Philip Seymour Hoffman Week: Synecdoche, New York (2008)
KNOWING THAT YOU DON’T KNOW
by Sam Donsky
You’re awake. You enter Synecdoche, New York as you might enter each day: as darkness, into brightness, staring heroically into the red of the clock. 7:44turns to 7:45, turns to 7:46. This last turn scarcely seems to take time at all, ten or fifteen seconds at most. Which is weird. This is not how minutes go, you think. One of these minutes has been not like the other. It doesn’t matter, of course; it is too late to complain. There is no built-in recourse for transgressions like these. There are no bounty hunters for lost moments, no debt collectors for seconds that have over-borrowed their means. (They once made a comment-box for Life’s Arbitrary Pacing; it has been full now for quite some time.) There is no time. You know the best remedy is but to move as one must—onward, from this moment, avowed to savor the next one. To land it in paradise. To refuse to allow it to be shot through with loss. Suddenly you feel an ache at the toes, at the knees, at the heart, at the throat. It rises as the body rises, as you rise, as you lift from the bed. You look in the mirror. 7:46—a dear minute. A darling fucker. Finally, you think. You look back at the clock and it is already gone.
You’re a father. You have a daughter now: she is sick—people die, it turns out. This is a cause for alarm. You wonder if your daughter will die. Better she than you, you think. An awful thought. A necessary one. You are sick too; you’ve always been. Sometimes it’s enough to be healthy and sometimes it’s enough to be loved, someone told you. You have no idea what anyone’s talking about. There is too much love and too little health. Your daughter loves you, though it’s early. She is young and people change. When Adele leaves you she will take her away, and she will probably ruin her—through negligence or brilliance or through the lack of your love. “Adele,” of course, being your wife’s name. You’re trying to be fair to her but simply cannot; parenting has fed on you and fucked up your wiring. But you love Olive. Each moment with her is a genuine privilege, a gold star on the upper corner of your justificatory urge. “Olive,” of course, being your daughter’s name. You enjoyed naming her. It was perhaps your first taste of art, of creation, and it was otherworldly—a high you would have been content to live off forever. You are an artist, after all. You are Caden; that is your name. You are here and you are healthy and you exist now in the sumptuous, to say nothing of important, role of someone who’s been loved. You are the father of a future teenager. You are a great artist, a giant math that no one understands. You are a remnant of the before the before.
You’re a genius. Someone once told you that, and they better have meant it—because you’ve passed it on since to whoever would listen. People just accept it now. You’ve been given a Genius Grant; you are directing a Genius Play. They’ll say the play is about everything but it will be about you—your life—and who are you to correct them. When you write about your crooked nose they’ll say look at life’s narrative arc. When you write about a house-on-fire they’ll say consider life’s eternal flame. And so on. (This is what geniuses say.) The promise genius is allowed to make, famously and often, is that it can go anywhere so as to be anyone. It is an offer of not just mobility but identity, the capacity to costume life in the clothes of the Absolutely Whatever. Your reliance on this promise as you grow older—as you grow more genius—is severe; is premised on a limitless desire for standing inside yourself, for taking the time to make sense—for staying true to the upload of your own, redemptive, ruminative plot. It is a tough job. It is time to meet the cast of your play; to give them a speech; to give them something profound. Let’s all go somewhere comprehensible, you say, and when you say all you don’t mean it. And when you say go you mean stay. And when you say comprehensible you mean they’ll taste it—you mean they’ll know when you get there.
You’re gay. How else to explain it? The question is insulting and rhetorical both. Of course you aren’t. Of course you are. Everyone in your life is a woman, and your heart is the size of a fucking five-borough city, and it’s terrible sometimes, not loving them, it’s honestly the worst. But you don’t. Sex with women makes you cry. Seeing them naked is but the download of a very bad dream. Your penis is funny: a stay-at-home mom. You would like to make love to men but cannot. Erik, whom you’ve never before seen. Whom you see every day. One of the loveliest moments of your entire life is something someone sometime says. So tell me what you want from me, they say. It is an Erik named Claire or vice-versa, and when this offer arrives it is hard to refuse. You’re getting older; there isn’t much time. People die, you know? By now Olive is dead. By now your stomach has unraveled, your muscles have begun to fade, your hair is a fallen childhood star. For your birthday Erik takes you to the Oh Oh, Mexico, or perhaps New York, New York—you can’t even remember. One of them is your favorite theater: it’s the drive-in memory and they’re playing Everything, Ever: A Dream. It has a surprise ending: everything happens and then doesn’t, all at once. A sweat-drenched revelation! says the evening news but you miss it. You’re busy. You’re turning whiplash to kisses, windows straight to fog. It’s fate tyranny! you think but it just keeps on raining, intricate fragments, precarious cool—you’re Caden, you’re in love, the world is your fourth wall, your high-tech defense. It’s never been breached but it hasn’t yet asked to be. You’re gay. You’re wondrous, you’re awake. You’re a silence spilled but a slick, slick, slick accident.
You’re a woman. Isn’t it obvious? You’re shocked it’s taken this long for someone to say so. What they say of the finally flowered is do not be shocked by their roots; you came from a woman so it makes sense that you’d be one. You’ve flirted with What’s You for a while. You’ve ridden on the wave of what it means to be among the living—of what it means to be among the unready to die. I am a woman, you think, and it is thrilling, and it is the opposite of anecdotal. This has nothing to do with Erik, or Claire, or Olive or Adele; this is you, your life. As a man you were gathering consciousness but as a woman you are hunting for it. You have a theory about women: they are perfect. You love them. Here is a future: Your penis is still funny; your dick is electric; you suppose giving birth is like dreaming of dreaming. Sometimes a truth feels like a genuine urge, feels like the narrative view of what happiness ought to have been. This is one of those times. You are a woman; your name is Hazel. At some point everything reveals its feminine side. Yours is all sides, you’re certain: is a fixed source of meaning, the past’s DNA running out from and connecting back to it. You are a woman; you are your life’s unrequited flirtation: masculinity your vessel for enduring past either—a manifesto on not knowing how to flirt back.
You’re scared. You’ve been a bad person; you’ve been you now for years. You’ve seen the horizon and you don’t care what they say: it is official, it is signed and sealed—there is just not enough time. There truly isn’t. You’d otherwise like to amend what you’ve done. What you haven’t done. Be more honest with Adele. Scratch in Olive’s journal I’m not a genius, I swear. Tell Claire what her role means. Tell Erik what you meant when you screamed “normatively compelled.” Tell someone—anyone—that the play has to be scrapped. That you could have finished it if you wanted to but it never made sense—never would have made you happy, not in twenty-thousand years. That what made you happy was the specter of genius, of love, of concrete story, of abstract health. That life is only vital in its most fractional moments, and that the rest on their own are a trek to endure. That one can fractionize sincerely or swell with what’s possible: into the thrust of an ending that might only sometimes be real—that either way one can count on as genius-approved. You tried. For a while, and really hard. You know that you failed. That you were asleep when you should have been awake, that you are finite and flawed and are going to die. You are going to die. I’m sorry! you shout, and from the magic of silence you assume it’s okay. You assume that eventually, for everyone, all is forgiven. Or at least that’s how you’d write it. In your version each moment has a narrative sum. Everything happens with a purpose; resolutions don’t wait. When the hero starts something he finishes it. When you sleep you wake up. When the narrator says in the next twenty thousand years, he means any minute now.
Sam Donsky is a writer and poet living in Philadelphia.This essay originally appeared in these pages on May 5, 2010.