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HURT TALK

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By D. J. Lee

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The Montréal Review, February 2013

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Poster-Art from Some Girl(s), No Rules Theatre Company

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(AT RISE we see CASSI, mid-forties, in her salon. The salon is small and upscale, with four workstations. MAUDE, also mid-forties, sits at one of the stations in a cape while CASSI combs MAUDE's hair.)

MAUDE

I'm at a stage where I'm bored with my hair. I know this happens in a grow-out, and I love my short hair sooooo much, and I think, why in the hell do I fight it? Why do I even try to grow it, y'know? But I curl it with curlers, and I'm getting this clump right here? This clump. And I'm going to Florida tomorrow with Scott, and I'm like, I want to be pretty, and I'm not.

CASSI

Your therapist told you to dump him.

MAUDE

We've been planning this vacation; he has an alibi for his wife, y'know, and I can't decide what to do with my hair. Tell me what to do-

CASSI

You should dump him.

MAUDE

Tell me I should cut it; I need you to say that.

CASSI

I ain't telling you what to do with your hair. That's personal.

* * *

Neil LaBute is one of America's most successful living playwrights. He also directs indie and Hollywood films. Chances are, even if you haven't heard of him, you recognize the people he has worked with--Ed Harris, David Duchovny, Amanda Peet, and Gwyneth Paltrow. And you probably know of the playwrights that have influenced him such as David Mamet and Tennessee Williams. Like his predecessors, LaBute creates characters who are psychologically damaged, but what distinguishes LaBute is his obsessive focus on misogyny. It's hard to find a LaBute play that doesn't feature a man who has cruelly dumped a woman and a woman who has never gotten over it. This is a problem if you accept that playwrights and directors dictate our literary tastes as much as they reflect them.

I've been following LaBute's work for some time. In Chicago, where I live half of the year, I attend his plays at a small theater called Profiles. In recent years, I've seen reasons to be pretty, Fat Pig, and In a Forest Dark and Deep. After each viewing, I crawl into bed and toss in a restless sweat as I replay some of the more disturbing scenes and wonder: His plays represent everything I despise, so why do I keep coming back for more? I have finally decided that I am puzzling through that age-old question of the line between truth and fiction.

Yet it wasn't until I saw Some Girl(s) several years ago that I confronted the issue head on. The play opens with Guy (ahem) and his high school girlfriend in a hotel room twenty years after their breakup, where he badgers her into confessing that she hasn't gotten over him and then takes sick pleasure in watching his ex relive the pain, which he later works into his fiction. One reason why the scene resonated with me is that Guy and his ex attended the fictional Central Valley High, and Central Valley is the real high school that LaBute and I went to, where he dumped my best friend Cassi in a way similar to Guy. Was LaBute using Cassi to write this play just as his fictional Guy was using his ex to write fiction? If so, LaBute had it wrong and I needed to tell him.

* * *

It was in high school that I went on the pill for the first time because my boyfriend said, "I'm going to marry you." When he dumped me, for my best friend, I was so traumatized that I couldn't stop crying. My mother, who was genuinely worried, drove me around the neighborhood at midnight searching for the errant couple, but we never found them. For several weeks, she fed me whiskey at bedtime so that I could sleep.

It was right after my breakup that I met Cassi, who was, and is, naturally slender with bone-blond hair and earthy brown eyes. LaBute-whose name was meaningless to me then-had just dumped her, but it was my heartache that we talked about during lunch as we walked around the football field every noon. I still remember how empowered I was by her stance on romantic rejection. She didn't internalize it, let it demoralize her, or even strengthen her, in the sense of using it to cultivate a position of revenge. It's a stance that has even guided my literary tastes since. In my job as a professor of nineteenth-century literature, two of my favorite characters are Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet. Both are rejected by suitors-Emma by Frank Churchill and Elizabeth by George Wickham-yet both are just fine with it. "I hate having to dump people," Cassi has said. "I'd much rather be dumped than do the dumping."

