BASS 2019: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, “Audition” from The New Yorker, 9/3/18

NYT art by David Benjamin Sherry

NYT art by David Benjamin Sherry

This piece began as nonfiction, which is to say, as the truth. I had originally intended to title it “How Cigarettes Saved My Life,” because if I had not become addicted to smoking cigarettes at the age of nineteen, I would not have been self-aware enough to realize that, two years later, I was following a similar trajectory with crack cocaine. This guiding principle comprised the final four pages of the story, and the final four pages of the story were eventually, with great reluctance and remorse, completely cut. Many other facts were cut as well, and many others were bent and reshaped in the interests of make-believe. Even so, I continued to try to cleave as closely as I could to reality, perhaps as a way to make direct use of what I’d experienced, but also because I’ve always believed that the truth is generally more compelling than invention.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Contributor Note

This is one of those stories where I really wasn’t sure what it was about until the final paragraph, at which point I had to go back and read it again to make sure. Jake Weber put it beautifully in his analysis by comparing it to Michael Jordan: “It goes one way, crosses back, fakes again, pulls back, and before long the would-be critic’s ankles are as broken as Craig Ehlo’s” (no, I have no idea who Craig Ehlo is, but it’s such a good metaphor and fits the read so well, I know exactly what he means). And then, a couple of days later, it grew broader than that. Maybe a little too broad.

It starts out with a nineteen-year-old son of a rich man working construction incognito on one of Daddy’s housing developments. Oh, I thought, a kind of paying-your-dues story. Except this kid had planned to go to college and study acting. Oh, I thought, a breaking-away-from-family-expectations story. Exactly why that breaking away was delayed wasn’t clear, but now his plan is to go to LA and work his way into acting that way. Why that plan isn’t being put into action isn’t clear, either.

When lunchtime arrived, I’d sit around with the other general laborers, thirty of us on upturned crates in an unfinished living room with a spring breeze blowing through the glassless windows, eating roast-beef sandwiches and talking about money problems, home problems, work problems. My problems were not their problems, but I wished they were. Their problems were immediate, distinct, and resolvable; mine were long-term, existential, and impossible. When I spoke, I tried to approximate the speech patterns of my co-workers—the softened consonants and the dropped articles—lest I reveal myself for the outsider that I was. No hard “k”s, “x”s, or “f”s. The irony was that my father’s specified plan of self-improvement for me dovetailed with my own: experience real life up close and personal.

Eventually he ends up giving Duncan, one of the other construction guys, a ride home. Duncan has some books on carpentry, but figures “they won’t give a guy like me a chance.” I don’t know what “a guy like me” means. One thing Duncan is very good at is fashioning a crack pipe out of aluminum foil and a piece of Chore Boy. Oh, this is going to be a descent into darkness story, drugs, crime, rich kid’s fall. The first line of the story kind of set that up – “The first time I smoked crack” – but I’d pretty much forgotten about that. Or maybe a coming-out story when eyes meet over the crack pipe. None of that happens, either.

His former acting teacher gives him a tip about an audition he should take for “a central role as a character who would be onstage for all three acts but had zero lines. I could not tell if this was a step backward or forward for my career.” More dues, or is this payoff? I find the question fascinating, but that’s easy to say when you don’t have skin in the game; it’s not my acting career on the line.

The story ends with the second time the kid smokes crack, again with Duncan, and the story starts to pull together. He moves between Clarity and Delusion as reflected states, always seeing himself from the other. In a couple of spectacular paragraphs, he moves through space for three acts:

It was nine o’clock. I had entered a strange dimension of time—it was progressing both slowly and quickly, as marked by the ticking of that basement boiler. Nine was early for night. It would be night for many more hours to come. I was nineteen. Nineteen was young. I would be young for many more years to come. What exactly had I been so troubled by a few minutes before? Light and airy clarity descended upon me. Ah, this was clarity, and the other, delusion. I had reversed things, silly, overstated them, compounded them, turned delight into cynicism. I was going to be onstage for three acts, moving through space, another credential to have on my résumé when I arrived in L.A. It was ten o’clock. Was ten o’clock early for night? Was night moving slowly or fast?…. This is the last time I’m doing this, I said to myself, even as I knew that saying so implied its inverse. At the A.T.M., I took out another forty dollars. I noted my balance. My savings account was still large. It was midnight. Midnight was still young.

