Swimming to Cambodia at Thirty-Five Spalding Gray’s death-obsessed yet life-affirming art of the self.

Illustration detail from the DVD cover of Swimming to Cambodia.

One fall evening, many years ago, I was standing in line at the movies with a girl I was trying to impress. A woman behind us was telling her husband what we were waiting to see: a guy sitting behind a table, talking, for an hour and a half.

Uh-oh, I thought.

I had already driven us seventy miles in my little pickup for an afternoon at the Art Institute, then suggested we stroll to the Fine Arts Theatre to see what was playing—a risk, since a date should never feel long. But I was young, optimistic, and secretly thinking if the movie went well we might also grab a bite at the Artists Café before the long drive back to campus.

My ambition, you see, was to create a Perfect Day for us, and my date’s was to show that she enjoyed it. In this, there was a certain amount of mutual delusion. The film, it turned out, would remain with me more than thirty years; the young woman wandered away after six.

 

• • •

 

Writer and actor Spalding Gray developed the monologue Swimming to Cambodia over two years and some 200 live performances. During this drafting process he created a sea of stories about his desire to be cast in The Killing Fields, his time on-set in Thailand in 1983, and his return to his girlfriend, the States, and his halting acting career. He chose a few of those stories, refined them, and tried them in different combinations: the quest to have a Perfect Moment; the intersections of sex and violence; the odd things people do for pleasure; the difficulties of communication; genocide and the history of the United States in southeast Asia; and the suffering that comes from both attachment and others’ cruelty.

“The finished product [the 1985 book of the monologue] is a result of a series of organic, creative mistakes—perception itself becoming the editor of the final report,” Gray writes.

Scores of my students loved the film over the years precisely because it was like nothing they had ever seen, and they sensed it respected their ability to share in the construction of meaning. A few—irritated by Gray’s persona, declarations of pacifism, and portrayal of a cruel and bigoted U.S. sailor—demanded to know if Gray was gay, mentally ill or hated America.

This “finished product” became a four-hour live performance, broken into two nights. But as Janet Maslin wrote in her Times review of the 1987 film Swimming to Cambodia, it took Jonathan Demme, the director who had recently made Stop Making Sense and Something Wild, to provide the monologue’s shorter length and final form. Gray’s storytelling (and acting) is enhanced with music by Laurie Anderson, sound effects, lighting, multiple camera angles, and props limited to a pull-down map, a pointer, and a notebook with what looks like Dora the Explorer on its cover.

Scores of my students loved the film over the years precisely because it was like nothing they had ever seen, and they sensed it respected their ability to share in the construction of meaning. A few—irritated by Gray’s persona, declarations of pacifism, and portrayal of a cruel and bigoted U.S. sailor—demanded to know if Gray was gay, mentally ill or hated America. (This is one measure of the film’s power and prescience.)

As I watched again this week, I was surprised to find there is something about Gray’s openness, gentle self-deprecation, and comic excitability that has begun to seem foreign to our time. But Swimming to Cambodia—both book and film—still offers lessons to writers and readers after thirty-five years.

 

• • •

 

The first is that, despite being known for autobiographical stories, Gray’s way of looking outward is vital for a writer’s productivity and longevity.

“[T]here is never a lack of material,” he says in the Author’s Note in the book, “because all human culture is art. It is all a conscious contrivance for the purpose of survival. All I have to do is look at what’s around me.”

This way of looking sees story everywhere, like the background radiation of the universe, and offers a revelation: boredom, like death, is no more.

He says anything can be the way in to a story, and that he finds small details and works from there. (“Why a green button?” he asks the nuclear self-destruct club sailor.) He starts Swimming by noting the deep, genuine smiles of the Cambodians, moves eventually to the grotesque laughter of the Khmer Rouge slaughtering people in Phnom Penh in Year Zero, then tells how American bomb craters became perfect shallow graves for their victims, reinforcing his thesis of American complicity in Pol Pot’s rise. The small detail connects to global events and allows him to make historical and moral conclusions.

