Told in a minor key

Told in a minor key

Told in a minor key

The One Inside
Sam Shepard
2017, pp 172, Rs 1,202

Sam Shepard’s elliptical new book, The One Inside, is labelled a work of fiction, though its hero — a writer and actor who lives in a place that sounds an awful lot like Santa Fe — bears more than a passing resemblance to the author. As his friend Patti Smith writes in a foreword, this character (“a loner who doesn’t want to be alone”) is, simultaneously, Shepard, “sort of him, not him at all.”

Like so many of Shepard’s plays and short stories, this narrative explores the confusions of identity, the pull between freedom and roots, and the hard-to-erase dissonances of family life. More specifically, it echoes his galvanic 1985 play, A Lie of the Mind, pivoting around a man’s fiercely conflicted relationships with his father and a woman, and his efforts to mend — or, at least, come to terms with — a past that is both receding and looming over the future.

In this case, there is his estranged wife of almost 30 years, with whom he had two children — the pair still amicably visit, from time to time, reminiscing about their daughter and son, and “how remarkable it was for two stubborn, crusty, old codgers like ourselves to have spawned such mild-mannered, calm kids.” But there are other women, too: a much younger one he calls the Blackmail Girl, who abruptly disappears from his life, likely because of his “inattention — lack of texting”; his father’s much younger girlfriend, Felicity, who seduced him when he was 13; and a long string of others whom he invariably abandoned or drove away.

Memories of these women — along with memories of acting jobs, travels and childhood exploits — are woven together here, along with dreams, fantasies and Bosch-like hallucinations. The overall effect recalls Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece 8½, in which the real, the surreal and the imagined converge, as its film director hero thinks back upon the women in his life. It also recalls All That Jazz (the 1979 Bob Fosse film inspired by 8½) — right down to the drug — or alcohol — or stress-fuelled nightmares and a sudden health crisis.

As in Shepard’s plays, time past and time present blur and overlap in this story, just as boundaries — between, say, an actor and his roles, a writer and his creations — grow fluid and porous. The One Inside is more of a novel, however, than earlier books like Cruising Paradise (1996) and Great Dream of Heaven (2002), which were essentially scrapbooks of narrative fragments, jazzily connected by mood and theme. This volume, too, can feel improvised and impressionistic, but it’s glued together, collage-style, by the consciousness of the hero: an archetypal Shepard male, engaged in an Oedipal struggle with his cantankerous father, and caught in a passive-aggressive dynamic with his girlfriends, whose company he both craves and disdains. As he says of a character he is playing in a movie, a sense of exile is crucial — “the sense of being ‘apart’ as a way of life. How it comes to pass that a human being is set adrift.”

Such musings might be annoyingly abstract had Shepard not grounded them in minutely observed descriptions of the world his hero inhabits. He conjures the “bright, bright southwestern sun splashing” down on “all the white cars in a parking lot” and memories of a youthful ride in a friend’s Ford with “the Stones full blast” on the radio, a woman in the back seat, “and bottles of Ripple and bags full of bennies and the hot summer winds blasting shafts of orange blossoms through the windows.”

In a passage worthy of his antic 1980 play, True West, he describes how the frontier has given way to an ersatz West. Here, there’s a town where older men, who seem “to be outfitted in various versions of early Santa Fe caricatures — trappers, vaqueros, Comanche shamans, herbalistas, etc — squeeze themselves into Porsche roadsters and Audi sports cars,” and middle-aged women guzzle “vitamin water from chartreuse plastic bottles.”

A similar specificity attends Shepard’s descriptions of his hero’s memories and fears. Remembering sex for the first time with his father’s mistress, he recalls thinking that he could see tiny animals sail out of her mouth: “I could feel them land on my face and crawl through my hair, searching for a hiding place. Each time she screamed, the animals flew out in small clouds like tiny gnats: little dragons, flying fish, headless horses.”

Such scenes will remind Shepard fans of the surreal images that bloom in his plays — at once feverish projections of his characters’ imaginations, and richly complex symbols used by the author to create a metaphorical, Buñuel-like landscape. The One Inside may be a minor Shepard work, but it provides a sharp-edged distillation of the themes that have preoccupied him throughout his career, and serves as a kind of Rosetta stone to such remarkable plays as Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind, Buried Child and True West.