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Theatre Novel: Joseph Scapellato’s THE MADE-UP MAN

 

By Mike Corrao •

 Joseph Scapellato’s The Made-Up Man, released in February by FSG, centers on the protagonist, Stanley’s participation in an exploitative performance piece coordinated by his wealthy Czech-based uncle. Invited to apartment-sit in Prague, Stanley bears witness to various actors’ reenactments of his past mistakes and failures. These events are framed by a discreetly theatrical aesthetic. Each chapter is not a chapter, it is a scene. Each title is not a title, it is an instruction: “13. Stanley Recalls the Last Time He Talked to Manny,” or “48. Stanley Controls Himself.” These third-person statements are followed by Stanley’s first-person recollections. Here, the novel takes on a metafictional position, in which the content becomes subject to what the title has demanded of it. As if Stanley has seen what the book has said about him and feels a need to respond. Or as if he feels the need to validate himself. Or as if he is held prisoner by these textual constraints. In this way, the relationship between the scene and scene-title is theatrical. They speak to one another as if onstage performing for an audience. The book itself a document for recording their dialogues. Like a Greek Chorus, the scene-titles frame and contextualize Stanley’s thoughts and experiences. The protagonist becomes an instrument of sorts. Where his purpose is less about self-discovery and more about performing the plot that he has been placed within.

The scene-titles are tasked with holding the novel onto its rails. They very deliberately lead Stanley to certain conclusions. And for the most part, Stanley obeys. He performs what has been summarized. But some episodes require a stronger hand. Late into the story, Stanley is held hostage by the novel. Scene 74 repeats itself until the desired truths have been revealed and accepted.

  1. Stanley Corrects his Observation
  2. Stanley Corrects his Observation
  3. Stanley Corrects his Observation
  4. Stanley Corrects his Observation
  5. Stanley Corrects his Observation
  6. Stanley Corrects his Observation
  7. Stanley Corrects his Observation
  8. Stanley Corrects his Observation

There is only one plot that The Made-Up Man intends on performing. Each check must be marked. And if one has been missed, the machine cannot continue until its mistakes have been corrected. The character must do what has been demanded.

In its back cover copy, The Made-Up Man is coded with terms such as “existential noir” and “absurdist comedy,” which suggest a desire to appear next to the work of writers such as Camus and Sartre. On that scale, Scapellato’s novel is more No Exit than Stranger. It depicts frustrations induced by the etiquettes of performance. The structure alludes to some greater and more complex entity manipulating the protagonist’s actions. It exists inside of him. “It was a space at the center of myself that wasn’t me.” Stanley denotes a separation between himself, “myself,” and “itself.” He attempts to dissect these categories of being, determining what he considers to be part of his identity and what he considers to be something else that has manifested inside of him. As if afflicted by an unconscious awareness of his circumstances, Stanley attempts to diagnose the novel’s influence over him. He distinguishes his thoughts (himself) from his actions (myself) from the unfamiliar parts of his character (itself). Rather than the divine institution that manipulates the three players of No Exit, Stanley is subject to the whim of Scapellato himself—or to the persona who Scapellato inhabits through these scene-titles. Here, we might say that every character in every novel is subject to the will of the author. They are silhouettes performing as if they were real. Puppets pretending as if they do not have strings. But to bring this metaphor into The Made-Up Man, it is as if the puppets are haunted by each movement they make, knowing that it is motivated by the puppeteer. Stanley suffers from his position as the subject.

When he realizes that he has become the center of his uncle’s performance art, Stanley attempts to enact a praxis of disengagement: “I wanted to refuse to cooperate and I wanted to refuse to allow my actions to be influenced. I wanted total untouchability.” He makes the assumption that his unwillingness will allow him to disengage with the project of the artist. But this betrays the deterministic qualities of the novel—both The Made-Up Man specifically and the novel as a medium. Regardless of what Stanley does, the book will reach its same conclusion. This is obvious to say because near every novel shares this habit. But Scapellato’s project seems to be to contextualize this limitation within the diegesis. The predetermined pathways of the novel exist because the text has demanded it so. The scene-titles have decided upon this pathway and thus it has been taken. There is an identifiable, albeit still abstract, force pulling Stanley from one plot point to the next. It is the Greek Chorus who narrates each revelation and affliction.

Reading this novel, I could not help but feel like the book desired to be dictated rather than read. It is a play with two characters. One who speaks in the third-person and one who speaks in the first-person. As the relationship between these two voices became more complicated, it began to feel as if there was no Prague. No uncle or ex-girlfriend. No complicated plot. There was only an empty stage, the setting of an interrogation. An investigator leading his suspect to conclusions they didn’t want to reach. Where one says, “Stanley Corrects His Observation” and the other replies, “He looked at me with disgust. His disgust surprised me.”

 


MIKE CORRAO is the author of Man, Oh Man (Orson’s Publishing) and Gut Text (11:11 Press). His work has been featured in publications such as The Collagist, Always Crashing, 3:AM, and The Portland Review. He lives in Minneapolis where he earned his BA in film and English literature at the University of Minnesota. Learn more at www.mikecorrao.com