Dot Matrix

Even in the algorithm age, we are sorted by who we care about

My mother had a best friend who became my godfather and his name was Saul. He was tall and rangy and spoke gently, but had a laugh I could hear from the lawn outside our second-floor apartment, which embarrassed me at the time, but now I laugh around the same decibel level. Uncle Saul was a natural fan, a lover of things and people, and something he loved a lot was music theater, along with its culture and accoutrements. He hung Erté prints in his carpeted apartment and kept a framed Barbra Streisand poster in his office at the City of Toronto’s social services division. He loved Fosse, the 1999 revue, so much that he planned to name the dog he was in the process of adopting after the famous choreographer.

When I was a kid, Uncle Saul took me to musicals — the ’90s blockbuster revivals I really wanted to see, like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Phantom of the Opera. By 2000, the year I started high school, I had drifted away from such interests and cared mostly about impressing my new, alternative friends. I was majoring in music theater — I’d wanted to go to an art school and was better at singing than drawing — but the only “musical” I was interested in was The Wall.

You could read Seurat as a stand-in for a person attempting to make sense of themselves at the intersection of people, ideas, and images they encounter at the terminus of their own screens

On October 22 of that year, a Sunday, I got a phone call from my mother, who had gone to meet Saul and another friend, my Aunt Janet, for a movie. I could tell by the airlessness in her voice that something bad had happened. When Saul hadn’t answered his door, the building superintendent had let Janet into the unit. They found him on his bed; he had died in his sleep of a heart attack. He was just over 50.

That night at Saul’s apartment, with his body in the next room; during his memorial service at the 519 on Church Street; placing stones on his gravesite in Montreal, I was very sad. But it wasn’t the kind of grueling, physical grief I supposed I should have felt, and that I’d feel sometimes over matters as trivial as the end of a short-lived fling. Nearly two decades later, the way I feel is bereaved. I feel his absence from my life acutely, unpredictably, ritualistically. I think often about the kind of friendship we’d have if we’d gotten to know each other as adults.

I sense how much of him is in me, from my tastes to my disposition to my sense of home. Anyone’s childhood is a scatterplot of impressions, of people and places that aren’t what they were, or what they seemed to be, but Uncle Saul is the throughline among my happiest and most familiar memories, and whatever he represents is what I most identify with, what I feel I most belong to.

In 2015 I moved from Toronto to New York, where I got a job in an office above Times Square, overlooking all those theaters and lighted signs on which Toronto’s theaters and signs had been modeled. Times Square had long diffused into representations of itself which I’d followed, it seemed, to the site of their origin. I wanted to merge the past with the present — the vague, powerful impressions with the vague, overwhelming scene I pushed through to make it on time to meetings, and to study what was finally real to me.

A few weeks ago, meaning to watch Velvet Buzzsaw on Netflix, I got bored and queued up a YouTube upload of Sunday in the Park with George, a 1984 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. If you have even a passing interest in musical theater, you know that Stephen Sondheim is considered the greatest living God of the form, but those who don’t care about musical theater don’t often feel like they should. For years I’d thought musicals were all about banishing negativity and reducing feelings to orchestra hits, but what I didn’t know was that Sondheim and people like him (for instance, Bob Fosse) had mastered a technology whose sole purpose was to give pleasure, and rewired it for complex emotions and social dynamics.

Sunday in the Park with George is based on the life and work of pointillist painter Georges Seurat, in particular “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” the 7-foot-by-10 painting that hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Like the painting, composed of thousands of multicolored dots that form an image of everyday people at leisure, the show is made up of seemingly disparate dabs of narrative that cohere as if by magic into an overwhelming whole. The first act follows Seurat as he struggles to complete his painting. His mistress and model, Dot, is pregnant with his child, but feeling neglected; she leaves him and moves to the United States with their baby, Marie. The second act features Seurat’s great-grandson, a contemporary artist who creates light structures called Chromolumes and is struggling similarly with art and relationships. His grandmother, Marie, insists that Seurat is his ancestor; he doesn’t quite believe her, but he travels anyway to La Grande Jatte — unrecognizable except for a single tree featured in Act I — where he encounters the ghost of Dot, his great-grandmother.

“Stan culture” and the cyclical interest in astrology and its archetypes both speak to the timeless fact that it’s easier to make sense of a world in flux through the unifying lens of another person

The musical’s origin story is one of synchronicity, or “kismet,” to use Sondheim’s word. In 1982 he had seen a play of Lapine’s by happenstance, and was “stunned” by its sophistication, “so much so that I determined to meet with him and raise the possibility of collaborating with him on a musical,” he wrote in the second volume of his annotated lyric collection, Look, I Made a Hat. “I did nothing about it.” A few months later, a producer got in touch to ask if he’d be willing to meet with a young playwright — James Lapine — who’d hoped to collaborate with him.

Lapine had wanted to adapt Nathanael West’s novel A Cool Million, which, by chance, was one of the few novels Sondheim had read and enjoyed over the past few decades. The project didn’t pan out, but the pair got to discussing what might work instead. When Lapine asked what sort of musical Sondheim wanted to write, he replied simply, “themes and variations,” and showed him for example a French magazine that had devoted an issue to different visual riffs on the Mona Lisa. They started talking about French paintings, and Lapine mentioned Seurat. “We discussed the curious fact that of all the 50-some-odd people in the painting, not one of them is looking at one another,” Sondheim wrote. The painter was the missing element: the person who had placed them all neatly on the same canvas, despite the messiness and inscrutability of their real lives and dynamics. “The challenge? Bring order to the whole,” George says, at the start and end of the show. “Through design, composition, tension, balance, light, and harmony.”

