"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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November 15, 2009

"The Face of a Rat"

Wallace Shawn on New Yorker subscribers:

"No, I'm trying to tell you that people hate you. I'm trying to explain to you about the people who hate you.

Why do you think that they all love you? And what do you think they would love about you? What are you? There's no charm in you, there's nothing graceful, nothing that yields. You're simply a relentless, unbearable fanatic. Yes, the commando who crawls all night through the mud is much less of a fanatic than you. Look at yourself. Look. You walk so stiffly in your kitchen each morning, you approach your cupboard. You open it, and reach for the coffee, the coffee you expect to find on its shelf. And it has to be there. And if one morning it isn't there — oh, the hysteria! — the entire world will have to pay! At the very thought of the unexpected, the unexpected deprivation, you begin to twitch, to panic, to pant. The shortness of breath! Listen to your voice on the telephone, listen to the tone that comes into your voice when you talk to one of your very close friends and you talk about your life and you use those expressions — 'what I need to live on . . .' — 'the amount I need . . .' — solemn, quiet, no histrionics — the tone of hysteria, the tone of the fanatic — well, yes — of course — it makes sense. You understand your situation. Without a place to live, without clothes, without money, you would be like them, you would be them, you would be what they are — you would be the homeless, you would be the comfortless. So of course, you know it, you will do anything. There are no limits to what you will do. Without the money, your face would become the face of a rat, your hands would be paws — sharp, nimble, ready to scratch, ready to tear."

*******

(from his play, The Fever)

8 comments:

LML said...

Shawn is great. It's important to note that he never lets himself off the hook, though. He would direct a monologue at NYer readers only after making it clear that he owes everything to the NYer. When I saw the Fever, it included an introductory champagne reception onstage with Shawn, very civilized, him and us--probably not a non-NYer-subscriber in the bunch--before he proceeded to enact the insanity induced by drinking champagne in urban comfort. And Aunt Dan and Lemon convincingly convicts us all (anyone in the West, that is) of being near relations with Hitler.

Steven Augustine said...

I told you about the time I met Wally on Uhland Strasse, right...?

Edmond Caldwell said...

LML - you're right, it's the very point that he doesn't let himself off the hook (occupying some neutral or ahistorical moral/political "high ground") that makes it so powerful.

Comrade Augustine: Nein, so now you must tell of your encounter with this nebbish!

Steven Augustine said...

Encounter: it must have been 1992 or 1993. I was strolling up... was it Uhland Strasse? Walking by this then-In and tony cafe called the Röst, where there is sidewalk seating, and who do I see but Wallace Shawn, seated right there before me, looking exactly as he did as "Jeremiah" in Manhattan.

"You're Wallace Shawn." I stated.

"Yes," he said, or something in that ballpark. I pleased him immensely by saying I agreed with his character's POV in "My Dinner With Andre", and that the film was in my Top 20. He told me that his GF Debbie was in town on a hefty grant. We chatted for 40 more seconds and I bid the man adieu.

Next day I'm cruising along in roughly the same area when I spot a familiar figure in pedestrian form. He spots me as well and says, "Hey, where can a guy get a beer in this town?"

"No idea," says I. "I hate beer." Believe it or not I then sail on and leave adroitest raconteur Wallace Shawn to his own devices on a corner in West Berlin. WTF? is what you're probably thinking. As was Wally then. And me now! I think I made it a point of eschewing the obvious.

Edmond Caldwell said...

You're to be commended for speaking to him the first time and not making an ass of yourself. Most likely I would have just gaped, and I if I got up the nerve to speak it would have been something lame like, well, "Hey, where can a guy get a beer in this town?" Nice to know Wally's got that common man touch, though.

Steven Augustine said...

Ah, but still. There are three or four things my gas-powered, rear-mounted self-kicking device is activated by the occasional recollection of and blowing off Wally is in the Top Two (not fucking the eponymous heroine of an iconic folk song by a Jewish-Canadian sourpuss, when I was offered the chance, being Number One... either that or making Lucrezia Borgia my first wife!).

Edmond Caldwell said...

Wait - Suzanne? You didn't tap that when you had the chance (and I don't mean with your mind)? I can see it now: you were twenty, she was forty....

Ah, that Jewish-Canadian sourpuss, with his weirdly crypto-Catholic erotic longings -- is a poet and a scholar and a man of the world, and indeed The Last Gentleman, the very last, and I won't hear a word said against him, unless you or I say it.

Steven Augustine said...

I was 20-21, in point of fact, EC, and was loaning her 30 dollars because she was cash poor (in town selling a house she owned there). This was 1980-1981.

I showed up at the front door of the flat she was borrowing and rapped discreetly and a voice sounding very much like Tina Louise as "Ginger" let me know the door wasn't locked. She was under a pile of sheets on a futon in a shade-drawn living room (it was the noon, I think), looking rumpled and sexy as you please. The walls were covered with photos of her in her heyday as a dancer on French (and/or Canadian) TV in the 1960s. Ravishing in the photos and on the futon alike. She was sort of a terracotta version of Godard's muse/ ex and the last of the beautiful hippies.

She told me she'd just had a "terrible dream" about her two kids (the ones I knew were a boy and girl, approx. 7 and 10, always dressed like a fairytale prince and princess; the boy with a Prince Valiant haircut and both in billowing sleeves), floating lost at sea. Somehow the chat segued from that to this remark: "I've always felt, Steven, that the only real men are dark men." Me being a "dark man", you see.

Having successfully dodged that bullet by tossing her the cash and stuttering something awkwardly apologetic while running backwards down the front stairs, I compounded the Kafkan (or Ionesconian?) absurdity of my offense by sending a then-girlfriend in my place to a dinner Suzanne invited me to the very next week! (She also wanted me to play flamenco guitar in a little dance routine she was working on but my inability to play flamenco guitar was a limitation.)

Anyway: Christ: the young are hopeless, aren't they? Especially when we were them.