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Friday Column: Manuel Puig and the Performance of Ourselves

It has been said repeatedly, and I think correctly, that in this heavily ironized, mediated era we are each method actors performing ourselves. That is, TV, movies, and other mass media surrounds us with role models for any conceivable identity we may want to inhabit, and our well-developed consumer economy offers us everything we need to wear and own to be the person we think we are. From an early age we are sent off on a search to find ourselves—because, after all, postmodern society makes each of us feel the center of the world—and on this lifelong quest we are provided us with all the equipment (both mental and material) that we will need to define our self and then perform it into being.

If this view of things is correct, if it is true that we are all method actors whose greatest role is being our self, then there can be no doubt as to the contemporary author we must read: Manuel Puig. Heavily influenced by the theories of Freud and Lacan, Puig writes as though each of his characters are actors in a movie. His books are all about people who construct their identities by playing roles, and via his plots he deconstructs the ways in which people discover who they are and then learn to act it out.

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Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Puig’s clear masterpiece, is the book that most obviously reveals his preoccupation with how everyone is himself or herself an actor. It starts, after all, with the narration of a movie.

Two prisoners, one a homosexual window dresser and the other a young revolutionary, share a jail cell in early 1970s Argentina. To keep entertained during the long hours of their imprisonment, the window dresser, Molina, tells movies to Valentin, the revolutionary.

Already Puig has given us a lot to think about: here we have two people what have taken on atypical, ill-defined identities—if anyone needs roles to play, people such as Molina and Vanentin would be them. Furthermore, these two are talking about movies, a medium in which people pretend to be people who they aren’t; and, in fact, they are discussing the movie not as seen on the screen but as filtered through Molina’s mind.

All this, implicit in the first few pages, is quite a lot to unravel, but the wonderful, dizzying thing about Puig is the way he takes a perfectly intelligent conceit and then he keeps layering it up with levels and levels of meaning.

Take, for instance, the movie Molina is telling to Valentin. It is a fantasy/horror story about a woman who may or may not turn into a ravenous puma when a man kisses her on the lips. As Molina tells the movie to Valentin, the men begin to speculate as to why a woman would concoct such a tale; Valentin thinks it’s something she invented because she’s frigid, the product of a repressed upbringing that has frightened her about sex. After so many years of internalizing this fear, argues Valentin, she’s talked herself into acting the part of a person who believes she’ll turn into a puma if she’s kissed.

So then the very substance of the movie adds a layer to Puig’s conceit—and then another gets added in the form of Molina himself. Genetically a male, he’s a fem gay man who prefers to act the part of a woman, especially as regards to romantic relationships. Quite literally, Molina can be seen as an actor: a man acting the part of a woman to the best of his understanding of what a woman is.

That’s another layer now, but there’s still another, most obvious one: the format of the book itself. Kiss of the Spiderwoman is mostly narrated in unattributed, un-stylized dialog (Puig’s prose is littered with "mmm"s and ellipses). By foregrounding speech, Puig very simply emphasizes the fact that one of the principal ways we present ourselves to the outside world is in fact a very considered, very performed one. Speech, after all, is something we’re continually constructing, and it changes based on the location we’re in, the person to whom we’re speaking, the mood we’re in at the moment, etc.

And yet, though Puig is clearly taken with the idea that our personalities are performances based on who we think we are—that we’re all really actors—the paradox that drives this nuanced, brilliant inquiry is that we’re never quite sure exactly how to act out the personality we want to exhibit. Say you want to act the part of a cool person; well, what exactly does a cool person do? How should you act this out? It’s a hard question to answer because concepts like "cool" are so overdefined, so ponderous with aggregated meaning and conflicting definitions, that it’s hard to know exactly where to start performing them. Watch how quickly Valentin is stymied when Molina asks him what should be a very simple question: What makes a man?

—Well . . . Why don’t you tell me what it means to you, being a man? . . .

—Mmm . . . his not taking any crap . . . from anyone, not even the powers that be . . . But no, it’s more than that. Not taking any crap is one thing, but not the most important. What really makes a man is a lot more, it has to do with not humiliating someone else with an order, or a tip. Even more, it’s . . . not letting the person next to you feel degraded, feel bad.

—That sounds like a saint.

—No, it’s not as impossible as you think.

