Pushcart XLI: Rebecca Makkai, “The George Spelvin Players” from Pleiades 35.2

Barnes Harlow was actually Jason something, but no one dreamed of calling him that. He was Barnes Harlow when he was robbed of the Daytime Emmy, he was Barnes Harlow all twelve years he played Dalton Shaw, Esq., and he was Barnes Harlow when, in that guise, he married Silvia Romero Caldwell Blake, poisoned his mother-in-law, opened a restaurant, burned down that restaurant, was drugged by Michaela, and saved the Whitney family from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Soledad shared these details with the core company, who sprawled exhausted on the stage. In the five minutes since Barnes had left the theater, Soledad had relayed the basic history of the fictional Appleburg, Ohio, and told them what Barnes Harlow looked like with his shirt off. “Not greasy-smooth,” she said. “Just, you know, TV-star smooth.” She swore her grandmother had tapes of the show, stacks of VHS cassettes in her basement.
“On a more professional level,” Tim said, “what did we think? Star-struck aside?”
Beth vowed to speak last. Last week in the green room, Phyllis had accused her of treating every conversation like a race.

Complete story available online at Pleides

“There are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and a man goes on a journey” is one of the many writers’ aphorisms taken as gospel (QI credits this one, not to Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but to a metamorphosis of an exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction). In this story, the stranger is Barnes Harlow, former soap opera star come to a ragtag Missouri theater company. But I got sidetracked by something else.

In 2011, Makkai published a novel titled The Borrower, about a children’s librarian who either kidnaps or is kidnapped by Ian, one of her 10-year-old patrons, leading to a road trip (the other side of the stranger comes to town) that reverses with a single phrase: “They lost.” I read that book in 2012, and I still remember sobbing over my cheeseburger at the local pub where I was reading. I’ve been thinking of those words for weeks, maybe because I saw Makkai’s name in the table of contents, or maybe because I never forgot that moment, and I try to remember that, even though Ian returned home, the trip was not a failure but ended with a kind of slow-motion salvation. That librarian (and possibly Ian) is in this story. It’s not her story, but as a secondary character she allows for additional perspective.

I even see a structural comparison between novel and story: the story turns, reverses itself, on a single sentence. I know how that feels; does everyone? To have one phrase, one utterance, change the context, the mood, the background assumptions, the momentum of a gathering or a road trip or a theater company’s mission, a call to reality? It works so many ways in this story, with so many characters, it’s as if it explodes. Or maybe implodes.

There was a term Beth had learned in a sociology class, though she couldn’t remember it now, for a society where people had more than one connection to each other. In a big city, a guy would be your mailman and nothing else. But in a small town, he might be your mailman and your cousin and your neighbor, and his wife is your boss. She wondered what her sociology professor would make of the George Spelvin Players—who not only lived and worked together, but whose constantly shifting fictional relationships were also vivid, if not real. Beth had been Tim’s mother, his wife, his sister, his therapist. He had killed her in six different plays…. She wondered if what they were trying to do with Barnes, through this obsessive examination, was to weave him into their complex fabric. They refused to let him be simply a colleague. They wanted to envelop him: talent, legitimacy and all.

Beth has an additional relationship to Barnes once they sleep together, and it’s into this theater-world confusion about what is real and what is fictional that Barnes, cornered about his petty theft of multiple trivial items from everyone in the company, says the words that implodes it all: “You’re not real. I made you up.” And then, worse: “Did I make up that sex, or did I make up all the sex ever?”

Exit Barnes. As Soledad says, “Beth broke the soap star.” But exit the company as well; they disintegrate during the town performance of A Christmas Carol they’d been rehearsing (with Barnes hastily replaced). They all start quoting lines from random plays. And the librarian holds on to her Starbucks cup and smiles through it all (who wouldn’t; it seems hilarious to me), while a 10-year-old boy plays along. I don’t think the 10-year-old is Ian, but I’m happy that he could be.

By the way, the use of the name “George Spelvin” by an actor who doesn’t want to be associated with a terrible play, or a terrible theater troupe, is true. I hadn’t known that, though I was aware that “Alan Smithee” was sometimes used by film directors who didn’t want their name on a movie once the studio execs cut it for reasons having nothing to do with art. I wasn’t aware there was a similar tradition, probably an earlier one, in theater.

I’m thinking back over the works in this volume so far, and art seems to be a frequent theme. It might even be hidden in less obviously art-related works, like the poem “Elk” or the hornet article. I’ll have to keep that in mind as I read on.

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2 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Rebecca Makkai, “The George Spelvin Players” from Pleiades 35.2

  1. If you were going to do one of those high school “compare and contrast” papers to one of the other works in Pushcart so far, I think it would be to “The Story of a True Artist,” which is another story built on the overlap between people playing to an audience and the real people behind them.

    Did you feel that the company was broken at the end? The closing lines: “They would open to a full house. They would acknowledge nothing missing” seems to indicate they’re not really broken. I mean, yes, there is something missing that they will not acknowledge, but that’s always the way of it. If they’re still able to fake their way through it, then they’re doing pretty much the same as always, aren’t they?

    I didn’t see that scene at the Christmas lighting as just a breaking apart. It was a “setting on fire,” as the boy there hoped for. Both a destruction and a grand spectacle, which is really all anyone in the theater can hope for. There was a climax to it, but only a petite morte, not a final morte, because the players are able to hide in the crowd afterward and sing Christmas carols. The show will go on.

    You thought of Makkai’s novel reading this. I thought of Josh Ferris’s 2007 novel “And Then We Came to the End,” which, coincidentally, has a character in it who starts to steal small things of sentimental value. Unlike that novel, in which no one character really rises above the “we” of the main narrative, Beth and Barnes take the spotlight away from the other players for enough of it that we realize the real thematic battle revolves around them. I like when a story gives me a nice cipher to the whole story like this one does: “The difference (between Barnes and Beth) was: Barnes Harlow looked down at the crack in the universe and fell right in. She saw the crack and stepped quickly over.”

    • You’re right about the similarity to “Portrait” – wish I ‘d thought of that. I was so focused on the librarian (and distracted by real life) I missed a great deal of this. I do sense a kind of sea change in the theater group, though, as a result of Barnes. I kept enjoying the whole goofiness at the end, but in a grim way. I seem to have trouble with humor – Seinfeld always upset me rather than making me laugh!
      “Then We Came to the End” – read it a few years ago, I vaguely remember the “Office Space” feel to the beginning, but what really sticks is the last paragraph, last sentence – knocked me out.

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