09/05/2012 11:21 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

The Search for the Real: Part 2

Dear N_______________,

I had such a good time with you the other day, although I know things are a bit weird. When I invited you to the Whitney it was because I wanted to spend as much time with a friend as possible, but you know how I am -- I need to always be doing something; I can't just sit and bullshit. That's why I insisted on reading to you in the museum café before we saw the Yokoi Kosama show. In case you couldn't follow everything we read because of the noise or because I picked it up in the middle, I'll tell you that Spalding Gray's Morning, Noon and Night is charming and disarming. It is so simple: A man has a child with a woman with whom he shares one other child and a stepchild; the family has recently moved to Sag Harbor; the man talks about a single uneventful day in his new environs with the new family configuration.

I kept wondering how this book could be so engrossing while being so deceptively simple. I think there are two things that are going on that make what would ordinarily be the bland stuff of everyday life interesting and insightful: He is writing about himself in a frank and beguilingly earnest way; and he is layering his simple narrative about yoga, shopping with his son, and sex with tangential anecdotes and thoughts that involve much more dire and complicated material. In this way he gets at the complexity of life, even the seemingly mundane material of simple family life.

Yesterday I watched a film called Compliance, which is ostensibly based on true incidents that took place in over 70 restaurants where an anonymous caller impersonated a police officer and used his false authority to get the employees to do horrible things to each other. The movie was very well made -- especially considering its minimal budget -- meaning it maintained great tension throughout. In some ways not much happens, while at the same time there are huge character shifts and everyone is pulled into the horrible situation. One thing that my fellow movie-watchers -- one of whom works in human resources and knows all about the rules of employee relations -- kept whispering to each other was how stupid the characters were to fall for such a ruse. While it is true that the characters are undermined in obvious ways, the deceiver's approach is made obvious to the audience because we were made privy to his side of the conversation. The audience isn't kept in the dark about who is calling, and the ironic distance highlights the characters' missteps. I could imagine the situation feeling much different if one were in the middle of it. In addition, the incident is framed by the structure of the film, meaning that the incident is no longer a private thing happening in the back room of a fast-food joint -- it is being projected to a larger audience. The characters are experiencing the private moments in the back room while the audience is watching it on a huge projection; a strip search that was done for two people becomes a strip tease show for a whole theater. This also connects the caller to the visual component of what is happening on the other end of the line, when in fact he can't see what's happening, he can only hear and imagine (which shows how much rape can be about power rather than direct sexual gratification). Sorry to digress, but I use this film example as a way to show the use of the true to tell a narrative in a particularly simple and frank way.

I think there is something similar happening in Spalding Gray's book: We hear about the relatively simple activities of one day, but, because they are presented as things that actually happened, they carry a different kind of weight. An additional factor, which Gray probably didn't plan when he wrote the book five years before his death, is that everything is tempered by the mysterious circumstances of his apparent suicide. The seemingly happy life in Sag Harbor with his young family is haunted by the specter of his impending death -- any of his positive resolutions about family life after a tumultuous love life prior to this and any of his solutions to dealing with the prospect of death are all swallowed by the fact that he probably killed himself not long after he wrote this book. But, with or without the specter of his death, the book works; it still has inherent power to pull in the reader despite the shadow cast by the circumstances of the writer's life. And I think that is the power of the truth. He is not trying to fabricate a fictional happy family, and if he were he would probably need to make the family dysfunctional because no one wants to read about happy people in fiction -- we want obstacles. But because he seems to write about true things as they happen to him, he can write about smaller things. It's not a very long book, and maybe he couldn't sustain this kind of thing for much longer -- part of its charm is its fast-flowing whimsy and brevity. But like the way we accept the seeming stupidity of the employees in the film Compliance because we are told this actually happened, we are engrossed by Spalding Gray's relatively simple activities because he is not making them up.

In addition to his simple and frank telling of his daily activities, Gray fills out the narrative with his own interior monologue in which he ponders death (including a brief mention of his mother's suicide); recounts his past marriages and infidelities; and goes into some of his performance work with The Wooster Group, as a solo monologist, and as an actor for hire on Fran Drescher's The Nanny. These digressions deepen the surface activity of his day by giving a sense of a mind at work. We are all engulfed by our own subjectivities; each day is filled with experiences shrouded by all the experiences we've accumulated up until then. No one lives so in the present that he isn't partially living through the aggregate experiences he's had already; and Gray gives an impression of this multilayered phenomenon of being in the world with his mixing of surface experiences with inner thought. But in addition, the inner thoughts are made much deeper because they are contrasted to more pedestrian activities: yoga, reading the paper, getting the kids ready for school, picking out movies to rent, eating dinner with the family, putting the kids to bed, etc. The reader gets a sense that this character, Spalding Gray, is a kind of Socratic figure measuring life by each small incident that happens to him. By inference he can contemplate the deepest things in life -- love and death -- while not having to be an authority on either subject. His subjects are himself and his family, but he can move from these to more universal subjects because of the way he uses them as a jumping-off place for contemplation.

I thought Into the Woods was not bad. But my favorite part was walking from the Whitney through the park to the Shakespeare in the Park theater (the white Kosama paintings with the basket-like brushstrokes were the best, yes? As well as that film where she was painting red lily-pads in the lake and then the paint was on the surface of the water). Actually, I think my plan was better in my head than what actually happened. I wanted a fun artsy day, something you'd see Woody Allen characters doing on a date: the Whitney, reading in the park on a rock outside the theater, seeing a classic American musical under the stars and then maybe going to a late dinner at Joe Allen's. But I guess you were mad about some stuff.