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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1861

Author: Rob Spillman (b. 1964)

Publisher: Grove Press (New York). 344 pp.

Type of work: Memoir

Time: The late twentieth century

Locales: Berlin, Germany; Chautauqua, New York; Rochester, New York; Lynchburg, Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland; New York, New York

Rob Spillman, the founder of the literary magazine Tin House , recalls...

(The entire section contains 1861 words.)

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Author: Rob Spillman (b. 1964)

Publisher: Grove Press (New York). 344 pp.

Type of work: Memoir

Time: The late twentieth century

Locales: Berlin, Germany; Chautauqua, New York; Rochester, New York; Lynchburg, Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland; New York, New York

Rob Spillman, the founder of the literary magazine Tin House, recalls his childhood and early adulthood in Berlin, both before and immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Principal personages

Rob Spillman, the author, founder of the literary magazine Tin House Courtesy of Grove AtlanticCourtesy of Foster Mickley

Elissa Schappell, his wife and partner, a novelist and short-story writer

In 1999, Rob Spillman and his wife, novelist Elissa Schappell, helped cofound a literary magazine called Tin House. Based in Portland and Brooklyn, Tin House publishes fiction, poetry, and essays. Since its inception, it has launched the careers of a number of writers. A decade before Tin House, Spillman and Schappell were struggling writers themselves, newly married and living in East Berlin. The Berlin Wall, the hulking concrete structure bisecting the city, had fallen months before; its destruction was a symbolic reunion—the real reunification had yet to begin—between West Berliners and their long-suffering, formerly Soviet Eastern brethren, as well as a harbinger of a new, post–Cold War world. Spillman, who had spent his early childhood in West Berlin, had hoped to spend time reacquainting himself with that city, only to be lured by the romance of the ramshackle and anarchic East. There, young people were reappropriating soup kitchens and storefronts—even the tunnels under the wall itself—and turning them into bars and cafés, gathering places to collectively form a new worldview.

For Spillman, East Berlin was akin to the Paris of Roger Shattuck’s book The Banquet Years (1958), wherein artists such as the playwright Alfred Jarry and composer Erik Satie gave birth to the French avant-garde in the early twentieth century. Spillman’s recollections of his time in Berlin are tied to his expectations for his time in Berlin; the young writer saw himself as the next in a long line of writers who had come before him—he is Ernest Hemingway and James Baldwin in Paris; he and his wife are Jane and Paul Bowles in Morocco—and hoped to find themselves in another place. All Tomorrow’s Parties, the title of which comes from a 1967 Velvet Underground song, is Spillman’s tribute to that period of his life, as well as a critique of the bohemian urge to pursue such a life. “Had we lived up to Hemingway?” he wonders at one point, while traveling through Spain en route to Berlin. “Certainly with the drinking. But had we engaged? Or were we just tourists?”

Spillman’s parents, both musicians, came to Berlin for their art as well. His mother was an opera singer, and his father was a pianist and music teacher. They separated so early in Spillman’s life that he claims to have no recollection of their marriage. As a young child, Spillman lived with his father in West Berlin and spent idyllic summers in the theaters of Chautauqua, New York. His father struggled with his sexuality—he was gay, but closeted—while Spillman struggled to understand his parents’ separation. Yet his memories of growing up near an American army base in Berlin are mostly positive. Brushes with fear—the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in nearby Munich, smuggling West German dollars through Checkpoint Charlie to spend in East Berlin—had a perverse effect on Spillman, encouraging him to seek out dangerous situations. He found “oblivion” in the adrenaline rush, he writes.

As a teenager living with his mother in Baltimore, Spillman sought that rush again and again, first in mosh pits at punk concerts and then in a series of mind-bogglingly reckless high-speed car accidents. Spillman was in three major accidents that happened so close together that he refers to his late teens and early twenties as the “Car Crash Years.” Most frightening is Spillman’s attraction to the moment before the impact, seeking the life-ending clarity that comes from a brush with death. Similarly, when Spillman, Schappell, and their friend Hank crossed into East Berlin for the first time, Spillman insisted that they blithely sidestep a wall of armed soldiers. As Glen David Gold wrote in his review for the Washington Post, Spillman was seeking not merely danger but authenticity. Spillman recognizes the degree of his own folly, particularly in the last instance, writing cavalierly, “Would Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac, or Ken Kesey turn back? I don’t think so.”

Spillman accurately captures the young artist’s compulsion to collect experiences, however ill-advised, in the name of art, but he does not entirely disown that compulsion. He oscillates between being frustrated with his former self and mythologizing him, prefacing each short chapter with a different ponderous quote (one from Samuel Delany: “The only important elements in any society are the artistic and the criminal, because they alone, by questioning society’s values, can force it to change”) and a song (“Soundtrack: Joy Division, ‘Disorder,’ 1979”). The interplay between the epigraphs and the text is not always clear. Such quotes—and certainly music—shaped Spillman’s young life, but by deploying them in such a way, Spillman risks taking his young self too seriously. There is a certain inevitability to the endeavor that does not sit well; one imagines Spillman choosing the quotes for his memoir about his young and foolish days in Berlin while still young and foolish in Berlin.

