Fiction and Confession — On Bazan, Marc Maron, and The Confirmation

David Bazan’s song “In Stitches” tells a story about drinking through a loss of faith in God. He begins with taking up the bottle:

I need no other memory/Of the bitter me I left/When all this lethal drinking/Is to hopefully forget/About you

And follows with an eerie nautical image, a ship now adrift among the histories of those haunted by waves of divine nostalgia; the ghost once in the machine now in the wind:

The crew have killed the captain/But they still can hear his voice

His lament progresses with gripping economy until heading for the jugular vein of Christian theodicy, the story of Job:

When Job asked you the question/You responded “Who are you/To challenge your creator?”/Well, if that one part is true/It makes you sound defensive/Like you had not thought it through/Enough to have an answer/Or you might have bit off/More than you can chew

Earlier in the song, he sings a line about feeling a row of stitches on his head, seemingly referring to some drunken accident that left him with the scar tissue he now fingers like a rosary while he offers these lines to God — a prayer in reverse. Most of David Bazan’s music is marked by this journey away from his evangelical past, recounted album after album with the sort of purity and integrity any saint strives for.

The first and last lines of this particular track spark with provocative friction. Abandoning God takes a considerable amount of conscious effort, yet this conjoins the agnostic in a mirror image to a God who is also struggling and failing. The impossibility of Christian belief for Bazan is less a cognitive issue than the discovery of a counter narrative in which if there is a God, he participates in the same strange negotiations we do.

While this all leaves the comfortable boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, Bazan offers a sort of minority report that is just as important to hear as the liturgies exercised in churches on Sunday morning. I have no well-articulated theological rationale to offer on this point. I have the semblance of one that derives from how Jesus talks to people in the Gospels, the way the Psalmists continually reconfigure their own God-talk, and a natural theology which generates space for people to wonder about God and time and space along all the paths of human discourse. I just know I talk frequently with people that have stories similar to Bazan’s and I learn something life-giving and significant every time.

Marc Maron’s Confessions

The riff on autobiography which has been happening over the four season arc of Maron has a little in common with the story Bazan tells about himself, in the way both orbit around a life broken and reassembled. The first three seasons of Maron play out the life and times of a the host of a famous podcaster who interviews interesting celebrities and comics in his northeast LA garage.

Maron has always been open about his past drug and alcohol addiction, and bits of hard-won sobriety wisdom pop up frequently in his comedy and podcast. This is also true of Maron, which in season 4 begins with TV version Marc Maron heading to rehab after a very public relapse. He has lost everything, lives in a storage facility, and has sold his mics for oxycontin.

Watching Marc lose his sobriety is a vicious turn of events, even knowing that the show is a fiction scripting a counterfactual Marc Maron. If you have never watched an addict or alcoholic recover, this season is like a condensed version replete with moral rediscoveries, dead on AA aphorisms, and a painful journey through the first few steps.

Not everything in this season of Maron works, as some of the story arcs happening around his precipitous decline vary in execution. Some of the antics play as filler. But the captivating drive of the show is the sense that Maron is finally really onto something — driven through this relapse toward a re-estimation of what it means to become what Bazan calls a “decent human being”.

We leave the season with Maron in a small city far away from LA where his infant biological son lives with his mother (for whom he was initially the sperm donor). In the final moment, which he has said will be the last of the show altogether, Maron sits on a park bench holding his baby son alone, for the first time. The look on his face in this moment is the most complex of the entire series. He is happy, content, having worked his way so hard to this space of peace and trust. He feels the precious weight of his child. He feels the breeze on his unshaven face and squints against the warmth of the sun.

And then his smile fades a bit. His brow grows heavy. We can tell he is climbing back into his head, out of the moment, and beginning to wonder if this is all going to really work for him. Will it be enough? Will this actually make him happy. Is he even capable of that?

Because these are all very much adult post-rehab thoughts. One is afraid to accept whatever trust they earn back, not for fear of violating it again but because of the weight of responsibility it generates. The prospect of peace or happiness skips like a broken record behind every experience, the needle never quite dropping in the right place.

The vulnerability present in this moment has a few different layers. The first draws on Maron’s autobiography, making it confessional. The second comes from the odd play between Marc Maron and the character he has scripted for this TV show. In this final moment of Season 4, we find that Maron has used Maron to imagine an alternate version of himself, one that has fallen into the nightmare of relapse and needs to rediscover everything he worked so hard to learn a decade ago.

