Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Boundaries, Ctd.

I recently photographed the semi-abandoned Wurlitzer factory in DeKalb, where I live. Skulking around outside, I noticed a window with a hole punched in it; I stood on my toes and leaned my camera over the lip, hoping to get a glimpse of the inside the factory which is, of course, closed. What I saw was a brick wall and some exposed pipe, hardly exciting, romantic stuff. Now as I look at the photo, above, it appears to be an image of the boundary between nonfiction and fiction.

Standing outside of the building, I thought: what lies behind the window? I can guess, I can imagine, I can (try and) photograph it. What if I dropped the camera through the window and, finding an entry, went inside in the half-dark to retrieve it? What would I discover? Probably little of interest: leftover tools; trash; the odd rat. But how fun to imagine more lurid discoveries: a band of homeless marauders; exotic wildlife; a treasure left behind. Etc.. Where in those imaginings does nonfiction end and fiction begin? Were I to discover that the inside of the factory is dull, holding few surprises, I could then go home and start a story about a guy who drops his camera through a window of an abandoned factory, breaks inside to retrieve it, and the excitement begins! Because I can give myself in fiction what life sourly refuses me. Meaningful action, driving plot, theme, epiphany. Entertainment.

But my outside-the-window imagining is reality—and plot—of a different sort. I could take a step outside of my imagining self and essay that self, adopting the persona of the essayist, not the fiction writer. And there my imagination becomes less a vehicle for a made-up world than for the real world and the man who imagines inside of it. I was put in mind of Charles Lamb's great tragic essay "Dream Children: A Reverie." I won't do the math, but the piece is, what, ninety-eight percent "fiction"? The Elia persona waxes nostalgically with children at his feet who are listening raptly to a warm story of adolescence and family, until it's revealed at the end of the essay that the speaker was imagining the whole thing, waking from his reverie alone, childless, in his grieving bachelor chair. I love Lamb's essay because it reminds us that an essayist's interior life is, in a sense, all he has; everything, "real" or imagined, is filtered through his particular sensibility. Don't we all dream? Don't we all get lost in reverie? Don't we mourn for what never happened? An imagined, "what if"  world is sometimes the most vivid, cherished world that a person owns.


limit, bounds, confine, enclave, term, bourn, verge, curbstone, but

pale, reservation; termination, terminus; stint, frontier, precinct, marches; backwoods


Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross, 2012.
I was thinking about these things recently after I watched Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway. The production was fine, but it wasn't until the final third of the play that I fully bought Pacino as Shelley "The Machine" Levene (the desperate, sad-sack salesman played so well by Jack Lemmon in the 1992 film version). Film observers have often remarked that at some point in John Wayne's career, the actor stopped playing characters and started playing "John Wayne." I wrestled with this syndrome a bit while watching Pacino in an ill-fitting suit spin and dance and gesticulate his way through the role of the beaten-down Levene. And I found that I had trouble separating the character from the man portraying him—or more accurately, from the stagy Cultural Figure portraying him. In the play's final moments, when Levene is to be escorted into the manager's office where he will confess to the crime around which the play revolves, Pacino slumps in a chair—he's caught, his fate is assured, he's lost, and all of the actor's signature actorly moves vanish: Pacino's playing a man who had nothing left. Somehow, he was able to find that place and in the process remove himself from the character while at the same time embodying him fully. It was brilliant, the boundaries between Pacino and Levene, between celebrity and nobody, vanishing, as in all great acting, as in all great metaphor.


I obsessed over this door as a kid. Pretty ordinary looking door, right?

It's on the side the U.S. Post Office on Amherst Avenue in Wheaton, Maryland, less than a half-mile from the house where I grew up. Once, as my older brothers and I walked by on the way home from the 7-11 next door, one of my siblings told me that the Post Office kept a wild tiger behind that door. I never thought to ask why the local Post Office would be in possession of a tiger. I simply believed, dutifully following Job Description of Younger Sibling. From that moment on, for several years, I half-jokingly gave that door a wide berth, hearing in my head the tiger's roar, its manic pawing on the door, the whine of the weak, straining door hinges. That door marked a particular boundary: between real and imagined, plausible and implausible, fact and fiction. A line I straddle daily.

I took the above photograph last week. I never discovered what the door leads to. And in my many, many journeys past that door over the course of many years, I never once saw it open, never once saw anyone going out or in.

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