 

 

“So five years of [American] bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves up in the Cambodian jungles, an education [for Pol Pot and his lieutenants] in Paris environs in strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetimes—including perhaps an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America—set the Khmer Rouge up to commit the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.”

 

 

“Who needs metaphors for hell or poetry about hell?” he says. “This really happened, here on this earth.”

James Leverett, from the Yale School of Drama, points out in his introduction to the book that Gray’s seemingly random narrative choices result in an “added, often hidden dimension. If you stare at any one of them long enough, you find that what has happened to Gray reflects in a startlingly illuminating way what has happened to the world, or at least a significant section of it, you and I certainly included.”

This way of looking sees story everywhere, like the background radiation of the universe, and offers a revelation: boredom, like death, is no more.

Second, process is key. In each new performance, Gray works the story, building meaning, the way gluten builds in dough by kneading.

“I’m convinced that all meaning is to be found only in reflection,” he writes. “Swimming to Cambodia is an attempt at that kind of reflection.”

He acknowledges process takes time. “Most reporters get the facts out as quickly as possible—fresh news is the best news. I do just the opposite.” (See Pound: “Literature is the news that STAYS news.”) “I give the facts a chance to settle down until at last they blend, bubble and mix in the swamp of dream, memory and reflection.”

Process develops nuance, and the unexpected. It retains a trace memory of its own discovery, which allows readers to experience discovery too, even if that is an illusion. Good writing teaches us how to read it.

As Frost says, “It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. […] No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Or Stanley Kunitz: “A poem has secrets that the poet knows nothing of. It takes on a life and a will of its own. It might have proceeded differently—towards catastrophe, resignation, terror, despair—and I still would have to claim it. […] The great meditations on death have a curious exaltation. I suppose it comes from the realization, even on the threshold, that one isn’t done with one’s changes.”

Gray’s monologue is suffused with death yet exalts the puzzling experience of life.

Third, Swimming to Cambodia’s pointillist form—storytelling units that combine to make the whole—creates meaning by juxtaposition.

Gray talks, for instance, about the empty falseness of Hollywood in more than one segment, but also about its artifice being used to recreate real horrors of war.

During the shooting of Killing Fields, the production commandeered twenty square miles of jungle and the Chao Phraya River. Locals threw rubber on oily fires, and helicopters took off only to get a shot of them landing. Gray writes:

 

“So I got on the helicopter and it went BRRRRRRRR—straight up. Straight up above this incredible jungle. I felt like I was in a movie, like I was in Apocalypse Now, and then I realized I was in a movie! [W]e had no safety belts—but I suddenly had no fear because the camera eroticizes the space! […] Even if the chopper crashed, at least there would be rushes, right? My friends could show them on New Year’s Eve at the Performing Garage.

“And when you land in that jungle you don’t have to Method-act. When those helicopter blades are whirring overhead, you have to shout to be heard. You don’t have to Method-act when you look down and see a Thai peasant covered with chicken giblets and fake blood in 110-degree weather for fifteen hours a day for five dollars a day. (If they’re real amputees they get seven-fifty.)”

 

The juxtaposition of fake and real leads him to the idea of “war therapy”—countries making major motion pictures about wars, instead of actually fighting them.

Fourth, at the deepest level, Gray’s method develops echoes, motifs. One of these, which goes unremarked by Gray, is a repetition of the idea of “kind of a weird diet.” He uses it to explain an American bombing campaign named “Operation Breakfast,” with its planned sequence called the “menu”; he uses it to describe the Khmer Rouge as “a strange bunch of bandits, hanging out in the jungle living on bark, bugs, leaves and lizards”; he uses it for the “fantastic breakfasts, free every morning [and] fresh meat flown in from America, daily. Roast potatoes, green beans and roast lamb, at 110 degrees under a circus tent, according to British Equity…the cakes, teas and ices every day exactly at four o’clock”; and he uses it (in the book only) to describe being “in charge of the bluefish [b]ut I wasn’t in sync with the guy in charge … so I was spraying more napalm on the coals … and … toking off of a very strong joint and suddenly everything went prehistoric.”

