Shirley MacLaine has been throttled many, many times. She learned this while getting hydrotherapy for her aching neck. “I was hung by a rope in a pool of water, in a position similar to that of people who are hanged to death. . . . The feeling, when I first dropped into the water by my head, made me remember all the times I had been hanged in past lives!”
Plunging through her “memory terror,” she discovered that she had once co-created “a gigantic flying dragon who could move and travel anywhere.” She then glimpsed a vast island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. “The star people told me that it was the center of all energy for the Earth and was connected to each land mass, which would one day become countries.” When the island began to sink, “I found myself crying, desperate to understand what had happened and why. The star people said, ‘Every feeling has its season.’ I asked out loud, ‘Does God have both positive and negative polarity? Is all this destruction part of a plan?’ They said nothing.”
Well, there’s no use burying the lede any longer: Shirley MacLaine saw Atlantis go down. And lived — and lived and lived — to tell the tale.
Now, from the deepest wells of her unsilent spring, comes “Above the Line,” which is — take your pick — the latest field report from her boundless metaphysics or a barkingly mad exercise in woo-woo.
To be fair, it is also the diary of the making of “Wild Oats,” a film that, after five years, “many lawyers, countless conference calls, two directors, ten scripts” and at least seven proposed locations, miraculously began shooting in the Canary Islands, with MacLaine and Jessica Lange in the leads. (Release is expected sometime later this year.) Like so many independent productions, “Wild Oats” was held together at any given moment by gum, string and prayer. Shooting was continually delayed, the sun blazed down, the face-lift tape itched and the money kept running dry.
Nothing, though, can dampen MacLaine’s fondness for this business we call show. “A film set is the kind of family you can’t find anywhere else,” she declares, and if by that she means the kind of family where Granny wanders off and experiences visions of gentle reddish-blond giants from another time, she may be on to something.
On somewhat scant evidence, MacLaine has decided that the Canary Islands are the remnants of Atlantis (which, for the record, was invented by Plato). With that, she is off and running, and the result is everything one would expect from a MacLaine excursus. Humble-bragging: “I have difficulty being called words like iconic and legendary.” Inanity: “Killing and war are profoundly sad to me.” Opacity: “There were no emotions, only feelings that guided the activities of everyone.” Non sequiturs: “Meanwhile, the Japanese had voted against child pornography.” Unintentional humor: “When I sat, I could feel that the tree was happy that I appreciated sitting on it.” Prose that kind of hurts: “The prehistory of the past affected me every day.” And, above all, open-ended questions: “Is any of what we call real actually real anyway? . . . Had money actually become our common God? . . . Was this the sort of thing that caused Atlantis to sink?”
At moments like this, it’s worth recalling that MacLaine is a trouper and a gifted on-screen entertainer who, over four-plus decades of relentless self-chronicling, has produced two fine memoirs: “My Lucky Stars” (1995), a loving warts-and-all portrait of her Rat Pack pals, and “Don’t Fall Off the Mountain” (1970), her maiden autobiography and a model of candor and emotional clarity.
That MacLaine — funny, shrewd, self-deprecating — hasn’t entirely left the building. Over the course of “Above the Line,” the octogenarian author cops to getting drunk on caipirinhas, making a play for the sound guy and showing up for a news conference in a crooked wig. Nor is she immune from material concerns as she tracks every nickel that whizzes past her with the zeal of Scrooge McDuck. Who’s investing what? How many seats are available in first class? Is it worth it for an actress to defer compensation if all she gets is “a third or fourth position of recoupment”?
But MacLaine, finally, isn’t selling earthiness but cosmology, and if her previous sales record is any guide, readers will come flocking. What draws them to a book as indigestible as this? I have to think that the very things that render MacLaine incoherent render her accessible. She lets in everything and excludes nothing. She can speak of Madame Blavatsky and Edgar Cayce and Charles Berlitz in the same breath as Malthus and Einstein and Stephen Hawking, and her magpie’s nest of Buddhism, Platonism, non-denominational Christianity, sci-fi fantasy and crackpot history leaves no worshiper behind. In her world(s), it’s virtually impossible to be wrong — or, for that matter, right. One need only be. Or be somewhere else.
Louis Bayard’s most recent novel is “Roosevelt’s Beast.”
By Shirley MacLaine
Atria. 216 pp. $24