BOOK REVIEW / Still crazy after all these years: 'Impossible Vacation' - Spalding Gray: Picador, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS NOVEL starts alarmingly, before it has even begun. In the dedicatory notes, Spalding Gray (once a performance artist, now an actor) reveals that his agent said to him: 'I think you have a novel in you.' A 1,900-page manuscript is mentioned (whittled down, thankfully, to a prim 228). And when the novel begins, it does so in mid-sentence, with the word 'And'.

Impossible Vacation is a Bildungsroman, Brewster North's narration of his own life story. One of his first memories is of his uncle Jib coming home from the war and giving him a Balinese mask: young Brewster becomes intoxicated with the idea of Bali and obsessed with the possibilities of travel or, rather, the idea of being anywhere else than he is at the moment.

Brewster grows up to the accompaniment of his mother's encroaching insanity. He escapes Vietnam by faking madness; he works in an alternative bookshop, tries to become an actor, and messes around with drugs, although his favourite drug is beer. His mother kills herself, after which the novel deals with Brewster's attempts to cling to sanity. Zen meditation fails for him when he experiences a prolonged attack of pornographic hallucinations. He becomes severely manic-

depressive, barking like a dog through the New York streets. He is about to commit himself to Bellevue (there is a nice joke about his having 'a commitment problem') but backs out when an administrator says he understands artistic types himself, because he plays the clarinet. He travels to Amsterdam, India and Ladakh, and sniffs out the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh when he hears that there's lots of sex involved. Brewster is keen on sex - well, 'Tantric' sex: he even has a go at being a porn movie actor.

Gray became famous as a monologist with Swimming to Cambodia, an account of his experiences as an actor in The Killing Fields, and it's this talent for going on and on and keeping people interested that makes his novel worth reading. But monologues do go on; the insane speak in monologues, which is probably why Gray chose the form in the first place. The novel is episodic, linear but unstructured: it works because of the narrative style, unemphatic, quizzical and persistent, a simple play of consciousness over events. If it sounds like anything at all it sounds like a particularly long and successful session with a therapist. The narration is always sane, but never more so than when dealing with the narrator's insanity.

North's salvation comes when he puts on a personal deconstruction of The Seagull, 'a rambling hodgepodge of mixed emotion, straightforward acting, and a lot of direct autobiographical address'. It certainly puts Gray's nervy, memorable performances, the way in which he is always difficult to pin down, into some kind of context: 'I kept seeing myself as this man I made up.'