The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Susan Henderson Weblog Wednesday Book Club, with Pasha Malla

This week's book: Swimming to Cambodia: The Collected Works of Spalding Gray

I've been visiting my mum the past few days. All there is to read in her house is Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood – both admittedly talented writers, but not exactly the sorts of things I'd pick up by choice, or without prompting from someone with a syringe full of AIDS held to my throat.

But in the bedroom I used to inhabit, and where I now sleep when I stay, are a few books I've left over the years. These include plays, novels and poetry collections I've had to read for school, the odd book I've bought while visiting, and books I've brought with me and either abandoned (Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version) or finished, loved and shelved (the book I've just re-read and I'm going to talk about today).

Okay, so let's talk about Spalding Gray. But first, let's let Sam Shepard talk about Spalding Gray: "He has accomplished the most difficult task for a writer – to speak of himself with no frills and no pretense." I'm not sure if this is really "the most difficult task for a writer" (I'd imagine writing a novel-in-sonnets in the electric eel-filled belly of a shark would be pretty hard, too), but this still gets at something that I think is paramount to anyone who attempts autobiography or memoir in any form: honesty.

I'm going to resist bringing up a certain recent Oprah-approved-then-shat upon "non-fiction author," but I do think that what a reader expects from writing that purports to be truth, above everything else, is honesty. And I certainly don't think that honesty is limited to facts. Spalding Gray's emotional honesty supercedes the details of his monologues, or stories, or essays, or whatever you want to call them. Who cares whether or not he really had any of the wild adventures he claims to have had, or whether the amount of time he spent in Thailand was three hours or eighty-seven days? With every sentence, like the witch-doctor disembowelling patients in Gray's Anatomy, the guy gutted himself. He opened his life up to the world and said, "Here I am, in all my beautiful, ugly, goopy glory." And to me, he did what (sorry, Sam Shepard) might be most difficult of all in autobiography: he wrote about himself in a way that made you feel like he was writing about you.

One of my favourite lines of Spalding Gray's comes from "Terrors of Pleasure: The House," one of the monologues included in The Collected Works. While auditioning for a role in a romantic comedy, Spald has one of his requisite existential crises: "Wasn't acting like you were in love to a certain extent being in love? I mean, I often act like I'm in love with Renee, so what's the difference? If I act like I'm in love with Sandy won't that, in fact, put me there?" That his relationship with Renee became such a fixture of his work brings up a whole whack of other issues I don't have time or space or brains enough to get into here, not to mention the meta-narrative of fiction intersecting with life, blah blah blah – but let's get back to that line! Man, isn't it true? And isn't it a brave and almost horrifyingly honest thing to say?

A few months ago I saw Jonathan Ames do his one-man show, Oedipussy, in Toronto. I didn't know Ames' work prior to that night, and I thought he was pretty awesome. There was more than a little of Spalding Gray in his performance, from his intonations and flailing neuroses to the "perfect moment" he described at the end. But what struck me most of all was Ames' honesty. If Spalding Gray has shown writers anything, I hope it's that memoir is more an undressing of the self than a gussying-up. Ames' was brutal, almost self-flagellating in his sincerity, with absolutely, Sam Shepard, "no frills and no pretense." He talked about being molested as a child with an unvarnished openness that was at once hilarious and terribly, terribly sad. He used his pinky finger to illustrate the size of his penis. He was, above all things, really fucking great.

I have on cd Spalding Gray's last completed monologue before he died, A Slippery Slope. It's about adultery, parenthood, fear, love, death and skiing, among other things. It also seems like a long, beautiful, tragic suicide note. A couple of months ago my friend Kate and I drove north from Toronto in search of a sugar shack. We wanted maple syrup dripped on snow, and bacon, and maybe even sausages. Instead of music for the car-ride, we took along A Slippery Slope. Our trip failed: all of the sugar shacks were closed, and we had a weird experience in the middle of a forest with a woman in leopard-print telling us to "ignore the dogs," when there were no dogs anywhere to be seen. Anyway, on our drive home we just let Spalding talk to us, and we sat there in silence making our way back to the city listening and wondering what the other person was thinking about.

I realized about twenty minutes in, with the snowy countryside whizzing by outside, that I was about to have a perfect moment. I had listened to this monologue a few times before; I knew what was coming. And when Spalding Gray describes holding his newborn son in his arms for the first time – the newborn son he fathered in an adulterous, extra-marital affair, the newborn son he avoided for months out of fear and self-loathing – and he looks into the baby's eyes and talks about what he sees, which I won't ruin for you by quoting it here, like an icy whoosh blasting up from the floor of the car and through my body and out the top of my head, my perfect moment came.

For further reading:

Ames, Jonathan. I Pass Like Night. New York: Washington Square Press, 1999 (reprint).

Atwood, Margaret. The Robber Bride. Toronto: McClelland & Steward, 1993.

Munro, Alice. Who Do You Think You Are? Toronto: Signet, 1978.

Richler, Mordecai. Barney's Version. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1997.

Shepard, Sam. Seven Plays. New York: Dial Press, 1984 (reissue).


Blogger tamara said...

I've always meant to read this, and now I'm fully convinced. Another addition to the library list.

Thanks, Pasha.

Mon Jun 19, 12:56:00 pm GMT-4  

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