Book Review: Life Interrupted: An Unfinished Monologue by Spalding Gray

A friend of mine, who had read my post on worrying about too much fiction in my reading diet, met me for coffee the other day with a bag full of books.  Some he gave to me. Others he lent.  I started the first one yesterday around 5:00 and finished it before finally turning the lights out on the day.

Cover of Life Interrupted/i>

Cover of Life Interrupted/i>

(By the way, my worries were groundless: Out of the last seventeen books I read, 7 were fiction, 6 were non-fiction, 3 were collections of poetry and 1 was a play.)

Anyway, Life Interrupted is a wonderful collection that includes the title monologue plus two small companion pieces by Spalding Gray.  These were the last pieces Gray was working on, still writing and ironing out, before ending his life in 2004. Filling out the volume is a series of remembrances given at two separate memorials to Gray, remembrances by fellow actors and writers, agents, producers, friends, and family. These are sincere, warm, and humorous reflections on a man who himself was sincere, warm and humorous.

The centerpiece, “Life Interrupted” recounts the horrible car accident and subsequent hospital stay that Gray experienced in Ireland in the summer of 2001. His account of the events before the accident seem to presage (at least to him) that death was everywhere: they were in the town of Mort in County Offaly, next to a monastery where gravediggers were stopping for a cigarette break, in the home of a host who himself had died two weeks earlier and from which, on his walk that morning through the surrounding countryside, Gray had encountered a dying calf.

He had tempted fate, he felt, because he told people he was content–happily married and enjoying fatherhood.  His work had always revolved around anxieties, fears, conflicts, disasters. Now, he told someone  that morning, he’d have nothing to write about. He was simply too happy.

Boy was he wrong about having nothing to write about.

His stay in the hospital, his transference to another, and then to another is close to slapstick. His detailed observations of his Irish fellow-patients, of his care-givers (a large transvestite with emerald green fingernails comes through the wards offering tea and toast), of the facilities themselves is wickedly funny, especially if you are not yourself experiencing it.

But the injuries were quite debilitating.  A smashed hip caused him transference to one hospital. A large dent in his head sent him to another. There it was discovered he had a shattered orbital bone which was  allowing open passage to his brain. A plate needed to be inserted and the bone fragments removed from his brain.  He chose to fly back to New York for that procedure.

If all this sounds morbid, it is not. Like Gray’s more famous monologues, Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy, The Terrors of Pleasure, it is trenchant in its observation of life and life’s quirks. And extraordinarily funny.

The other two pieces, “The Anniversary” and ” DearNew York City” are much shorter. The first typical of his rambling, tangential style. The second a sweet paean to New York City in the aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers.

Spalding Gray and his entire stage setting

Spalding Gray and his entire stage setting

But by then, Spalding was in intractable pain–psychically and emotionally. He had returned from the accident in Ireland a changed man, and the demons he once tempered through his art were getting the better of him.  On January 10, 2004 he was reported missing. In March, his body was found in the East River.

But again, this is never a morbid book. Gray’s pieces are funny and clever, and every reader will find him or herself nodding in agreement at the outrageous details that Gray observes.

And even the memorial speeches that finish the book are more upbeat than not. They recount Gray’s generosity, his curiosity, his love of fatherhood, and his kindness. Each speaker genuinely feels that he or she has been blessed to be considered Spalding Gray’s friend, to have spent time with this gregarious and wonderful man.

In a way, reading the book, one gets to experience the same.

In 2010, six years after Spalding Gray’s death, the director Steven Soderbergh put together a documentary on Gray and his art entitled And Everything is Going Fine. It is a wonderful introduction to the man who was a consummate storyteller, an entertaining man to spend an evening with.  Here is the trailer: