As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
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When asked what his plays were about, Harold Pinter once famously and facetiously replied that they were all about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.”
Pinter insists that he was merely trying “to frustrate this line of inquiry,” but his apocryphal response is still bandied about, if only because the image suggests a certain menace hiding beneath the seemingly mundane, which could, in fact, describe at least some of Pinter’s work. “For me the remark meant precisely nothing,” Pinter claims, and there’s no reason to doubt him, except for the fact that it could have been uttered by one of his characters, and thereby perhaps offers a glimpse into Pinter’s subconscious, or at least into the bad neighborhood of his mind. Or maybe it’s merely a glimpse into the bad neighborhood of my mind, for now it is me, still holding onto this tossed-off image, attempting to weigh it down with significance.
If the racism that the man on the plane felt free to utter were an animal, I find myself imagining, it might look like a weasel. The storm, it seemed, had pulled back the curtain on a level of racism that white America generally prefers to pretend doesn’t exist—hiding under the cocktail cabinet, as it were. After the storm there followed a brief moment of hope that now that it was revealed, dragged into the light for all to see, we would, as a nation, rise up and deal with it. But right away some said that what the storm revealed wasn’t a weasel at all, that there was nothing under the cocktail cabinet, or at least nothing to concern ourselves with. One local politician even said publicly that nature had in five days done what he’d been trying to accomplish during his entire political life—that is, get the poor people out of New Orleans. In this light, a storm might be viewed as an opportunity. Naomi Klein has recently coined a phrase for this phenomenon: disaster capitalism. She writes: “Not so long ago, disasters were periods of social leveling, rare moments when atomized communities put divisions aside and pulled together. Today they are moments when we are hurled further apart, when we lurch into a radically segregated future where some of us will fall off the map and others ascend to a parallel privatized state, one equipped with well-paved highways and skyways, safe bridges, boutique charter schools, fast-lane airport terminals, and deluxe subways.”
Alice Invents a Little Game & Alice Always Wins is, in part, about the aftermath of a disaster, though exactly what that disaster is remains unclear. The play came about, as nearly everything does, by something seemingly insignificant snagging onto someone’s (my) consciousness, or unconsciousness. The insignificant something, this time, was a photograph of the aftermath of a blackout in New York City—lights out, trains dead, businessmen stranded overnight, unable to make it back to Westchester, forced to sleep on sidewalks and park benches. What caught my attention was their suits—very high-end. Not that I wore suits, but sometimes, privately, I imagined that one day I’d be the kind of person who could wear a suit.
Initial speculation was that the blackout might be “terrorist related,” but the terrorists were quickly written out of the story, leaving room for other theories. Tapes had recently been released of young Enron workers chatting gleefully about their plan to black out California for a few days, thereby instilling fear which would then justify jacking up the prices. On the tapes two young guns can be heard joking about “Granny having to drain her pension” to pay her bills. It didn’t seem so far-fetched that this moneymaking scheme was being replicated in New York, but this blackout turned out to be merely a symptom of our crumbling infrastructure—a transformer, maybe in Canada, had malfunctioned, shutting off the power to a huge swath of the eastern United States. Simple, old-fashioned negligence and decay, another day at the tail end of the empire.
But those suits—something about the quality of the fabric against the coarseness of a cardboard box lodged itself in my subconscious. I had spent the previous two years shuttling between Rome and Africa—Tanzania, mostly—and I couldn’t help but do the math. Some of these suits cost a hundred times the yearly pay of most Africans—I have a friend in Tanzania who had lived for a while on a cracker a day. While I was there the government, in order to comply with World Bank “austerity” rules, was in the process of privatizing basic services. The electric company had recently been sold to a South African firm, and I swore they paid someone to flick the power off and on several times a day, if just to make us appreciate this miracle we were being offered.
I moved to Rome in the fall of 2001 in order to finish a book on homelessness and my father. One morning, a few weeks after I arrived, I woke up with the flu. I staggered outside to get some juice and painkillers to tide me over, and when the door slammed shut behind me I realized I’d locked myself out. A sick(er) feeling washed over me as I remembered that the landlord had told me that there was only one key to that door, and it was now sitting on the kitchen table. I had my cellphone, but it was early, and I knew the landlord slept late. I left a message, and got some tea, my head pounding. My Italian was rudimentary at best, and within an hour I ended up in the public park, sleeping on a bench, my cellphone battery slowly draining its charge, the landlord still not calling back.
If I hadn’t been writing about the years my father had spent homeless, those few hours spent outside might not have hit me so hard. Deep inside I had always been afraid of becoming him, but I hadn’t expected it to hinge on something as simple, as obvious, as a key. What passed through my mind as I lay on that bench perhaps passed through a few of those businessmen’s minds that night they found themselves outside: what if this never ends, what if I simply never make it back inside? Could it really be this simple, could it be this blameless?
Some say that in dreams all the characters are manifestations of our subconscious selves. Sounds about right to me. Unfortunately (or not), since these selves are subconscious, shadows, we often do not recognize them. Even before Freud the Greeks recognized this—think of Oedipus and his confusions.
When I was younger I worked with the homeless for many years, gravitating to the “psych guys,” as we called them, though for the first year or so when I would write about them in the daily log I misspelled the word “psych” as “psyche.” I could sit and talk to them for hours—much of what they said was impossible, but some of it made sense. I knew even then that I was attempting to access something in my own psyche, some part of my own madness. I couldn’t know it then, but I was also waiting for my father to arrive, to step back into my life.