It is tempting to call these two versions the “real life Marc Maron” and “fictional Marc Maron,” but this is not how it works.

All of our confessions contain an element of fiction. We disclose something deeply wrong or flawed about ourselves encountered in a moment of weakness or moral failure. In the confession we relive the weight of this failure in the hope we might be released from it. But we also feel the dread of a terrible possibility, envisioning a storyline for ourselves in which we cannot change and remain tied to our brokenness. This fiction binds our confession to hope, a desire to recognize and abandon that alternate narrative whenever it emerges in us.

The TV show, confessional Maron is the one real life Maron knows may be somewhere in there, but by the grace of whatever gives him one day at a time.

Minority Reports in The Confirmation

The Confirmation, a 2016 film by written and directed by Bob Nelson and starring Clive Owen begins with an eight year old boy in a confessional booth. He cannot quite figure out what to say to the priest, because he is not sure if he has actually committed any sins. The priest gives him a list of possibilities (perhaps he lied or had sexual thoughts), but Anthony is at a loss and the priest prescribes a minor preventative penance.

The central conflict of this semi-autobiographical film emerges here, when the priest asks Anthony if he might have dishonored his parents. Anthony tells the priest “I don’t see my father enough to dishonor him.” It is clear that Anthony is wrestling with a little cognitive dissonance, given the differences he experiences between the linear moral expectations of the Church and the messiness of his family life.

This messiness receives painful scrutiny over the remainder of the film, which tracks a weekend he spends with his alcoholic father and their Bicycle Thieves-like search for tools stolen from his truck while Anthony, patience worn thin, walked into the bar to see if his father was ready to leave. The film hits all the beats we expect from this scenario, including a harrowing sequence with Anthony trying to keep his dad from drinking. We listen to Walt groaning through withdrawal during the night.

And it becomes clear over the course of this weekend that there might be a path to sobriety and fatherhood for Walt, but it means that Anthony will have to bend the rules a bit and commit most of the sins his priest had listed at the beginning of the film. Unlike many characters we see in films about addiction, Walt is aware that by drawing his son into his life, Anthony will inevitably be forced to share the burden of his moral failure.

The real heart of the film is a conversation between Walt and Anthony before dawn one morning. Anthony tells Walt he doesn’t want to take communion in his upcoming Confirmation because he does not want to “eat Jesus.” Walt tells him it is okay because it is all just crackers and grape juice, not really the body and blood of Christ. They go on to talk about why Walt does not go to church anymore, which is because “these things they tell you might be true, or might not be true.” And Walt decides Anthony should take communion because it won’t hurt and he will be able to decide what he really believes later.

Unfortunately, the best fatherly advice Walt can give him at this time is to “do what he thinks is right,” which obviously has not worked well for Walt. But it dawns on us that this conversation between dad and son, about things the son has not been able to ask anyone else, has become their communion wrought out of a really inglorious shared experience of Walt’s alcoholism.

This is all far more complex than it seems at first glimpse, given that Walt’s desire to be a father has crossed paths with Anthony’s first deep questioning of what is true about the Church. But it is so beautiful that each become willing to enter the other’s storyline, take an emotional share of their questions and failures, and be willing to let a relationship grow from this dramatic transparency.

What we feel are our own minority reports, the doubts and fears and self-authored fictions that call our course of life into question, these reports are actually who we are. We will never find our way back to family and communion unless we learn to wrap words around them, become unafraid to speak them into being. How else can they be tested?

Fiction and Confession and Maron’s Garage

All this incidentally reveals the genius of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, which so often features comics or celebrities talking through their life stories in a way we haven’t heard before. It is as if people feel Maron’s garage is a safe space to be honest about how shaped they really are by tragedy, trauma, depression, fear and all the things we reserve for private conversation.

And his podcasts often become a sort of impromptu celebration of the possibility that we all might be onto something as long as we keep talking, keep testing, and keep recounting our dramas in honest ways. This is the storied essence of confession.

We need more of these garages. More pre-dawn, bare all conversations. “Coax it into the open.” More room for Bazan’s little landslides. These are incubators of humanity in a political era that so devalues the accuracy of language, the poetry of experience, and conversational gestures of weakness as strength.