An Argument for Amorphous Stories

Every Brilliant Thing is categorized as a documentary. It’s actually a filmed stage production based on a book. A memoir. It touches on bipolar disorder and suicide. (Well, it points to it at any rate.) The film is streaming on HBO, and what I spent an hour or so of my sick leave watching this week.

It reminded me of Ross Gay’s Book of Delights in terms of what I assume was the story’s intention. But it also reminded me of Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself. Complete with celebrity audience members credited in iMDb.

DelGaudios film, in which DelGaudios plays himself, rates 8.2/10 on iMDb. Duncan Macmillan’s film, in which an actor portrays the protagonist, 8.4/10.

Both feature a form of role-playing with the audience in an almost quasi-therapeutic position. The attentive listener. The empathetic community. Both protagonists serve up their parent’s fallibility and the evolution of their personal coping mechanism.

Sharing with us. And letting us play along in character.

One review of Every Brilliant Thing describes the play as “exploring mental illness.” Yeah. I saw a lot of storytelling, but little exploring.

This morning I read an article in The New Yorker titled Agnes Callard’s Marriage of the Minds. It’s about a philosopher whose entire career is centered around her experience of marriage and divorce. She publicly ruminates about both. In light of historical ideas, I would presume. She examines her own learning-process as an adult. Her shock at her own naivete in the face of a second waning love story. I have so many mixed feelings about exploring these things with the interviewer who was exploring them with Callard.

We tell our stories and risk being called “brave”, which is sometimes intended earnestly, but often a euphemism for breaking social norms of exposure. It’s a passive-aggressive rebuke. We’ll be applauded and mocked. Definitely judged. The comments on the Facebook post were scathing. And nearly without exception unrelated to the contents of the actual article.

In his film on visual comedy, Rowan Atkinson said that character always comes down to a half an inch off the cuffs. I am taking this out of context, but yes. You need to recognize the subtle difference between sexy and slutty. Heroin chic or heroin addict. And your crafted performance will be perceived as character.

I read somewhere that the the social elite invited Rimbaud to one of their soirees. He stood on a chair and shook himself to rain lice down over all on them. (I do think my memory is adding details here: the chair, not the lice.) They fell out of love with him then.

Only for a while because, like everyone does, he died. Once someone is dead you can pin down a story and no one can let you down or force you to deal with it in the present tense.

Head lice, a bloody gun wound, a severed ear, a water-logged corpse, all quite romantic if you don’t have to smell them. Mouches (French for flies) were fashionable as long as they were a bit of play-acting: a bit of self-irony for the syphilitic over-class. The problem is that self-irony can’t help but be self-conscious. I will damn myself before you damn me, and before I am actually damned.

Flies are gross. And I have to admit that the thought of them buzzing around me to get at an actual wound on my body is nearly intolerable. There is a fascinating logic in taking on the costume piece mouche. It’s like a form of Neo-Classical LARP-ing! Cathartic.

I’m not claiming to be making keen observations here. Not by any stretch. How many movies fetishise the seedier sides of life and death? We play out our wildest fears as though bringing them to some kind of life will exorcise them from our future. Nothing new here.

Stueren: the Norwegian word for what is considered appropriate conversation in the drawing room – at least that is my take on the cultural connotation of the word: appropriate for a drawing room. And when we dress-up our naked stories with feathers and bells we can call it burlesque, and giggle a little. Call it a soiree and read our nonsense poems and strain our hallucinogens through sugar cubes poised on beautifully crafted spoons.

Definitely heroin chic, at least as a historical anecdote.

What is whispered over the the smell of Tide in the laundromat is another story. Literally.

I once read reviews of one woman’s memoir about the sexual abuse she suffered as a kid. One reviewer said that the descriptions of the sex acts were too graphic, and questioned the author’s motives. Another described the passages as titillating. Also questioning the author’s motives. “Why is she telling this story?”

Some real things are nearly impossible to place in an appropriate space. Or nearly impossible to dress-up appropriately for the space at hand.

Every Brilliant Thing really is a thing with feathers. It offers hope. And in a very earnest way, it is a brave thing to offer. Especially since the brilliant things the author logged for so many years saved no one. And there is no reason to believe it will save anyone. There is a naked truth. The bit up under the skirt.

The author as the theatricalized self. Is it even possible for the author not to do so? Is it possible for any of us not to do so?

I can say that what moves through these live performances is not the same beast that moves through a real group therapy session.

It demands more from you than a bit of role-playing and applause. What moves among the people there has no feathers at all. No bells. It’s amorphous. It demands from you the ability to sit with something undefined.

And that is just fine. It’s not fit for the drawing room, or the theater, but it is fine.

I know next-to-nothing about narrative psychology. But I am not entirely convinced that being guided away from exploration and into construction is always a good thing.

Life stinks sometimes. And sometimes it smells like tide, sweat-soaked quarters and machine oil. Is the point of our lives to bang the elements of it into a performance as we go along?

Callard’s second husband is an expert on Socrates. If I met him, I’d ask him if Socrates meant that the examined life was only worth living if certain plot lines were drawn and feathered?


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