The juxtaposition of fake and real leads him to the idea of “war therapy”—countries making major motion pictures about wars, instead of actually fighting them.

Throughout the monologue there is also a motif of failed communication. At one point he describes being violently ill from partying on a beach, and after a nightmare of hours, during which he creates his own corpse from vomit and sand, his girlfriend, Reneé, asks sweetly over his shoulder, “What’s wrong. Hon? … I thought you were building sandcastles.”

“She was at a distance,” he notes wryly.

(For someone interested in narrative, it is instructive to read the book, for its differences with the film; to compare clips of early performances with similar scenes in the film; and to think how visual-auditory elements in the film, such as his red-faced shouting in imitation of helicopter blades, might be accomplished with words only.)

 

• • •

 

Another thing that bothered some students was Gray’s dramatic neurosis. He is often called the WASP Woody Allen, something he reinforced in interviews. Both characters are obsessed with searches for meaning. Gray refuses to settle on answers about religion, relationships, history, morality, or even being American.

Though one strain of American culture chides us to remain open to new experiences, to be childlike in wonder, Americans are often more comfortable with easy certainties and the idea of being hard.

Gray’s tough negative capability is a different thing.

 

• • •

 

Gray’s images of immersion, of sharks in a swimming pool, of drowning fears, of being a child rocked to sleep by the sea, of being a “pumpkin-headed perceiver” among waves hiding the shore, seem all too meaningful now.

He had struggled for years with depression. His mother committed suicide at fifty-two. Gray wrote about it. He was in a car accident in 2001 that left him with a brain injury. He tried to write that too. He threatened suicide, many times.

Oliver Sacks, who was for a time Gray’s doctor, said, “He said that his mind was filled with fantasies of his mother, and of water, always water. All his suicidal fantasies, he said, related to drowning. Why water, why drowning? I asked. ‘Returning to the sea, our mother,’ he said.”

Gray’s body was found in the East River in January 2004. It is thought he jumped from the Staten Island Ferry.

The relationship of a life to the work is one of the mysteries of process. Did the suicide occur in any part due to understandings formed by the art? Or did the ideation get pasted into the work? Was it both?

“Making a movie about this much death, some real person has to go,” he says in Swimming, about his time in Thailand with The Killing Fields. It nearly comes true when his macho friend Ivan almost drowns swimming in the Gulf of Siam. But Ivan exults over the experience. “Spalding, mon, now I know what it’s like to drown. I almost drowned out there.”

Gray says, “…I thought, oh shit. Now I’m going to have to go out and ‘almost drown.’ […] I know what Ivan’s idea of a Perfect Moment is. It’s death!”

The relationship of a life to the work is one of the mysteries of process. Did the suicide occur in any part due to understandings formed by the art? Or did the ideation get pasted into the work? Was it both?

Gray has his own Perfect Moment in those waves and goes to his new “father-confessor,” playwright Athol Fugard, to brag, because “telling it is almost as important as having the Perfect Moment.”

Fugard chides him dramatically. “Spalding! The sea’s a lovely lady when you play in her. But if you play with her, she’s a BITCH! Play in the sea, yes, but never play with her. You’re lucky to be here! You’re lucky to be alive!”

The cover of the DVD of Swimming, shown at the start of this essay, is Gray’s face half-submerged. The animation of the same image, on the main menu, with its soundtrack of waves and gulls, is painful.

In the book, Gray describes a friend joking at enlightenment by standing on his head in Central Park. Soon he had twenty-five “new converts ready to follow him anywhere.”

“I think they would have followed him right into the East River without a doubt in their heads,” Gray writes.

 

• • •

 

We expect payoff, even wisdom, from our stories. The ending of the film Swimming seems, instead, a complete non sequitur.

Gray says he finally tore himself away from Thailand to return to Krumville, New York, where his girlfriend was patiently waiting.

“And just as I was climbing into that first-class seat, and wrapping myself in a blanket, just as I was adjusting my pillow behind my head, and having a sip of that champagne, and just as I was bringing down and adjusting my Thai purple sleep mask…I had an inkling, I had a flash… I suddenly thought I knew what it was that had killed Marilyn Monroe.”