Cassi's life has confirmed this. A few years after LaBute, she met Steve, who proposed. "I don't want kids," she said at the time. "Ever." Steve said it wasn't a problem. They married and built a posh home on Lake Coeur d'Alene, bought original art, and traveled. And then Steve turned forty. After he returned the beer keg from the birthday party that Cassi threw, he sat her down at their leaded glass table. "I don't wanna be an old fart and not have kids to take care of me," he said. If she didn't agree to get pregnant, they would have to consider breaking up.

Cassi agonized about it. She wanted to stay in the marriage, but because her mother had neglected her and therefore had not provided a strong role model, she felt she was not in a position to be a good mother. So she told Steve no, she had meant what she said all those years ago. It turned out to be the right choice. When he started divorce proceedings, she found out that he already had another woman pregnant at the time he delivered the pregnancy ultimatum to her.

After high school, Cassi went to beauty school and opened a salon in Spokane. I earned a PhD and took a job at Washington State University, and during the academic year I live about an hour from her shop. I visit her often for haircuts and for other reasons too. Years ago, for example, when I started trying to write fiction, I found myself recording overheard dialogue. In coffee shops, department stores, fitness centers, or faculty meetings, I'd jot down what people were saying to get a feel for how diction and rhythm convey meaning.

Few places, I soon discovered, have better dialogue than the salon, and so I began spending afternoons at Cassi's just listening, as if the salon was a stage and I was an understudy. I was startled by how, with Cassi, people cut straight to their deepest emotions. One woman talked about how she was a Christian and didn't believe in premarital sex, but she hadn't been with a man since her divorce, and so she caved in when her date slipped off her underwear one evening in front of the fire. Another admitted to stalking her new boyfriend's ex-wives-three of them-at their various workplaces, the public library, the Ford dealership, and the bra department at JCPenney. Again and again, and perhaps not surprisingly, women talked about men who resemble LaBute's depraved male characters:

ANDREA

I'm at the basketball game, just standing there, and this guy comes up and says, "Hi." I was like, who's that? Well, do you remember when that teacher from Colville was brought in on porno? It was him!

CASSI

He was a coach or something-

ANDREA

I knew he was out of prison, because the news made a big deal about it. But I didn't know where he was living, if he was still in Colville, or what. Did you ever see the pictures of the woman who was suing him?

CASSI

Yeah.blonde with the skinny legs-

ANDREA

That clip was everywhere . He was like six-foot-six or seven, and she was walking out in front of him, and he was coming out of a door behind her like a monster.

* * *

One day, as I sat at Cassi's station getting a haircut, she opened a New Yorker and handed it to me. It was a review of LaBute's film Nurse Betty. "Read this," she said.

"If you were in search of sugar-dusted innocence," I began, "LaBute would be the last man in the world to ask. His earlier films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, were comedies of cool-blooded monstrosity, crawling with predatory males."

"Do you remember Neil?" she asked. Up to that point, I hadn't remembered, nor had I seen his work. "He's some kind of famous writer or something," she said. "I guess he writes really weird, crazy, off-the-wall shit." As she slid two fingers along a triangle of my hair, she began free associating about who he was, as if she was trying to process it all.

She and LaBute had gone to summer camp in Montana, she remembered. Once back in Spokane, LaBute started taking her to the movies at the Magic Lantern. "We'd sit in the back and not even watch them because he'd want to be making out. He was really into kissing," she said. "When summer was done, he quit calling. At school that year I would talk to him in the halls, and I saw him with some other girl and he was all mashing on her and I thought wow, I guess he's into her now."

"My god," I said. "I had no idea."

"Yup, he just dumped me without one word said. After he dumped me for her, he dumped her for some other girl."

LaBute was the first guy to dump Cassi, and for that reason, she told me that day, he made her realize what a relief it was to have a man you felt ambivalent about break it off before you had to.

