Thievery: The Theatre of the Floating World
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their stories. Here’s one from punk rock writer Simon Jacobs.
‘The Theatre of the Floating World’ was first published in PANK 7, and was later anthologized in Best Gay Stories 2013.
A hundred meters out on the water, the beach’s only current attraction blotted the skyline: the three floating Japanese theatres. Three enormous, creaking rafts, tethered together and elaborately anchored to the sea floor, pitched imperceptibly back and forth with the waves, each bearing a theatre of a different size. The largest, the Loew, sat in the middle, yet tonight was the only one not illuminated. All three theatres shared a similar, lopsided character—the seating for the audience was all outdoors, but the stage was covered, the rafters hidden by an imposing proscenium arch that loomed over the first few rows. Beneath it, a walkway thrust out from the main stage like a tongue, upon which the climactic battles of feudal Japan were played out by kabuki actors in the thick of the audience. The wings, the dressing rooms, the riggings of it all were packed behind the stage, may even have descended into the underworks of the raft itself. What marvel of engineering kept these monstrosities afloat and mostly operational, no casual observer could say.
If there’s one important piece of trivia in my life, it’s that I love David Bowie, so to learn that ‘The Theatre of the Floating World’ has at least one branching path of its roots in a David Bowie song is probably no surprise at all.
When I wrote the first draft of this story way back in the summer of 2011, at age twenty, I was on an erotic fiction kick. Most of my first published stories (including an erotic e-book – since vanished, mercifully, into the ether) lay decisively within the wide-open world of erotica. At the time, there was nothing quite so liberating or satisfying for the fitfully single, desperately angsty guy that I was than imaginatively described sex, nothing better to salve the lonesome college spirit (not to mention that these stories remain essentially the only writing I’ve ever been paid for).
I’d recently sold an apocalyptic erotic short story called ‘Drive-In Saturday’, which explicitly stole from David Bowie both its title and central concept – a futuristic drive-in, located in some kind of ‘dome’, where people went to nostalgically watch old movies and have anonymous sexual encounters. The story was, ultimately, never published (the magazine went dormant), but I gloated about it for a good while, and it was during this warm glow after its acceptance in which I decided that for my next project, I should write an apocalyptic erotic short story named for and dedicated to every single song on David Bowie’s classic 1973 album Aladdin Sane (on which ‘Drive-In Saturday’ appeared). The album serves as Bowie’s surreal, schizophrenic, appalled look at America during his 1972 US tour, and what better tribute to a desolated album than an erotic look at desolate America in the future? You can see the logic there.
The next song on my list was ‘Cracked Actor’, which narrates an ageing actor’s anonymous, etc. encounter with a young prostitute, and the erotic short story I intended to write eventually evolved into ‘The Theatre of the Floating World’. Though I ended up extrapolating quite a bit – the only song elements left were ‘actor’, ‘prostitute’, and ‘West Coast’, variously mutated – in its full form I think the story does present a very Bowie-esque setpiece: theatres floating on the ocean, kabuki co-opted for the West Coast, performance as a means of filling otherwise empty space, and the devastation of the young; the half-life of excess.
I was sitting on a particularly grey and trash-decorated beach in New Jersey at the season and time of day when absolutely nothing looks appealing – observing things from one of those lofted lifeguard chairs – when the ideas started to come together. Needless to say, when you think ‘beach sex’ from a perspective like this, you just know that it’s going to end up being unbearably sad. I learned about Los Angeles’ theater district, and then jettisoned it out to sea. I studied kabuki makeup and the logistics of its performance. I learned the phrase ‘cable trolley’.
What started as something I might have called a piece of ‘erotic, Bowie-based flash fiction’ expanded into something much more ornate – and far more researched, and definitely more tragic – than I anticipated. At the very least, with this story I hope to have captured one small thread of hysterical emotion; in the end, cracked or not, we are all actors.