Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through
By Forrest Roth
What Books Press
Reviewed by Travis McDonald
In his recent novel Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through, Forrest Roth has created a work that is, at once, exceedingly idiosyncratic while also managing to be unapologetic about its relationship to its famous literary forebearers. The text draws from the wellsprings of modernist and postmodernist masters—think Stein, first and foremost, but also Beckett, Markson, Wurlitzer, and Ashbery—along with the eponymous Oldman's oeuvre, especially his work as Sid Vicious in the 1980s biopic Sid and Nancy.
After thinking about the book for some time now, I'm tempted to claim that I've never quite encountered a work like this before, though all throughout, I found myself writing the names of the novel's stylistic antecedents in the margins. It's this seemingly deliberate literary ventriloquism, along with Roth's distinctive eschewing of character, plot, structure, and narrative convention, that makes the book feel more like a prose poem or a cubist painting than a conventional novel. Though Roth isn't the first writer to incorporate these adjacent artistic modes into his fiction, he has created a novel that is very difficult to pin down as an actual novel. The text reminded me more of the Mystic Writing Pad, made famous by Freud, which is a kid's game, where a drawing can be made by sketching on a piece of wax paper and then erased by stripping the paper from the pad. That is, in Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through, we see line after line scribbled out until the chapters' repetitious sentences begin to aggregate into something like a scene or a plot or a character, and then the top layer is ripped away and all we're left with is the vestigial remnants of the drawing we were just coming to understand.
"No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone," T. S. Eliot argues in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." "His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead." It would seem that Roth has set out from the beginning of his work to place himself among his own "dead." The aforementioned authors guide the book's eccentric style while Roth tells the story of a writer—all we know is he has an "o" in his first name and last name, both lower-case, wink wink—his girlfriend, and her "famous" sister who has had some kind of nervous breakdown. The narrator also believes that he has been commissioned to write a script for a commercial starring the book's obsession, Gary Oldman.
The plot is really secondary to the themes of the novel, which center around the relationship between writer and reader, or performer and viewer, and the spectacle of celebrity. The book's opening chapter, "Prologue: Because You and You All Wanted a Prologue for Whatever Reason," outlines the stylistic mode of the novel as well as the complicated relationship between author and reader. Roth writes, "I sense the needs to work this out some more with you and you all. I hope you and you all will be satisfied with this particular day asked for . . . It becomes imperative there must be an I who is forever someone else to everyone else, then, an I who is a day occurring to me as I sit and read . . . while someone else pretends they are everyone else who is not me occurring to someone else—least of all you and you all . . ." The narrator is most definitely trying to work something out through the novel's 164 pages, but these kinds of repetitive, stream-of-consciousness musings often push the reader further away from any sort of meaningful comprehension or insight, which is not exactly a fault of the book but one of its operating principles.
The "you" who the narrator is addressing throughout the novel is technically his girlfriend, but at the same time, the reader dips in and out of this pronoun, much in the same way that Oldman is able to inhabit alter-egos throughout the book. However, the difference between the reader and the narrator and the narrator's girlfriend are that none of them are famous like Oldman. Referring to the "you's" semi-famous sister, Roth writes, "She knew then the accidental self-induced violence was not really accidental or even anecdotal, that the path to celebrity in America had nothing to do with the Warholian fifteen minutes suspended in potentiality of our ever-commoditized existence but a finger in the air, hovering flailing to trace its path for the viewer looking on in horror or disbelief and find a name belonging to neither subject nor object, to neither Sid Vicious nor Gary Oldman . . ."
This search for a "name," for an "I" or a "you" that exists outside of the subject and object dichotomy is perhaps the main search or struggle in this text. It seems like only Oldman, along with Maurice Blanchot, who also haunts this book, are allowed a name. The "gentle man who is no longer a gentle man," "the black boy," "your famous sister" are not allowed their own particular identities and neither is the reader, who the narrator has been talking to on every page. By the book's end, there isn't any epiphanic moment where the reader realizes exactly what Roth is trying to say here about subject and object, performer and spectator, fame and mundanity. But that really isn't the point. The point of the novel is for the reader to experience an unmooring of their own individuality or sovereignty and to question whether or not the author and the reader, or the viewer and Gary Oldman, have a much more complicated relationship than most people think when they sit down to read a book or watch a movie.