Moon #1: “Playing the Hand You’re Dealt”
“I’m going to bore you to tears with the very heart of me.”
About halfway through the first installment of Mike Daisey’s All the Face of the Moon, he uses the quote above to liken his monologing to a kind of therapy. It’s a bizarre relationship from his perspective, wherein he talks and talks about his inner life and we, like disinterested analysts, listen along in the dark. But he is wrong – we couldn’t be more enthralled by Daisey and his signature brand of storytelling. In fact, upon listening to this first part, the advantages of joining him for a 29-part theatrical epic become immediately apparent.
At once the looming specter of elapsed stage time, the true enemy of all live performances, seems to vanish. After all, whenever you check your watch while seeing a play, it isn’t because you are done with the play. It is because the play isn’t done with itself in what you feel is a reasonable amount of time, and you have become bored. But here we cannot be bored, because we have no frame of reference for such a staggering length — we don’t know how much material he ought to have covered at any given point. Decompressed into a month-long, 29-part experience, All the Faces of the Moon forces you to forget everything you know about “stage time” elapsing; even more so for those of us listening in intermittently while we do the dishes or work out.
Daisey devotes the first half hour to carefully setting the scene – both the physical environs of various neighborhoods in New York and his own emotional landscape as he prepares to embark on this mega-narrative. Daisey’s usual sly comedy is in full evidence, never more so than in a segment in which he likens himself to an intelligent bear. If only, he muses, he could somehow market his monologues as being performed by a bear, he’d have a lot less work to do as far as crafting his complex narratives. People would just sit back and marvel at the talking bear, he says. But I don’t think Daisey is giving himself enough credit here. The way he talks – and seriously just talks, because allegedly there is no script for these monologues beforehand – is at least as remarkable as a talking bear, if not a little more so. Daisey’s stories take their shape in the sound of his voice and the intricacy of his descriptions; like the veneer of filth he describes over a city block on St. Marks Place or the peculiar texture he feels on the finish of a tarot card. Especially in this long format, divorced from the immediate need for story progression, Daisey’s gift for summoning up places that have become “Disneylands of themselves” and the awkwardness that hangs between two people in a room has never been stronger. At one point, while talking about the way people talk about their dreams, Daisey actually comes pretty close, I think, to describing the magic of what he does:
The thing about dreams is that they’re not interesting to other people. There’s a very simple reason and that’s because they’re not stories. They’re not narrative. They’re the flotsam and jetsam that have been pulled up from the depths of the subconscious. So when you actually tell them, you’re pulling together creatures that were never meant to live in this world.
As he says, it is not the blank facts of his stories that are interesting , but the way Daisey pulls them together that gives them their compelling, otherworldly shape. And so, Daisey takes his time summoning up the “flotsam and jetsam” of his story, pointing to the parts of his neighborhood in Brooklyn that have been recently renovated by “the small man and his army of bureaucrats,” before shifting to matters of more weight. Namely, the moment when he awakens after a failed suicide attempt and must truly confront his own mortality. An early morning walk to the building where Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America and a reflection on Kushner’s delicate crafting of that play seem to suggest that Daisey’s depression comes in the wake of the ordeal surrounding his Steve Jobs play. “I had my hands on it,” he says of that story, “and I felt them burn me.”
But in spite of that burn, or perhaps because of it, Daisey makes the decision to continue on. In the final moments, he conjures up a chillingly familiar image of a pale rider on a horse – the literary avatar of death itself – clopping across the river. Escaping this encounter with a creature that truly never was meant to live in this world, Daisey ends this segment by deciding that he himself was.