An Actor in a Box

In his new novel, “The Zone of Interest,” Martin Amis gives us a fake fairy tale about a king and a wizard and a mirror:

Once upon a time there was a king, and the king commissioned his favorite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show you your reflection. It showed you your soul—it showed you who you really were.

The wizard couldn’t look at it without turning away. The king couldn’t look at it. A chestful of treasure was offered to anyone who could look at it for sixty seconds without turning away. And no one could.— “The Zone of Interest,” page 34.

The character who recounts this fairy tale, Szmul, is a Jew who is a member of the Sonderkommando, those concentration camp prisoners who kept themselves alive for another week or two by taking the worst job possible in the entire history of jobs: stripping the corpses of their valuables. He calls Auschwitz a magic mirror, but one you can not look away from. Everyone in such a harrowing, forsaken place is utterly true, to their innermost core.

If there is such a thing as a soul or souls, a place like Auschwitz would be where one might find every kind, full of love or full of evil.

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I am an enormously self-conscious actor, yet I continue to half-heartedly work at it now and again. Here is an example from 2014 (I am the secret housemate, heard third in this radio improv):

As I said, I am enormously self-conscious and even hesitant as an actor or performer—I blush easily, which makes radio the perfect venue for the experiment (and if you write for that type of character, a blushing, stuttering sort, I’m your man)—but I was utterly free as a bird as a performer exactly once.

There is no record on paper or video of the single performance of the group Venus Effluvia. I do not even know how I remember our name, especially since I only remember two of its three member’s names, and I was one of them. (Mine is one of the names I remember.) We performed two songs, neither of which I remember; we lip-synced to a tape of two songs but actually played our instruments, three ukuleles. (It was most likely inspired by Andy Kaufman’s famous “Mighty Mouse” lip-sync act and also by a fear of flop-sweat driven by the fact that none of the three of us had come up with anything until the night before. As with many of the projects I have found myself in, the publicity preceded the creativity or was itself the creativity: We were on the advertised bill but had no act.)

It was a visual joke of performance art more than anything else, or anything at all: the three of us wore identical black suits and ties and each of us wore a plain cardboard box taped around our heads. I think someone’s girlfriend drew a smiley face on each one. This was in the summer of 1990, I was 21, and our afternoon audience in a coffeehouse in Cold Spring, NY, ironically or honestly requested an encore, which we did not give. There is such a thing as an honestly ironic appreciation, and I may have met it that day.

That cardboard box was my friend. I could not see anyone’s face or reaction and thus I clearly remembered our minimal choreography and even solo’ed on my ukulele. I am certain our effort was an embarrassment of poverty, but I lost myself in that box of non-self.

We were paid $20, split three ways; to this day, that five bucks is the only money I have yet earned as a performer. But that box-mask brought out a performer in me whom I have rarely met.

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“Authenticity” is a word that is much used in contemporary life. It is most often used to compliment someone when his or her outward presentation appears to be happily close to what we think is an inner self. “He keeps it real,” is a phrase I think I have heard too many times. There is a reason I prefer writing to performing—and I even blush while writing—and that is the myth of control I am choosing to embrace; that idea that I am giving the world my authentic self when writing, with no pollution from other influences. Staring at a piece of paper or at a computer screen is like staring at the inside of a cardboard box and the self-consciousness, the self-centeredness, the self, melts away.

But that may be a fairy tale I tell myself, because I know I would not look at a magic mirror for six seconds, much less sixty.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 25 asks, “We’re less than a week away from Halloween! If you had to design a costume that channeled your true, innermost self, what would that costume look like? Would you dare to wear it?”

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The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men. As far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” —G.K. Chesterton, “The Flag of the World.”

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The suicide is committing, from his or her terrible and terrifying and terrified point of view, genocide. Humanity-cide.

Martin Amis, in his memoir, “Experience,” paraphrases that quote and then contrasts it with a more nuanced and empathetic passage from Nabokov’s “The Eye”:

I saw now […] how conventional were my former ideas on presuicidal preoccupations; a man who has decided upon self-destruction is far removed from mundane affairs, and to sit down and write his will would be, at that moment, an act just as absurd as winding up one’s watch, since, together with the man, the whole world is destroyed; the last letter is instantly reduced to dust and, with it, all the postmen; and like smoke, vanishes the estate bequeathed to a nonexistent progeny.

