to hear anything about the president’s anatomy in the press . . . of heated Facebook arguments that last forever and go absolutely nowhere.”

He denounced the evil spirits of Milton Friedman, Henry Kissinger, Alex Jones and Ann Coulter.

He expelled evil spirits “who murder unarmed human beings, who jail the innocent, who indulge in blatant mendacity before the mass media in order to keep your job, who insist that ignorance is preferable to experience.”

He cast out evil spirits “who are killing print media, who have impoverished and demolished fact-checking departments, who do not read or respect literature.”

He rejected the evil spirits “of collusion with dictatorships . . . of supporting dictatorships while bragging that our country is some kind of f---ing moral leader in the world . . . of using your religious background to justify your bigotry in the public sphere.”

Winding up, he commanded: “Evil spirits, hear us and be gone! With this spell, we bind and banish you from within ourselves!”

It was a truly magical moment in Washington.

Hannaham explained afterward that he was inspired by the writer Michelle Tea, who has spoken about writing tarot cards and spells. “I thought that instead of talking about magic, I should try to cast a spell,” he said. “I did a little research and discovered that Monday was the full harvest moon. I summoned up the many ministers in my family history and wrote what’s essentially a list of stuff that is driving me and hopefully others crazy about our current moment.”

Consider yourself cleansed, America.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.