“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” is the mantra of Rob Spillman and his wife, the writer Elissa Schappell, as they shed their possessions and their established lives in New York and move off the grid to write. They are young—in their mid-twenties—and Spillman, looking to emulate Paul Bowles and other heroes, fancies Berlin to be the place to emerge artistically. Spillman has lived there before, as a child, while his father worked in the city’s esteemed opera world. The plan was perfect. “We were going to go native, write strange novels, and then our artist friends would make pilgrimages to visit us, to get our blessing,” he writes.
It is the Nineties, the Berlin Wall is coming down, and the reunification of East and West Berlin is imminent. In East Berlin, they live in an old bohemian neighborhood and navigate streets where soldiers and anarchists roam, hostile and suspicious of one another. During the day, Schappell writes relentlessly, working on her fiction while Spillman runs the empty East Berlin streets and worries about his own writing. Everyone in East Berlin, it seems, is in the midst of their own revolution. Spillman and Schappell find an apartment for twenty dollars a month and fill it with cast-out furniture they’ve found on sidewalks. At night they drink at impromptu bars that have popped up in old storefronts, and they work on their art. They make it up as they go along. Things are weird, so they turn pro.
All Tomorrow’s Parties, Spillman’s new memoir, is a culturally saturated, Technicolor account of the author’s unusual upbringing and the intentional adventures of his young adulthood. The book alternates between two plotlines: the confusing years of Spillman’s boyhood, shuttled between his mother’s Baltimore home and his father’s summer retreat in Colorado, and his ambitious, bleary-eyed twenties in Berlin with his new wife. The author exists on two planes: as a kid working through adolescence, with a head full of Hunter Thompson-proportioned ideas, disoriented by his surroundings and his parents’ divorce; and as fledgling writer and husband, eager to storm the world with his art. We see the boy inside the man and the man inside the boy, infinitely. Throughout, the author has two preoccupations: where his true home is, and whether or not he is an artist.
Spillman’s romantic notions of being artistic and living an artistic lifestyle haunt him throughout the book. To really, truly write, you must travel to the edge of society and squat in landscapes of political disarray: you must forage and teeter and fret. In Portugal, Spillman faults Elissa for being attached to their old life back in New York, where work was steady writing. “Safety, comfort, and consistency were things you should get over if you wanted to be an artist.” Meanwhile, he is insecure about his own spot at the table. “For hours I tried to engage with these descendants of Dietrich, Kollwitz, and Brecht, to rise to their intellect and sense of urgency, but their words and ideas were beginning to run together, and my brain muddled like a kid’s watercolor set after too much use—all of the colors had a puddle of brown on the top.”
As a teenager, Spillman encounters his father crying. He has been reading Gravity’s Rainbow and is moved to tears. “It’s just so beautiful,” he tells his son. Later Spillman is troubled. “I worried that I would never find something that moved me like this, and that even if I found something I loved, I wouldn’t let myself express my true feelings.”
This anxiety about having what it takes to be an artist permeates the book much like it permeates the lives of anyone who is trying to make art. Is the passion for making art something you are born with, or can it be achieved through study and focus? Can you have passion if you are distracted? If life gets in the way of your art, are you truly an artist? In Berlin, Spillman has a novel in the works that he can’t seem to face. His dread is real and justified.
Within all this—the various countries, counties and states, the different school districts and houses and apartments and friends, and time and growing up—is a well-rendered portrait of an only child. Spillman’s affinity for spending time with adults and his perceived outsider status are both products of the unique isolation only children experience. There are messages throughout the book about being alone, some subtle and some blunt. Here, Spillman quotes George Orwell:
I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.
Elsewhere, Spillman talks with his father about abstaining from drugs. After his dad gives him the mandatory lecture, he asks Spillman if he has any questions. Spillman writes, “I only had two—why did mom leave? And will you always be here?”
The author’s insecurity is one of the book’s strengths. Spillman struggles with his ability to be creative, his privilege as a white male, and his overall path to becoming an artist and a good partner. Likewise, the book’s pacing mimics the author’s urgent personality. Chapters are short—very short, sixty-three in total in a 340-page book—and there is an almost maniacal use of epigraphs. Each chapter begins with both a quote and a song. It’s as if the book can’t contain itself—there is a great fear of running out of time or not being able to say everything.
Spillman must have felt a great catharsis when writing this book. It is a shrine filled with relics for the people and the art he loves. It quivers with the type of honesty it takes to admit your deepest, most damning secrets. But Spillman isn’t angling for sympathy. Instead he is bold and almost defiant. All Tomorrow’s Parties is a major achievement and a reflection of the epigraph for chapter 59, which is a Denis Johnson quote: “Write naked. Write from exile. Write in blood.”