I am grateful that I am many years removed from any moments of despair in this life, but I remember that I was not going to leave a note because a note was an act of a living man and I was already not among the living. An impending suicide attempt tints every mundane act with an unholy glow, an outsider’s perspective that one briefly, ruefully, wishes one had had “in life.” The simplest acts also acquire sarcastic, rueful, air quotes: “This is the ‘last time’ I will have to fight with this stupid broken shoelace.” Any step in the dance of the living—eating a sandwich, say, or washing a fork—feels like a betrayal to the mission, which is a stifled soul-sickness and grants everything an omnipresent green calm.

It can last a split-second or it can last years, and a shorter period of time does not make it easier, and is just as exhausting perhaps; I pray that I am the only person in the world who has felt it, but I know that I am not. I would not be writing anything today if I was not many years removed from it. A writer, as Nabokov reminds us in “The Eye,” is hyper-alive. Maybe make that simply, alive.

The twinned quotations in “Experience” about the saddest reality (Amis has many twins in his work) come in a chapter about expanding love and family: a woman with whom he had an affair in the 1970s had a daughter but never told Amis and subsequently committed suicide when the daughter was two. He knew about his lover’s death but not the girl and finally met her when she was 18.

Their mutual discovery is that love is not a zero-sum game, in which a loss is always balanced by a gain, that love instead can only increase, well, that discovery is a hard-won insight, the sort that only comes from a deep, shared loss. (If a terrible loss leads to a worthwhile insight, doesn’t that imply all of life really is a sort of zero-sum game?—Pretend Editor.) Their families increased in size and complexity but not complications, and the missing woman is a part of it all.

Love can only increase. Unlike hate, which can be remedied and is somehow itself always a zero-sum proposition, once love is felt, it leaves a permanent mark on the landscape. Maybe it is the inner landscape.

All funerals are terrible, by definition, but some more so than others. A quarter-century ago, a co-worker of mine was shot and killed along with her mother by the father of her child, in front of the child. (It was an unobserved-by-CPS weekend custody handover. I hope people lost jobs over it.) A group of us went to the services and were greeted at the door by an older man who looked like he was allergic to suits; it looked like he had been consumed by this one all the way up to his neck and the suit was taking a rest before finishing him off. Two, twinned, coffins lay up front, closed from view, angled to fit in the small chapel.

I shook the man’s hand and he took my shoulder. His face was wet and unattended to by a handkerchief. Not knowing how to act or what to say to anyone, I solicitously asked who he was, assuming and hoping he was as distant as distant could be from the tragedy to ease my own sense of discomfort. “I am the father and the husband,” he replied with a “the” for each lost one and the beautiful expression of one who knew, not felt, knew that his dearest loves now loved him all the more completely from a different plane of existence.

I do not share that confidence, but I see its beauty.

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The above image from a Pinterest collection by Vanessa Longoria.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 20 asks, “At what age did you realize you were not immortal? How did you react to that discovery?”

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Daily Prompt: Ten Years Out and Four Back

The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 6 asks writers to write about writer’s block, a question that would on the surface seem unanswerable: “When was the last time you experienced writer’s block? What do you think brought it about—and how did you dig your way out of it?”

When one is in the throes of a block, the helpful suggestion to write about “anything,” even to “write about writer’s block,” feels like an excuse for justifiable homicide on receiving it.

Anyone replying to this prompt is not at present in its throes, so, good for us; I am patting us all on our collective shoulder. Because it feels like a physical ailment, writer’s block. First, it presents a heady sensation of having multiple thoughts at once, of a richness of topics and sentences available at all moments (justpickoneanyone!) … except this one, followed by a dread that one has committed to the wrong topic or married it to a disaster of a sentence, followed by a helpless sense that one always picks wrong, that one has no right to give privilege to any single thought, sentence, syllable over any other. No right to! Don’t finish, never start, just drool.

