Moon #29: “Last Call”
“Thank you and good night.”
And so, here we are: the end of the line, the very crack of doom itself.
It was peculiar indeed listening to this final episode of Mike Daisey’s monolithic 29-part monologue, All the Faces of the Moon. It was peculiar to hear him speak these words again and to hear the frequent swells of laughter from the audience, knowing that I myself was there, one of the laughing ghosts frozen in time by some recording software two long months ago. At one point near the end of this wholly satisfying conclusion, Daisey repurposes a line from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. I feel like a lot of the meaning has seeped out of The Glass Menagerie over the last 50 years, so this probably could have landed as an achingly clichéd Drama 101 type of reference, but Daisey recharges the passage magnificently:
I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further – for time is the longest distance between places.
Daisey uses the line as a kind of coda to his friendship with Gibbs, which in this story began in high school and encompassed a lot of magic, a lot of pain, and ultimately Gibbs’ death. Twice. But I’ll get back to that. Right now, I’m thinking about that line from Williams in terms of my own listening experience. The ghost of me sitting in that theater? The one laughing on that recording? That was a different person, indeed a long distance from who I am now. This whole project was designed to sync up with one lunar cycle, and being way behind, I listened to this story over the course of four. Within that time, my life has changed pretty drastically. My wife is pregnant again. My grandmother passed away. I’m not saying there’s some cosmic significance to any of that or that the Gordian knot of the Universe closed in tighter while I was listening. No, life happens all the time, so it wasn’t going to stop on account of a podcast I was listening to.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that in listening to this, the sheer length of Daisey’s expansive story has given me an interesting gulf of time – my own time – to look back across. And because I attended a live performance, I can actually listen to the recording and experience a previous version of myself on the other side of that gulf. That’s not how performance usually works. As Daisey says, the performative space is a liminal one. Afterwards, when we feel the hot breath of the future on our necks, we forget. We forget that we were ever there in that space after our lives come back. But here, in a way, we never leave and your lives don’t have to go away; if you are doing the podcast, then the next performance is there for you immediately. And if you also attended one of the live shows, then you’ll always be there waiting for yourself digitally, laughing and clinking your calamari dishes. So let’s put aside the intricacies of Daisey’s story and the deftness of his delivery for a moment. Let’s appreciate the truly astounding way this piece in its entirety interacts with time, technology and the listener. What other theatrical performance could claim to bridge Williams’ “longest distance” so completely, and even put audiences in such direct conversation with their own past selves?
Case in point, here is how I began my rough notes on the live performance of the final episode, knowing that I wouldn’t open the document until I had finished the whole series:
Greetings from the past! I am writing this on October 3rd just an hour after seeing the finale of All the Faces of the Moon live. I was amazed at how little I missed. It was very easy to connect the dots. Except that I basically missed what the fuck was going on. What was the ladder? 9/11, right? The ladder comes out of ground zero? And why is Steve Jobs back? And what did Tesla do?
A little embarrassing maybe, but you have to remember that I had only listened up to episode 14 at the time. As an exercise, I went back and reread all of my previous reviews before getting started on this last one. They are filled with similar flailing questions and swing-and-a-miss speculations. And typos. LOTS of typos. But I think that kind of immediate engagement is what Daisey was after, at least in part. When you are reviewing something episodically, all you can really do is react to conditions on the ground and try to intuit where they’re headed. Sometimes you will be way off. If the people recapping Homeland over at Vulture were able to accurately predict the twists and turns, everyone involved would be out of a job. As a result of not being fully caught up, my initial reaction to the final performance was a little cold. But, to my credit, I did seem to grasp the ultimate significance it would have when I encountered it again on this end. Maybe I’m pulling back the curtain a little too much in sharing this stuff, but here’s more from my rough notes:
It was good, but I was ultimately unmoved. Maybe I prefer Daisey as a voice? No, it was nice to see him. His presence is substantial. I felt the thickening air as he described it in the D&D scene. When I reconstruct my being there, it will be much better. I will transform my attending the final performance into a kind of a memory play. It will mean something in retrospect. What a peculiar play.
The memory play thing is hilarious and apt. Daisey begins this episode with another passage from The Glass Menagerie, the opening lines of that play in fact, and a discussion from his high school English teacher Mr. Carr on what a memory play is. It helps to crystalize the whole Faces of the Moon enterprise and this episode in particular:
“So what is Tennessee Williams trying to tell us? Tennessee Williams is talking about the fact that this is a memory play and that was very controversial, very extraordinary at the time. This is a work that exists in memory. The idea is that we shape the memories that we have, we shape the narrative around them. It’s an extraordinary idea. It’s one of the reasons the play is so lyrical and so beautiful. It’s an extraordinary work.” “He dreams of a world. He dreams an entire world. And then we get to spend time inside of it. But why does he do it? That’s the key to understanding Williams.”
