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Synecdoche: New York and My Lonely, Fucked-Up Being

By Randy Osborne.

Synechdoche, New York

Into Sausalito’s balmy dark the little movie house spills us. Couples mostly, but I am alone. Alone and dazed at what I’ve just witnessed. In thrall to the story, I want to discuss Synecdoche: New York with Laura, the way we did in what already feels like the old days, though we’ve been apart for less than a year.

On foot I pass the Richardson Bay houseboats, bobbed by high tide, lights winking. I think of my journalist friend Stommen in Atlanta, who vows that he will one day live on a houseboat in northern California. But, five years from this night in 2008, he will lie down on his sofa for a nap and not rise from it. Seeping fog haloes each houseboat lamp. Cornball image after the Stommen reference, I mutter to myself. You are capable of nothing but clichés.

About a third of the way into Synecdoche, main character Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) says, “I’ve been thinking a lot about dying lately.”

Me, too.

*

From the first minutes of the movie, viewers can identify key themes: time – its swift passage – and mortality. Also love, mostly of the thwarted kind. And art, ditto.

Middle-aged theater director Caden wakes to an author on the radio reading Rilke’s ‘Autumn Day’ in honor of the first day of fall, September 22.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

In the kitchen with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein), Caden gazes out the window. “I don’t feel well,” he says. Caden sits and reads the newspaper, dated October 14, 2005. Flips the page to a column of briefs, dated October 17 at the top. “They found avian flu in Turkey.” He takes a carton of milk from the refrigerator, sniffs, and declares it expired. Zoom to the date on the flap, October 20. “Happy Halloween, Schenectady,” says the radio announcer in the background. Then, seconds later, “today, November first”.  Back to the newspaper. Caden informs Adele – who puts her face in her hands and seems weary of him (she is) – that the first black graduate of the University of Alabama has died. “Stroke, 63.” (Vivian Malone Jones actually died on October 13 of that year.)

Little Olive watches TV, where a cartoon germ parachutes merrily down to a cartoon cow grazing in a field. The narrator tells of “a secret something at play under the surface, growing like an invisible virus of thought. But you are being changed by it, second by second.”

In the bathroom, Caden leans over the sink, shaving. Suddenly the faucet and handles begin rattling madly, under some kind of pressure, about to blow. A fixture flies off and strikes him hard in the forehead, knocks him back. Caden hollers for Adele. Water sprays everywhere, his shirt-front soaked with blood.

Later, his injury stitched, Caden says, “This is the start of something awful.” In one of the more subtle remarks the movie makes upon itself, props malfunction during the rehearsal of Death of a Salesman and Caden stomps onto the stage waving his arms, yelling. “It’s too late in the game to have these problems!”

He has cast much younger actors as 63-year-old Willy Loman and his wife. “Try to keep in mind,” Caden coaches Tom (Daniel London), “that a young person playing Willy Loman thinks he’s only pretending to be at the end of a life full of despair, but the tragedy is that we know that you, the young actor, will end up in this very place of desolation.”

To Adele, Caden reports that the show includes no less than 560 lighting cues. “I don’t know why I make it so complicated.”

“Because that’s what you do,” she says.

*

Laura’s illness came on slowly, then fast. It must always have been with her, worsening as time went on, and then turned a corner abruptly. Excited episodes of dancing in the town square, wildly shouting jokes into strangers’ faces, alternated with stretches of deep, disconsolate gloom.

After her arrest on a non-violent felony, the jail psychologist diagnosed bipolar disorder – obvious, I found out later, to everyone but her mate of six years, me.

She dreaded lithium – “I don’t want to turn into an obese, drooling diabetic” – and refused the pills. Her dramatic swings continued. She lost job after job. In the manic phase, she drank two or three bottles of wine per night, still hardly slowed. She didn’t sleep, jabbering on the phone until dawn. In the depressed phase, she lay in bed, taking to her feet only to drift around the apartment. Blank.

I felt helpless, bewildered, and after a year so exasperated. If she wouldn’t at least try the treatment, then she couldn’t care much about our relationship.

