In his seminal 1987 film, Swimming to Cambodia, the late great American writer, actor and one-man verbalizer Spalding Gray tries to work out – among other things – how a bunch of gentle, peace-loving Cambodian Buddhists could have evolved into a rebel army of ruthless Maoist murderers.
The reality, of course, is that no one knows for sure how Pol Pot brainwashed the Khmer Rouge into carrying out one of the worst auto-genocides in history. But Gray, in his inimitable, tangential fashion, puts the atrocities down to "five years of American bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves, ... an education in Paris environs in a strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime, including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random.…"
Gray's evil cloud isn't just the spectre of modern genocide but the shadow of mortality – a concept with which Gray, for all his neurotic good humour and emotional detachment, was obsessed. The story of his adult life was bookended by two suicides – his mother's self-asphyxiation in the family car; and his own (widely presumed) fatal jump from the Staten Island Ferry in 2004 – and contained far more pain than he ever dared reveal in the series of wry, revealing and relentlessly introspective monologues that made him famous.
The man's recently published notebooks ( The Journals of Spalding Gray) reveal someone who was at once addicted to the rush of self-exposure and yet was also deeply private. Brooklyn-based journalist Nell Casey has edited Gray's literary anatomy down to a surprisingly readable package, compiled from more than 5,000 pages of personal writing, sketches and rehearsal notes Gray left in his wake. They offer fresh insight into a man about whom, one would be forgiven for assuming, there's little left to know.
In his later years, Gray was plagued with the sense, as many troubled, public souls are, that without his audience he might just simply cease to exist altogether. "THERE IS NOTHING PRIVATE LEFT," he announces bleakly at one point, though it's not quite that simple. (How could it be with Gray?)
Later, he explains his approach to life and art as honing "the well-told partial truth to deflect the raw private truth." He's referring, of course, to the fan-dance technique so commonly used by memoirists of today. Think Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates and Christopher Hitchens.
In many ways, Gray is the grandfather of self-exposure, his fame a precursor to the rise of the modern literary memoirist, video-blog confessor and naval-gazing reality star. But his extraordinary ability to transform his personal experience and mental anguish into tantalizing anecdotes sets him apart.
Like Gray, who riveted millions just by sitting at a desk and talking, the best practitioners of self-revelation make it look effortless – as if they've delivered a spontaneous laying bare of the facts. In fact, it requires a literary sleight of hand – the ability to show all and reveal nothing – that is anything but simple.
As Gray's journals show, he honed his craft carefully, tweaking and adjusting his stories for maximum narrative torque. Gray's mastery of the form, combined with his ambivalence toward his own public persona, reminds me of Neil Young's self-loathing observation that he needed "a crowd of people, but couldn't face them day to day."
That was certainly true of Gray. In the end, of course, he couldn't face them at all.
I miss Spalding Gray. His death was not just an untimely tragedy among the litany of talented, creative folk who are cruelly dragged away by attendant demons before their time (Kurt Cobain, Chris Farley and Amy Winehouse come immediately to mind) but a loss that has resonated with me for years. Even now, I'll be walking down a city street somewhere or hear a song come on the radio, and think, "I wish Spalding Gray were here for this."
Not here here of course, which would be unlikely even if he were alive, but here in the sense of "on the planet with the rest of us poor wretches attempting to muddle through this tragicomic bit of business called life" sort of here.
I celebrated a birthday this week; not a big one with a zero in it, but a minor, murky middle-decade one. The kind of birthday you try, if you're anything like me, to sweep under the carpet only to watch it ooze out and swallow you up, like Robert Munsch's mud puddle, though not necessarily in a bad way.
Thoughts of mortality are best entertained in a semi-sober state in the presence of amiable, like-minded company. During the day of my birthday, I read the journals of Gray and rewatched his intensely personal monologues on YouTube – which veer between self-loathing humour (mostly about his own deep-seated neurosis and fear of pleasure) and creative self-revelation. (Who can forget the monster in a box?)
Immersing myself in a prematurely dead man's musings about life, love and genocide might not seem the most appropriate way to celebrate a birthday, but I found it strangely uplifting – a bit like staring into the void in order to see the light. This, of course, is the dark and delightful genius of Spalding Gray.