Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, forthcoming 2010), and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, forthcoming 2010). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“Ten months ago, I did Pinter on hard candy,” our narrator, Mickey Greene, informs us early on. “My timing was off, unable to manage the gaps and pauses.” He collapses on stage, and his career collapses with him. “My own recent acts are vulgar and vaudevillian,” he says; readers must wrestle with whether his present actions, detailed in this book, are otherwise. Mickey is, in many ways, a hard man to figure—ex-addict, amateur intellectual, actor in the sense not only of embodying other personalities but, as he is quick to admit, desperately needing a script and some direction. Out of such need, Greene turns to Harold Pinter, his texts and his life; much of The Consequence of Skating is an homage to this master, with Greene intent on staging “Moonlight,” a mission with such weight that it gives meaning to his stumbling life.
The play is elliptical, takes a sibyl’s torch to love and loss, isolation and abandonment, memory and denial, the precariousness of reality and how memory blurs, confusing what is, was and can’t be anymore. The writing’s funny as hell and often leaves me weeping. I want to do the play because it deserves a new showing, because it is one of Pinter’s last, and least understood works, is brilliant and difficult, completely worth the journey, and quite possibly may save my life.
That “quite possibly” is as revealing of the state of Greene’s mind as his deeply felt appreciation of Pinter’s art. As the play and Greene’s life come to overlap, Pinter’s reflections on the function of art cast all of Greene’s grasping in a new light. “I believe...as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all,” says Green, quoting Pinter’s Nobel Prize lecture, following it with his own commentary and context: “No doubt. Truer words. I stand in the kitchen and switch on my computer, check my emails...scan the headlines for the latest news.”
But where, in the barrage of facts that is our daily life, is the truth? How, even once one has sorted out the difference between, say, the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan and the affairs of Tiger Woods, is one to understand, not just the events, but society’s response to them? “89% of the diseases in the water can be filtered away by using a $5 ceramic pot,” Greene relates at one point, “...yet Potters for Peace can’t get regular funding as investors want to figure a way to first make a profit. 900,000 kids have died in the last six months while governments and adventure capitalists haggle.” Meanwhile, “Tom Delay is set to appear on Dancing With The Stars” and “Rod R. Blagojevich, the hirsute ex-governor of Illinois who, while out on bail for charges of bribery, corruption, and abuse of power, has asked the court to let him appear on Donald Trump’s ‘The Celebrity Apprentice.’” The facts are out there, but what is the meaning? Greene is, to some degree, lost, lacking that needful direction, and seeks to make some sense out of such disjunctive “news-worthy” realities with the help of economic theorist Ludwig Van Mises (“Mises contends that every conscious act has its roots in self-satisfaction, that people act in order to improve their situation, and must have a specific dissatisfaction—or uneasiness—to resolve otherwise they can’t act.”) and his friend Ted, who, coming into some fame and fortune with a computer program that, via digital wizardry, pasted new faces on porn scenes, then designed an elaborate “program intent on resolving factional statesmanship” by filtering “historical data, review[ing] the endgame from hundreds of similar conflicts in dozens of other countries to reach a logical solution.” This product was not as successful as the masturbation aid, and Ted has now started his own journalistic Web site, offering, as Greene says, “the headlines as Ionesco might write them,” even, in the course of the book, sneaking into Tehran at the peak of the government’s crack-down on “dissidents.” “Ted’s focus now is on dissemination of information, a renewed conviction, a want to collect the facts and spread the word. Knowledge is power....”
But knowledge is also only one aspect of power, and by itself not enough to guide power responsibly. When Greene says, “Not that I’m naïve, or in denial, or in weaker moments I haven’t paused to consider the whole of everything, but then this is only natural, to see what is and move forward,” he’s being naïve, or in denial. One lesson that could be taken from Pinter—that Gillis, in his skillful construction of this thoughtful novel offers to us, the readers—is that experience is radically different from mere “knowledge.” What Pinter calls “one of the proudest moments of my life” was his ejection from a dinner party at the American Embassy in Turkey after accusing the Turkish Ambassador “of supporting crimes against humanity,” and challenging “him to experience ‘(t)he reality of electric currents on your genitals.’” Such reality is different from any recitation of facts, as are the other realities so central to this novel. There is the Iraqi, acting suspicious in his car, killed by U.S. soldiers as a potential bomber when, in fact, his car was full of books banned under the old regime. There is the woman with cancer, about whom Greene can say “The doctors plan to change her from Hydrea to Sprycel, are considering Tasigna. The drugs—much as the Gleevec which failed earlier—are designed to block the protein made by the BCR-ABL cancer gene, allowing the white cell count to drop. I reheat her tea in the microwave, ask how she’s feeling,” but that “feeling” is something far removed from the brand names of corporate pharmaceuticals recited with such banal detachment. In a world of constant media, such signs become defused, as how, in Greene’s probation job, feeding sharks and piranhas, the strangeness of the act, the encounter with violence or communion with an alien creature on the other side of the illuminated glass, becomes dulled by routine. Protestors are killed and veterans return as amputees, mountain climbers die and corrupt former politicians rise to new status as pop culture icons. As Greene says, “Shit comes and goes because we make it so, but we rarely make it so because we know what we’re doing.”
But Pinter knew what we were doing—or at least believed he did—when he challenged the Ambassador to consider a dose of visceral education. In the end, Greene seeks such education as well, having tripped over and broken some more of his life, wasted trust and walked into abuse, betrayed love, lied in ways large and external as well as interior and momentary. Thinking of another woman in order to continue making love to the woman at hand, for instance—another fragment of life to which Pinter can bring insight. “The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear,” Pinter famously says, as quoted in these pages, “It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly and anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its true place. When true silence falls we are left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover our nakedness.” One way of looking at the conclusion to Gillis’s novel, then is as one human’s flailing attempt to uncover that nakedness. “I think about Mises, about logic and reason, love and loss, about human action and inaction and what falls between,” Greene says, in the fateful final scene. And then he acts, taking his own torch to love and loss, trying to make sense of this cluttered and confusing world.
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