Over the course of 29 nights, Daisey created quite a world himself. In the same way that literary critic Harold Bloom has called Shakespeare’s Falstaff a man “made out of words,” Daisey’s is a world made out of words. It is an expansive world, but a sharply defined one. The people who live there are fully realized, the rules of the “game” clearly laid out. And in this last episode, as Daisey promised a few episodes ago, every character and every plot thread are given their due; there’s not so much as a participle left dangling. Daisey has built an intriguing simulation of life, a pocket universe of magic and meta-commentary that runs like clockwork. In a nice bit of reflexive awareness, the ability to do that is precisely how he comes to defeat Steve Jobs in this finale.
Last episode, Daisey met with his friend Ren, “The Professor,” who advised him against a direct confrontation with Jobs. Ren pointed out that even though Daisey likes to fight, he is not a fighter. It’s a nice diverting of expectations, given the abundance of pivotal action sequences thus far. It fits on a thematic level too, because Daisey’s beef with Steve Jobs is really on behalf of the labor force that Apple exploits. Better to let someone who Jobs has directly exploited – like Livia – have the last crack at him as he climbs the ladder, while Daisey runs a mystical Hail Mary from the safety of his apartment. Daisey gathers a clandestine group: his friend Gibbs (who Daisey has brought back from the dead for the occasion), Jobs’ one-time friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Daisey’s wife/director Jean-Michele, Daisey’s magician/playwright friend Shelia, Daisey’s intern’s boyfriend, and eventually even Abdulfattah Jandali, Steve Jobs’ estranged biological father. We are kept in the dark about what they are about to do around the dining room table, but we assume that it will be some kind of badass séance. The reveal that Daisey has instead put together a supernaturally charged Dungeons & Dragons game is a textbook example of the screenwriting axiom “surprising, but inevitable.”
Throughout this series, Daisey has frequently flashed back to his early life in northern Maine, telling stories of how he and his friend Gibbs discovered the world of the occult, with sidebars about the time they spent playing D&D and doing debate club. Daisey positions these extracurricular activities as the earliest manifestation for his gifts as a storyteller, but now we know he was also laying down track for a spectacular endgame. In one incredible monologue Daisey recounts blow-by-blow the adventures his unlikely group has within the game, from simple artifact spelunking to deicide. Eventually all of the player’s characters ascend to godhood themselves. That’s when it gets interesting. Fortified with a deck of Lombardy Zeroth Tarot cards, Carl Jung’s “red book,” and a mountain of Cool Ranch Doritos, Daisey magnificently reexamines the nerdiest parts of D&D through the lens of ritual; suddenly the ultimate by-product of any D&D campaign – a world built from collaborative storytelling – takes on a profound significance. As he has done before with Nikola Telsa and the clockwork universe, Daisey and co. are building a new world in which to imprison Steve Jobs.
Daisey fortifies this idea in a brief exchange between The Grey Lady and George Soros. When last we left The Lady, the living embodiment of the New York Times, she seemed to have seen her last edition. But Soros, king of the vampire bankers, revives with the promise of submitting a juicy op-ed. Soros now understands that corporations, like the one Jobs sat at the head of, are demons. They can be chained by mere mortals, but left unchecked they will have their vicious way with the world.
Meanwhile Saul, the 500-year-old Golem, and Livia, the blind Daughter of the Moon, are trying to stop Steve Jobs from reaching the top of the ladder, where he plans to very hostile corporate takeover of heaven itself. To stop the man who outsourced her dreams to Shinzen, Livia has to draw on the power of the Moon itself. She must become the Moon. To drive the point home, Daisey describes the Moon thusly:
“It orbits the Earth, this cold inhuman thing that has been here so long. It knows us. It knows every part of us and it changes the way we change. It is constant and inconstant. It is lit differently, with different appearances, but it is always the same thing. It knows its nature and it knows us. If there is one thing in the heavens that is truly human, it is the moon.”
Livia manages to hold Jobs long enough for Daisey’s D&D spell to take effect, but is mortally wounded by Jobs in the process. One of Daisey’s more spectacular images: as Livia’s blood runs down the ladder it turns silver, in much the same way that Dionysus’ blood turned to stage paint the moment after his death. Saul and Livia’s final encounter is genuinely touching. He doesn’t lie to her about her fate: Livia’s body will die, but part of her will live on as the Moon. When she expresses regret about not being able to grow up, Saul attempts to comfort her by saying she is a very unusual little girl and she probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Likewise, an earlier scene where Saul philosophizes on the idea of fear while tossing vampires off the ladder is pretty hilarious. All the Faces of the Moon is surely a seismic work on many levels, but I feel like the ostensibly minor character Saul is really the masterpiece of the thing. A character so rooted in history and mysticism given such a vibrant and funny modern life, he is the perfect embodiment of the piece as a whole. It also helps that Daisey gives him such a distinctly deliberate vocal cadence; a gift he affords no other character. It’s almost like Daisey knows that Saul is the focused totality of his storytelling abilities and so gives him all the best moments – a kind of preferential narrative treatment.
