In Other Words The One In­side by Sam Shep­ard

172 pages

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In his es­say “On the Grad­ual Pro­duc­tion of Thoughts Whilst Speak­ing,” Ger­man poet, drama­tist, and nov­el­ist Hein­rich von Kleist (1777-1811) writes that if one has an ex­is­ten­tial ques­tion, they “should be­gin by telling it all” — “If there is some­thing you wish to know and by med­i­ta­tion you can­not find it, my ad­vice to you, my in­ge­nious old friend, is: speak about it with the first ac­quain­tance you en­counter.” In Sam Shep­ard’s The One In­side, a brood­ing hy­brid novel-mem­oir, it seems the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning play­wright and ac­tor has deeply in­ter­nal­ized this ad­vice; more so than the reader, Shep­ard’s in­ter­locu­tor is him­self. The novel’s frac­tured, short-chap­tered nar­ra­tive, which en­cap­su­lates the re­flec­tions of an ag­ing bach­e­lor ac­tor liv­ing in a town that is rec­og­niz­ably Santa Fe, moves from the wreck­age of his 30-year mar­riage to his dys­func­tional dal­liance with a young woman to long hours on movie sets to flash­backs of his hard­scrab­ble child­hood with a dis­tant fa­ther. In the fore­word, Shep­ard’s old girl­friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor Patti Smith writes, “It’s him, sort of him, not him at all. It’s an en­tity try­ing to break out, make sense of things.”

Shep­ard’s prose bears his usual hall­marks: an an­gu­lar in­sight into the tropes and trap­pings of the West, ker­nels of hard-wrought ro­man­ti­cism us­ing a pal­ette that dwells in de­crepi­tude, and a rue­ful, self­loathing and hard-drink­ing nar­ra­tor. The story be­gins in cold semi-dark­ness, as the wake­ful pro­tag­o­nist lis­tens to the far-off cries of mur­der­ous coy­otes and takes stock of his aged body. He finds free­dom in soli­tude, in the move­ments of his own dogs and the in­deli­ble sur­round­ing land­scape; “ev­ery­thing good between men and women,” as the late poet C.D. Wright calls it, is the burr un­der his sad­dle, along with his point of en­try into what ex­actly has gone wrong — and right — in his life.

Between eerie, dream­like ap­pear­ances of his fa­ther — as a corpse, or fly­ing a B-17 bomber over Ro­ma­nia dur­ing World War II — the nar­ra­tor bat­tles a will­ful twenty-some­thing paramour, Black­mail Girl, who is toy­ing with the idea of us­ing tran­scripts of the cou­ple’s long-rang­ing con­ver­sa­tions for an ex­ploita­tive fic­tion project. Her role is fore­shad­owed by the ap­pear­ance of a suc­cubus, “a lurk­ing pres­ence that hap­pened to in­habit a fe­line shape” un­til “she’d had enough of what­ever warmth I was em­a­nat­ing and slunk off, weasel-like.” With the ex­cep­tion of his com­pan­ion­able and ide­al­ized ex-wife, women in gen­eral seem to fall into the suc­cubi cat­e­gory for him. He lingers on mem­o­ries of Felic­ity, a gar­ish, wan­ton girl­friend of his fa­ther’s with whom he also had sex as a teenager, and who seems to sym­bol­ize the self-im­mo­la­tion of his fa­ther — and per­haps now him­self.

In­deed, the con­tem­pla­tion of female com­pan­ion­ship spurs thoughts of joint sui­cide. Drunk on mescal, the nar­ra­tor ram­bles on to Black­mail Girl about the sui­cide pact of Kleist and his ter­mi­nally ill mis­tress Hen­ri­ette Vo­gel; sober­ing up the next day, he dis­misses that ro­man­ti­cism: “In any case, I wasn’t try­ing to sug­gest that she and I should try joint sui­cide. I hardly even know her,” though it seems the mere sug­ges­tion of in­ti­macy has sparked a self-de­struc­tive im­pulse. In his es­say “On the Mar­i­onette The­ater,” Kleist, too, sug­gests a con­nec­tion between car­nal knowl­edge and an­ni­hi­la­tion, ask­ing his com­pan­ion whether “we must eat again of the tree of knowl­edge in or­der to re­turn to the state of in­no­cence?” “Of course,” the com­pan­ion an­swers, “but that’s the fi­nal chap­ter in the his­tory of the world.”

The photograph on the cover, Gra­ciela Itur­bide’s 1979 Mu­jer Án­gel, ref­er­ences the pro­tag­o­nist’s awe and hor­ror of the female en­tity. In it, a Mex­i­can Seri woman from a tribe of ex-no­mads roams the desert, car­ry­ing a large tape recorder. Her flow­ing dress and the photograph’s low-to-the-ground per­spec­tive make her seem oth­er­worldly, pow­er­ful and mon­strous, her strid­ing fig­ure set against a parched, bar­ren land­scape. The im­age re­calls the nar­ra­tor’s own in­te­rior des­o­la­tion, against which all women loom larger than life.

The One In­side is at its most prob­ing, and mov­ing, when it limns these universal, if par­tic­u­larly mas­cu­line, ques­tions of sex and death. Cu­ri­ously, Shep­ard’s drama­tist’s ear for smart philo­soph­i­cal di­a­logue of­ten fails him here, as con­ver­sa­tions with Black­mail Girl seem to strive for an elu­sive sub­stance and por­tent but come off as vac­u­ous and self-se­ri­ous (though they do serve to high­light the cou­ple’s in­com­pat­i­bil­ity). Of­ten, in its quest to en­com­pass sev­eral selves in one, the task of writ­ing mem­oir can lead in­evitably, if sub­con­sciously, to frag­men­ta­tion. Sev­eral am­bigu­ous chap­ters here thus be­come pon­der­ous red her­rings, where it can seem that the au­thor is per­haps de­lib­er­ately seek­ing to mask more naked emotions and nar­ra­tive threads by ex­per­i­men­tally throw­ing the reader off his own scent. But when Shep­ard sets him­self more earnestly to the idea of pro­duc­ing self-pro­fun­di­ties, he’s re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful at ren­der­ing his long ca­reer of sto­ry­telling in relief. On a movie set, ready­ing him­self for a scene, the nar­ra­tor con­tem­plates his char­ac­ter’s es­sen­tial­ism, seiz­ing on the idea of “‘ex­ile.’ The sense of be­ing “apart” as a way of life. How it comes to pass that a hu­man is set adrift.” He’s uniquely pre­pared for this role: “My whole life was a pre­am­ble.”

— Molly Boyle

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