Category Archives: US fiction

We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.

Lightning Rods, by Helen DeWitt

The thing that makes A Modest Proposal horrific isn’t that it suggests eating babies. It’s that it uses the prevailing logic of its day to make a pretty good case for eating them.

Done well, satire takes our own assumptions and arguments and turns them around. It holds up a mirror to our own hypocrisy. It’s uncomfortable, and by that standard Lightning Rods is very good satire indeed.

Joe is a failing Midwest vacuum cleaner salesman. His product’s too good and all his prospective customers already have one. He drinks endless coffees with potential buyers who don’t want to replace their existing machines. He’s not found his market niche.

Joe spends more and more of his time in his trailer home idly masturbating. He’s not even very good at that: he keeps getting distracted by irrelevant background details in his fantasy scenarios and going limp.

What he doesn’t realise is that all of this is preparation. Like so many great American success stories Joe’s a failure at first because he hasn’t yet learned to follow his dream. Admittedly, his dream is a little different to most: it involves imagining having sex with women whose upper bodies poke through a hole in the wall or a window or whatever so that all he sees is their bottom halves. It’s an utterly objectifying dream which reduces his fantasy women to pure parts. Still, it’s his dream and that’s what makes it special.

The book’s written in hindsight – the reader knows that Joe will have an idea that will “one day lead to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.” This then is an inspiring rags-to-riches story of a man who by being true to himself and daring to think differently changes lives and makes his fortune. It’s the American dream.

Joe’s idea definitely involves thinking differently. He realises that companies all across America are struggling with workplace sexual harassment. He theorises that it’s the libidos of top-performers that create all the tension. If you could have a workplace invention that helped discharge those tensions, well, then you could make real money while doing good at the same time.

If [a top earner] wanted an outlet for his sexual urges he would have to invest the time talking to someone about her interests, with no guarantee that anything would come of it, or he would have to go home and jerk off to a magazine or video, or he would have to pay someone, with all the risks that entailed. But how much time does the top earner in a company realistically have to talk to someone about her interests? If he hires someone, on the other hand, a guy in that kind of position has a lot to lose. He has a reputation that can be damaged. What real choices does he have? If he’s at the office he can’t even put M&M’s down somebody’s blouse. Let alone get any kind of real sexual satisfaction. And a guy like that is going to be spending a lot of time on the job. He works his butt off and at the end of the day he can go home to a magazine. Just like Joe Schmoe sitting on his butt all day in a trailer.

Joe is a salesman, and one of his many mottos is that “We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.” So, some guys make money for their companies but harass female employees. You could change their behaviour, but that’s not how a salesman thinks. A salesman deals with the world as it is, not as he’d like it to be.

Joe decides that what the workplace needs is “lightning rods” – women who work as secretaries or administrators or whatever and who most of the time do that job, but who also anonymously provide a service where from time to time their rear-half is wheeled through a hole in the wall for the company’s highest-performing men to have sex with. Hiring them will help discharge the sexual tensions that could otherwise build up and become problematic.

It is of course an utterly repulsive concept. DeWitt though dresses it in the blandly positive language of corporate life. Joe sells the idea to his first client by pointing out that they have legally-mandated disabled toilets but no disabled employees. Why not make use of those cubicles by installing Joe’s facility within the existing unused facility? It’s just plain efficient and it makes good use of a wasted resource.

Of course some find the idea distasteful, but for Joe it’s all in the presentation. He’s not providing prostitutes but professional women who do a great day job and then provide this extra service (of course for a suitable uplift in pay). For it all to work he doesn’t just have to convince the (notably all male-run) companies but also the women who’ll slide backwards into those holes. Naturally, he sells the concept to them with the language of empowerment:

He said: “It’s not for everyone. We’re looking for the kind of woman who is confident about herself. The kind of woman who has aims she wants to achieve. We’re looking for someone with maturity. We’re looking for someone who wants to make a real contribution to the company and expects to be compensated accordingly.”

As Joe would say, it’s a win-win. The women get a pay uplift and the knowledge they’re making a difference. The guys get protected from their own impulses:

The way to look at it was, if a guy, through no fault of his own, has not been brought up to treat women with respect, is it fair that his whole career should be put in jeopardy? Is it fair that on top of the disadvantage he has anyway in competing against guys who have been to Harvard and Yale, he should have the additional handicap of endangering his career every time he is in the vicinity of female personnel?

DeWitt is too good a writer to editorialise about Joe’s idea or its adoption. Instead she adopts an utterly flat tone. Joe’s not a deluded creep who lucks out by finding himself in a culture that sees women as commodities. He’s a hero of contemporary capitalism. He’s a pioneer disrupting traditional industries and hierarchies. Before too long:

absenteeism was down, profits were up, everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Of course he faces difficulties along the way. Much of the book is a faintly repetitive telling of how Joe encounters some problem such as a hostile HR manager or race relations laws which require him to hire women regardless of ethnicity (which in turn makes it harder to maintain their anonymity), but each time he thinks of a solution. It’s the can-do ethic which made America great.

Of course some details have to be smoothed out along the way, but any great enterprise always encounters a few hiccups. As one of the women reflects (Renée who uses her earnings to study law and eventually becomes a Justice of the Supreme Court):

[America] was set up from scratch by people who managed to overlook minor details like slavery and a whole sex.

Sure, you can if you want get bogged down in questions of morality and legality, but why when you could be changing the world instead?

Lightning Rods is partly an examination of how language can be used to make the unacceptable palatable. The corporate-speak here masks something most of us would find viscerally wrong, but in real life we talk of “rightsizing” when we mean mass layoffs or of “finding efficiencies” when we mean sweating assets and, again, mass layoffs. Language doesn’t disguise what we do but it does put it in a candy shell so that we can swallow it without difficulty.

However, Lightning Rods is also a critique of a certain seductive mentality. Let’s look at that saying of Joe’s again:

We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.

Superficially that makes sense. It’s persuasive. It seems almost like common sense. We have to engage with reality, with the people we actually have in front of us, not with the imaginary people that we’d like them to be.

All that’s true so far as it goes. The trouble is if we only ever deal with people as they are nothing changes. Nothing gets better. Women used not to have access to education or the vote. Deal with people as they are and that doesn’t change. You have to confront people to make progress. You have to refuse to deal with them as they are.

We don’t of course have lightning rods in the workplace. Joe’s idea would never fly in real life. Back in the ‘90s though and even early 2000s as a junior I overheard multiple senior workplace conversations about whether it was better not to put certain employees in front of certain clients. Companies weren’t in the business of social change. They had to deal with people as they are, and if a client was sexist or racist or homophobic it was unfair to both the employee and the client to put someone from one of those groups in front of them.

I don’t hear those conversations any more. I’m not saying they never happen but they’re no longer mainstream thought. Sometimes it’s better not to accept people as they are.

Other reviews

Lots, mostly absolutely glowing. John Self of The Asylum argues here that the book is primarily about language in a post that first alerted me to this; David Hebblethwaite here mildly disagrees with John in terms of the book’s focus but agrees on its excellence; Gaskella also sings its praises here. I’m sure I’ve missed others. Also worth noting is this tremendous negative review of the book by Bibliokept which is pretty much a model of how to write well about a book you didn’t like.

Advertisements

10 Comments

Filed under Comic fiction, DeWitt, Helen, US fiction

… she would drink nothing for a week except a beer or a glass of wine after work each day.