I started to think this is a story about addiction, a thought that was strengthened by the Contributor Note. And the opening line. The essence of addiction: to be able to convince yourself that this is the last time, that it’s necessary, that it’ll be ok even though you know there will be interpersonal, medical, and/or legal consequences. This is why Twelve Steppers will tell you it isn’t about willpower, because the addiction is in control, not will or logic or character.

So I started to wonder if these guys are addicted to being stuck, in addition to crack. Our protagonist, pre-crack, has choices. He could go to college and study acting (if Dad won’t pay, there are alternatives, just ask all the poor kids in college). He could go out to LA. Duncan could study carpentry. But it’s easier to go to work and come home and smoke crack, forgetting all those “long-term, existential, and impossible” problems. And whatever time it is, it’s still plenty early. Until it’s too late.

I had a moment when I realized I wasn’t young any more. People who know me, who knew me back then, would be very surprised because it seems so out of character for me. When I turned 35, I realized I couldn’t join the Air Force any more. Yes, back when I was about 20 and was particularly lost and confused, I thought I might do better in a more structured setting like the military, and the Air Force seemed less… war-like, or something, than the Army or Navy. This was the first time I heard a door closing. That it wasn’t a door I really wanted at 20, and certainly wasn’t a door I wanted at 35, didn’t matter; it was the sound of the slam that shook me, that made me realize I would be hearing more doors slam as time went on.

A day or so after reading the story, I saw Duncan as the future for the protagonist: a little less sure of a future, the dreams of acting being tossed on a chair because he wasn’t ever going to get his chance. Not getting his chance would have nothing to do with who he was; it would have to do with never really going for it. But “guys like me” or “a town like this” or “my father wouldn’t let me” is easier. Not exactly addiction, but maybe somewhat related.

I just happened to be watching Season 3 of The Crown as I read this. I kept wondering about all these people trapped in their royal lives, unable to fly planes or breed horses or marry a particular someone or express an opinion about something important. And yet they all stay; the one who got away years before was viewed within the family as a tragedy, a cautionary tale. Why do they stay? Is it the same insecurity our protagonist feels, that keeps him from chasing his dream, because he might fail? Is the frustration that draws him to crack similar to that which results in so much royal misbehavior?

I realize I took this far afield, but the story’s multiple foci allowed that. It could be, probably should be, taken as a story of addiction (I realized, literally as I was putting up this post, the similarity of the title, “Audition”, to “addiction”). It can be taken as more.

4 responses to “BASS 2019: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, “Audition” from The New Yorker, 9/3/18

  1. Powerful commentary, Kathy, and I’m glad I quickly read your piece before reading. Asking, as you did, what is the deeper story. What’s deeper than addiction to crack? Funny , I tried it and hated it. As I’m writing my stuff these last few days, I borrowed the idea of your 30s being where the rubber hits the road. Who grabbed a chair when the music stopped.

    • My 30s is when people in my family (stepmother, father, aunts/uncles) started dying, too. That sure sounds like a door slamming. Then in my 50s, people my age started dying on a regular basis, and not of accidents. Changes your perspective for sure.

  2. FYI, in my post on this story, I included a video link of MIchael Jordan. It’s him hitting a last-second shot to win a playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s one of the most frequently shown highlights of Jordan’s career. The guy trying to guard him in that clip is Craig Ehlo. As a Cleveland sports fan, I’ve seen that clip a thousand times. It’s one of those things that reminds everyone growing up in Northeast Ohio that success is something for other people.

    • I watched that clip. I watched it a couple of times. I tried stopping it as often as possible. I still couldn’t make any sense of it. I just don’t do basketball. I’ve had periods in my life when I was very into baseball and football, but basketball (and hockey) just don’t work for me.
      We are all Craig Ehlo.
      (You’re one of the very few people I’ve ever known whose generally negative outlook rivals mine, and I’ve known a lot of people who were hospitalized for severe depression.)

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