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Monster In A Box

by John Bloner, Jr.

Not too long ago, I was watching a televised, booty-shaking performance by Beyonce, while thinking she was trying too hard to entertain. The show looked like a 21st century take on a Jane Fonda video. You remember those 1980s workouts? Beyonce was all sweat and no substance.

Is this what the public calls "entertainment" these days? Is no one quiet anymore?

During the dawn of the 1990s, when the first George Bush was in the White House, a man with waves of salt-and-pepper hair, wearing gray shoes, walked onto a stage, sat down before a wooden desk, took a sip of water from a glass, opened his notebook, and began to speak to those who had assembled in the theater that night.

Like he had done for many nights before, he spun stories from his life--in this case, a tale of his attempts to finish his first (and only) novel, 'Impossible Vacation." While he never moved from his chair, his voice, with its change-ups of speed and intonation, took the crowd across the country, into Central America and clear over to Moscow, as he addressed not only the perils of writing, but commented on suicide, depression, AIDS, before they somehow wound up in Grover's Corners--the setting for Thorton Wilder's drama, "Our Town."

His name was Spalding Gray. The performance was called "Monster In A Box." 

The Guardian described his monologues as existing "somewhere between Jean Paul-Sartre and Jack Benny." I'm afraid we'll never see the likes of someone like him again. 

"I couldn't spell. I couldn't write. I could barely read. I didn't know that had nothing to do with writing." -- Spalding Gray

On February 29, 1992, Gray performed "Monster In A Box" at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was in the audience when this self-described "New England puritan" sat down and lifted a brown binder, pregnant with 1,900 pages.

"I just wanted to begin by clearing up the title," he said. "So you won't spend any time thinking about what that means. This is the box. This is the monster in it. It's a book I've been working on for the past four years, entitled "Impossible Vacation."

Over 20 years later, despite Gray's explanation, I'm still thinking about what that title means.

"Everyone knows they're going to die, but no one really believes it." -- Spalding Gray

If you would have asked me in 1992 about the title to "Monster In A Box," I would have smugly said that the "monster" is really Spalding Gray's mother, who killed herself in 1967, and left her son with the spectra of suicide. His mother's death haunts the telling of "Monster In A Box." He tells a story of his mother, during the summer of 1965, curled up on a couch, reading the Christian Science Monitor, until he interferes, popping the paper with his finger.

"She pulled the paper down," he said. "And looked me right in the eyes. 'How shall I do it, dear? How shall I do it? Shall I do it in the garage with the car?'"

"I like telling the story of my life better than I do living it." -- Spalding Gray

Over 20 years since "Monster In A Box" was first performed, I see the monster as the human brain. How many of us on that February night in 1992 knew our own monsters, stalking their caves? How many of us have tamed our beasts? How many have died or hurt others when they could no longer contain them? Did Spalding Gray's own monster gnash its teeth and flick its tail?

I won't pretend to know. To do otherwise would be to mistake the private Spalding Gray for the persona he adopted onstage. The facts are that he was badly injured in an automobile accident in 2001 and spent time in and out of hospitals following that event, undergoing operations, acupuncture, therapy, and taking a combinations of medications. In January 2004, he was reported missing. Two months later, his body was pulled out of the East River in New York.

"It's very important for me to have perfect moments in exotic countries..it kind of let's you know when it's time to go home." -- Spalding Gray

In that same year that I attended Gray's performance of "Monster In The Box," I visited St. Paul, Minnesota for a work conference. During a break, I skipped the luncheon and keynote speaker to attempt to locate an independent bookstore, Hungry Mind Books, by setting out on foot (because you don't travel to Mecca by cab), armed with a vague sense of the direction of the store, while the weather threatened and the clock ticked off the time until I needed to return to the hotel. On my journey, using the longest stride I could comfortably manage, I thought of Spalding Gray and, in particular, his quest for transcendence in what he called a yes experience or a perfect moment. 

What's a perfect moment feel like? It's like the universe is twiddling with the knob on its living room radio and finally tunes into you, while at the same time, you're working on your own radio, and find the universe's voice coming through loud and clear.

I wanted to have a perfect moment on that summer day in 1992, threading through the sidewalks of St. Paul while believing that the Hungry Mind bookstore could be my rocketship to a personal Valhalla.  I adore books and bookstores, particularly the independents, where the clerk is often a coach, teaching you on great finds among the stacks and changing your life forever.

The farther I walked, however, the greater I realized that I could not reach Hungry Mind Books in the time I had allocated for my trip.  My stubborn will kept my feet moving forward on Grand Avenue until I arrived on a block of retail shops, including a bookstore that was not called Hungry Mind.*  As soon as I entered the shop, I was struck by the handwritten words on its walls by well-known and lesser-known authors. I stood near the entrance, with my mouth agape to take in all of them, until I nearly lost my footing when I read the following, posted just above the doorway:


It was signed, "Spalding Gray."

Despite not reaching Hungry Mind Books, I somehow had my perfect moment, reading about why I should be wary of perfect moments. I glided back to the hotel with this memory tattooed forever onto my monster.

Gray's performances are represented well on film, including "Swimming To Cambodia" (from the above clip), "Monster In A Box," "Gray's Anatomy," "Sex and Death To The Age of 14" and "Terrors of Pleasure," which introduced me to this performer, author and stage, TV and film actor ("The Killing Fields" and many other roles).

To learn more about him, visit the Spalding Gray website HERE.

* The bookstore I stumbled upon was Odegard Books, which sadly went out of business in 1996. For a future article, I will write an article about favorite times spent in bookshops. As I see it, we wait a lifetime for a chance at heaven, but once in a while, we find a bit of heaven here on earth. Thanks for reading. See you next time.