—I still don’t get you . . . explain a little more.

—I don’t know, I don’t quite know myself, right this minute. You’ve caught me off guard. I can’t seem to find the right words. . . .

This paradox is so intriguing because though Valentin can’t tell Molina precisely what the measure of a man is, he’s generally quite confident that he’s acting like a man.

Most of the time, at least. The crises of Molina’s and Valentin’s lives tend to occur when each is uncertain about how to perform his identity. Thus, for instance, when Valentin falls ill and Molina tries to take care of him, Valentin suddenly flies into a rage (a rage which is acutely felt despite the fact that Puig limits himself to conveying it through about 20 words spread out over a few lines of dialog) because he’s feeling a conflict between how he wants to act, i.e. to let Molina care for him, and how he thinks he needs to act, i.e. the stoic revolutionary.

Though Valentin is certainly a well-felt, fully realized character, Molina’s thoughts and personal crises tend to be richer, perhaps partly because Puig himself was a gay man, but more likely because Molina’s mind entertains more ambiguity than Valentin’s and thus opens itself to us more and wrestles with issues a little more poignantly. The difference becomes most clear when Puig momentarily steps out of the dialog to enter into his characters’ stream of consciousness (another favorite device of Puig’s). Valentin’s stream is abrasively jumpy, enough to prevent him from following a difficult thought to completion, and the way in which his mind constructs the narrative distances himself from his feelings and always leaves the truth of the matter in doubt:

—a fellow with a plan on his mind, a fellow who accepts his mother’s invitation to visit her in the city, a fellow who lies to his mother assuring her of his opposition to the guerilla movement, a fellow who dines by candlelight alone with his mother . . .

Contrast this with the rawness, the directness of Molina’s thoughts, as here when he’s stung by some well-intentioned but nonetheless hurtful remarks Valentin makes about a movie Molina likes:

seen from behind, looking elegant, but from behind of course no way to tell if the faces are beautiful or not, and no one realizing that these two are the protagonists of the story that’s just been told, and mom was crazy about it, and me too, and luckily I didn’t tell this son of a bitch [i.e., Valentin], and I’m certainly not going to tell him another word about anything I like, so he can’t laugh anymore about how soft I am, we’ll see if ever he weakens or not, but I won’t tell him any more of the films I like the most, tey’re just for me, in my mind’s eye, so no filthy words can touch them, this son of a bitch and his pissass of a revolution

What exactly is Kiss of the Spiderwoman inquiring into? The ways in which we construct our identities, for one thing, but also how exactly gender is created and the ways in which men and women interact according to its dictates. (The latter is, if anything, even more of a preoccupation with Puig than the ways we perform ourselves into our personalities.)

The two are clearly related. It’s often far easier to say what something isn’t than what it is, and accordingly, in Puig’s books characters are able to define themselves as men and women most distinctly when interacting with people of the opposite gender. Spiderwoman, like all of Puig’s books, can well be seen as people’s investigations into otherness, that is, people figuring out how to define themselves through extended conversation and interaction with other people who quite obviously aren’t them. Thus you can find odd pairings throughout Puig’s works: fem gay and red-blooded straight; old man and young man (Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages); Don Juan wannabe and earnest provincial; seductress and good daughter (the latter two groupings in Heartbreak Tango). Because of their differences, conflict between these characters becomes inevitable, and yet, though at root this conflict is based in the inner turmoil people feel when they strain to understand themselves, Puig always makes these conflicts the natural outgrowths of perfectly normal situations.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Friday Column: How Should the First-Person Be Written? Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier seems to me to possess precisely those virtues to which the novel narrated in the first-person is best...
  2. Friday Column: Reading Images I’ve been rereading Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s epic satire that uses a community of soldiers in World War II Italy to critique the absurdity of war,...
  3. Friday Column: Martone As a member of the LBC, I was greatly impressed by Michael Martone, our Summer 2006 Reah This! selection. For those who haven’t read...
  4. Friday Column: Narratives Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire was groundbreaking because it inserted a story where few would have looked to find one: scholarly footnotes. The novel consists of...
  5. Friday Column: One Blogger's Biases I hope that anyone who reads this blog regularly will develop an understanding of what I look for in literature. It seems a reasonable expectation;...

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