In Other Words The One Inside by Sam Shepard
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