The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates

Where to start with such a book? Perhaps with the opening paragraph which is sufficiently brilliant that it leaves anything I might say quite redundant:

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce. That happened in 1930, when Sarah was nine years old and Emily five. Their mother, who encouraged both girls to call her ‘Pookie,’ took them out of New York to a rented house in Tenafly, New Jersey, where she thought the schools would be better and where she hoped to launch a career in suburban real estate. It didn’t work out – very few of her plans for independence ever did – and they left Tenafly after two years, but it was a memorable time for the girls.

easter-parade

The Easter Parade is a study in disappointment, and that first paragraph sets the stage beautifully. Leaving aside the power of that first sentence let’s look at some of the other elements for a moment: we know that ‘Pookie’ wants to be seen by her daughters more as friend than authority figure; the cutesy nickname suggests she might not be very practical which is immediately confirmed by that unsuccessful move to Tenafly and by that aside on her various plans; and then that final coda that “it was a memorable time for the girls” which somehow makes the whole thing infinitely sadder.

Easter tracks the Grimes sisters from childhood through to middle age. Sarah is the pretty one, popular and conventional. Emily lacks her sister’s curves and confidence but is both more independent and clearer-sighted. Early on they travel to the city to see their father. They think he’s an important journalist and are shocked when he explains that he’s “only a copy-desk man”. Sarah still boasts of him at school; Emily reminds her afterwards of the diminished reality.

Sarah saves herself through adolescence and marries a dashing and popular boy named Tony who has English parents and movie-star good looks. It’s what a good girl does and he seems a good catch, but we know from that opening sentence that the marriage won’t make her happy.

Emily meanwhile loses her virginity to a soldier on leave whom she never sees again, goes to college and then gets jobs in journalism and ultimately in advertising. Where Sarah chose marriage, family and domesticity Emily chooses independence and a career, but we still have that opening sentence reminding us that neither sister has a happy life.

The writing, as ever with Yates, is exquisite. I loved this description of part of Emily’s encounter with that soldier:

Somewhere above Forty-second street he kissed her. It wasn’t the first time she had been kissed – not even the first time she’d been kissed on top of a Fifth Avenue bus; one of the boys in high school had been that brave – but it was the first kiss of its kind, ever.

Despite that theme of disappointment, or perhaps because of it, there are no great tragedies here. Sarah would count losing her virginity to a random soldier as a disaster but Emily doesn’t suffer any for it. There are deaths, but from illness or age (perhaps sometimes exacerbated by too much to drink for too long, but natural all the same). Nobody is murdered; nobody dies in a car crash or rail collision; aliens don’t invade; the world doesn’t end; life carries on.

Years slip by sometimes in a sentence. Sarah and Emily drift apart. Each of them wants a little of what the other has perhaps because neither has a whole life. But then, who does? We all have to make choices.

Sarah dreams of doing some writing and her early efforts suggest talent, but her husband isn’t interested and she’s not part of that world. Nothing she writes ever gets finished and nobody really cares except her.

Emily meanwhile marries a man who comes to resent her for his impotence and some years later moves with an aging poet named Jack to a writer’s workshop in Iowa where he hopes to rediscover his early talent. Like Sarah, Emily tries putting her man ahead of herself and briefly abandons her career to support Jack’s but he too comes to resent her when his writer’s block fails to clear. Somehow Sarah can’t unlock the door to Emily’s creativity, nor Emily the door to Sarah’s domesticity.

There’s a sense that it all tracks back to their parents. To their father who considered himself a failure and who wrote headlines for a minor newspaper whose politics he disagreed with. To their mother with her fantasies of a grandeur and an elegance she could never realise. But perhaps that’s too easy, because none of the other characters seem any happier and they don’t all have divorced parents.

Early on in the novel Sarah and Tony go to watch the Easter Parade. They’re photographed there, young and happy and full of life and love. It’s paradise captured in a Kodak moment. Perhaps that’s the clue to this novel. Happiness is fleeting. Life can’t be frozen in a snapshot; kept inviolable against age and defeat.

Tony’s career never takes off. Sarah drinks too much and grows fat and dowdy. Emily is successful but lonely. Pookie dissolves into her own fantasies. Years after their breakup Emily sees a review of Jack’s new volume of poetry which he’s finally managed to write. It’s lacklustre and the reviewer quickly moves on to a newer poet.

If Tony and Sarah had died that day at the Easter Parade, if some chunk of masonry had fallen from a building flattening them both, then their lives would have been judged happy to that point. People would mourn their lost potential; their bright future. Instead they lived and the future turned out not to be so bright after all. It’s not the divorce that makes the Grimes’ sisters’ lives unhappy. It’s living.

I’ll end with one final quote from fairly early in the novel. Here Emily and Pookie are visiting Sarah and Tony who’re now set up in a home of their own. Sarah is married as she wanted, Emily’s at college as she wanted. Pookie can see her daughters doing well for themselves. They should all be happy and yet …

[Sarah] served a lunch that was almost as inadequate as one of Pookie’s meals; then the problem was that the conversations kept petering out. Sarah wanted to hear ‘everything’ about Barnard, but when Emily began to talk she saw her sister’s eyes glaze over in smiling boredom. Pookie said “isn’t this nice? Just the three of us together again?” But it wasn’t really nice very nice at all, and for most of the afternoon they sat around the sparsely furnished living room in attitudes of forced conviviality. Three women with nothing much to say to one another. Color illustrations of Magnum Navy fighter planes in action occupied one wall; on another was the framed Easter photograph of Sarah and Tony.

I suspect I’ve made this sound bleak and to be fair a novel about the disappointments of life can’t help but be a little bleak. However, the honesty and the beauty of the writing takes it above that. This is a sad novel, but not a depressing one. As it closes nobody is any the wiser, but life continues. It may not always be all we’d wish, but it’s the only game in town.

Other reviews

Jacqui over at Jacqui Wine’s Journal pushed me over the line into reading this (I’ve owned it for ages). Her review is here. Jacqui also linked to reviews by Kim at Reading Matters here and by guest reviewer Carly at Tomcatintheredroom here.

Carly’s review picks up two key themes that I wish I’d picked up above, but it felt like cheating to change my review to follow hers. They’re the theme of the pursuit of art as an unsuccessful route to meaning which crops up repeatedly here; and the devastating quality of small heartbreaks. Carly quotes an exchange that she calls “one of the most quietly devastating in any work of fiction” and I can’t disagree with her. Follow the link above to see it for yourself.

14 Comments

Filed under US fiction, Yates, Richard

We had a nice time in Reno

Run River, by Joan Didion

Run River opens with a death, then backtracks to show the wasted lives that led to it. It’s a lonely and melancholic book; a tale of a declining American aristocracy told in coldly lucid prose.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one. She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp on the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it.

In most novels a gunshot is a call to action. Characters spring to life. They scream; run towards or away from the shot; grab a gun themselves; hide; call for help. They react. Lily hears a shot and takes the time to wind her watch.

run-river

Once the watch is wound Lily checks the bedside table for her husband’s gun. She’s not surprised to find it missing. She’s not surprised when she heads outside to find that her husband has murdered her lover, Channing. She’s a little upset because she doesn’t think it was necessary, but it’s not an emotional scene. Lily and Everett aren’t emotional people, or if they are they don’t know how to express what they feel. Perhaps if they did Channing wouldn’t be dead.

That all happens in 1959. The book then jumps back to 1938, to Lily and Everett’s early days as a couple and onward to their marriage and life together. All the years leading up to that night and to Channing’s corpse.

In 1938 Lily is a student, born to privilege and a certain wealth. Her ancestors were among the early settlers of the West. She’s not happy at college and when Everett shows interest in her during a break she’s happy to return it. He’s from the same background as she is, the same historic stock. He’s the default option.

They marry, but Lily is reluctant to make a show of it so it happens in Reno without their families. They go to live on Everett’s ranch with his father and sister and she gives him two children. It’s the life she was bred for but she has no aptitude for it. She makes invitation cards for parties hardly anyone attends. She doesn’t mind. She only organised the parties because she thought she should.

