Blind Date


The premise of Blind Date is that Mimi, a thirty-something year old French woman recently arrived in town, has been stood up at a bar. She therefore invites a member of the audience to take on the role of her date for the ninety minutes that follow: at the bar, in a car back to her place, at her apartment, and then (if the rest of the audience decides that this is what they want to see) wherever the two of them end up five years later. Last Thursday, at the Vancouver ArtsClub, I was that audience member brought up on stage.

This was not entirely a surprise. I was aware of the general concept in advance, and open to the possibility of taking part. Before the show was due to begin, the actors (as well as Mimi and her date, there are a couple of other roles to play) circulated through the lobby, chatting to audience members and asking them, and whoever they came with–their “real” dates–whether they were willing to be “maybes” for the evening’s performance. Tess Degenstein, the (magnificent) actress playing Mimi, was already in character, trading smalltalk and probing consent. But it was only after we had taken our seats, and the show had started, that the night’s blind date was called upon.

The essence of the show is improvisation, and the recognition that first dates are always a matter of performance: reacting and responding to the person you are meeting; shaping what is hopefully an attractive image of yourself for them; but also (if things go well) helping them to perform well for you. A date is a joint production, and if it goes well it is because both parties have helped that to happen, and helped the other to make it happen, too. A date is successful if you manage to come close to being the best “you” you can be; but also if you allow the other person to be the best “them.” Here, in the theatre, though, the stakes were doubled: I was not only to perform for Mimi; the two of us were also performing for an audience of which I had been, until very recently, a part. But the part that I was now playing distanced me from them, and I felt a responsibility to put on a good enough show, not least for my (real) date, Fiona. If anything, the stakes were tripled, in that I was of course aware that my partner on stage was also acting, and that I should perform for her by picking up on her cues, as we both (presumably) set out in some way to entertain. Was my performance up to the occasion?

The set-up dealt with the split between the actor and their role by establishing that either of us could call a “time out,” and we would step out of our roles and move to a space to the side of the stage, where we could discuss the ground rules and check in with each other (or the audience). But at the same time, one of the principles of the production was that I should “be myself,” with the one proviso that I should pretend that I was single. Similarly, Degenstein afterwards told me that everything she had revealed about herself during the show was true, with the one exception that she is not, in fact, French. We were both, then, playing ourselves; or rather, our selves at but one remove. But isn’t that always the case on a date, for which one of the most important roles we play is authenticity and honesty, but in which we try to be authentic to the person that we would like to be, or like to be seen as being? And what or who that person is depends often on the feedback provided by our partner, who is playing precisely the same game of aspiring to be true to the person that we would want them to be.

A date then fails not so much because we are not who our partner wants us to be (or vice versa), but when we decide that we do not want to be that person. It fails when we are no longer “maybes,” when we no longer want to perform, and substitute being for becoming.

Again, on stage all this was complicated by an uncertainty about who I was performing to: the character (Mimi); the actress (Tess); or the audience. There were plenty of misfires as the two of us tried to establish a rhythm, to figure out where the other wanted to take things, or where they wanted to be taken.

Like a “real” date, the performance is structured by a tension between spontaneity and habit. On the one hand, the show can go anywhere: every night is different; it stretches the practice of improvisation as each time one of the principal characters is taking part for one performance only; we could take the conversation and the outcome (not least in the coda five years into the future) in almost any direction. On the other hand, that “almost” is important: the show is clearly divided into pre-established scenes and set pieces; characters and situations were introduced to which we had to react, from deciding who would pay the bar bill to who would sit where in Mimi’s apartment; there were pathways to choose between rather than complete freedom of choice. In short, the creativity and innovation of improvisation are constrained not only by your partner or audience, but also by the way-stations and routines that help you manage what would otherwise be an abyss of unlimited possibility. Such habits help to manage uncertainty, in life as much as on stage: there will be a bill; the decision to go home or not; to end the night chastely or otherwise. Customs and conventions circumscribe and help to determine all these decision points. Ultimately, every date (every play) comes to one of a limited set of dénouements: tragedy or comedy; satire or farce.