* * *

I directed high school and community theater early in my career and I teach an eclectic mix of drama at my university: Shakespeare, Webster, Marlowe, Ibsen, Synge, Churchill, O'Neill, Williams, and Pinter. Although I had not seen a LaBute play up to that point, Cassi's reintroducing me to him in her salon that day sent me on a mission. Her stoicism in the face of romantic rejection had always been an inspiration to me, and she had first understood this quality about herself through LaBute's treatment of her. Since then, he had become famous for writing about the gender wars. But was there a Cassi in his cast of characters? I had to know.

I started with the film that defined LaBute, In the Company of Men, in which two guys in an office building pretend to be in love with a deaf secretary, each begging her to go out with them, so that she thinks she's suddenly desirable, but then they get together and laugh about how they're emotionally destroying her in order to get back at all women. Over a seven-year period, I attended his plays at Profiles in Chicago, saw the movies he directed, like A.S. Byatt's Possession, and, when I couldn't see the plays, I read most-though not all-of them. Over and over, I found, the men are cruel jerks and the women are distastefully weak.

Until finally, I went to see Some Girl(s). By that point, I was hoping to discover some development in LaBute's characters-if not the men, then the women. But nothing had changed. After the main character Guy revisits his high school girlfriend, he roams the country meeting up with others he has dumped. He's not attempting to "right some wrongs," as he lies to one of his exes. No, he's out to mine his ex-girlfriends' emotions for his writing career by watching them relive the pain of the original breakup. In the final scene, we discover that he has been using a digital device, hidden under a lamp, to record their conversation so that he can repurpose it for his fiction.

The ending suggests that drawing on personal material is the work of any writer, as I admittedly am doing in this essay. Yet LaBute, in many an interview, insists that he makes up everything, that his personal life and politics play no role in his scripts. Other times he admits to blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction. Some of his reviewers have wondered if LaBute portrays monstrous men as an act of revenge against his own father, an abusive asshole who snapped at random moments. LaBute says that he learned to be quiet, to listen, and to keep his finger on the emotional pulse of the household, which has helped him in his current line of work as a playwright.

As I thought about Some Girl(s) after I saw the production, questions simmered: If, as a woman, you feel relieved that someone has dumped you, or even indifferent, as Cassi did with LaBute, and later with her husband Steve, does that mean you lack emotion? Or, is this just a mature and emotionally elegant way to face the fact that relationships end? If so, why is it so difficult for a man to imagine-especially one who represents a major voice for my generation-a breakup from a self-possessed woman's point of view? Would LaBute ever write a Cassi-or an Emma or Elizabeth Bennet-into his work?

I needed to ask him. But how? I'm not a stalker type (although, if you're reading this essay, you may find that hard to believe), and I'm actually quite shy. Still, I did the Google searches, hunting for his agent or publicist, and came up with nothing. Finally, a year after I saw Some Girl(s), Profiles suddenly advertised a special "Night with Neil LaBute" in exchange for a pricey ticket.

The theater-a sixty-five-seat black box-was packed that night. After LaBute read from his work, the evening dissolved into wine and cheese while ticket holders mingled, waiting for the chance to talk to him. I hovered in the background, sizing him up: He was furry and hunched, and he'd gained at least 150 pounds since high school. His specs were a half-inch thick. How strange, I thought, that I probably had better eyesight. He was waving his hand and swaying as he talked to a small clutch of women, answering them in an earnest voice. He was not acting arrogant, as I had expected, or bored, as I guessed he might feel at these author meet and greets, where he probably got the same inane questions over and over. I moved in a little closer, as if I had a bag of his secrets he didn't know about. As I crouched at his side-I'm a full foot shorter-bobbing my head so as to create some movement that would get his attention, I caught a whiff of his BO; he smelled gummy and sweet, like Thai food. Finally, he turned his head my way and sniffed the air, as if he could smell me too.

