Sitting on the balcony of a lakefront hotel room in Toronto, overlooking a cartoon-like panorama of tooting ferryboats and buzzing planes, Spalding Gray seemed oblivious to his surroundings. Comfortably wrapped in his own thoughts, he was doing what he is famous for: talking about himself. The 51-year-old American actor, monologuist and author has forged a career out of personal confession. Treating the world as his therapist, Gray has unravelled his life stories onstage, on film and now in a boldly intimate autobiographical novel, Impossible Vacation (Random House, $27.50), a tale of sex, insanity and suicide. Even interviews, said Gray, “are becoming a kind of performance— an extension of the autobiographical process.” Gray has turned the therapeutic talking cure into a unique art form. He performs with a shrewd sense of comic timing but, unlike standup comedians, he tells elaborate stories, not jokes. And unlike other solo artists, including Lily Tomlin and Sandra Bernhard, he plays only one character—himself. Since 1979, Gray (who was born in Rhode Island and lives in Manhattan) has performed 13 monologues onstage, ranging from Sex and Death at the Age of 14 to Monster in a Box. He first won
widespread acclaim when U.S. director Jonathan Demme filmed Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia (1987), an 87-minute monologue about playing a small role in the movie The Killing Fields. Now, British director Nick Broomfield has made a movie of Monster in a Box.
Funnier, deeper and more daring than Swimming to Cambodia, Monster consists entirely of Gray delivering his monologue onstage, accompanied by a bracing sound track by Laurie Anderson. He sits behind a plain wooden desk, his only prop the “monster”—the 1,800-page slab of unedited manuscript that eventually spawned his 228-page novel. Spinning circles of digression and obsession, Gray talks about writer’s block, about lugging his raw manuscript with him wherever he went and about seeking fresh excuses not to finish it.
He tells amusing tales of an earthquake in Los Angeles, where he tried to find and interview people not connected to the movie business; of a fellow-American’s nervous breakdown in Nicaragua, where Gray served on a futile fact-finding mission; and of an ego-crushing appearance on Broadway, where critics savaged his starring role in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in 1988.
Monster is strangely mesmerizing. “It holds
an audience because it’s so different from Batman,” said Gray. “There are no images, just narrative. It makes you create your own film in your head—I call it cinema of the skull.” He added: “I see my monologues, at their best, as a Tibetan wheel of life, and I spin it real fast like a wheel of fortune, and you see this blur of heavens and hells and funny and sad things overlapping. I like to objectify my neurosis.” As a performer, Gray is ironic, black-humored and urbanely self-deprecating. But as a writer, he is surprisingly ingenuous. In Impossible Vacation, he assumes the fig leaf of a fictional character named Brewster North, who journeys from the Himalayas to the Grand Canyon in a wild attempt to flee the Puritan repression of a New England upbringing. Brewster begins his journey after his mentally ill mother commits suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide. (Gray’s mother died under identical circumstances in 1967.)
The book is crammed with epiphanies, both spiritual and erotic. Bored with his girlfriend, Brewster investigates a sex commmune in I India, enjoys being sodomized in an Amsterdam 9 bathhouse and acts in a pom movie in New g York City. All those experiences were his own, Gray said, “but I changed the names to give it a fictional edge—it’s auto-fiction, a slight mask.” After performing unwritten monologues for 15 years, “writing made me very humble,” Gray added. “It was very difficult. I had this childlike, naïve way of writing, a combination of Hemingway and Dick and Jane.” Print, however, allowed him to be more personal. “I haven’t been able to express my bisexual experience in front of an audience,” he said. “I thought it was very funny that Playboy magazine excerpted all the sexual stuff from the book except the gay bath scene in Amsterdam.”
As Gray turns his life into narrative, his girlfriend of 12 years, Renée Shafransky, has served as both a collaborator and a character. Shafransky finally convinced him to marry her last summer. “Now, she admits that may have been a mistake,” he said. “Marriage feels like a dart shooting towards a dart board with two Ds on it: death and divorce.” The self-obsession of Gray’s work has taken its toll. Shafransky, a struggling screenwriter, “completely lived through my career before,” he said. “Now, she’s tired of having all the focus directed at me.”
Gray’s art is firmly rooted in Freud. “Our culture is based on a renunciation of animal instinct for the common good,” he said. “That’s why America’s breaking down—people are looking for instant gratification because there’s nothing larger happening.” Storytelling is an underrated form of therapy, he added. “Most people prefer to hear a star’s story on TV or the story of the news out there, which seems more important than the news in here.” As the interview ended, Gray stepped from the balcony back into his room, like someone leaving the stage, and headed for the bed. “I have to sleep now,” he said, folding down the sheets, as if it were yet another gesture in the performance of his autobiographical duty.
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