At the airport with her, waiting for the flight back east to her family (a one-way ticket), her eyes glistened. “I’m never going to see you again, am I?”

*

I was raised by miserable women – my mother, grandmother – abandoned by their men. As a result I have perfect radar for distress (romantic or otherwise) in the opposite sex, and I am drawn inexorably by it. Drawn to them, compelled by my self-appointed task of proving I’m the good man.

So goes the log line I’ve distilled from therapy, anyway.

Synecdoche is largely about Caden’s tormented life with women. In fact, there’s only one other significant male character in the story, Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), and he doesn’t count since he serves as a sort of alter ego to Caden.

“Have I disappointed you somehow?” Caden asks, as Adele leaves him for an art show in Germany. Adele comforts him. “We’ll talk when I get back,” she says, twice. She says, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” also twice. Adele never comes back, at least not to Caden – although she returns to New York – so they don’t talk.

I don’t know what I’m doing. The line surfaces again later from Caden himself. He’s responding to the gushing about his new project by actress Claire Keen (Michelle Williams). Caden: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Claire reassures him. “Knowing that you don’t know is the first and the most essential step to knowing, you know?” He doesn’t know.

Again near the end of the movie, Hazel (Samantha Morton), Caden’s strongest love interest – it’s not Adele and it’s not Claire, who becomes his second wife – prompts the line yet again when she Caden, “What are we doing?” She means: Why do we keep dodging each other? Both are senior citizens at this point. “I don’t know,” Caden says.

Without Adele, Caden develops peculiar symptoms: bumps, skin lesions, an attack of full-body tremors. He’s losing the ability to salivate or cry. He fanatically cleans house, scrubbing the floors with a toothbrush – scouring away the microorganisms that have parachuted in – and further mixes up chronology. “It’s been a week” since Adele left, he tells Hazel. “It’s been a year,” she says. “I’m gonna buy you a calendar.”

Surprise money arrives from a MacArthur grant. Caden buys a theater the size of several stadiums in New York and begins rehearsing an epic, improvisational play with a cast of thousands. Rehearsals continue for much of the movie and much of Caden’s life. “When are we going to get an audience in here?” asks an actor. “It’s been 17 years.”

Synecdoche

Synecdoche, our English professors explained, is a literary device in which a part of something represents the whole or the other way around. Fractal, holograph. Caden intends for his massive theater production to capture the individual stories of the city’s people: the whole for the parts. At the other end of the synecdoche spectrum, Adele gains fame for her minuscule portraits of women – works so tiny that she wears special eyeglasses to paint them, and gallery visitors bring magnifiers for viewing. Each of her pictures is an example of her oeuvre; she doesn’t make anything else. Little, big.

*

Laura’s absence opens up writing time for me. I’m well past the age when my work as an emerging talent might find its way into 30-under-30 anthologies, and I peddle my scribblings to any venue where they might find an audience, no matter how small.

In the mid-1970s, I disc-jockeyed at a 500-watt country music station. This was the last job I enjoyed. Bumping down the dirt road to the little red farmhouse, moon high, cornstalks all around, for the midnight shift. I sang along with Donna Fargo, Moe Bandy, and Johnny Rodriguez while field mice ran over the tops of my feet. Take-home pay: exactly $99 per week.

In radio: One of me, the same sole and separate person, emerging from devices in cars, homes, and workplaces across the land. Little, big. Each me a different “me” in the ears and sensibilities of strangers but also the same me, who drives home to my slummy apartment as the sun rises and tries to write.

Radio figures often in Synecdoche. Caden parks outside Hazel’s house – a perpetually burning structure, as our bodies flame with desire, as Caden and Hazel do for each other. They finally consummate that desire in the burning house. Hazel dies the next morning.

For now, though, as Hazel walks with her husband, Derek (Paul Sparks), Caden calls out. Hazel comes over. In one of the sadder moments of a very sad film, Caden says simply, “Tell me what to do.” The radio chatters in the background about pharmaceutical-induced “chromosomal damage” and a court settlement of $1.2 million. Hazel says, “Everyone has to figure out their own life, you know?” Caden is weeping. He weeps a lot in this movie, at appropriate times and at other times, and always before sex.

