Feb/Mar 2009

Crazy Guise

Mark Sarvas


Recently on NPR, Philip Seymour Hoffman gave an interview that was surprising in its awkward, fumbling banality. For example, on the difference between theater and film actors, he offered, “I’m sitting here and [theater actors are] doing it in front of me, but the only difference is that they’re doing it and I’m watching, but ultimately we’re all people hanging out in the same building.” Yet the taut intelligence of Hoffman’s performances can scarcely be gainsaid; like the work of many post-Strasberg stars, his oeuvre is a testament to an instinctive, emotional intelligence, which is not, perhaps, so easily put into words. In his earnest new novel, Out of My Skin, John Haskell—who explored his fascination with celebrity in his debut story collection, I Am Not Jackson Pollock (2003)—delves into questions of reinvention and performance. He aims to examine the fundamental question of what it means to change, but his exegesis is marred by a propensity for mundane, ersatz profundity. Even so, one is forced to wonder whether, as in the case of Hoffman, this self-conscious tic is all part of the act.

After the novel’s narrator, one “Jack” Haskell, is assigned to write an article about celebrity impersonators, he meets a professional Steve Martin imitator named Scott, who enjoys a reasonable level of success despite very little resemblance to the genuine article. The trick to “being Steve,” Scott explains, has to do with noticing “the attitude behind [his] thoughts.” Jack’s life has hit the skids—he left New York after a relationship failed and finds himself living in a Hollywood transient hotel—and the appeal of donning the skin of another is too much to resist. He soon finds himself imitating Steve or, more precisely, acting “like Scott doing his impression of Steve Martin.” The transformation leads to success in wooing “a tall young woman named Jane,” but it’s a success that in turn leads to more rumination on the nature of self.

The idea that Los Angeles attracts people seeking to lose themselves in more glamorous guises is scarcely original, but it’s still a potentially rich one. Unfortunately, Haskell has a weakness for spelling out absolutely everything, even the obvious. Do we need the narrator to advise us that “it’s natural, when you like someone, to want the feeling reciprocated”? Or that “people who have the gift of letting go of themselves enjoy the gift because, by letting go of who they are, they can afford to let go of what doesn’t work”? Haskell may be satirizing the simplistic narcissism that passes for introspection in Hollywood, but the same unironic tone permeates his previous books, suggesting he is writing with a straight face.

Haskell overworks his symbolism, portentously deploying everything and everyone, including Brecht, Galileo, Sunset Boulevard, Brueghel, Cary Grant, and Joni Mitchell, to explicate his central theme of change and the attendant struggle with the self’s true meaning. On Mitchell’s decision to appear on a talk show rather than at Woodstock: “She did the careful thing and the compliant thing, but she didn’t do the necessary thing.” On Archibald Leach’s transformation: “With time, however, the Cary Grant he named himself became the Cary Grant he was, and I wanted to be like that.” Grapes and raisins are vigorously deployed for their symbolic value. (Skins are transformed, get it?) And the television in every room the narrator enters happens to be playing a thematically relevant movie.

After Jack dyes his hair, he notes, “Although I had the white hair, which signified Steve Martin, I didn’t feel I was embodying Steve.” Haskell’s italics declare his fealty to postmodernism to anyone who might have been uncertain, and this disposition might explain some of his more awkward constructions: One character is described as “what they call petite,” the late ’50s as “during what was called the ‘Cold War.’” Bad writing or an abiding interest in signifier and signified? Perhaps a little of both.

Ultimately, Haskell’s devotion to types and symbols exacts a price. Tellingly, the most vivid consciousness in I Am Not Jackson Pollock, which is populated by the likes of Janet Leigh, Glenn Gould, and the eponymous painter, belongs to an elephant. Haskell’s depiction of celebrity characters tends to lean on the shorthand of the known contours of their lives. (Consider, in contrast, the rich interiority Don DeLillo invents for the likes of Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover in Underworld.) Therefore, we get much that is familiar about Leach’s struggles with his alter ego, but the relationship between Jack and Jane remains maddeningly elliptical. It’s the kind of fraught, symbolic romance, full of pregnant silences and implied deep connections, found at the sententious end of the French literary spectrum, but seldom in life: “‘Let’s try something,’ I said, and I walked over to Jane’s side of the wall. We both stood on that side, and when we pushed, suddenly the wall, which had seemed so intractable, very easily swung open. I mention it because, metaphorically, that’s what we were doing. That’s why we drove, in our separate cars, back to her house.”

As he contemplates one of his conversations with Jane, Jack himself hints at the novel’s chief defect: “And we continued like this, and I guess it wasn’t so much what we said, but the way I was feeling when we said it.” Out of My Skin offers a prolonged examination of its narrator’s feelings and “the attitude behind [his] thoughts.” But for all of Haskell’s considerable intelligence and high emotional IQ, the self-consuming scrutiny seldom reveals much more than the mundane.

Mark Sarvas’s novel, Harry, Revised, was published last year by Bloomsbury. He is host of the lit blog the Elegant Variation.

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