A few days after going to Blind Date, I watched “Bandersnatch” which, with its “Choose Your Own Adventure” format, also encourages audience participation, giving us all a series of choices to exercise, moments of improvisation and creativity, if along pre-determined pathways. Similarly, the Black Mirror episode is different each time; every viewer has the chance to see or experience something that nobody else experiences. But with the TV show, if you don’t like an outcome you can always go back and try again. Not so with the live performance (and not always so with a date!). I admit that over the past few days I have been repeatedly struck with l’esprit d’escalier: things that I might have said or done that could have been better, wittier, more entertaining, or whatever it was that I was searching to be.

At one point in our onstage conversation, while we were still struggling to find common ground, Mimi (or Tess) said that she enjoyed reading. Still unsure about the distance between character and actor, I expected her to mention something French, but she said that one of her favourites was TS Eliot, specifically The Wasteland. You might think this an admission to kill just about any date, but she went on to explain why: that she liked the poem’s multiplicity of voices, even if she didn’t feel she understood the whole thing. I could have said then (but didn’t; I let the cue drop and, I think, mumbled something indistinct) that Eliot’s working title for the work was “He Do the Police in Different Voices”. Which is in turn one of Eliot’s many allusions and references, in this case to Dickens and Our Mutual Friend, to a performance conjured up by one of that novel’s characters from the most mundane and routine of occasions: reading the newspaper; “And I do love a newspaper. You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.” With these voices or voicings, as well as with all the other citations and references that pepper Eliot’s poem and make it, indeed, so intimidating and difficult, is an attempt to give a sense of life and wonder to the everyday, to keep us on our toes and think critically about the roles we are constantly performing so that they are not completely overtaken by habit.

Blind Date is not The Wasteland. Far from it, and that is no doubt a good thing, too. But I liked the way in which playful improvisation and high modernism briefly and unexpectedly met in that moment, in a space of equally unlikely and apparently contradictory encounters: between performance and authenticity, innovation and habit. Because in the end that is what we want from a date: a flicker of improbable and eye-opening connection; a surprise or two, just as Mimi (and perhaps Tess), and the audience (and definitely I), had no idea what we were getting into.

The Long Night of White Chickens

Too many novels in English about Latin America are disappointing. Sometimes that is because they try too hard to mimic the magical realism that is supposed to be the signature trait of the region’s literary culture. An egregious example would be Louis de Bernières’s “comic” first novel, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts. Other times the problem is that the writer over-earnestly tries to show the impact of political violence on men and women who are portrayed as pure victims, nobly struggling for their rights until they are senselessly cut down by state terror. In the Belly of the Horse leans in this direction. Either way, such representations portray the region in terms of simple alterity: exotic or abject.

goldman_long-nightFrancisco Goldman’s The Long Night of White Chickens dodges both traps, even though its title seems to promise some kind of sub-García Márquez fare and its theme, a murder investigation at the height of Guatemala’s dirty war, might indicate anguished pleas for social justice. But it turns out that the “long night of the white chickens” is something of a MacGuffin, a plot device to incite intrigue that ultimately does not really matter in itself. The plot’s focus constantly shifts, as rumors swirl and hopes are raised and then dashed in a country in which (we are repeatedly told) everything is uncertain and nobody is to be trusted. And in some ways even the murder that drives so much of the narrative is a red herring. Classic detective stories tell the tale of social order disrupted by violent death and then restored by means of the private eye’s rational deductions and clear-sighted refusal to be deceived or distracted. Here, we come to see that solving the murder mystery would bring us no closer to resolving the problem of Guatemala’s endemic violence, corruption, and chaos. If anything, the investigation only makes things worse. So we are not surprised that at the end, when the truth that he has long been seeking appears finally to be in sight, the narrator simply gives up and goes home.

