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The Divided Self 

Shepard up to old tricks

Throughout his career, Sam Shepard's films and written work have been characterized by a quest for a satisfying identity. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986, Shepard has appeared in such films as The Right Stuff, The Pelican Brief, and Fool for Love, and wrote the screenplay for the latter. Over the course of the past several decades, in addition to his film work as a screenwriter, actor, and director, Shepard has written three collections of prose (some also containing poetry) and over 45 plays, while gaining a reputation as one of America's foremost living playwrights -- in 1979, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child.

Filled with absurdity, sorrow, and pitiless humor, Shepard's new collection, Great Dream of Heaven, is powered by a terse eloquence that creates a postmodern identity quest fraught with pitfalls and traps. Many of the characters find themselves often questioning and appraising the authenticity of roles and their need to enact them.

Shepard's characters are never fixed entities, and, by reenacting roles demanded by place, they follow a pattern of dislocation, then isolation, culminating in the desire to enact a role. In the first story, "The Remedy Man," Shepard establishes the pattern by placing the reader in the 1950s Southwest, within the uncomfortable and unhappy relationship of a father and son and the "remedy man" who has come to the family farm to attend to a wounded horse. The father is quickly "dislocated" and alienated by the remedy man who favors the young boy to aid him in his attempt to best the ill-tempered stallion he's come to the farm to "fix."

In "Living the Sign," Shepard extends the idea of dislocation to a fry-cook in a restaurant and a customer who notices under the orange warming heat lamps a twirling handmade cardboard sign that reads, "Life is what's happening to you while you are making plans for something else." After the customer inquires among the entire restaurant staff about who wrote the sign, irritating everyone in the process, a skinny kid in a black cap and long black apron finally speaks up, and what transpires between the two is a Waiting for Godot-ish repartee about the signification of words, the fear of alienation, and the mysteries of life.

Many of Shepard's characters find themselves obsessed by "what might have been" and "what possibly could be," and discover themselves desperately consumed by silences when they're unable to live up to their notions of moments passed and their expectations of the future. Like foreigners in a strange land where they're unable to speak the language, they struggle to come to terms with their own anxieties of identity, attempting to find where they fit in and struggling to understand exactly just where it is they belong.

In "It Wasn't Proust," a story that is constructed and reads like a script for a play, Shepard returns to a pattern delineated in his script for Fool for Love -- the theme of the symbiotic and sado-masochistically enmeshed relationship between a couple that can neither live with nor without each another. Through their incessant banter and uncomfortable silences, the pair struggle with the weight of the past and their need for a "home," searching for that "connection" between themselves and the world around them that they feel they once possessed. But what they find themselves compelled to do, in this vast and largely unhappy space between them, is to run away. Anyone familiar with Shepard's work knows that he always refuses to do what people expect and through this couple's act and dance he reveals that identity is no more nor less than "a mask" blurring the boundary between illusion and reality and that, if you believe strongly enough, anything is possible.

Many of Shepard's stories in this collection resist interpretation of form and structure and, as a result, question preconceived notions and conventions of exactly what a short story is supposed to be. Some might find Shepard's stories too fragmentary, unfinished, and inconclusive, but, in the end, this collection is a haunting exploration of the nature of the divided self, the problematic nature of language and communication, and the artificiality of words.

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