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Operation Breakfast

Operation Breakfast

Operation Breakfast

Spalding Gray Solves the Mystery of Marilyn Monroe

It didn't bother me that I never discovered precisely why Josef K. was dragged out of his cell and unceremoniously executed for no apparent reason in The Trial. The reason was pretty obvious to me: fascism.

Don Gately awaking on a cold beach as "the tide was way out" serving as the climax of Infinite Jest didn't infuriate me. After a thousand pages, I'd come to expect ambiguous, confusing, aggravating things from David Foster Wallace. Shame on anyone who had the nerve to act surprised.

What does piss me off, however, and something which I've never managed to figure out, despite hours of contemplation and a dozen or so viewings, is what Spalding Gray's point was in the final scene of Swimming To Cambodia.

The scene in question has Gray flying first class out of Thailand after finishing filming his part in The Killing Fields. He sips from a glass of champagne and lazily affixes a Thai purple sleep mask to his face.

The line, verbatim, is:

I had an inkling. I had a flash. I suddenly thought I knew what it was that had killed Marilyn Monroe.

A clip from The Killing Fields in which the American Embassy is being hastily evacuated and innocent Cambodian children look up, waving and saying, "Bye-bye," follows this to end the film.

"Bye-bye" should be the haunting moment, and it is, in a way. But even after my first viewing of Swimming To Cambodia as a seventeen-year-old video store clerk, I was haunted by a single question: Why the fuck was he thinking about Marilyn Monroe?

Swimming to Cambodia is about many things, none of which have anything to do with the erstwhile Norma Jean Baker. It was written and performed by Gray, who possesses the sort of guilt and neuroses you would typically associate with a member of the chosen tribe. He wasn't. Until his death by suicide nearly a decade ago, he was a W.A.S.P.y Rhode Island-born raconteur. I was a nascent (read: wannabe) writer when I first encountered Swimming to Cambodia, trying desperately to discover my voice and a style. I ambled desperately from writer to writer, mimicking them as best I could (or flat-out cribbing large portions of their flair) and then abandoning them for the next when it didn't stick.

While working at the video store, among the racks upon racks of videotapes in the age before Blu-Ray, the cover of Swimming To Cambodia stood out to me. It pictures Gray's panicked face surrounded by blue hand-drawn water, and his face is either rising from the water or sinking into it, depending on your point of view. I had no way of knowing what the story was. I'd never heard of Spalding Gray. I'd never heard of anyone named Spalding. In the days before Wikipedia was ubiquitous, you usually had to guess or take a risk with art. I had no way of seeing how many stars the film had received twelve years earlier, so I decided, fuck it, I've got nothing better to do.

I took the tape home and watched it. Then I waited an hour and watched it again. It consists almost entirely of Gray sitting at a wooden table with a notebook and a glass of water. He just talks. He just tells a story. He is an outsider telling an outsider's story of a world he couldn't quite nail down. He becomes obsessive-compulsive and does everything in threes, thinking that this compulsion will land him a film role he desperately wants. Every third can of food is fine. The other two have botulism. He just can't deal with the concept of America or the American system. So he doesn't want to live there but doesn't want to venture too far from familiar signs of civilization, so he moves to an island off the coast of America: Manhattan. In the film, there are a few small inserts of scenes from The Killing Fields and two maps as props. One map pictures Cambodia in its place nestled between Vietnam and Thailand and the other shows the route of the horrific American bombing campaign in Cambodia and Laos during the middle years of the Vietnam War. It was called Operation Menu, but Gray mislabelled it Operation Breakfast.

Other than a primer on the Vietnam War, the bombings in Cambodia, Gray's experiences filming The Killing Fields, and the political climate of America in the late sixties, Swimming To Cambodia is the story of an anxious man struggling with having been born. It shocked me that it was so riveting and successful. It is literally just a man talking to an audience in a cramped theater. But Gray's style imparts a sense of impending doom, prickly as any modern political thriller. It had never occurred to me before that someone could get away with that or that if they tried, people would listen.

Aspects of Swimming to Cambodia are painfully funny, but it isn't standup comedy. He talks, for instance, about seeing a live sex show in Thailand and describes one woman peeling and then inserting a banana into her vagina. She then aims her vagina down the center of the theater and fires. The banana launches across the theater, sticks to the back wall, slides lazily down to the floor, and is consumed by an army of cockroaches. Long before this episode is described, he also tells the audience that the only lie in the entire story is that the banana sticks when it hits. No other context is provided until it is, and to absurd and repulsive effect.

I was in college then, and I had an insatiable desire to be a writer. I had since I was a child. After watching Swimming To Cambodia I immediately adjusted my ambitions and set out to mimic Spalding Gray and be a writer-stroke performer. I found some local writers' circles and open mics but never followed through. I felt like I didn't have any stories to tell, nor did I possess the skills with which to tell them. I would have to wait. I would have to make a few stories first. I've since made a few stories, perhaps more than my fair share, and of late, I've been reading some of them in front of audiences.