And so Steve Jobs, the cosmic figurehead of corporate villainy in Daisey’s Universe, is imprisoned – chained like a demon – but at great cost. The D&D ritual Daisey is running eventually goes to the zoo in a fantastic sequence. The story of the world they have created hangs dense in the air, and as the dice begin to glow and water begins to flow over the table from a tarot card, Daisey and his friends must make their exit. Gibbs volunteers to stay behind and “hold” the table while the others escape; a task which he cannot possibly survive. He figures that his sacrifice will cancel out the fact that Daisey broke the rules to bring him back to life.
After the main action is complete, Daisey closes up shop Lord of the Rings style, with multiple endings that resolve plot points like what happened to Phil, Jack’s full ascension into the Dionysian role, and Daisey’s suicide attempt described in episode one. Jack offers Daisey his own old job – the mythic role of “the fool.” Daisey refuses, but as part of the ritual must drink from the nearest river. The narrative ends with Daisey doing so; a nice analogue to the end of the first episode when he confronted Death by the river. “I drank my fill,” Daisey says of the disgusting, possibly poisoned waters of the Guwanus Canal.
This narrative conclusion is evocative and highly effective, but nowhere near as satisfying as two of the “epilogues” that come slightly before it. The first involves the appearance of Fate (a.k.a. three stage managers) in Daisey’s living room just after D&D escapade is completed. The Fates are naturally grateful to Daisey and co. for averting the end of the world, but now must “smooth out” any of the tangled bits that remain – a chilling euphemism for the instant eradication of everyone involved in the story. Daisey talks them out of it by agreeing to do a “proxy ritual” the following fall. As part of the deal Daisey will have to perform a very public retelling of each and every event in the story – because remember, in the Daiseyverse magic loses its power if you draw attention to it. Daisey is charged with recounting the story to a wide audience over the course of a lunar cycle. In addition, he must commission Larissa Tokmakova, who painted the negatively charged paintings in the story, to do a new series of paintings for each performance. (I appreciated this episode’s painting a great deal — it was a magnetic presence that my eyes continued to drift to during the performance. “The Tower” is still my favorite, though.) The main condition of the deal with the Fates is that Daisey must include EVERYTHING exactly as it happened and ensure that the audience believes NONE OF IT. “Ladies,” Daisey says, making a sly dig at himself, “That’s not going to be a problem.”
It’s an exquisitely satisfying culmination of a story that has woven together magic, performance, metatextualism, multimedia, truth, and fiction on such a large scale. The story is the magic. The fiction is the truth. Or as Tennessee Williams puts it in the passage Daisey cites at the beginning:
“I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion with the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
But there is truth. I suppose that is the point of that other bit of business that Daisey deals with near the end. A few episodes ago Daisey’s mother called to give him – unbidden – the information about her adoption on Staten Island. Now, he has called The Grey Lady to a diner to tell her he knows that she was the one who gave his mother up for adoption. It’s a raw subject for Elaine, the Lady, who has come to regret much over the past few episodes. There’s no more-well-trodden road in the business of storytelling than the eleventh hour revelation of parentage, but like the Williams references, this doesn’t feel cliché. I think on some level Daisey is putting a flag in the ground here – he is the grandson of the New York Times. On a spiritual level what he does, though a couple of generations removed, can serve the same purpose. Say what you will about the Times. What they do in EVERY case, in EVERY article, is characterize. Maybe there is a liberal bias; maybe there is an inherent snootiness. Okay, fine. They are bound to the raw facts, but at the top of every article they try to communicate the sum total of the facts, the aggregate experience. The Times does its damnedest to make you feel like you were THERE. Daisey does much the same thing, but without the straightjacket of the facts – he communicates emotional truth, which is not beholden to mere facts. He can make us feel the working conditions at Foxconn in China. He can put us in the shoes of famous whistle blowers (as he is now in The Secret War).
And he can even do it here, in the midst of a sprawling fantasy. He can make us care when a great but ultimately dying metropolitan newspaper reunites with her dilettante grandson.
The emotional truth of the whole thing is that Daisey made us believe that the lives of his characters, the world of his story – and to some degree his own life – were our lives. What more is there? He communed with us for 29 nights. He gave us his all. I’ve been saying for a while now that this is the “Mike Daisey Omnibus,” but really that’s not even accurate. This is Mike Daisey. It’s simply him. His life, his imagination. His stories. The very first episode he said, “I’m going to bore you to tears with the very heart of me.” He’s offered parts of himself up to us like a cup; like some gilded chalice. Whether you accept the bigger truths of what he has to say or refuse them, you still have to drink in the experience. You just have to.
I too drank my fill.
Check out the podcast at mikedaisey.com