Yet the concept of “home” is complicated in Goldman’s book. The narrator in question, Roger Graetz, is the son of a Guatemalan mother and a (Jewish) American father, who grows up near Boston but is regularly sent down to take summer school in a private academy in Guatemala City. The murder victim, Flor de Mayo Puac, takes an opposite trajectory: plucked from a Guatemalan orphanage by Graetz’s maternal grandmother, she is raised with Roger in New England in an uncertain role that is neither exactly family member nor precisely maid; she returns to Guatemala where she comes to direct an orphanage of her own, but after her death Roger and his father take her body to be buried in the USA. It is then the third of the trio of major characters who is the most fully Guatemalan: Luis Moya was once a friend of Roger’s at the academy, becomes a celebrated but controversial journalist, gets to know Flor shortly before her death and helps Roger in his quest to track down her killer but even he cannot stay as in the end he is forced into exile in Mexico. Indeed, with its running themes of travel, adoption, migration, and exile, the novel puts dislocation center stage and asks us to consider the relations between these different forms of displacement.

My student Upasana Thakkar has recently finished a dissertation in which she comments on the links between this novel and the testimonio genre. Guatemala is, after all, the land of Rigoberta Menchú. And among the travellers to Guatemala are a procession of “Sweet Sisters of Solidarity” (323), such as the “singular and exceptional Laura Moore” who would return home “with her suitcases packed with the cassette recordings and typed testimonies of victims who [. . .] no matter how much their tragic tales resembled the hundreds of others Laura had already discreetly listened to and transcribed, always made actual warm tears slide down from her reddened blue eyes” (375). This is the easy affect that Goldman tries to avoid. He is skeptical about how much you can learn about someone and their situation simply from letting them speak–and asks us who benefits from such displays of solidarity.

The titular “long night of the white chickens,” for instance, turns out to refer to an evening of intense conversation between Moya and Flor. Over dinner and rum at a Chinese restaurant, the two of them seem to share intimate confidences, as Moya employs all his highly-honed listening skills: “detective, anthropologist, father confessor, and seducer all at once” (374). But when they get up to leave, after the other diners have gone home and as the restaurant receives its late-night delivery of live chickens for the next day’s meals, Flor tells Moya: “It was scary in a way, kind of awful, playing along with you like that. Pretending to tell you everything. I ended up feeling all on the surface” (399). No connection can be trusted; everything is an act.

Without ever relativizing or attempting to excuse away the violence (and thankfully, the novel has very little in the way of political moralizing or grandstanding), Goldman suggests a complex web of complicities in which purity and innocence are inevitably illusions. Moya only half-jokingly tells Flor that she “will make a wonderful saint” (275), and at first glance she is the pristine subaltern victim, brutally murdered when her only crime is to be seeking a better life for her unfortunate charges. But by the end we might be starting to think (however guiltily) that in some way she brought her fate upon herself. That is, if it is not Moya himself, fiercely independent journalist and one of the few in the country who dares to speak truth to power, who might prove indirectly responsible thanks to a brief lapse in his careful self-regulation. As for Roger, who betrays Moya in his youth by backing out of a dare that was supposed to seal the friendship between the two of them, he is an ambivalent figure, milquetoast and self-involved, whose feelings towards Flor are thoroughly conflicted: part guilt, part adoration, part quasi-incestuous desire.

There is a lot to this novel, whose plot shifts between narrative points of view and across a series of non-linear jumps forwards and backwards in time, governed by memory, conversation, nostalgia, but also a thriller writer’s deft handling of suspense. Yet this formal complexity also obscures the fact that in some ways very little happens in it. Indeed, often what does not happen turns out to be more significant than what does: it is structured by a succession of missed opportunities and oversights, trails that go nowhere as well as connections that cannot be established. Its repeated refrain is the phrase that Moya takes from a French thriller and passes on to Roger, somewhere between shallow witticism and deep regret: “Guatemala doesn’t exist.” To which is sometimes (but not always) added: “and I know, because I have been there” (27). There is no “there” there, otherness is a product of the imagination, and yet only painful experience ratifies a nebulous nothingness that cannot quite be pinned down.

Meanwhile, time marches on, for the book’s temporal trickery cannot fully negate the fact that time passes and there is no going back. Towards the end, Roger finds himself on a cross-country bus, but is repeatedly indecisive about where he will get off and so extends his ticket over and over until the bemused conductor pronounces him “more lost than the Wandering Jew” (426). At the end of the book, he is still lost, still in movement, but perhaps a little less deceived about the virtues of undeception.