Everett is a simple man living the life he was always meant to – the life his father and grandfather and so on led. The 1930s aren’t a great time to be a rancher though and it’s not clear Everett’s that good at being one anyway. He’s not the man his ancestors were. Nor is Lily the kind of wife they would have wanted.

These people drift on monied but pointless. The war comes and in what should be a warning sign Everett feels no great need to visit or call home even when he can. He likes being away, he likes the undemanding company of other men. The war gives him a purpose, but wars don’t last and the ranch still waits for him.

Lily doesn’t find any purpose. The days of the old rancher society are fading and she’s idled into her life. She took the path of least resistance and it’s led nowhere in particular.

Everett’s sister, Martha, is another major character and fares no better than Lily and Everett. We know early on that she doesn’t make it to 1959. Martha’s a vulnerable and unhappy woman. She falls in love with Channing, years before he becomes Lily’s lover. He’s of the new California, brimming with schemes to get rich that never quite come off. He doesn’t marry her. Martha lives in limbo, caught between the expectations of her class and her love of a man who is never quite brave or bold enough to be worth the devotion she gives to him.

Martha doesn’t consider Lily good enough for Everett and criticises her for her infidelities, but nothing is resolved. These characters pass noiselessly through their own lives, coexisting and occasionally colliding but somehow never quite communicating. Everett doesn’t know how to say what he feels, and Lily would rather not:

The reconciliation made her quite as uncomfortable as the scene downstairs had; things said out loud had for her an aura of danger so volatile that it could be controlled only in that dark province inhabited by those who share beds.

Snatching at what had seemed for a moment a chance to steer the conversation away from the particular and into the realm of topics so impersonal and so unweighted that they could be safely talked about.

In Greek myth the dead inhabit Hades, a shadow-realm where shades of the once-vibrant living wander without passion or pleasure. Food tastes of ashes. All passion is past. Those who loved each other in life recognise each other but only memories of feelings stir.

Sacramento should be a long way from Hades, but here it isn’t. It’s not a parallel Didion draws but it struck me that Lily and Everett had somehow abdicated their own lives and created their own little sunwashed Hades.

As ever with Didion the prose is magnificent. These two quotes come from a rare moment of grace when Lily and Everett go with Martha and Channing for a few days’ vacation on Lake Tahoe:

In the shining clarity of that afternoon in the mountains, the air so clear and sharp and the horizons clean and distant, it had seemed to Everett for a while that they could have again what he had wanted them to have, could lie in bed and laugh, neither accusing the other of anything.

All that evening, he had pretended with her, had played her game because that was the way he wanted it too, and later they swam in the lake, the water so clear that with only the moonlight and the handful of lights strung out on the dock he could make out rocks thirty feet below the surface, so cold that swimming was like grappling with dry ice.

In a sense this is a novel of people sufficiently privileged as to be able to create their own problems, as opposed to most who find the world creates problems enough for them already. Despite that their lives are still tragic. They’re still with us the Lilys and Everetts. Children born to a past that’s already made their choices for them unless they have the strength of character to break away from everything that made them, and how many of us can do that?

Late in the book Lily reflects of Everett and Channing both that “they seemed afflicted with memory.” So they are. They’re born to expectations they can’t live up to; heirs to kingdoms they’re not fit to rule. It’s 1959, America is on the eve of the ‘60s (Run River was written in ’63) and the world is changing. Lily and Martha and Everett and Channing and all of them are leftovers from history and while their forebears wrote America’s story the narrative has now moved on.

Other reviews

Didion’s never a hard sell, but it was Emma’s review at Book Around the Corner here and Jacqui’s at Jacqui Wine’s Journal here that persuaded me to read this. Thanks as ever to both.

16 Comments

Filed under California, Didion, Joan, US fiction

We all go down in battle, but we all come home.’

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood comes praised by many of my own personal literary heroes. TS Eliot was a fan. So too Jeanette Winterson. Even William Burroughs apparently loved it. With all that to recommend it how could I not love it too?

Nightwood

With that opening it’s probably not a surprise to learn that I didn’t love Nightwood. I didn’t even like it very much. I’m not saying it’s a bad book, given its champions I think that would be arrogant. I’m confident though in saying that if it’s a good book I am not a good reader for it.

Nightwood opens strongly:

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms – gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.

The child is “Baron” Felix Volkbein. His title is slightly dubious and therefore all the more fiercely clung to. He’s a man with his gaze fixed firmly on the past, intent on preserving traditions his family never had more than questionable claims on.

Note that line about “perpetuating that race”, because Felix’s is part-Jewish and here that’s indicative of character. The first third or so of the novel is filled with characterisation based on racial essentialism, common in the early 20th Century but deeply tedious here in the early 21st.

That essentialism leads to cod-philosophy like this:

It takes a Christian, standing eternally in the Jew’s salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes the ‘collector’ of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until some goy has put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a ‘sign’. A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s. The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew’s history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood. In this manner the Jew participates in the two conditions; and in like manner Felix took the breast of this wet nurse whose milk was his being but which could never be his birthright.

Which is frankly bollocks, and not particularly meaningful bollocks at that. Then you get stuff like:

The people of the theatre and the [circus] ring were for him as dramatic and as monstrous as a consignment on which he could never bid. That he haunted them as persistently as he did, was evidence of something in his nature that was turning Christian.

After a long silence in which the doctor had ordered and consumed a Chambéry fraise and the Baron a coffee, the doctor remarked that the Jew and the Irish, the one moving upward and the other down, often meet, spade to spade in the same acre.

I could pick many more examples. To be Jewish or Christian or Irish here is more than an accident of birth and culture (at one point the novel observes that Felix, being Jewish, is ” racially incapable of abandon”). Race here is a fixed part of the self. It’s the breed you belong to, as might a horse or dog.

Mercifully this sort of thing dies back after the first third of the book or so (if it didn’t I sincerely doubt this would be viewed by anyone as a classic). Felix marries Robin Vote and has a frail and sickly child by her. Robin leaves him, and the novel follows her to her relationship with Nora Flood. Felix married Robin because he thought a man of his intended station should marry by a certain age and beget heirs. Nora takes in Robin because she loves her.

Most reviews of Nightwood focus on Robin and Nora and for good reason. Nora’s passion provides everything Felix’s dry and dwindling ambition lacks. Unfortunately, Robin’s is a restless soul. Nora’s love isn’t enough to keep her and Robin starts to stay out late, to pick up other women, to push back against the comfort Nora offers. Nora pursues her but can’t hold her, and soon Robin is poached by “the squatter” in her and Nora’s lives, the aging Jenny Petherbridge.

Felix wanted Robin for reasons that were ultimately sterile, and it’s telling that the child they have is weak and unlikely to live to see adulthood. Nora loves Robin so much that she’ll let her sleep with other women, wait at home and when Robin stops coming home follow her to cheap waterside bars and into the darkness Robin seeks out. Jenny Petherbridge just wants what others have, and takes Robin because Nora has her. As for what Robin wants, who truly knows? She thinks “unpeopled thoughts”. She’s more catalyst than character, aimless and promiscuous though whether from desire or listlessness is hard to say.

Looking up after an interminable flow of fact and fancy, [Felix] saw Robin sitting with her legs thrust out, her head thrown back against the embossed cushion of the chair, sleeping, one arm fallen over the chair’s side, the hand somehow older and wiser than her body; and looking at her he knew that he was not sufficient to make her what he had hoped; it would require more than his own argument. It would require contact with persons exonerated of their earthly condition by some strong spiritual bias, someone of that old régime, some old lady of the past courts, who only remembered others when trying to think of herself.