The cover of the DVD of Swimming, shown at the start of this essay, is Gray’s face half-submerged. The animation of the same image, on the main menu, with its soundtrack of waves and gulls, is painful.

He has not mentioned Monroe before, and I asked students what they made of it. Many understood it to be about the traps of fame, consumption, desire, and ego.

In the book, Gray writes, “… I always like to have [a Perfect Moment] before I leave an exotic place. They’re a good way of bringing things to an end. But you can never plan for one. You never know when they’re coming. It’s sort of like falling in love…with yourself.”

 

• • •

 

My date and I had the Perfect Day. We loved the film. References to it became part of our common language, so for her birthday, years later, I got tickets to an Athol Fugard play and made reservations at an Ethiopian restaurant. The play turned out to be in a tiny black-box theater. The two actors, an interracial couple, were naked throughout, nearly at our feet. She was livid and cried about the restaurant.

She was a smart, lovely person, and an English major, like me, when we met. But she said things like, “If I run up the credit cards, I’ll just go make more money.” She became the sort of person who tried to sell insurance to her own family at parties, and when she wandered away, it was with an insurance agent—one of those small details that work outward to reveal a motif of security. In fact, I loved her family in part because they seemed to offer me a chance at an upper-middle-class life I never had. I should have been happy.

Athol Fugard tells Gray after he has his Perfect Moment, “Spalding: Go back to Reneé. She’s a lovely lady. Take what you’ve learned here in Thailand back to Krumville. There is no difference between Thailand and Krumville.”

“I wanted to believe him,” Gray says.

 

• • •

 

The New York Times, announcing Gray’s death, said he “practiced the art of storytelling with a quiet mania” and had a “relentless self-absorption.”

“In a 1980 show,” the Times writers say, “Mr. Gray spoke a line that may well have summed up his life and career. ‘It’s very hard for me,’ he said, ‘not to tell everybody everything.’”

The judgments are strange, like expecting the winner of a scavenger hunt not to exult over treasures found along the way. Openness is seen as weakness, as uncomfortably revelatory, a potential con, even if Gray’s openness is eloquent, moving, and funny.

Yet even Gray writes in Swimming, “Thomas Merton was a hero of mine because he knew how to shut up. It’s not that he wanted other people to stop talking, but he figured that people were chatting so much that someone had to keep the silence.”

The New York Times, announcing Gray’s death, said he “practiced the art of storytelling with a quiet mania” and had a “relentless self-absorption.”

Gray explains how his therapist told the story of escaping Auschwitz as the Russians marched in, only to be machine-gunned with others in a pit in the snow on the border of Germany and Poland.

Gray tries to suggest that the experience must have made his life “more conscious and vital”—implying near-death and bearing witness had a purpose. The therapist denies it. Within a few years, he says, the “reunions of the camps” went from drinking and swinging to discussing summer homes, and now, “whether or not radioactive smoke-detectors are dangerous in suburban homes. Nothing changes.”

 

• • •

 

Is this the meaning waiting to be found in the background radiation of stories? At the end of all process? If so, what is the point?

My friend Larry lives near Hollywood, but we have talked for twenty-five years on the phone. He is at a distance, but his voice is in my head. I ask what he thinks about the possibility that if process learns anything, it is that there is nothing more than what was in front of it the whole time.

But he thinks the therapist was broken by horror and that Gray’s traumatic brain injury kept him from living. He pitches me a “desirable naivete,” not to be confused with simplistic ignorance, which would allow someone to be fully aware but still interested in life—even childlike in wonder. He says winning would be being able to live next to, and even to enjoy, neighbors you know from bitter experience might betray you one day.

I say the attitude reminds me of the bodhisattva of compassion, she who “listens to the world’s cries” without losing balance. But most days I think I would be grateful to say all I have to say and, having been released from constantly becoming, to retreat to contemplate one perfect pine bough under the sky through the seasons. Surely the world would be enough.

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