I disc-jockeyed at the station over night. During the days, in my hovel, I wrote. I composed ornate, almost Jamesian pieces – except that they practically devoured themselves in circularity. Pieces that no one would read and that, if they did, might cause them to fret about my sanity.

Critics have made much of the hidden and overt puns on mental, and of course physical, illness in Synecdoche. The name of Caden’s therapist (Hope Davis) is Madeleine, as in myasthenia, Gravis. His own last name refers to Cotard syndrome, in which a person believes he is dead. (Hazel is seen reading Swann’s Way at her desk. Not only is the subtitle important to the movie – In Search of Lost Time – but so is one of its characters: Dr. Cottard.)

Caden ventures to Adele’s sublet in New York. “I want to follow you there and see how you lose even more of yourself,” says Sammy, who has given him the address. On the front door of the apartment building, a handwritten sign: DEATH IN FAMILY, GOD RELIEVE OUR GRIEF. Beside the elevator button to Adele’s floor, an adhesive label that reads CAPGRAS. It’s the name of a delusion in which a person believes a close family member has been replaced by an identical impostor. Something like this happens in the movie, when Caden casts himself (Sammy gets the role) with Hazel, Claire, and others in his sprawling play. In order, he says, to “delve into the murky, cowardly depths of my lonely, fucked-up being”.

What I haven’t seen pointed out anywhere is the significance of Caden’s first name – allusive and elusive. “Caden” sounds very like “cadence”, which Merriam-Webster defines as a “concluding and usually falling strain” in music. Pluralize and it’s even closer. Cadens. We are all Cadens.

The toilet in my 1970s apartment didn’t work, and my landlord wouldn’t fix it, so I peed in the sink. I shat upon newspapers, which I carried – accomplishment steaming inside – to the dumpster. Everyone has to figure out their own life.

*

In Sausalito, I go back three times to re-watch Synecdoche (the fourth time I find it has left town as unceremoniously as Adele). Today I own the DVD. I’ve seen the movie, easily my favorite of any era, 15 or 20 times.

The truth is, I find video of any kind hypnotic.

In movies, we see people from outside, as in real life (unlike in novels and short stories, where we have access to inner worlds). We see each other by using the same organs that look back at us – from organs that are also seeing. No other sense works this way. In seeing we see seers seeing us back, in the moment of their seeing and ours. But I can’t hear you hearing, or feel your experience of my touch, or taste you tasting. I wish I could. “There are nearly 13 million people in the world,” Caden says. “Can you imagine that many people? And none of those people is an extra. They’re all leads in their own stories. They have to be given their due.”

Near the start of the movie, before his life blows up, Caden informs Adele in bed, “I think I have blood in my stool.”

Adele stirs, groggy. “That stool in your office?”

I have a step stool – spattered with paint, its two corrugated-rubber platforms nicked and worn – that belongs to my girlfriend Joyce, an artist. I recognize it as a step stool because I’ve seen other such items of various colors and kinds, with rungs and bars of wood and metal. And now that this step stool has entered my life, I’ll perceive any future implements that I meet for climbing and reaching as somehow inflected by it. Each new one bear within it some of this step stool, just as this step stool bears all of what’s come before. Step stool: the meaning of the words, like the meaning of all words, fade as repeated. Just as, while I study this step stool, Joyce’s, it grows more shadowy and mysterious. Itself yet not itself, partaking of more.

I feel this way about people, too.

Synecdoche's Caden

Synecdoche finishes with 10 minutes of almost miraculous writing. Caden has been given an earpiece by Adele’s neighbor. Through it, Adele’s cleaning lady Ellen Bascomb (Dianne Wiest) – whom Caden has impersonated in order to gain access to Adele’s apartment (and clean it), though he never sights Adele – tells him what to do, as he once asked of Hazel. The director is directed. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone. Encamped (as Ellen) by invitation in Adele’s spare room, Caden physically declines. Then a note by the bed: “Adele died of lung cancer last night. You may stay on if you like.”

