the town below looking as hell might with a good electrician

My Face for the World to See, by Alfred Hayes

In a way murder makes things easy. When someone’s been killed, is going to be killed, it creates instant tension. It’s why TV dramas are so full of bodies – tune in after the break to see if the killer can be caught before he strikes again!

What’s trickier is creating that same sort of tension from the everyday. Soaps and potboiler  novels both do it by filling their characters’ lives with furious incident. A woman learns that her husband is sleeping with her sister, while at the same time her daughter has developed a drug habit and her mother dementia.

Alfred Hayes on the other hand, Alfred Hayes shows the quiet desperation of a life that isn’t quite what you wanted it to be. In the foreword to the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See film critic David Thomson says that “Hayes is the dry poet of the things we think about while lying in bed, when sleep refuses to carry us off.” It’s an astute observation. My Face is a sort of love story, or a chronicle of a relationship at any event, but it’s one of those relationships you later regret and that really, you never should have started.

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Here’s the opening paragraph:

IT WAS a party that had lasted too long; and tired of the voices, a little too animated, and the liquor, a little too available, and thinking it would be nice to be alone, thinking I’d escape, for a brief interval, those smiles which pinned you against the piano or those questions which trapped you wriggling in a chair, I went out to look at the ocean. There it was, exactly as advertised, a dark and heavy swell, and far out the lights of some delayed ship moving slowly south.

The ocean’s there all right, “exactly as advertised”, but there’s something else too – a girl walking into it wearing a yachting cap and carrying a cocktail glass. He thinks she’s drunk, perhaps cutting a pose for people exactly like him who’re looking on from the house. Then he realises it’s not that at all. She’s committing suicide.

He saves her, and they begin an affair. Hayes doesn’t give either of their names, lending them a sort of anonymity and ubiquity both. The man’s a scriptwriter with a wife back in New York and a stale marriage. He’s a Hollywood insider but he takes no joy in it, describing himself to her at one point as “writhing” not writing. “I was a member, I said, now, of the Screen Writhers Guild.” He spends his evenings at parties filled with “people who were not entirely strangers and not exactly friends”.

She’s no happier, no more fulfilled. She came to Hollywood dreaming of becoming a star, her face on billboards for the world to see. It didn’t work out that way.

Hayes’ Hollywood is a town filled with surface people. Put like that it doesn’t sound too insightful (who ever portrays it as a town filled with great thinkers and warm human beings?), but it’s how he captures it that makes this such a powerful novel. My Face is only around 130 pages long, but it’s so tightly and effectively written that it covers more in that space than many writers do in five times that length.

In a way My Face has an almost noir sensibility. That’s not because there’s any great criminality in the book, but rather it’s that combination of consuming desire with an utter absence of hope.

At this very moment, the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous if they weren’t already famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy, or wealthier if they were; or powerful if they weren’t powerful now, and more powerful if they already were.

What’s the alternative though, to all that frustrated longing?

There seemed to be nothing but marriage, when you thought of it, and when you thought of it, my God, was that all there was? That, and raising a family. That, and earning a living. That, and calling the undertaker.

The protagonist is having an affair because his wife’s away and it passes the time, and perhaps too because that’s the part society has written for him. The woman’s motive isn’t any better. She knows he’s married. She knows it won’t last. There’s a sense that she’s with him because he’s there, because it takes less resistance to be with him than not to be with him.

I just talked about motives, but I’m guessing them. His are easier to guess because the novel’s written from his perspective. Her’s are harder, because he never fully sees her. She’s surfaces, like the whole town, generically pretty and with little to distinguish her in his eyes from a hundred other would-be-stars except this one he knows, this one he saved from drowning. If the novel were written from her perspective I suspect in some ways it might be very different, but then perhaps not because it’s far from clear she sees him any more deeply than he does her.

I’ll end with one final quote. I had more quotes from this novel than I could possibly use in this review, and it was genuinely hard choosing which ones to leave out as Hayes has so many telling asides and observations. This one though I just had to keep, because it’s beautiful and terribly sad, the entire novel therefore in microcosm:

There was a noisy rush of water from the bathroom, and she appeared, ready for the evening, a smile she had chosen, I thought, from a small collection of smiles she kept for occasions like this, fixed upon her face.

