BASS 2017/Pushcart XLII: Jess Walter, “Famous Actor” from Tin House #69

After a few minutes, he stopped elbow-fucking me and turned to that we were face-to-face. It was weird staring into those pale blues, eyes I’d known for years, eyes I’d seen in, what, fifteen or sixteen movies, in a couple of seasons of TV, staring out from magazine covers. He muttered something I couldn’t quite hear.
I leaned in. “I’m sorry – what?”
“I said…” he bent in closer, so that his mouth was inches from my left ear “…the universe is an endless span of darkness occasionally broken by moments of unspeakable celestial violence.”
I was pretty sure that wasn’t what he’d said.
He laughed as if he recognized what an insane thing that was for someone to say. “You ever think shit like that at parties?”
I tend to think about crying at parties, or if someone might be trying to kill me. But I didn’t say that. I don’t very often say what I think.

Jess Walter has a great command of voices. I adored the openings to both Financial Lives of the Poets and Beautiful Ruins – though I far preferred the former to the latter overall – because of the ease with which he conveys insanity as observed by the not-insane. Or maybe it’s the observation of sanity by those who don’t realize they’re insane.

Both Todd and Katherine – those aren’t either of their real names, but that’s how this story rolls – are pretty insane, but only Katherine knows it. A long time ago, I read a passage in some book, a work of fiction by someone trying to be academic about family dysfunction, in which a therapist declared: “In a troubled family, the person who is in treatment is the healthiest family member.” The people who know they’re crazy are one step ahead of the people who are crazy but don’t know it, and that’s where we are with Todd and Katherine. Or whatever their names are.

Katherine’s pretty interesting; she has a depth of hurt in her that’s better left concealed from someone like Todd. She has a thing going with her ex, where they send each other insulting post cards. In his Contributor Note, Walter says she took him by surprise, taking the story in a direction he hadn’t expected. I never know what to say when writers say that, but they all say it, eventually, seeing these characters that spring out of their minds as having independent wills and personalities. Maybe that’s why I was never any good at writing fiction.

The story returns to that cosmic-violence thing when Todd admits he just says stuff like that because people expect so much from him, just because he’s Rich and Famous. Apart from having adequate sex with Katherine, he spends the apres-party portion of the evening complaining how tough his life is. Why does it never occur to these people that poverty and obscurity are the ultimate equal opportunity gigs? If you don’t like the Beautiful Life, come on over to the other side of the tracks and see what kinds of expectations people have of you here.

By the way, I discovered during my casual research that a paragraph was accidentally cut from the BASS version. I’ve read the omitted text, and I rather prefer the opening without it. It still makes sense, and I’d rather imagine what elbow-fucking means, and what the Famous Actor is doing just prior to his encounter with Katherine. Maybe I’ve been converted to minimalism. [Addendum: I notice the story has the full intended beginning in the Pushcart edition; I’m still ambivalent as to which I prefer, since I can’t un-read it and start afresh]

As I’ve already said, I love the voices here: Todd, switching between slick and self-pity, and Katherine, blisteringly sardonic in her thoughts while coolly polite in her words. Some great one-liners:

There should be a German word for wanting to gouge out your own teary eyes….
I disliked him from the moment I decided to sleep with him….
First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon….

Katherine, as the narrator, has the power in this story, to decide what to show us and what to conceal. The name Todd is her choice; Todd is one of the actor’s characters. And her name, well, that’s even more interesting. Todd starts a long whine with “I know I sound self-absorbed but…” – pro tip: never continue any sentence that starts with that phrase, it will always ALWAYS prove you are exactly what you deny you are – and sure enough, launches into more tales of woe and tries to make it her fault. Katherine lets him finish then asks, “What’s my name?” “Aw fuck,” he says. Which is not her name. “Katherine?” he guesses; it has a hard C, right? No. Later, she hints that this, like the insulting postcards, may be her form of interpersonal sport. But that’s ok; Todd is playing his own game, one that Katherine won’t discover until after he’s left.

What’s real, and what’s acting? Does it become real if we act it well enough? Fake it ‘til you make it, the Twelve Steppers say. “The thought manifests as the word, The word manifests as the deed, The deed develops into habit, And the habit hardens into character,” goes a platitude variously attributed, but probably originating in Buddhism. If you cross your eyes, they’ll stay that way, says some culturally imagined mother. Is a good kiss a good kiss, or is it an actor acting a good kiss? Does it matter, if it’s a good kiss? More importantly, is love, or pain, real, or is it what we believe it is; and can we believe it into, or out of, being?

2 responses to “BASS 2017/Pushcart XLII: Jess Walter, “Famous Actor” from Tin House #69

  1. I really dug the technique in here of giving brief synopses of made-up movies. It’s reminiscent of how Vonnegut makes short synopses of made-up sci-fi stories in his novels. I did the same thing in my yet-to-be-published novel.

    • I kept trying to figure out if this was a riff on a specific person, but my knowledge of current pop culture, particularly young pop culture, is pretty weak. Still, it’s a recognizable pattern from my heydey, though there were fewer kids getting famous on tv.
      It’s the detail in those clips that’s so perfect.
      You’re in good company with that technique – Borges did it too, for that matter John Green’s The Fault in our Stars depended on it, and boy, did I want to read An Imperial Affliction after that – like thousands of other people.

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