And Everything is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh’s documentary about Spalding Gray, sat atop my Netflix instant cue for a few weeks this summer. I was saving it as you might save the last perfect peach or an unread novel by an author you love.
Spalding Gray is an author I love. Since his suicide in 2004, I’ve reread his work and appreciated it anew. Now little remains for me to read, but he still holds a prominent spot in my imagination and in the pantheon of writers whose techniques are worth admiring and emulating.
I associate the performance artist responsible for Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy, Monster in a Box—and others—with his notebook. I picture him sitting with it at a desk in front of an audience, holding them hostage with his funny, repellent, endearing, profane, horrifying, titillating, chaotic, and revelatory anecdotes.
The two times I saw Spalding Gray, I walked away wondering what I had seen, a performance or a personality. And I wondered, which came first—the voice or the script?
In the documentary Gray says (confirmed in an interview I found online) that he wrote his monologues first, in longhand, and then read them aloud into a tape recorder so the publisher could transcribe them. Though that method might seem to include an extra step—couldn’t he just send the longhand pages for transcription?—his technique makes sense. You can imagine him improvising, rearranging phrasing and pace, looking for the silences and the shouts. How else could he achieve such intimacy between words and perspective?
“I dramatize my life,” Gray says, but that statement seems too tame for the transmutation his life receives in that notebook. Here is a passage from Morning, Noon, and Night, which, besides being the sweetest monologue, may be my favorite. In it, he describes taking his son to David Copperfield’s magic show and what they encountered on the way:
Forrest and I were traveling by subway from SoHo up to Forty-fifth Street. On our way to the subway, we came upon a man sitting with a big telescope and, for only two dollars, you could look through this telescope and see Saturn with its rings. Both Forrest and I looked through it. I’d never seen Saturn and its rings before, and so clear. It was fantastic! There we were gazing at Saturn and its rings for the first time together. On a corner of West Broadway and Spring street—on the subway—four dancers entered and, putting their boom box on the floor just a few feet from Forrest and me, they began to break dance up a storm—Forrest and I were stunned. What a show, and what great seats. Then we got to the David Copperfield Show and it was—well, it was good, too. It was just a different kind of show.
Without the impetus of Gray’s voice behind it, this passage may seem ordinary. His prose is loose—Saturn and its rings, Forrest and I, we came upon, we got to, we were gazing—and none of it seems beautiful in any poetic sense. Yet, the content IS beautiful and funny, as if the rhythm of the prose, even its repetitiveness, communicates the boyish joy behind the moment. He sets up the punch line at the end of this passage perfectly because we anticipate that David Copperfield can’t be as good, and yet Gray’s formulation, “It was just a different kind of show” is fresh and direct.
To an attuned observer of prose, everything is a show.
And Gray’s immediacy, the sense that he just makes his confession on the spot, is, to me, supremely well-planned. In good writing what seems unstudied may be carefully and effectively edited. He worked hard to make his writing look natural and took up a deceiving challenge—telling his story while calling just the right amount of attention to the teller. He had so much to reveal in the telling itself, in the DNA of the prose, its rhythm and pace.
The last sentence of the passage above might’ve described Gray himself—”a different kind of show.” Homemade or homespun, Gray’s writing was full of ellipsis, repetition, and those sort of “A equals B equals C” moments that could easily be cleaned up and cleared up, but he added odd detail or led you into strange territory sneakily. A good part of his prose’s immediacy rose from its seeming in-process, but an equal portion came from pure strangeness.
In Gray’s Anatomy, in response to an eye-problem, Gray went to see an increasingly unlikely string of alternative healers and wound up a dietary specialist who started with a questionnaire about what he’d been eating…in the last six months. As Gray told it, the nurse started with burritos (Gray decided he’d eaten eighteen), then moved on to borsht, and, after saying he’d never eaten it—never come near it—remembered he went to Russia and ate it every day.
His revised borsht count, fourteen.
The absurdity of scenes like this one rest in the ordinary way Gray led a reader to them. Before you know it, a conversation has taken a strange turn into Arbitrariville or Cloud Cuckoo Land. And it wouldn’t work if the journey didn’t ride a steady stream of wondrous wording that—I’m assuming—was deliberately crafted to be appropriately loopy and imperfect.
Perhaps Gray wasn’t Tolstoy or Dickens or Twain. He certainly puts the lie to the bon mot and the right words in the best order. Maybe I’ve just had my head turned by the actor Spalding Gray. Maybe I’m prejudiced by my grief over Gray’s suicide, but something about his prose throws more crafted work into an odd perspective…
…much like the street entertainment that transforms David Copperfield’s magic into pure artifice.