This is a brilliant, brilliant book. It’s another great find by NYRB, one of the best publishers out there. It’s an absolute gem. There’s a school of thought that says that reviews shouldn’t express opinion, that they should avoid the thumbs up/thumbs down simplicities. It’s not a school I subscribe to. Thumbs up.

If you’re interested in reading more about this book, I first learned of it fromGuy Savage’s review, here (though if you read my blog the odds are you read his too, and if you don’t you should). As so often I owe Guy for a wonderful find. While writing this up I noticed that Guy had picked almost exactly the same quotes as I had. I try to avoid reading other people’s reviews at the time I’m writing my own, but when I’ve finished mine it’s always a comfort to see that someone else made similar choices. It suggests that if I have missed the point of a book, I have at least missed it in company.

There’s also an excellent review by Nick Lezard at the Guardian, here. Nick’s reviews are always good, particularly given he writes for a newspaper book section. Professional reviewers should of course leave bloggers in the dust in terms of analysis and insight, but sadly they very rarely do. Nick’s one of the exceptions (James Wood is another). 

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22 Comments

Filed under California, US Literature

22 responses to “the town below looking as hell might with a good electrician

  1. Thanks for the mention, Max. This was one of my best of 2013, and a fair number from the list were NYRB issues, and that says a lot, doesn’t it, about the quality we get from this publisher. Glad you liked it.

  2. leroyhunter

    It’s on my shelf and I’m really looking forward to it.

    As an aside, Thomson is himself a very fine writer and one I very much enjoy. I haven’t taken the plunge with his Biographical Dictionary of Film yet, but I have 3 or 4 others by him – all superb. He does both “narrative” and “dip into” books with equal facility.

  3. Terrific review, Max. I can’t recall where I first heard about this book – possibly from Nick Lezard’s review which I agree are always noteworthy – but I’m so glad I bought it. It’s easily one of the very best books I read last year; it’s utterly compelling and I want to thrust it into the hands of friends and strangers alike, anyone who’ll give me a minute or two really.

    One of the things I found most affecting about this book was the sheer pain and a sense of delusion borne out of desperation the girl experiences as she dreams of becoming a Hollywood actress. There’s a chapter about one-third of the way into the book (Chapter 14, I think) where she recounts her fantasy/dream of being followed by undercover men, of being secretly ‘tested’ to assess her skills as an actress; finally the curtain is revealed, the Studio reps reveals themselves and she becomes one of the chosen few. I found that complete section so profoundly sad and devastating and it captures the loneliness of her existence in that rather hollow world. I can understand just how challenging it must have been for you to whittle down the quotes for your review as there’s some exceptional writing in that chapter alone.

    I’m with you on the nature of the noir sensibility about ‘My Face’, very much so…and I’m not surprised to discover that Hayes was quite active as a screenwriter as there’s a filmic quality to the narrative and his writing.

    I really want to re-read this book as it’s so deeply concentrated I feel it could reveal more on a second visit. I’ve just picked the book for our March book group, so I might go with ‘My Face’ when my turn comes around again at the end of the year. I’ve also got Hayes’ ‘In Love’ and ‘The Girl on the Via Flaminia’ so I’ve bought into Hayes big-time now.

  4. Guy, I still have to do my best of 2013 list, but this has a very good chance of being on it. NYRB are superlative, they really are.

    Leroy, it’s great, I hope you enjoy it. Interesting to hear that about Thomson – I’m not surprised though, it’s a very well written and perceptive foreword. That quote from him about this is spot on.

    Jacqui, I absolutely agree with you on the book’s merits. Glad you see what I mean about the noir sensibility, I didn’t want people thinking I was saying it was like a crime novel. It is filmic too, I agree.

    The woman’s dream/fantasy of being followed, that her insignificance is all part of some great test, yes, it is devastating. If I’d been writing this review closer to when I read the book perhaps I’d have spoken about that, though I’m not sure it would have fitted in well above. It’s good you raised it though as it’s a really powerful passage and incredibly sad as you say.

