Book Review: 'The Made-Up Man,' By Joseph ScapellatoJoseph Scapellato's new novel mashes up noir and philosophy in a multi-layered story about an aimless young man who gets caught up in his uncle's strange and possibly dangerous performance art.
Joseph Scapellato's The Made-Up Man reminds me of a bacon-topped doughnut — a mixture of incongruent elements that somehow work well together. And like that sweet treat, Scapellato's blend of existential noir, absurdist humor, literary fiction, and surreal exploration of performance art merges into something special.
Stanley is living an in-between moment. He is between jobs, recently quit his archeology studies, and he and his girlfriend are taking a break. When she goes to Prague for an acting gig, Stanley's uncle Lech offers him an apartment-sitting job in the same city. Stanley accepts, even though he knows the opportunity is a thinly veiled setup for one of Lech's dangerous, bizarre, invasive performance art projects.
Once in Prague, the weirdness begins. There are strange sounds in the hallway. Someone slides envelopes with photos of Stanley under the door. Chalk outlines show up on the floor. Emails he never sent himself appear in his inbox. He talks to men who are women made to look like men ... or are they? Stanley ignores the shenanigans, but these unnamed actors — hired by Lech — appear to know more about his state of mind than he does. Confused and undecided about what to do with his girlfriend after a failed proposal, Stanley delves into his past to try to understand the present. His family occupies his thoughts, and the actors around him take on the role of his parents. Finally, a man made up to look like Stanley shows up and enacts his most traumatic memory, making it impossible for Stanley to continue ignoring his uncle's performance piece — and throwing him into chaos.
The Made-Up Man is about identity and getting to know the self. However, the way Scapellato goes about it is different from most contemporary literary fiction narratives about identity; he presents the novel as a performance piece, a strange real-life play. Stanley lives in a constant state of self-analysis and is hyperaware of the implications of every action, inaction, conversation, and memory. He tries to understand himself, but something at his core prevents him: "I had the sense that I was inside the space at the center of myself that wasn't me." This space is constantly shifting, changing inside him, and forcing him to try on different approaches ("I practiced looking like I felt okay").
Stanley inhabits many interstitial spaces and feels lost, aimless. The performance around him affects his state of mind. It forces him to question the authenticity of everything — every encounter, every memory. Every feeling might be the result of the performance. Even his non-participation is not what he thinks it is and he can't do one thing without doing the opposite. For example, not participating in the performance makes him part of it because refusing to acknowledge a thing still recognizes its presence: "To be passive I needed to be active; to avoid I needed to engage. I hoped that these short-term concessions to acknowledgement would result in a greater degree of long-term non-acknowledgement."
Scapellato begins the novel like any other, but then starts using titles to present his scenes, sometimes substituting action for a long title. For example, chapter 95 is titled "Stanley Sits on a Cot in a Cell in the Dark and Considers Whether or Not His Decision to Knowingly but Unwillingly Agree to Involvement in a Personalized Performance Art Project in a Foreign Country Has Accelerated Changes in His Self-Conception That He Would Have Come to Anyway, on His Own, Alone." Here's the entire chapter: "I scooted, to sit cross-legged." As the story accelerates, the long titles and short chapters become common, forcing the reader to flip pages faster, turning the novel's frenetic pace into a physical experience.
The Made-Up Man is a rare novel that is simultaneously smart and entertaining. It looks at the ways we perform ourselves, through the experiences of a man floating in a haze after the academic career and the relationship that grounded him and gave him a sense of self are no longer there. There are the fights and shady characters of classic noir, but also writing that bridges the gap between philosophy and poetry:
I was remembering myself.
I was remembering myself remembering myself.
I was remembering memory, or imagining memory, or remembering imagining.
This is a strange book, but just like with food, trying new things can lead to pleasant surprises.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at@Gabino_Iglesias.