If anything about Sunday feels dated (besides the Chromolumes) it’s the supremacy of one vision over the people conducted within it. But, doing away with the genius myth, you could read the pointillist theme, and its variations, as a metaphor for contemporary social arrangements, or George himself as a stand-in for any one person attempting to make sense of themselves at the intersection of people, ideas, and images they encounter at the terminus of their own screens. A sensibility can cohere a worldview more vividly than an institution, for worse and for better. “Stan culture”; the cyclical interest in astrology and its archetypes; the commodification of co-presence, as in podcasting and vlogging — all speak to the timeless fact that it’s easier to make sense of a world in flux, atomized by a million emergencies and bids on one’s attention, through the unifying lens of another person.

In The Secret Life of the American Musical, Broadway producer and artistic director Jack Viertel writes that people often cry at the end of Sunday’s first act, when the characters depicted in Seurat’s painting join together to sing: People strolling through the trees/Of a small suburban park/On an island in the river/On an ordinary Sunday. “No one has died, nothing momentous has happened,” he writes, “but art has somehow given stature to an everyday moment… the whole first act has been preparing an unsuspecting audience for this moment, and it’s overpowering.”

I did not cry at that moment, but I did cry about 30 minutes into the second act, when George’s grandmother, Marie, sings “Children and Art,” a much quieter, more subdued song addressed to both her grandson and her mother, Dot, who never got to meet each other, and who don’t even know in any material sense they’re related. You would have liked him, she sings. You would have liked her.

This brought to mind one of my favorite books, Edgewise, an oral biography of the writer and actress Cookie Mueller. Mueller was a mainstay of downtown Manhattan in the 1980s, and her personal history runs through the freak circuit of late-century America, through the towns and enclaves whose scenes would feed into modern queer and DIY culture. “She herself was an entire scene,” writes author Chloé Griffin. She died in 1989 at age 40, of AIDS-related illness, amid an era of incalculable loss and incalculable grief.

Griffin is not, by her admission, a journalist, or even a biographer per se; she just connected with Mueller’s writing and felt pulled toward the community of her people, which, in the end, she belonged to. Mueller’s loved ones — particularly Sharon Niesp, her close friend and former partner, and Max, her son — trusted her, and the document she produced works something like Seurat’s painting: a portrait of Mueller made from impressions of those who loved her, which cohere into a great, projected likeness.

Affinity across a great distance of time and space is both profound and totally mundane

The book ends with some impressions of Razilee, Mueller’s young granddaughter, who friends of the family call little Cooks. “She has the same curiosities and she holds herself physically like Cookie would,” Niesp says. “It’s really amazing… she’s a sweet girl and Cookie would have really loved her. They would have had fun together, and every grandmother says that — there’s a part of her in there — but it’s even more pronounced if they’re dead. You see the DNA coming through, and the person isn’t there to confirm it, or you don’t reflect off the grandmother anymore so you reflect off something spiritual.”

There is nothing miraculous about it, if you don’t like to think in those terms — genes are tangible, cosmic synchronicity is not — but it really is a matter of how you like to think. Affinity across a great distance of time and space is both profound and totally mundane. Personal affinities, today, sort themselves in ways comparable to an algorithmic feed, not necessarily determined at all by temporal or spatial proximity. It’s normal to relate more to people who are nowhere near you geographically than those you see every day, and social platforms materialize a connection that once seemed arcane.

People can seem to reincarnate in new variations, at different points in family lines, but these “themes and variations” occur, of course, among unrelated people. “I don’t know what part of us falls in love with the voice in another person’s stories, or why I felt something hinge in a mute, broken off part of myself when I read Cookie’s words,” Griffin writes. I don’t know why, upon hearing the singer Laura Nyro for the first time, I felt constituted as a person in a way I never had before. She presented a whole vocabulary for an emotional worldview I shared, and she inhabited womanhood in an extravagant, painful, ecstatic way that I finally recognized myself in. Something in her work implied a whole mode of being that felt like a lineage of sorts, like a secret society, communicated through symbols I hadn’t known I understood. Laura died of ovarian cancer at 49; her partner, Maria Desiderio died of it two years later, and so did her sole biographer, Michele Kort.

My mother still misses Saul a lot, and in times of discord, we can reliably make peace by reminiscing about him. He has been gone longer than I knew him, and my memories are not so dependable. There is no way to reconcile how I interpret our relationship now with how I perceived it at the time, and no way to know which perception is more accurate; I can’t separate the ways I want and need to remember him from the facts. Every relationship, near or far, involves a certain amount of myth-making. At a certain point it doesn’t matter what’s fact and what isn’t; to belong to something is an opt-in.

Usually my mother is quick and sharp to correct me when she thinks I’ve misremembered or embellished upon something that happened to both of us, but not when it involves Saul. My mother and I — and those friends of hers I grew up with, though we may no longer be in touch — remember him the way fans remember an icon: the quality of the memory is less its accuracy than how it speaks to the soul of who he was, because he was more than what he did or didn’t do.

When you are young, at least when I was young, I thought the adult world was static, and that growing up meant growing into it. I thought of my elders in terms of a pantheon of fixed personalities in constant relation to each other; I didn’t know grownups grew up, or consider the possibility that once our adulthoods converged we might have very little in common — that what had held us all together was a moment in time. I didn’t understand the paradox of being alone in one’s perception of other people, while being the sum of their influence. What we all still have in common is missing Saul.

Alexandra Molotkow is a senior editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt and an editor at the Hairpin. She has written for the Believer, the New York Times Magazine, the Cut and the New Republic.