Self-Salvation, Structure, and Sex Part I: Intertextuality in Jess Walter’s “Famous Actor”
We’re thrilled to publish another two-part series by Candace Walsh! You can find her two-part essay on Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt in the archives. Beginning here with Jess Walter’s “Famous Actor,” Walsh explores intertextuality in two contemporary short stories. Look for Part II on Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” in October. —CRAFT
By Candace Walsh •
In Jess Walter’s “Famous Actor” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” the authors use intertextuality as a structural element: a rhythmic, outside-of-time interruption of the chronological main story. Simultaneously, each of the female narrators employ intertextuality to grapple with and subvert male expectations in romantic contexts. Intertextuality, in this context, alludes to the referencing, retelling, or summarizing by narrators, within the short stories, of external narratives. In “Famous Actor,” café-server and narrator Katherine summarizes and capsule-reviews films. She brings a famous actor home from a party, and nonchalantly has sex with him, yet he wants more: her deepest thoughts. Carmen Maria Machado folds urban myths into her narrator’s coming of age story: the narrator falls in love with a man and gives him everything, except permission to touch or untie the green ribbon encircling her neck. Each of these women keep secrets to protect themselves, in direct opposition to their lovers’ expectations. In these stories, intertextuality serves as a fortress. And not all fortresses withstand protracted sieges.
In Jess Walter’s “Famous Actor,” intertextuality contributes to an accordion-like structure which alternates between character interactions in scene and movie summaries. The story is narrated by Katherine, a hard-to-impress young woman who lives in Bend, Oregon, and works in a coffee shop. At the beginning of the story, she goes along with being picked up at a party by the unnamed famous actor. She can only see him through the lens of his media output. “It was weird staring into those pale blues, eyes I’d known for years, eyes I’d seen in, what, fifteen or sixteen movies, in a couple of scenes of TV, staring out from magazine covers.”
Although the actor seems like an uncomplicated stereotype, Katherine is a complicated romantic lead. Walters uses intertextual interruptions, presented as Katherine’s thoughts, to characterize her and add dimension to the story: she summarizes and reviews eight of the movies, blog-style. A pattern arises: the actor says something about wanting to have a genuine experience, and she eludes his desire for intimacy by thinking about one of his thematically related movies.
As they leave the party, Katherine thinks about Fire in the Hole, in which his character, a soldier, dies. His last line “becomes one of those unintentional laugh lines.” Like the film’s unintended afterlife, as he tries to navigate her world, he instead comes off as a joke. At her apartment, the actor says, “It’s so great to just be in, like, a fucking apartment! Right? You know? A real place?” She knows all too well what it’s like to be in an apartment; he’s only emphasizing how different he is from her and most people, while tacitly expecting her to act otherwise.
She thinks about Amsterdam Deadly in which the actor plays a UN investigator who falls in love with and romances a “beautiful blond South African lawyer.” Like the previous movie reference, there’s an echo to what’s happening between them. Katherine and the actor have “straight missionary paint-by-numbers sex.” They share a cigarette and he brings up wanting to be “a regular guy” which leads to her thinking about his movie Big Bro, a commercial hit, when he played a nice, studious fraternity brother. “I think when an actor exudes such charm we assume the character must be close to his real self…he could just as easily be the selfish loser who raids his senile dad’s retirement account in Forty Reasons for Dying, for instance. We really want to like people, even famous people.” (This foreshadows the theft at the story’s end, when Katherine reveals that the actor cleans out her medicine cabinet before leaving, from Ativan to Gas-X.)
After sex, he continues to dribble out different versions of his normalcy rap, then complains, “I can’t get a read on you.” She admits, “I get that a lot from guys.” He insists, “I need you to tell me what you think of me.” She quotes a line from Big Bro: “You’ll always be my brother.” With this intertextual dialogic intrusion, she again resists authenticity.
Katherine has her reasons. Her sister Meghan ran away when she was thirteen, never to return. Katherine recalls “years of therapy to untangle your difficulty in forming relationships…the depressive periods and suicidal thoughts.”
In Big Bro 2, the actor only appears in a handful of scenes, as he has become famous. This bridge between the movie precis and what’s happening is explicit: “He seems truly apologetic in the seven scenes he’s in…. He had that same sorry look on his face as he sat on the edge of the bed and looked back over his shoulder at me.” In Katherine’s bedroom, the actor breaks down in frustration as he continues to talk about the difficulties of fame. “Always trying to be what people want…Is this how I react to things or how I want people to see me react?…You don’t know how hard that is—to not know yourself!” He might feel this way because he began acting as a child, when he was still becoming himself. Katherine also had a stunted experience growing up, as she was eleven years old when her sister disappeared. If this were a movie, they’d probably bond over it. Instead, they continue to spar with each other. “You have to give me something!” he demands. She instead asks, “What’s my name?” He can’t recall, which justifies her aloofness.
Katherine thinks about her favorite movie of his, Been There, Done That. “He’s great as the gay brother of the heroine, who comes back to her family’s home in 1980s Louisiana with her black boyfriend.” This continues to echo and prefigure their interactions. “The famous actor really turns in a nuanced and smart performance…. I suspect it’s what happens when you work with a great director. But I also think there’s something deeper that he managed to find in himself in that movie.” Right then, he finds “in himself” her name. “Katherine!” Yet she denies it, which pleases her: “I felt okay then, in control of things.”
She again explicitly connects a scene in Been There, Done That to their interaction: “two otherwise decent men confronting their old biases…right before he left, it felt that way in my apartment, too. Genuine. Like we’d come through something.”
After he leaves, she thinks of a movie of his she did not see, Over Tumbled Graves. The film concerns a serial killer, and she avoids those movies because of her missing sister. She avoids a lot because of her missing sister. She’s coping, though within a woefully circumscribed life. Yet we can see how her behavior works for her. Instead of feeling like a cliché, one-night-stand left behind, her wry stance allows her to be amused by the average-dirtbag quality of his drug theft. She is more than reimbursed when a production company representative both pays a visit and pays her off to the tune of $6,000. The non-disclosure agreement forbids her to use the actor’s name; he is unnamed in the story. But then again, she didn’t let him use her name either.
CANDACE WALSH holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College and is a doctoral student in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Ohio University in Athens. She’s the author of Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press), a NM-AZ Book Award winner, and co-edited Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write about Leaving Men for Women and its sequel, both Lambda Literary finalists. Her short story, “The Sandbox Story,” is forthcoming in Santa Fe Noir from Akashic Books. Her essays have been published in New Limestone Review, Ki’n Literary Journal, Fiction Writers Review, and various anthologies. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @candacewalsh.