    Girl on Via will probably be my next. In Love though I think, though I could be wrong, is supposed to be stronger than Girl. Guy I think has reviewed In Love.

  5. If I had known that David Thomson had written the introduction to ‘My Face for the World to See’, I probably would have read this one first instead of ‘In Love’. Thomson is one of my go-to sources for movies. I like Hayes’ noir quality. At this point, the noir movies of the 40s and 50s are more interesting to me than more recent fare.

  6. acommonreaderuk

    Well that sounds like a good one. Evidently the author loves punctuation and wouldn’t agree with recent debates about the obsolescence of the comm – there are eight in the first sentence.

    NYRB can always be relied upon can’t they. Great review by the way – makes me want to read it

  7. Thanks Max. Yes, I’ve heard very good things about ‘In Love’. I’ll head over to Guy’s blog to take a look.

  8. To be fair Anokatony, the noir movies of the 40s and 50s are some of the best cinema has produced. It’s not surprising you prefer them to much of modern cinema. I think great cinema is still being produced, i.e. I’m not of the school of thought that we’re living after the golden age, but I’d still hold that period as something of a high watermark for the form (to contradict myself ever so slightly there).

    I had no idea Thomson was so well regarded, or indeed who he was.

    On commas, I’m reading Proust at the moment, you get comfortable with commas, and, indeed, long sentences punctuated with many commas, it’s just how he writes.

    NYRB haven’t once put me wrong.

    Jacqui, hope you read it and share your thoughts!

  9. I love the last quote.

    I remembered Guy’s review. If it made both of your best of the year list, I should read it too. That would make a great book club selection.

  10. PS: the first quote sounds like French with its free use of commas. I like it, it gives back the way he feels oppressed by the crowd, the noise and the vain conversation. You feel tracked with him and you understand why he wants to get some fresh air. Powerful.

  11. The book’s full of great quotes. French literature does tend to use comma-filled sentences much more than English-language literature. It works very well here as you say, it’s powerful and evocative.

  12. I’m always amazed by NYRB. Where do they find the material? This sounds really unique and your review makes me think of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (futility and apathy, etc.). Also, the surface relationships you describe bring to mind Solaris for some reason, the notion that the people we think we love and think we know are actually completely different from our vision.

  13. I bought this right after having read Guy’s review and yours confirms what i thought at the time. It must be really good.
    All the quotes are amazing. It’s actually great when a book without a crime has a noir vibe. I think I know exactly what you mean. I’ll move it up my pile right away.

  14. Literary, I’m a big Didion fan on the basis of one book (Miami). I must look up Play I as it Lays.

    The Solaris one is a lovely comparison. Lem would I think be very pleased with it. Hopefully so anyway.

    Caroline, it is. Crime does make things easier as I say in the opening. To get the same effect without a murder takes real skill.

  15. I read this and In Love last July when NYRB Classics published them — I can still feel the warm days when I think of these books! I loved them each, though I’m glad you still have In Love to go. It was my favorite of the two and made my “favorites of 2013″ list.

  16. leroyhunter

    Play it as it Lays was one of my “best of the year” in 2013. Outstanding. I’ve skimmed the review as I want to read this soon, but it’s just another indicator to me of how good Hayes must be.

  17. I’ll take a look at it. That’s high praise.

    This review should be spoiler free, mine normally are, but I do understand why you’d skim if you’re reading it soon. Let me know what you think once you have!

    Trevor, I missed your review. I’ll look it up at yours. No surprise you loved this too and good to hear In Love could be even better. I haven’t read your (or anyone’s) favourites of 2013 yet as criminally I still haven’t written my own yet.

  18. Here’s a link to Trevor’s excellent review, for those wishing to get another view: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2013/07/24/alfred-hayes-my-face-for-the-world-to-see/

  19. That last quote gave me the frisson – it is such an astute psychological observation, delivered with such surgical precision.

  20. Surgical precision is a good phrase for Hayes. The whole book’s a bit like that – surgically precise.

  21. Pingback: Looking back on 2013 | Pechorin's Journal

  22. Pingback: ‘My Face for the World to See’ by Alfred Hayes – The Screenwriter and Marilyn Monroe | Tony's Book World

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