This was the mid-1980s. As more and more people began appearing on the streets of American cities and towns, some argued that we were accepting what would have previously been unacceptable, and that it could be argued that as a consequence of accepting the unacceptable, America, all of us, were becoming psychically homeless. At the time I merely wondered why more of us didn’t simply run down the streets screaming, like some of the psych guys I knew did.
The title Alice Invents a Little Game & Alice Always Wins is another one of those things that got snagged on my (un)consciousness. It is the title of an experimental film that a friend, the filmmaker Hubert Sauper, told me about but that I have yet to see—Alice erfindet ein kleines Spiel, das Alice gewinnt (1989). It was directed by Claudia Messmer, who lives in Vienna. The title rolled around in my head for a while, found some purchase, and kept rising up to the surface.
Something in me liked the idea of this woman, this Alice, inventing a game that only she could win. It seemed both powerful and insane. Alice is also my grandmother’s name—Allie—the woman who raised my brother and me, the one who fed us the nights our mother was working late or out on a date. It is likely one of the first names I ever uttered. She was nothing like the Alice in this play, as far as I can tell. In the book I wrote on the homeless I also used the name as a pseudonym for a woman I knew who lived in a box.
Sometimes, when the phrase “Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins” was rolling around in my head, before the writing began, I imagined Alice to be a metaphor for America, and her game like a game of musical chairs, with the idea that the music was about to end. Musical chairs always seemed the prototypical capitalist game, creating a sense of desperation and competition among friends. Who is it that gets to take away one chair each time, and where do the chairs go, and who lifts the needle from the vinyl? That was an idea I had in the initial drafts, but in the end the Alice in the play does not seem like the one who lifts the needle from the vinyl, or the one who takes away the chairs. In these pages she is as bewildered as everyone else, if slightly more accepting of that bewilderment, which gives her whatever power she may have. She is, perhaps, simply one of the many who found a way to live without a chair, so to speak, earlier than the rest of us.
Sometimes it seems like this great game of musical chairs we’ve been playing in America is coming to an end, that the music is stopping more and more frequently, that there are less and less chairs. Not to be apocalyptic, but as I touched on earlier, we did lose a major American city a couple of years ago to a hurricane and then simply left the survivors to fend for themselves. I will admit, though, that it is (perhaps) my temperament to see disasters where others see opportunity—I hear Mardi Gras went well this year. I spent several years working with the homeless, and then several more working in New York City public elementary schools, where half the students lived in shelters. I saw homeless people everywhere, invisible to most—I knew they were homeless because I knew them, or I could recognize the signs.
But I am getting away from myself. I merely wanted to say a few words about how this play came into being. Alice began as a handful of images, of phrases, which eventually led to the images and phrases gathering some energy around them, until they began to generate their own energy—an image cluster, a closed image system, which can be a beautiful thing but can also be a dangerous thing. Think of the idea of torture, which at this moment in America seems to have a lot of energy swirling around it, largely as a result of the image of a ticking bomb, about to explode, and the madman sitting before you, refusing to reveal the location. This is a very powerful, yet deeply flawed, image system, and it has led to some horrific abuses. It is also a flawed rhetorical argument, based as it is on a hypothetical situation which is unlikely to ever manifest itself in reality—it is unlikely you will have the madman in the chair before you, that you will know he has planted a bomb, and yet you will not know its location. An equivalent argument is this: If you knew the baby in the carriage before you was to grow up to become another Hitler, would you be justified in bashing its brains out with a hammer? It seems obvious that there is no way to know who the baby will grow up to be, and even if you believe to your soul it to be true, you would be a madman to act on this belief. As epistemological games, these musings can fill many bong-hit filled nights, but in the past few years this “ticking bomb” has, unfortunately, been used to justify changing the Constitution and subverting the Geneva Conventions. It has led, once again, to many of us being willing to accept the unacceptable.
Sophocles’s play Philoctetes begins with Odysseus sailing back to the island he abandoned an injured Philoctetes on years earlier. Philoctetes, it seems, is the keeper of a bow which, it is prophesied, is needed to win the Trojan War. Odysseus sends Neoptolemus ashore to convince Philoctetes, whose gangrenous foot is driving him mad with pain, to hand over this bow for the greater good. The play deals, in part, with rhetoric and the uses and abuses of argument. Philoctetes argues that it is all right to manipulate the truth for a greater end: that is, to win, and thereby end, a war. Neoptolemus is not convinced. In the midst of these rhetorical arguments are moments of dark humor:
PHILOCTETES: (screams in pain)
NEOPTOLEMUS: It isn’t the pain of your sickness coming upon you, is it?
PHILOCTETES: Not at all—on the contrary, I feel like I’m rallying, just now—Oh, gods!
Rallying. These days, the manipulation of the truth feels smaller, often simply for accumulating more wealth, which is why it is said we’ve become too small for tragedy. Now we read books with titles like Rich Dad, Poor Dad and watch television shows like The Apprentice, which, it could be argued, are simply handbooks to justify the exploitation of others. In Alice Invents a Little Game & Alice Always Wins Ivan understands this, Gideon resists it, and Esra is caught between the two. Alice, who may or may not have invented this rigged game, vanishes in the end, seemingly into the television, to become the only one as invisible and pervasive as the air we breathe.
Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004) won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir and has been translated into thirteen languages. He is also the author of two books of poetry, Some Ether, which won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and Blind Huber, which Stanley Kunitz called “an act of the poetic imagination unlike any other.” He has been awarded fellowships from the Library of Congress, the Amy Lowell Trust, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. His poems, essays, and nonfiction have appeared in the New Yorker, National Public Radio’s This American Life, and the New York Times Book Review. He teaches one semester a year at the University of Houston and spends the rest of the year elsewhere.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.