Steven Soderbergh’s 2010 compilation documentary And Everything Is Going Fine assembled a sensitive, affectionate oral autobiography of sorts out of performances and interviews by late actor and monologist Spalding Gray. Fine stitches together a life publicly offered up many times in candid but designed-to-be-likeable form. Those willing to brave a far less cuddly image of the celebrated writer—who commited suicide in 2004—will be drawn to the posthumous publication of his journals, but whether they serve any real purpose besides gratifying morbid fans is another question.
Heroically whittled down from 5,000 pages by writer Nell Casey, whose sympathetic interpolations and summations of every decade help organize the often unfocused and fragmentary entries, Gray’s journals are relentlessly sexually fixated, from the quotidian (“back to Ivan’s to masturbate with little feeling and taking a long time to come—forced”) to other people’s subconscious images of him (“Renée woke from all these strange dreams, me with two cocks, front and back, one for affairs”). Above all else, the journals serve as relentless chronicles of often-bruising relationships with Gray’s collaborator/lover Liz LaCompte, first wife Renée Shafransky, and final partner Kathleen Russo, in which Gray’s self-flagellating self-reproof for ill-treatment of his partners is the major recurring motif. “The double bind hazard of my work is this,” Gray writes in 1992: “the audience applauds my assholeness which is transcended by my ability to tell it. So I only fly above it all when I’m performing.” Stripped of the wit, perspective, and self-editing of his stage work, Gray’s problems aren’t especially compelling, often boiled-down to all-caps bouts of rage, as when describing his book Impossible Vacation as “SOLIPSISTIC NARCISSISTIC SELF-INDULGENT PIECE OF POOP.”
When not mired in depression or self-flagellation, Gray’s perception and verbal facility shines through: His 1980 description of Sam Shepard as “Sam the moral Western man with two horses and a leather jacket and cowboy hat on the seat of his truck car” is unimprovable. But in spite of the stream of famous names passing through, The Journals’ raging self-indictment is a repetitive, grinding slog. Casey carefully annotates material that made it into Gray’s monologues, underlining changes or softenings made in the process. Russo invoked John Cheever’s journals in interviews, and they’re cited in the journal entires, but Gray’s oft-fragmentary, grammar-unconcerned ramblings are nothing like Cheever’s published, authorly musings. “Hindsight,” Gray notes at one point, “is the only sight that I’m aware of.” His collected Journals keenly illustrate why some readers might want to keep on viewing his life from that perspective.