Observer and chorus to all of this is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O’ Connor, a kind of holy fool. He’s friend to Felix and counsels and comforts him when Robin leaves. He becomes friend to Nora too and in one long dark night does the same for her. He’s a garrulous Irish cross-dresser and whole pages are given to his flights of rhetoric. As Nora asks on first meeting him as he talks with Felix: ‘Are you both really saying what you mean, or are you just talking?’

He’s doing both of course. O’ Connor speaks for the sake of language itself, but there’s meaning amidst the torrent. When Nora comes to him in despair his ocean of words gives her the space for her own pain. His loquacious nonsense is a kind of mercy.

Nightwood is, above all, a novel of emotion. The characters here are damned souls driven by their own passions, the only one of them to achieve any kind of grace does so by abandoning the follies that drive them. In that they’re human, if perhaps somewhat exaggerated humans.

It’s rare for posts here (or at any blog) to get people commenting below the line in strong disagreement. It happened when I criticised Heart of Darkness (which I rather welcomed) but it happened all the more when I reviewed Wuthering Heights which I took to even less than Nightwood. The thing about Wuthering Heights is it’s a novel of sensibility, not sense. Nightwood is the same. If the passion doesn’t speak to you then you’re left with unlikely characters doing improbable things in overblown language.

One little review isn’t going to dent Nightwood’s status any more than it will Wuthering Heights. There is though a chemistry between book and reader as there is between lovers, and just as it wasn’t there for Felix and Robin it isn’t there for me and Nightwood either.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere I know of, save for Bookslut’s rather positive one here before she abandoned blogging. She makes a comparison to Proust. I wouldn’t. Jeanette Winterson wrote a characteristically lovely foreword which is reprinted in full in the Guardian here and is worth reading. The spoilers are few and Nightwood isn’t the sort of book that would be spoiled by knowing its slender plot in any event. Winterson is insightful on the book in a way I can’t be, because it spoke to her but merely spoke at me.

As a final aside, I do find the habit in early 20th Century English novels of dropping in little bits of dialogue in other European languages immensely irritating. Here it’s occasional phrases in German, but elsewhere I’ve seen both French and Italian. Huxley loved that sort of thing and I imagine it reflects how people of a certain class spoke, but it is wearying.

19 Comments

Filed under Barnes, Djuna, Modernist fiction, US fiction

Rick was a marked man, a lifelong sucker for syncopation.

Young Man With A Horn, by Dorothy Baker

Most people like music. They like it to dance to; they like it in the background at a restaurant; they like something to listen to while at the gym. Most people will have a few favourite acts and some favourite tunes; songs that spark memories of important moments or that years after adolescence still get them jumping up to throw some ageing shapes on the dance floor.

All of that’s important, but it’s not the whole story. For some of us saying we like music isn’t right because like is too mild a word. Music is integral, essential, part of who we are. If I can feel that even though I can’t play a note, how much stronger must it be for those who can create sounds nobody’s ever heard before?

YMWAH

Young Man with a Horn is the story of the life of Rick Martin, a fictional jazz trumpeter who died at the age of thirty burnt out by a talent greater than his life could contain. It’s about that tension between just liking music and living it, made vastly more acute by a gift that allows no compromise and yet which is so advanced most people can hardly recognise it.

While still a schoolkid Rick Martin wanders one day into an empty church. He looks at a hymn book and sings a couple of the hymns, then he notices a piano and decides to see if he can work out how to play them on it.

It worked out, all right. It started to work itself out that very day. Rick stood there, head on one side, forehead in pleats, figuring it out. And after a while he dragged up one of the benches vertical to the piano, and sat on the end of it. He stayed there until dark, and I can scarcely believe it myself, but the story goes that he could play the piano by dark; he could play number 14 on the piano by dark. He couldn’t find the light switch, then, and so he went home and went right to bed, so that he could think about just how it was that he had done it, and how maybe it might sound better if he made a change or two here and there.

Rick’s a poor white kid. He lives with his aunt and uncle neither of whom is much home and he’s about as low on the social scale as you can get without being black. Race matters here. That little lack of melanin is the only status Rick and his people have. These are racist times and even the lowliest white is still viewed as superior to any black.

Music though, music doesn’t recognise those distinctions. Musicians may, but the music doesn’t. Rick falls in with Smoke Jordan, a kid who sweeps up at the bowling alley where Rick works and Smoke is friend to Jeff Williams who plays piano and leads one of the best jazz bands in town. Smoke and Jeff are black, the whole band are, but all Rick can hear is the music and the music’s too good to be ignored. This quote captures jazz for me as well as anything I’ve ever read:

Jeff led them to it with four bars in the key, and then the three horns came in together, held lightly to a slim melody by three separate leashes. Then Jeff left the rhythm to the drums, and the piano became the fourth voice, and from then on harmony prevailed in strange coherence, each man improvising wildly on his own and the four of them managing to fit it together and tightly. Feeling ran high, and happy inspiration followed happy inspiration to produce counterpoint that you’d swear somebody had sat down and worked out note by note on nice clean manuscript paper. But nobody had; it came into the heads of four men and out again by way of three horns and one piano.

At first Rick and Smoke just hang out outside, listening through the window. It isn’t long though before they’re invited in and Jeff learns that Rick can play a little piano himself. He recognises Rick’s innate talent, and while it would have happened somehow anyway from there Rick’s path is set.

Jazz music is born from black American talent and experience. It came from a fusion of the emotion of the blues with the precision of the New Orleans classically trained Creole bands put out of work by the Jim Crow laws. The history of jazz is inseparable from the history of race in the US.

When Rick first meets Smoke, Jeff and the others in the band he’s the only white kid there. His language, his interior monologue, is profoundly racist but that’s a function of vocabulary and upbringing rather than true feeling. He can’t hide from himself the talent of these men or the friendship and guidance they offer him and Smoke goes on to be the only true friend he’ll ever have.

A few years later Rick’s working the coast playing trumpet in a white jazz band, Jack Stuart and his Collegians. The Collegians have taken that music of black origin and now play it for white crowds, cleaned up and not too challenging. They’re good, but nothing great.

Rick turns up for the job bearing a box of LPs featuring Jeff Williams and his band. He can’t leave that music, the true music, behind. He plays them for Jack and his boys who’ve heard of Jeff Williams but assumed because he was good that he was white. I was reminded of Nick LaRocca’s (I believe all white) Original Dixieland Jass Band who were the first to popularise jazz with a mass white audience and who helped kickstart the craze for jazz music as dance music.

Jeff Williams starts with similar base tunes to LaRocca’s crew, but he builds on them and his music is too deep, too complex to be just something to dance to:

Inseparable as music and dancing fundamentally must be, it is only the layman who prefers to dance to, rather than listen to, really good jazz. Good jazz has so much going on inside it than dancing to it, for anybody who likes the music, is a kind of dissipation. Bach’s Brandenburgs would make good dance music, but nobody dances to them; they make too-good dance music. The improvisations of Jeff Williams and his band weren’t anybody’s Brandenburgs, but they had something in common with them, a kind of hard, finished brilliance.

For Rick jazz is much more than something fun to pass an evening with. The musicians he plays with recognise his talent, but the crowds only see that he’s good and while he’s a definite commercial draw at the end of the day most of what he’s doing soars right over their heads. It raises a question as to what his talent’s for. It eats his life – hours of practice every day; playing all evening for the crowd then all night with the other musicians for fun after the gig’s done. He doesn’t take holidays, he barely spends the money he earns. Rick Martin just plays, practices, and then plays some more.

A few years later and Rick’s hit the big time, or as big as jazz allows. He’s now with Phil Morrison’s orchestra, another white band because while it’s largely blacks who’re advancing the form it’s whites who’re packing in the big audiences.