Now it is waiting and nobody cares, says the earpiece. And when your wait is over, this room will still exist. It will continue to hold shoes and dresses and boxes, and maybe someday another waiting person, and maybe not. The room doesn’t care either. Caden roams the ruined set of his would-be play, actors collapsed in the streets. Caden has made it complicated; the play is never staged. Too ill and weary to walk, he finds a golf cart.

As the people who adore you stop adoring you, as they die, as they move on, as you shed them, as you shed your beauty, your youth, as the world forgets you, as you recognize your transience, as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one, as you learn there is no one watching you and never was, you think only about driving, not coming from anyplace, not arriving at anyplace, just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, it’s 7:43. Now you are here, it’s 7:44. The version of the screenplay that I bought contains none of this passage, and I like to imagine Kaufman – near the completion of his long, magnificent ordeal – smacking out the words in a fevered rush, near delirium.

*

Thanks to Joyce, I’m not lonely (except in the existential, hurtling-toward-death sense) (though I am a recluse. Joyce, too). I guess I’m no more fucked up – or less – than the next guy. But next year I’ll be 63, the age of Willy Loman and of Vivian Malone Jones when they died, albeit by suicide in Willy’s case. Vivian breathed her last in Atlanta Medical Center, a mile from our apartment.

“You’ve done things,” says Joyce. “Plenty of things.” I jumped out of radio after, deregulated, it turned bland and overpopulated. I took up print journalism as the day job. When newspapers and magazines went dry, I migrated into niche reporting, and today I cover biotechnology: development of drugs that might save the likes of Caden from diseases that so menaced him. I’ve plowed through two marriages, lasting 10 years each. Sired three kids. Watched bureaucrats and savages drain grace from the world. The other day Joyce told me that corporate oafs have co-opted, as they do many handsome words, “cadence” to mean something like “the regular schedule on which things are carried out”.

While I was putting this essay together, we learned of a friend’s bad news. Francis, who survived a liver transplant and traveled to Medellin for replacement of his teeth, was diagnosed with lung cancer at 59. He’s under hospice care. In a text the other day, he said he’s always viewed existence as “a series of human-scaled attempts to bring life to art and vice versa”.

Me, too.

In Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow calls death “the dark backing a mirror needs before we can see ourselves”. British philosopher Raymond Tallis probably had Bellow in mind when he titled his bleak, elegant book, The Black Mirror: Looking at Life through Death. It’s chocked with sentences such as, “Those who live by the grace of chance, packets of order in a universe that cannot even judge itself as chaotic, must accept the inevitable.” Just before they sleep (she permanently), Caden says to Hazel, “I’m aching for it to be over.” She says, “The end is built into the beginning.”

Well, I’m next, soon enough. I ache for it not to be over until I can “do something important while I’m still here,” as Caden tells his therapist.

Before she drifted away, my agent – I had an agent once, in New York, film buff – told me she wasn’t able to sit through Synecdoche. That movie really needed an editor, she said. What would an editor have done to such an intricately formed narrative? Smoothed out, I guess, its switchbacks and cross references, made of the helix a taut ribbon: linear, reassuring, false.

Tallis again: “The dead are in competition with the living and with other dead for the wayward attention of those who are busy living rather than remembering, shaping their own futures rather than preserving others’ pasts. And the forgetful living will in their turn be forgotten, elbowed aside by the coming horde…”

Some nights I lie awake and listen to the tick and sigh as the air conditioning turns on and off. I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s too late in the game to have these problems. I think of the Richardson Bay houseboats – tide high or low? – and of their lights, of the ocean smell, its foamy whisper, of how fog feels on skin. Of it all going on without me.

 

Randy Osborne

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Randy Osborne lives in Atlanta, where he writes essays by night and reports on biotechnology by day. His work has appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. You can find his other projects at www.randyosborne.com.    

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 10th, 2017.