With varying degrees of success, I've managed to hold an audience for five or ten minutes. Now, when I'm on stage, I can't help but hear Spalding Gray's voice in my head. I learned a lot from watching him work. I learned that a devastatingly funny moment now and again can pave the way for three or four devastatingly emotional ones.

It's a demanding maneuver, but one that makes what I do worthy of an audience's attention. I also learned that lying to people about the banana sticking is permissible, provided you alert them in advance. A wink and a nod will let you get away with murder, provided the audience isn't the butt of the joke. And when I stumble over a line because I put too many h words in a row, I think of the moments in Swimming To Cambodia when Gray struggles and fails to find the perfect way to say something. It never seemed to bother him. It still bothers me. I have a few years ahead of me before I can hold an audience for two hours.

Spalding Gray could. He did it better than almost anyone. Gray was aware that he was never going to be the Great American Novelist. But he loved to write. That will get you halfway there. He was a good writer, which makes up another forty percent. He discovered that an emotional, personal performance can breathe that extra ten percent into a story if it's ninety percent on the page. He did that to perfection in Swimming To Cambodia. That made it all the more maddening when his body was dragged from the East River in March of 2004. He'd been missing since early January. When I read the news of his death by suicide, I couldn't help but think it made as little sense as his reference to Marilyn Monroe in the final moments of Swimming To Cambodia. He was a storyteller. Depression and loneliness aside, storytellers can't stop telling stories until there are no stories left to tell. It's in the blood. I know from experience.

I can't help but wonder why he didn't stand perched on an East River bridge looking down at the icy water below, begin to laugh at how absurd the scenario was, shrug it off, and then walk home to start writing a new story about it. I'd like to think it's what I would have done. Then again, I haven't told as many stories as he did. I have yet to live as many of those moments that make for great stories.

And even now, I wonder what was dancing before his eyes or echoing in his head when the purple sleep mask slid down, shutting out the light. Perhaps it was the story of Swimming to Cambodia, fully formed, flashing before his eyes. Then again, comprehending Spalding Gray the way he made me feel I did, I doubt it.

It's too neat. Too saccharine. Had I accused Gray of it in person, he probably would have mocked me for thinking so in his uber-polite Rhode Island fashion. It may be a peculiar parallel to draw, but the more likely possibility is that Gray saw the same thing as Josef K. at the end of The Trial. Nothing. Darkness. And in the darkness, he started to panic as things were coming to an end. No relief, but an eagerness for the next thing. The next bizarre experience. The next story to tell.

I can't help but wonder why he couldn't relax. I've known other people who are that way. I am not. I work hard, then harder, and when the moment ends, I am neither sentimental about it nor desperate to move things along. I need time to regroup and recharge. That wasn't good enough for Gray. He wasn't looking to relax. Relaxing didn't pay the bills, and it was too terrifying a concept to be alone with his thoughts and have no direction outward.

But then, I know these things from watching Spalding Gray's work. I can assume he read The Trial before he killed himself. Most intellectuals and writers have. Maybe he despised Kafka. It probably never occurred to him someone might draw a parallel to his work with the endings of The Trial or Infinite Jest. Maybe it did. Maybe he liked nothing more than to get off the road for a while and sit at home doing nothing with his wife and kids. It is not wise to make the unforgivable error of confusing someone's persona with their true self. It happens too often and is almost always off the mark. Regardless, as someone who, like Gray, struggled with depression, I can imagine how the person (not the performer) felt in those dark moments when the next thing didn't present itself clearly enough. It feels like two men standing over you, your head on a chopping block, passing a double-sided butcher's knife back and forth, arguing about who is going to stab you in the heart.

You want to tilt your head to look up at them and ask, "Are you going to get to it, or am I going to have to fucking do it myself?"

I've enjoyed every second of live storytelling I've experienced, and I'm sure I won't be satisfied that I've said everything I need to say for a long, long time. I've never filmed a movie in Thailand. I've never dealt violently with the art mafia in Manhattan. I've never attended a sex show where the banana didn't stick. I've never performed in front of a live audience and have been able to entertain them for two solid hours. Before it's all said and done, I still need to sip champagne while affixing a Thai purple sleep mask to my face on a first-class flight out of the Far East.

Towards the end of his life, Spalding Gray was involved in a car accident in Ireland. He was in an incredible amount of pain, physically and emotionally. He tried to work. He tried to write his stories, but he was older. It had gotten harder. It isn't hard to imagine him tilting his head and asking the two phantom assassins standing over him to just get on with it already. He liked telling his life story more than he enjoyed living it.

And now—I have an inkling...I have a flash...I still believe Marilyn Monroe OD'd.