[Phil’s] orchestra held the established first place among society orchestras for years and years. And for a big orchestra, and a society orchestra, it was good. The way Rick Martin’s trumpet used to spring up above the rest of their heads would make you think it was a great orchestra, and Rick wasn’t the only good man in it, either; there was a fiddler who made you think twice, and a man who blew as good a trombone as you’ll hear anywhere in public. But it wouldn’t do to call it a great orchestra because it pandered to all tastes and there was always that grandiose ending. It was just a good big orchestra, playing out its nightly schedule at one big hotel or another, working for money, drawing a crowd, getting people out on the floor. But when that thin blond boy stood up in his place and tore off sixteen bars in his own free style, filling in the blank that was allotted to him on the score, it was a surprise forever, like seeing an airplane take off from the deck of a good solid ship. To hell, please, with the law of gravity.

It can’t last. Rick finally meets a girl who’s more than just a casual fling and has a short lived and disastrous marriage. “When she came into a room, Rick felt it and his knees went cold. When she bent her head to light a cigarette from the match he held, he was lost until the flame burned his finger.” His drinking gets worse and worse, until after a while nobody can tell anymore how much he’s had as it’s always too much. His talent outgrows his audience, his desire to do more getting to the point where his horn can’t make the sounds he wants it to and if it did hardly anyone would even recognise them as music any more.

What do we know except that he had a way of doing a thing, and that he had a love of the thing so strong that he never in his life compromised it, or let it down, or forgot it?

This is a novel about music, about race, and about having a talent so great that it eclipses the life that carries it. Rick Martin’s talent isn’t so much a gift as a demand. By the end of the novel he’s dead (the novel opens with this so it’s not a spoiler) leaving behind a few recordings and only a handful of musicians who understood quite how good he was.

Young Man With A Horn is a novel inspired by the music, but not the life, of Bix Beiderbecke. As the afterword makes clear, Beiderbecke’s life didn’t have much in common with Martin’s save too much alcohol, too much talent and too early an end. This is a novel about the music rather than the man. Because that music is jazz music it’s also a novel about race, and because jazz at its best is truth with a trumpet it’s a novel about truth in art and in life and the price you pay for it.

Other reviews

YMWAH was published in 1938 and so falls into Kaggsy’s rather good 1938 club. As a result Kaggsy has reviewed it here and Vulpes Libres here (and me here for that matter) and others are reading it and their reviews should be linked to from Kaggsy’s 1938 club page. There’s also a review by Jacqui of JacquiWine’sblog here. I’m sure I’m missing some so please let me know in the comments.

Edit: Tom of Amateur Reader’s rather good post is here, with some nice quotes showing quite how well Baker writes about the actual practice of playing music.

On a related note, I reviewed Dorothy Baker’s marvellous Cassandra at the Wedding here.

The best Bix Beiderbecke recordings I know of are on the four disc Bix and Tram box set featuring Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer. There’s a Discogs description here and I highly recommend it. I also listened while reading this to Bix Beiderbecke with Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra which (despite a somewhat glitchy initial track) is very, very good. There’s an Allmusic description of that album here.

24 Comments

Filed under Baker, Dorothy, US fiction

I love the laconic. Clearly, I am not of their number.

Speedboat, by Renata Adler

If I’d known better I would have left more time between reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Both feature fractured out-of-sequence narratives; each centered on a woman adrift in her life who writes for a living and whose sharp observations comprise the book.

Speedboat is probably the better of the two, but for me was lessened by being read after the Offill, with Speedboat seeming to adopt themes and techniques from the much later-published Speculation. That’s unfair, but at the same time given both novels’ approach to chronology it’s also oddly appropriate.

speedboat-adler

Jen Fain is a thirtysomething New York journalist and academic. The book is snapshots of past incidents and present situations, each interspersed with observations about her friends and colleagues and what she sees around her. As a reader you have to put it all together; you have to work to make sense of her life from the noise and absence of narrative.

Jen has the same problem as the reader. As a journalist it’s her job to create narrative – to carve it from the chaos of fact. Once she covered a story on the Biafran war. She could make no sense of it. She says “The truth, I would like to say here, is as follows. But I can’t.” She could be speaking of her life.

The tone is sharp and witty, yet melancholic. Jen is successful at work but drifts through a series of interchangeable relationships with interchangeable men, all the while coolly observing her own cultural context as if she were an anthropologist on assignment. In this way Speedboat is a particularly modern book, despite having been written nearly 40 years ago.

Weekends, I took trains. You never knew whom you might meet. There was a man who peddled cigars, cigarettes, and what he pronounced “magazynes” outside the Philadelphia station, and a dining-car waiter who offered you among other cheeses, “camemberry.” I never did meet anyone.

The quote above is fairly typical. The book’s littered with little asides, each perceptive and off-kilter, often raising questions but offering few answers. She talks in one section of the town she grew up in. It had suffered devastating industrial fires in the 1930s and Ren recalls hearing of one business owner who had lost everything and who walked on the railroad tracks hoping to be killed. Ren observes: “Railroad service has never been very good up there. No trains came. His children own the town these days, for what it’s worth.”

Years later the town gentrified and ultimately integrated. “The black section was torn up and seeded over in the town’s rezoning project. No one knows where the blacks live now.” That’s neatly written, though on reflection it occurred to me that presumably the blacks themselves know where they live. Ren’s viewpoint is both privileged and partial – ennui has always required an income.

Speedboat is often very funny, and for me never more so than when describing the life of the college where Jen teaches as part of the Drama and Cinema department. In this quote, Art want to do a course on Space on Film, encroaching dangerously on Drama and Cinema’s turf. The Dean of Cultural Affairs calls a meeting of the departments to discuss the issue:

Our branch of the university is accustomed anyway to jurisdictional disputes. Drama and Cinema grew out of a workshop that existed many years ago to remedy the accents of bright city girls, who could not afford college out of town. When such programs became unfashionable, the staff chose to become two faculties: Dramatistics, and Perspectives in Media. Within a year, the Media people chose to join the newer Department of Minority Groups and Social Change—which already offered History of Broadcasting 204, 301, and Seminar and whose course on Prostitution, Causes and Origins, was being televised. The Dramatistics people felt they could not attract students, or budget allocations, on their own. They added Film. Our department changed its name, and became what it now is. Our Drama people are trying to take over the English Department’s course Creative Writing 101; Playwriting A. The English Literature people are beleaguered on another side. For twenty years, they have had The Brothers Karamazov (translated, abridged). The Department of Russian Literature, which teaches all its courses in translation now, wants Dostoevski back.

The Drama people have designs in other fields: Ibsen and Strindberg, in particular—which seems reasonable enough, since all the texts are plays. Ibsen and Strindberg, however, belong, with Swinburne, to the Department of Germanistics and Philology. Between 1938 and 1949, all German courses were unpopular. The German Literature people simply seized Ibsen and Strindberg—and by some misunderstanding, which was noticed too late, got Swinburne as well. There were no Drama people, or any other sort of people, at that time, to compete. Chekhov, meanwhile, for reasons that, I am afraid, are clear, is taught in the Classics Department (Greek 209C). The operative principle appears to be that if any thing or person mentioned in another department could conceivably be mentioned in your own, you have at least an argument to seize the course. One night when the Women’s Studies Division gets under way, we all expect there’s going to be a coup.

Adler knows what she’s doing and so Speedboat does come together, becoming more than just a series of amusing anecdotes, entertaining asides and occasional aphorisms. Instead it becomes a vision of a certain society at a certain place and time – 1970s New York intellectuals. America here seems jaded, unpopular abroad and mired in the Watergate scandal at home.