Still, Spillman, who has the easy prose style of a storyteller, writes movingly about his relationships with members of his family: his driven father, his distant mother, and even, in short vignettes, his grandparents. His usually catatonic grandfather, nearing the end of his life in a farmhouse in rural Kentucky, animatedly recalls the two years he spent working in India. It is a short anecdote, but it illuminates Spillman’s larger narrative about the ways in which people can be changed by engaging with the larger world, and how those changes can manifest themselves in unusual ways at different points in their lives. At the beginning of the book, Spillman uses the German word “Sehnsucht,” which, he writes, is “one of those wonderfully untranslatable words that combines longing and nostalgia for a home that one doesn’t even know is one’s home.” Young Spillman was certainly guided by his Sehnsucht when he decided to uproot his life and move to Berlin, and perhaps his grandfather, in the last months of his life, was seized by a regretful bout of Sehnsucht himself. By contrast, Spillman’s father could be described, to borrow a phrase from the novelist Jenny Offill, as an “art monster,” living his life less in accordance with his own personal fulfillment than in service to his art. Spillman describes him as a loving father and, despite the unusual obstacles presented by his bohemian lifestyle, a good parent, but Spillman envied his father’s singular focus. “Everything in his life was pointed toward his art. . . . How I envied this calm, this focus, this purpose to being,” he writes.

Spillman’s other heroes include the writers Ernest Hemingway, Ken Kesey, and Hunter S. Thompson. (As a teen, Spillman spent summers with his father at a festival in Aspen, Colorado, near Thompson’s rural mountain home, though he never caught sight of the reclusive writer.) In their time, each had similar ideas about living and working, and about translating lived experience into art. In A Moveable Feast (1964), Hemingway waxes poetic about writing in cafés and depriving himself of food until setting down his pencil for the day. In Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), novelist Kesey devotes himself to the alternate universe of LSD with the fervor of an apprentice learning a craft. In one experiment, Wolfe wrote, “Kesey was trying to develop various forms of spontaneous expression.” Lying on the floor with microphones up their sleeves, Kesey and his disciples waved their arms back and forth to create disembodied sounds. Wolfe was skeptical of the result but wrote, perhaps with a touch of irony, that “to the receptive standard intellectual who has heard about the 1913 Armory Show and Erik Satie and Edgard Varèse and John Cage it might sound . . . sort of avant-garde.” (It is no coincidence that most of the musicians in that list are mentioned in All Tomorrow’s Parties; artists are always striving to reach the heights of those that came before them.) Thompson, who once retyped the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) to feel what it was like to have written it, is more meditative. Like Spillman, he spent a lot of time wondering how writing and living might coexist. “The difference, I think, boils down to this: you can either impose yourself on reality and then write about it, or you can impose yourself on reality by writing,” he wrote in a 1958 letter, later collected in The Proud Highway (1997).

Thompson’s quandary seems to be the central question of Spillman’s young life. The remarkable thing about All Tomorrow’s Parties, when viewed among the oeuvre of the young-artist-at-work memoirs mentioned above, is that Spillman does not actually write in it. He does not write in Spain or in Berlin; he claims to have written a good chunk of a novel called Coffee and Absinthe in New York, but scenes of him actually putting pen to paper or thinking about ways to forward his specific project are entirely absent. More unusual still is that within the scenes collected of his younger life, there is no writing either. By contrast, his wife, Schappell, sits down at her desk and scribbles for days at a time. (Her first book, a collection of short stories called Use Me, was published in 2000.) When Spillman moves to New York, before his European travels, he is excited about the prospect of starting a literary magazine—the only bit of foreshadowing that suggests what he will actually become, an award-winning editor. All Tomorrow’s Parties is less an examination of Spillman’s artistic life than it is an argument for living an artistic life, for “imposing yourself on reality,” engaging with the larger world and finding one’s own place in it.

Review Sources

  • Review of All Tomorrow’s Parties, by Rob Spillman. Kirkus Reviews, 15 Jan. 2016, p. 97.
  • Review of All Tomorrow’s Parties, by Rob Spillman. Publishers Weekly, 1 Feb. 2016, p. 58.
  • Gold, Glen David. “The Struggle to Make a Life That Matters.” Review of All Tomorrow’s Parties, by Rob Spillman. The Washington Post, 31 Mar. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/review-all-tomorrows-parties--the-struggle-to-make-a-life-that-matters/2016/03/31/72d502cc-f705-11e5-a3ce-f06b5ba21f33_story.html. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.
  • Pierson, Melissa Holbrook. “Rob Spillman on Remaking Himself amid the Rubble of the Past in All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Review of All Tomorrow’s Parties, by Rob Spillman. Los Angeles Times, 4 Apr. 2016, www.latimes.com/books/la-et-jc-rob-spillman-20160404-story.html. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.
  • Sheehan, Jason. “Searching for Home, Living for Art in All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Review of All Tomorrow’s Parties, by Rob Spillman. NPR, 7 Apr. 2016, www.npr.org/2016/04/07/472185100/searching-for-home-living-for-art-in-all-tomorrows-parties. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.
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