"Hi," I said. LaBute turned, peeked over his specs, and stuck out his hand, which was pudgy and soft, like a baby's. I started feeling light-headed, stymied by my inability to think. Was I going to chicken out? That would be very un-Cassi-like. I was going to say it: Can you create a different kind of woman?

ME

I've been following your work, and I keep looking for a female character who is completely indifferent to a male character who has dumped her. Am I ever going to find that?

LABUTE

(crosses his arms and rests them on his large belly)

Keep looking (laughs). Although there would probably be trouble if you did find her. I don't want to believe that people would be indifferent to that. That's a tough thing to go through. I think I'm able to act emotions far better on the page than I am in life, but there are many characters that I wish I were a little closer to, and some of them are female characters, because I think they're actually stronger and more assertive people than I find myself being.

(I nod. LaBute pauses and looks toward the ceiling, thinking.)

You know, it's hard to be impervious to someone breaking up with you, cheating on you, lying to you. So, I don't know that you'll find that kind of impervious character.

ME

I just wondered because I graduated from Central Valley and you dated my best friend.

LABUTE

(speaking with great enthusiasm and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose)

Oh really?! Who would that be?

ME

Cassi Nelson.

LABUTE

(raises one hand to his face and strokes his beard)

Yeah, I remember her.

A raven-haired woman spoke up from behind me. "There's been so much written about your alleged misogyny," she said to LaBute, cutting me off. "And these guys you write about, they are just so vivid-and I hope this doesn't sound stupid-but, I'd like to know, as a gender, are you all just like this on a certain level?" Her eyes sparkled. For all her talk of misogyny, she was flirting with him!

"Let's put it this way," LaBute said. "I don't think what I do is documentary work, right? The world that I need to deal with as a writer, as a director, is the world of the possible. Is it possible for this guy to exist and have this experience with these people? That's all that matters. Is it probable? I don't give a shit." LaBute smiled at his own glibness, and then said, with irony: "Get 'em early and train 'em. Food is good. Bright colors work."

At home in bed that night, I felt more confused than ever. LaBute was funny. He was open. He mocked himself. He took his writing seriously. How could I not admire that? But his plays always sent me to the same place; even his strong female characters are weak women. Why wouldn't he write another kind of woman? Didn't he have an obligation to do so?

It's a question I'm still asking, and the only answer I've been able to come up with is that such women are complicated, and writing a more complex female character might throw off his focus on male misogyny.

* * *

The next time I visited Cassi, a woman sat in her chair covered in a plastic cape, round as a hot-air balloon. As Cassi painted a concoction into the woman's graying scalp, I told her about meeting LaBute and my obsession with his work. I was pretty upset. It was as if we were reliving the discussions around the football field about my breakup in high school.

"I agree with his basic premise," Cassi said, to my surprise. "It's true. There's a ton of needy women out there. It's those women; they always feel hurt. But if you get somebody who has a little bit of self-confidence. I see some women who say, 'I'm fine with being dumped,' or, 'It probably should have happened a long time ago.' It really is okay not to have a man validate you."

"He remembered you," I said.

"Isn't he really fat now?" She put a clear plastic cap on the woman's head.

"Yeah," I said. "But he's more of a gentle giant."

For a several years, I kept returning to the salon and listening to Cassi and her women. It gave me some satisfaction to know that even if LaBute won't (or can't) create a woman who handles romantic rejection without falling apart, such women exist in his own hometown.

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D.J. Lee is Professor of literature and creative writing at Washington State University. She has published numerous articles and edited three collections focused on the literature and history of the 19th century. She is author of three scholarly books, Romantic Liars: Obscure Women Who Became Imposters and Challenged an Empire; Literature, Science, and Exploration in the Romantic Era: Bodies of Knowledge; Slavery and the Romantic Imagination. Currently, she is editing a collection of essays called Personal Stories/Public Lands for Oxford University Press and working on a travelogue/memoir/history of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana. D.J. Lee received the Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship, a National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship by the American Council of Learned Societies.

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