Intelligent people, caught at anything, denied it. Faced with evidence of having denied it falsely, people said they had not done it and had not lied about it, and didn’t remember it, but if they had done it or lied about it, they would have done it and misspoken themselves about it in an interest so much higher as to alter the nature of doing and lying altogether. It was in the interest of absolutely nobody to get to the bottom of anything whatever.

New York intellectuals are not a group who’ve struggled to get their voices heard over the years, and the Brooklyn novel (which this isn’t, but is perhaps a parent to) has become a genre that many readers now wearily recoil from. Adler can’t however be blamed for others having swam in her wake, and while her strengths are those you’d expect from reading those who followed her (Offill, Lerner) that doesn’t change the fact that this is a very well written book.

Speedboat is intelligent, perceptive and funny. Adler can stop a sentence on a dime, and the result is that the book remains always entertaining even when you’re not quite sure where it’s going. It’s a book that demands a certain trust and commitment from the reader, but for me at least it repaid both.

I’ll end on one  final quote, chosen because it near-perfectly illustrates the unusual combination of wit and insight that’s so typical here:

The judge had quite a number of generous impulses. He gave himself full credit for each of them. He did not carry any of them out. As a result, he was often puzzled and aggrieved by the demands the people closest to him seemed to make upon him. Though he would be the last man in the world to ask for thanks, he could not understand why they were, on the whole, so damned ungrateful.

Other reviews

Jacqui of JacquiWine’sJournal has written a stonkingly good piece here, which inspired me to put this on my #TBR20.  I also discovered online a typically incisive piece by Simon of Tredynas Days, here, which is slightly less positive than Jacqui’s. I’m sure I’ve read others, but couldn’t find them while putting this together so please do remind me in the comments.

On a final aside, I read this a little while after my return from my holiday in Gozo. In the book Jen remembers a holiday she had, also in Gozo. It made me rather wish I’d read it while there, what were the odds that I’d go to so obscure a location then only shortly after read a book with scenes set in the same place?

11 Comments

Filed under Adler, Renata, US fiction

The bridge looked good again.

Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra and her identical twin sister, Judith, have been inseparable all their lives. Cassandra thought they always would be, but nine months ago Judith went to New York for a year leaving her behind.

Cassandra expected Judith to return and for them to build their lives together, sisters against the world. Instead Judith has announced she’s getting married to some doctor she met out East, and Cassandra’s been invited to the wedding.

And I knew right now … why I’d been asked to the wedding. I’d been asked because I could stop it in time, I could stage a last-minute rescue.

Cassandra

Cassandra and Judith grew up on a California ranch. Their family was close-knit: their father, a retired and politely drunk professor of philosophy, raised them using the Socratic method, treating his children as if they were adoring students; their mother, a famous writer, died a few years back but helped instill in them a sense of their own intellectual merit; their grandmother is a kind and loving woman but with a distinct preference for maintaining propriety rather than for seeing uncomfortable truths. As a family they were rich, artistic, elitist and above all self-contained (“we had our own pinnacle to look down from”).

When Cassandra and Judith left home, they left home together. They got an apartment in Berkeley, and because Judith was musical Cassandra bought a high-end piano for them to share. For Cassandra the piano is a symbol of the sisters, of their indivisibility.

I only listened and knew how good she was and what a piano we had, and later that night when she quit playing and came out onto the deck where I was looking at the lights and listening, she said, “We ought to live this way, don’t you think?” It was as if I’d been waiting all my life to hear her say it, and I said yes, oh yes, how could we imagine it ever being any other way? Let’s never get stuck with outsiders, just be ourselves and keep it honest, now we’ve got this piano.

When Judith moves to New York that’s bad, but marriage is much worse. The piano is beautiful, but cut in half it would be ruined. The parallel is obvious.

The book opens with Cassandra driving to the wedding. It’s first person voice, and immediately that voice is a troubled one. In a marvellously hardboiled line (so fitting for a book set in California) Cassandra glances at the Golden Gate bridge, noting that it looks good again. She means it looks tempting, like an exit.

En route she stops at a bar, drinks more than she should, and looks at her reflection. I have a pet hate of characters looking in mirrors and describing themselves, but here it works because of course Cassandra has spent her entire life looking at herself mirrored in Judith. Without Judith as contrast and support, Cassandra’s own identity starts to unravel.

my face in a blue mirror between two shelves of bottles. The bottles looked familiar enough, but I didn’t immediately recognize the face, mostly, I think, because I didn’t want to. It’s a face that’s given me a lot of trouble.

As Cassandra drives along you quickly get a sense of her: intelligent; brittle; impulsive; self-destructive. She sees a pumphouse spraying out water in the desert heat, stops, climbs a ladder to it and dunks her head straight into the jet to refresh herself; she wants to phone ahead to let the family know she’s arriving early, so calls from a phonebooth intended only to be used for emergencies. She drives with the top down on her car, the resulting sunburn leaving her uncomfortable in her own skin literally as well as figuratively. She’s fearless, except for her fear of living.

Judith later drives down the same road with her fiancé by her side, in a section of the book narrated by her. They don’t stop for a drink. They drive responsibly.

We were passing a pumphouse with a long pipe sticking out of it and throwing a beautiful head of white water into a cement weir. I wished I could put my head into it, but I laid it on Jack’s shoulder instead and thought about the door we’d open not so long from now.

“How would it be to phone ahead?” I said. “There’s an emergency telephone booth along here somewhere.” “This isn’t an emergency,” Jack said.

A book like this lives and dies by its characters. Cassandra’s narrative voice is intense, almost overwhelming, but also wry and observant of everything except the things she doesn’t want to see. Judith’s only emerges when Cassandra’s is briefly silenced. Judith is sensible, practical, normal. Cassandra, who it slowly emerges is gay, doesn’t even have the option of being normal (the book was published in 1962 – even without Cassandra’s emotional issues it’s not a period where a gay woman could aspire to a life of suburban married contentment).

Cassandra is writing a thesis she can’t finish, staying cocooned in the academic world she learned from her father. Her relationships are brief encounters only, nothing with even a hint of a future. In a sense she’s insisting on living forever as she did as a child, her and Judith sufficient and separate and aloof. Judith though, Judith doesn’t want to be separate and aloof. She wants to marry, to have a nice house, to settle down. This quote is from Cassandra’s section:

“You told me so many things,” I said. She waited a minute, looking back over her shoulder toward the pool; then she looked down at me, and said very quietly, “No, I don’t think I really told you anything. It was all you, you did the talking, you made all the plans, and I, I don’t know, but I think I got sort of drowned in it, or snowed under. When you hit your stride you’re—” “I’m what. Tell me. I absolutely have to know what I am when I hit my stride.” “You’re overwhelming. It’s some sort of crazy vitality and it goes out like rays. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be with you—kind of a circus. Only—”

A lesser novelist would have made Jack, Judith’s fiancé, unsympathetic. In fact though he and Judith are a good match and he’s a definite catch. He’s a handsome young doctor, friendly and polite, and he loves Judith as much as she loves him. He’s exasperated by Cassandra, but more because he sees her as self-indulgent than anything else. Where Cassandra talks about wanting to die, Jack replies “Quit talking about wanting to die,” … “Dying is a big thing.” Jack offers Judith an equal union, not a perpetual role as Cassandra’s ballast.

Dorothy Baker was a playwright as well as an author, and it shows here. Cassandra at the Wedding is in essence a three-part play (Cassandra’s section, Judith’s section, Cassandra’s second section). It almost all takes place in the same location, there’s only a handful of characters, and it features that classic dramatic motif of a family reunion leading to personal revelations and conflicts.

