Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through
By Forrest Roth
What Books Press, 2017
164 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Jeff Gilliland
It is an auspicious yet fraught time to be Gary Oldman. In the real world, Gary Oldman won a Golden Globe for Darkest Hour but has faced immense (and deserved) backlash for his history of alleged domestic abuse and confirmed douchebaggery. In the world of Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through, Gary Oldman may or may not have signed your famous sister’s AUTOGRAPHS book outside the Gehry Museum, which only exists in Gary Oldman’s mind, after your sister tried to walk through a plate-glass door in the style of Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious in the 1980s film Sid and Nancy.
If you want to make any sense of that last sentence, you must read Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through. Forrest Roth’s debut novel is as much a prose poem as it is a work of fiction: a narrative swaddled in sestina and synecdoche, which emerges fitfully, slyly, but not accidentally from layers upon layers of self-referential language and repeated scenes, like the Cheshire Cat arriving on the scene grin-first. “The Gehry Museum of Gary Oldman’s mind, [your famous sister]says, is only made of plate-glass doors which Sid Vicious continually walks through, thinking he is Gary Oldman before Gary Oldman met her,” reads a sentence from early in the novel. Its aim is not your comprehension: its aim is to evoke a feeling of dislocation, a miasma of reality and fiction and lenses and characters and memory.
From such a quantum haze of scattered images, however, a plot slowly accretes: the narrator’s girlfriend’s sister has had a breakdown in Los Angeles, and the two of them attempt to help her through it while managing the stress it puts on their own relationship. Along the way, characters like “the gentle man who was not really a gentle man,” “the gentle woman with thirteen unpublished novels,” and, of course, the omnipresent Gary Oldman are swept into the narrative’s eddy, as it swirls toward a dark yet satisfying conclusion.
Near the novel’s end, the narrator goes to the Gehry Museum himself, seeking closure by recapitulating his girlfriend’s sister’s experience. “I approach the building / I must walk through thinking … if I fail doing this now walking through the plate-glass door at the Gehry Museum … I know, unlike your famous sister, Gary Oldman will not be there to comfort me as he stands over me, wondering what I was / thinking and would I care for his autograph.” A dense, stream-of-consciousness monologue brimming with satirical self-awareness, Gary Oldman takes the reader on a circuitous journey through psychosis and celebrity obsession, like Virgil leading Dante through the Inferno—if Virgil had never actually been there before.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plot of Gary Oldman is peripheral to the book’s true project: a 164-page examination of the relationship between subject and object, audience and actor. Who are we, really, if all that we are is whom we’re perceived to be? When am I being myself, when my self has been sculpted by the ever-present gaze of “you and you all”? And how can one create art, say something authentic, in a reality marked by mimesis and microcosm, worlds within worlds of signatures and star power and “the latest personal technology”? If all we are is how (or how often) we are seen, does being famous make you More Real? And what of legacy, then, of the You that persists in the things you create? Who reigns supreme, the creator or the creation? As the narrator puts it, “Anecdotes about Gary Oldman don’t die.”
It may be clear at this point that the real Gary Oldman hardly resembles the Gary Oldman of Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through. The Gary Oldman of the book is part-God and part-Devil, a real man with a “violent, alcoholic past” who is also Sid Vicious, who is also Winston Churchill, who is also the bad guy in The Fifth Element, and who thus can be nothing more than an archetype. Reading the book while the real Gary Oldman is firmly ensconced in the zeitgeist, however, lends it an additional and rather charming layer of confusion: does the Gary Oldman of Darkest Hour know about this book? If so, what does he think of his portrayal? And when I read this book, am I inserting into it my perception of Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour? (Of course I am). Therein lies the novel’s brilliance: it so fully blurs the line between fact and fiction, so capably calls into question the process by which we form narrative and thus reality, that it leaves the reader unsure of where the world inside the book ends and the one outside it begins. As consumers of constructed culture, we are all complicit in the fictionalization of reality—and Gary Oldman is out to show us the hall of mirrors (or, perhaps, plate-glass doors) we have built.