In his great novel “The Information,” Martin Amis describes the self-torture his character Richard Tull endures:

For an hour … he worked on his latest novel, deliberately but provisionally entitled Untitled. Richard Tull wasn’t much of a hero. Yet there was something heroic about this early hour of flinching, flickering labor, the pencil sharpener, the Wite-Out, the vines outside the open window sallowing not with autumn but with nicotine. In the drawers of his desk or interleaved by now with the bills and summonses on the lower shelves on his bookcases, and even on the floor of the car (the terrible red Maestro), swilling around among the Ribena cartons and the dead tennis balls, lay other novels, all of them firmly entitled Unpublished. And stacked against him in the future, he knew, were yet further novels, successively entitled Unfinished, Unwritten, Unattempted, and, eventually, Unconceived.

For years (the novel was published in 1995) I would set “The Information” down upon reading that passage (it comes early in the book, after Amis describes Tull’s middle-aged inner self-knowledge of his self-failure in only 20 or so sentences), because that was the bookshelf in my mind, too. And I was not going to describe it better than the master, so why attempt to? My own inner self-knowledge of my self-failure extended to believing that someone else had done a better job of describing my inner self-knowledge of my self-failure. Amis is a great novelist and essayist, one of my favorites, but he is not in my head (lucky him). (There is a pun there.)

I would read and re-read that passage, though, almost recite it like a sick mantra. Because while I could see the comedy in it—it is extremely funny, after all—I could not laugh at it with anything more than a mournful, rueful, “Heh.”

Whatever failures I have as a writer, and as a person for that matter, being too critical of myself usually was not one of them. If anything, I was not critical enough, often enough: If I was not going to attempt to try but was going to get all showy-mournful over the loss of my attempt, how was I “my own worst critic,” as I sometimes hear people describe themselves?

Through the 2000s, I did not write. I was in a writer’s block that felt terminal. (Some may wish it had remained so.) Oh, there was the occasional email of some length—I shudder at the memory of an attempted mimicking of Bill Simmons before he was famous (we even exchanged emails once) that described an afternoon at a Cubs game that I sent to friends—but the breaks between attempts grew longer. I moved part-way across country and then back, with some friends not knowing I had returned, because they did not know I had left four years before.

The irony is that for five of those ten years, I was professionally a writer, first at a factory, then for IBM. My work with a radio comedy group dried up, too. Ultimately, it all ended. I attempted this very blog in 2006, something which I had forgotten about until I started The Gad About Town in October 2013 and was told by Blogger, “This email address already has a blog, would you like to see it?”, requested the password, and discovered that I had started two posts, neither of which had a complete sentence. (It was kept private then and will remain so.) If there is a Rosebud to my writing life, it may be in those half-paragraphs.

For someone who has only wanted to do one thing, write—my family still has furniture I marked up with crayons, drawing words instead of pictures on every surface when I was two or three—the experience of not writing was a painful one. It meant that my psyche was left alone to receive each perturbation and clash like it was a brand-new, unique, and uniquely awful thing.

Until July 15, 2010, I was deeply engaged in doing the one thing I did best: Get drunk. My will to engage in much else in life was slowly being sucked away, but I also believe that my writing block was partly the result of a perverse sense of integrity and honesty: Nothing that I could or would write was going to be honest. I could not write out an honest shopping list, since the one thing I was actually leaving my house for was not even on the list. Any blog post, comedy piece, essay, memoir, to-do list was a lie of omission, and I do not like to lie. So, “Unpublished, Unfinished, Unwritten, Unattempted, Unconceived.” Until I was willing to blush while saying (or writing) the words, “My name is Mark Aldrich and I am an alcoholic,” nothing else was going to come from me.

That coin you see up top? I am pretty proud of it. (I tried to photograph the actual one but it is too shiny.)

So for the last year, I have been writing regularly. The Gad About Town has over 60 published posts; 13 of them responses to the “Daily Prompt.” But the lack of confidence that a writer’s block presents, that still visits. It did so this spring. My girlfriend’s help—really, I am a lucky guy—and my choice to do the Daily Prompt every day (even though it “is not me coming up with the ideas. Grumble”) have me writing now. So responding to the Daily Prompt every day is part of how I can respond to a Daily Prompt about writer’s block, a topic that would be unanswerable if I was in one.