If this were a play, it would be an excellent one. It has sharply written characters and dialogue, cleanly delineated scenes and no fat. It’s packed with great little exchanges and observations (mostly Cassandra’s, Judith’s nicer and not looking from the outside):

“There’s probably a school for wives,” I said, “but you don’t need to go.” I felt better, and I looked at her obliquely to see if she felt worse, but there was no sure way to tell.

I don’t like things rumpled up. If there is tissue paper all over everywhere I shove it under the bed. I have ideas of order.

His hair was so clean that each single hair had its own halo.

He’d never known his mother, and his father died when he was twelve. No home life at all, which is probably why he turned out so well.

The heat hung in wavy layers above the road and made it look like water.

I could keep quoting, but I’ve done so too much already. I’ll wrap up then by just saying that this is a perfect example of exactly why I and so many others regard NYRB Classics as a go-to publisher for quality work.

On a final note, while the NYRB Classics edition is the one I read, while looking for a picture of the cover to add to this post I came across the alternative cover below. It’s just about the most misleading thing I’ve seen in ages.

Cassandra2

If you bought Cassandra at the Wedding hoping for a light pastel beach read about twins’ comic misadventures around a wedding, well, I think you’d be entitled to feel a little misled.

Other reviews

The review that persuaded me to read this was Jacqui’s at JacquiWine’s Journal, here. There’s also a great review at 1streading’sblog here, which went up back when I was still reading the book myself. Please feel free to link to others in the comments.

16 Comments

Filed under Baker, Dorothy, US fiction

She drove to the beach, but there was oil scum on the sand and a red tide in the flaccid surf and mounds of kelp at the waterline.

Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

When I was preparing to write this piece, I discovered that Play it as it Lays is in Time Magazine’s list of top 100 English language novels published since 1923 (when Time was founded apparently). It’s sandwiched between A Passage to India and Portnoy’s Complaint, because to Time’s absolute credit they don’t rate the top 100 in any attempted order of excellence, but just alphabetically by title.

My end of year list is a bit humbler than that, but it’ll probably make that too. Here’s how Play opens:

WHAT MAKES IAGO EVIL? some people ask. I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory “answer” to such questions.

The narrator there is Maria, a Hollywood actress whose career is on indefinite hold. Maria doesn’t believe in answers any more, but even so she has to give them. She’s in some kind of psychiatric institution being questioned by people trying to understand, though understand what exactly isn’t made clear yet. In a sense it doesn’t matter, because we already know they can’t understand.

NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. What does apply, they ask later, as if the word “nothing” were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune. There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened.

PlayItAsItLays

The first section of Play then is Maria, recounting the facts. There’s then a page giving a perspective from one of Maria’s friends (“She was always a very selfish girl, it was first last and always Maria”) and another from her ex-husband (“Maria has difficulty talking to people with whom she is not sleeping”), and then 84 short chapters from a third person perspective. Didion said once that she wanted “to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all”. She succeeded.

Maria’s ex-husband is a film director, a successful one. They had a daughter together, Kate, who is mentally and possibly physically handicapped and in a long-term treatment facility. Maria lives for Kate, but Kate’s doctors and nurses would prefer Maria didn’t visit, they think it only makes Kate worse.

Maria isn’t working currently, so she goes driving on the freeway. It’s the only thing that gives her any purpose, radio on and no destination in mind. She eats boiled eggs, cracked on the steering wheel and eaten while driving, and drinks coke at filling stations. In the mornings she dresses fast to make sure she’s on the freeway by 10am, once driving she’s unafraid, totally absorbed; she’s in motion, going nowhere.

If I have a mental image of this book it’s of a scene that never actually happens in it; of Maria driving fast down a desert road, radio playing, a rattlesnake uncoiling as she hurtles past it heading into light and nothingness.

This then is a study of a hollow life, one in which things happen but where any attempt to impose causation on them is meaningless. Maria drinks, fucks, in one particularly difficult to read section has an (illegal) abortion. She is driven by fear rather than hope. Fear of losing her looks (not that she takes any pride in them, but as a model-turned-actress they’re her business), fear of not being able to keep it together any more, fear of her own irrelevance. She’s started sleeping into the afternoon, and she knows that’s not a good sign.

Maria sometimes meets up with her ex, but when they get together they just have the same stale old arguments (brilliantly captured by Didion – “Whatever he began by saying he would end by saying nothing. He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination, blocked the will, allowed them to drop words and whole sentences and still arrive at the cold conclusion.”)

If it weren’t reductionist I’d say that this is a brilliant portrait of someone mired in clinical depression. That’s just giving Maria’s situation a name though, making it tidy. Perhaps rather it’s the novel itself that’s depressed, a statement straight out of emptiness. It’s not one to read when you’re feeling fragile.

Images of snakes permeate the book. At one point Maria tells her ex about a man who went into the desert to try to speak to god, but was bitten by a snake and died. Her ex asks what the punch line is, but there isn’t one. It’s easy to draw significance from snakes: biblical; sexual; all that poison and temptation, but Maria expressly denies the very concept of significance. Maria of course is a character, she focuses on snakes because Didion the writer makes her do so. For me as a reader however that creates a tension, because while Didion is obviously quite aware of how the various potentially symbolic elements in the book can be read (snakes, sex and death; eggs, fertility; gambling, randomness; and so on), the narrative directly undercuts the symbolism.

As a reader I can’t help but search for meaning in a text. I note that besides other empty people snakes seem to be the only life in Maria’s utterly artificial world of anonymous air-conditioned motel rooms and Hollywood parties. I can start seeing them as phallic yet impotent motifs of a poisoned life in which the only love is for a handicapped girl who may not even know who Maria is. All of that is of course there, but it’s perhaps again too easy, creating a story where really there’s just some things that happen. I’ve taken a long time to write about this novel because I find it hard to hold onto, the images of it remain vivid and powerful but the sense of it slips between my fingers. I’m left with nothing.

Naturally this being Didion the prose is tight, effective and frequently beautiful. Lines like “my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas” or “bodies gleaming, unlined, as if they had an arrangement with mortality” stand out, but every page has something quotable. I came across one blog review here which simply features a sequence of Chandlerian excerpts from the text. You should check it out, because they do more to sing this novel’s praises than I ever could.

This is an alienated book. Maria is hollowed out, empty save in her love for her daughter Kate. The world around her reflects her own disaffection. I’m going to end with one final extended quote, which for me captured something of the awful sterility at the heart of this effortlessly readable yet still difficult to read novel:

“Let’s fuck,” the actor said from the doorway.

“You mean right here.”

“Not here, in the bed.” He seemed annoyed.

She shook her head.

“Then do it here,” he said. “Do it with the Coke bottle.”

When they finally did it they were on the bed and at the moment before he came he reached under the pillow and pulled out an amyl nitrite popper and broke it under his nose, breathed in rapidly, and closed his eyes.

“Don’t move,” he said. “I said don’t move.”

Maria did not move.

“Terrific,” he said then. His eyes were still closed.

Maria said nothing.

“Wake me up in three hours,” he said. “With your tongue.”

After he had gone to sleep she got dressed very quietly and walked out of the house. She was in the driveway before she remembered that she had no car. The keys were in his Ferrari and she took it, hesitating when she came out to the main canyon road, turning then not toward Beverly Hills but toward the Valley, and the freeway. It was dawn before she reached Vegas and, because she stopped in Vegas to buy cigarettes, eight o’clock before she reached Tonopah. She was not sure what she had meant to do in Tonopah. There was something about seeing her mother’s and father’s graves, but her mother and father were not buried in Tonopah. They were buried in Silver Wells, or what had been Silver Wells. In any case she was stopped for speeding outside Tonopah and when the highway patrolman saw the silver dress and the bare feet and the Ferrari registered to someone else, he checked California to see if the car had been reported stolen, and it had.

