FEATURE SPALDING GRAYW H V
From monologues to monomania. Spalding Gray’s first attempt at a
novel continues his obsessional need to reveal all. Tom Lappin spoke to the performer for whom confession has
become a way of life.
rankly he’d rather be in Mexico, hanging out with 30 friends who are experimenting with psychotropic plants in the rainforest. Instead Spalding Gray finds himself with a nasty English cold, in a London hotel room talking about Impossible Vacation, the latest instalment in a life dedicated to turning personal trauma into product, neurosis into art.
If you’re ever stuck in a train carriage opposite Gray, don’t make the mistake of asking him what he does. The ensuing
’ conversation could probably last you half ‘ way round the world, even allowing for
lengthy delays at Polmont and East Berlin. He’s been talking about himself since the mid-70$ when his work with the New York avant-garde theatre company The Wooster Group involved performing parts of his personal history, particularly his mother’s
suicide. Since then, he has made the
16Thc List 15— 28January 1993
monologue form his own, coming closest to popular recognition with Jonathan Demme’s film ofSwimming To Cambodia, a magnificently comic-tragic account of his experiences as a bit-part actor in The Killing Fields.
Impossible Vacation masquerades as a novel, a slice of the unwieldy tome mentioned in his last monologue Monster In A Box. ‘My agent approached me and said “I think you have a novel in you”,’ he explains. “‘Try writing and see what the difference is from monologues.” I’d always wanted to try to write rather than speak because I thought I could go deeper, and because I wasn’t in front of an audience I could take more in. But structurally I don’t know ifit fits the classical definition ofa noveL’
It certainly doesn’t. In fact it reads like the latest chapter from the ongoing cathartic
confessions of Spalding Gray, 51-year-old
' have on others. This self-absorption
neurotic obsessive. Ostensibly it’s about a character called Brewster North, a Rhode Island boy with a fixation about Bali, who leaves home in his mid-20$ after his mother’s suicide, seeking some elusive Nirvana in varied locations, from a Zen retreat to an ashram in India. Tormented by an aching desire to experience something life-altering he stops off to get buggered senseless in a gay bathhouse in Amsterdam and plays supporting roles in a porn film in New York.
‘Most of those things actually happened to me,’ says Gray, somewhat alarmingly. ‘There’s very little real fiction, I prefer to call the book auto-fiction. There’s some
‘I don’t like being an adult,’ he admits. ‘I like indulging my whims, because I ieel I could die any moment.’
rearrangement and changing of names and some ﬂourishes to emphasise the theme of Bali, but essentially it’s an autobiographical novel, with some differences. When I was going through that period in my life I suppose I was rather more found. I knew what I was going to do, working in experimental theatre, and in the case of Brewster, he’s more continually lost. He’s a character who simply can’t find his ground, probably due to the fact that he hasn’t grieved for his mother. He’s thrashing around.’
He certainly is. The problem for the reader is managing to retain sympathy for a character who feeds his own neurosis. Brewster/Spalding craves experiences and extremes with no regard for the effect they
manages to pervade not only the character ofthe novel but the way it is written. Gray admits that in a sense it is therapy in the form of literature. ‘That was the original idea, to imitate Freudian psycho-analysis in the sense of the person being on the couch and trying to censor what was coming out, in this case my relationship to my mother. What has emerged is a first person narrative of a nervous breakdown.’ A result no doubt inﬂuenced by the fact that Gray was rereading Catcher In The Rye while writing the book.
Swimming To Cambodia’s strength was Gray’s combination of the personal and the external, juxtaposing his own crisis with the surreal surroundings of Thailand. Impossible Vacation by contrast is obsessed with the personal to such an extent that the series of exotic locations his character travels through barely registers. Gray is so fixated by his neuroses that Nepal might as well be New York State for all the difference it makes. Certainly for a British audience, not as familiar with the casual confessionalism of the therapy-conscious East Coast American, the relentlessly introspective tone smacks of self-indulgence. It’s an accusation that leaves Gray bemused.
‘No. I’m not even sure what self-indulgence is. I see it as self-examination. I do think about the audience and what their needs are. But I hope I’m going deeper into some of my own questions. And I do hold some things back.
There are things that I might be working on 4