While preparing to write this up, I discovered a blog devoted to the book here, which features among other things a summary, a guide to the locations, a road map showing the drives Maria takes along the freeways and more. Here‘s a very different take on the book, a highly negative contemporary review from the 8 August 1970 issue of the New Yorker.

21 Comments

Filed under California, Didion, Joan, US fiction

memory will cut you off at the knees if you let it

Others of my Kind, by James Sallis

I loved Drive. It’s a great book, well written and atmospheric. When recently I felt like taking another swim in Sallis’s coolly written prose, I chose his Others of my Kind which Guy Savage gave a very favourable review to back in 2013.

Unfortunately, I didn’t particularly like Others. I suspect I’m in a minority in that, so I’ll try to explore below what didn’t work for me and touch on how some seem to have found more in it than I did.

OthersofmyKind

Jenny Rowan is a gifted tv news video editor, unusually skilled at putting together two minute packages of visuals and sound that make sense from a mass of chaotic raw footage. She finds patterns, creates order. She’s so good at what she does that she could easily find a better paid job with a more prestigious network, but she likes the people she works with and she’s more interested in the quality of her work than gaining recognition for it.

Reading that paragraph I’m struck by how rounded a character she already seems there. This is a roughly 150 page novel, but the characters in it are sharply drawn and stand out. Sallis is good on character.

Sallis is good on description too. Here’s the first paragraph:

AS I TURNED INTO MY APARTMENT COMPLEX, sack of Chinese takeout from Hong Kong Garden in hand, Szechuan bean curd, Buddhist Delight, a man stood from where he’d been sitting on the low wall by the bank of flowers and ground out his cigarette underfoot. He wore a cheap navy-blue suit that nonetheless fit him perfectly, gray cotton shirt, maroon tie, oxblood loafers. He had the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.

The man, Jack Collins, is a police officer. He’s there because Jenny has an unusual past. As an eight year-old she was kidnapped, then kept for two years by her kidnapper in a box under his bed, pulled out when from time to time he wanted to abuse her. When she finally escaped him she lived wild in a mall for some time, hiding from security and becoming an urban myth, “mall girl”, that most people believed had no foundation in fact. When finally she was caught, she went into care. It’s a horrific background, but despite her disadvantages she’s gone on to build a good life for herself. She’s valued, has friends and a place in the world.

Jenny’s past matters again because the police have found a young woman named Cheryl who, like Jenny, had been imprisoned by a sexual predator. Cheryl appears to be emotionally shut down and uncommunicative. Collins hopes that Jenny can reach her, that the similarity of experience can bridge the walls built up by trauma.

That sets the novel up with one sort of expectation, but Sallis quickly subverts that and the encounters between Jenny and Cheryl are only a small part of the wider narrative. This really is a story of Jenny reconnecting with the world, engaging with it. A friend at one point says to her that she still lives in a box, though now one of her own creation, content with her work and her neatly contained friends and relationships. Now she is reaching out, helping others.

Jenny tries to help Cheryl reconnect with the world, in the process becoming involved with Collins. She helps too some squatters who become neighbours, giving them gifts of food and medicine. She tracks down her parents, and in a slightly bizarre development reaches out to the vice president when the VP’s son goes missing. I’ll come back to that last relationship in a moment, as it’s where the book fell over for me.

Mostly Sallis develops all this with subtlety and skill, occasionally though I felt he was erring on the side of being perhaps a bit obvious, as here:

Lacking any semblance of childhood, having spent my adolescence in the wild as it were, I could fit in only by a kind of adaptation scarcely known outside the insect world. I mimicked those about me, finally with such vigor that few were able to distinguish conjured image from real. Even I sometimes confused the two.

I’d kind of got all that by the point this quote comes up in the book anyway, and it felt a bit on the nose for Sallis to actually have Jenny explicitly lay it out for me. More problematically though is a distinct lack of subtlety in the book’s politics.

The whole story takes place against a backdrop of news – Jenny works in the news business which conveniently allows Sallis to address contemporary US politics through her interest in it and her editing of it into bite-sized morsels (“I passed my workdays making sense of the world for others, taking up fragments of sensation and information and piecing them together, stitching quilts from leftovers and rag-ends of the world’s fabric.”) The book is set either in a slightly alternate now or in the very near future, the names of the president and vice-president are made up but the world they inhabit is utterly recognisable.

The problem though is that because the world is so recognisable, the political aspects become less a reflection of character or a development of story but rather direct commentary. I felt at times I was being lectured.

Further threats have been made, the White House press secretary states. Our intelligence gives these threats credence. We will keep you informed. Of course they will. Just as they rushed to inform us of actual body counts in Vietnam, U.S.-engineered assassinations in Chile, the systematic closing-down of power plants before the energy crisis of 2002, the cost of the Iraq war, or how deregulation might lead to financial collapse.

I wrote a comment against that paragraph when I read it, which read simply – bit ranty?

Similarly, while I agree with the next quote, I still felt I was being directly addressed rather than experiencing something within the fiction, and because of that it felt like an interruption in the novel (though it isn’t, since it’s in part at least the point of the novel):

Firmly seated at the front of the bus, so utterly accustomed to privilege that its presence has become invisible to them, our horde of senators, congressmen, secretaries-of, advisors, attorneys and lobbyists goes on deciding what is best for us. Little wonder that we feel helpless – ridden. The bureaucracy protects itself; that becomes its purpose. The machine has no off switch. As Bishop used to say: We’re set on SPIN, forever.

I’m not American. Drive is a deeply American novel, tapping into classic US imagery and iconic character types. I loved it. I grew up on Hollywood as much as the next British kid, and that culture while born of America is in part America’s gift to the world (for some a fairly unwelcome gift I admit, like an ill-fitting jumper from a relative you don’t much like, but I’m of the view that any country which gave us jazz, westerns and film noir can’t be all bad).

American myths travel well because they so frequently tap into the universal. Images of the frontier or of the lone figure righting wrongs in an indifferent world are to me deeply American, but they resonate far beyond that country’s shores (even if perhaps with slightly less force than they have locally). American politics though, like politics everywhere, is local politics.

So, if I were American perhaps the political content here would have spoken more to me. As it is though, I frankly don’t feel that strongly about the dysfunction and arrogance of American politics. We have our own dysfunctional and arrogant politics right here in Britain. It’s local not universal.

Even if I did care though, the novel isn’t saying anything interesting about it. Politicians are remote and out of touch. The system rewards itself, not those who vote for it. Is this news? It’s irritating, sure, but it felt at times more like Sallis was letting off steam than saying anything particularly notable.

Where I thought he was on stronger ground was when he drew comparisons between Jenny’s box and the boxes we all inhabit, boxes of our own making. To an extent of course we have to, just to be able to get through the day. We edit the world as Jenny does, making it manageable.

We spooned up dumplings, punctured them with chopsticks and sucked out the broth while all around us there at the mall streamed people whose worlds would never include dinners of insect-riddled, half-rotten rice, helicopters struggling to heave whole families up, up and away out of a ravaged city, or young women living in boxes beneath beds.

Similarly:

So many in the world live this way, of course. They come home to husbands, wives, lovers or family, talk over the day, talk about nothing in particular. Even when everything inside them wants to scream or weep or cry out, they go on talking, voices low, darkness rising like black water at their windows, in their lives.

But then, that first paragraph is true for almost anyone in the developed world; that second for anywhere at all.

The local and the universal continue through the book, until about the 80% mark or so when the narrative takes an odd turn as Jenny reaches out to the VP and the VP responds. What follows was for me just flatly unbelievable. What until then had been a reasonably naturalistic novel became something from an episode of the West Wing, a show that was for me crippled by its unrealistically idealised politicians. Sure, we can dream if we want to of President Bartletts, but they don’t exist any more than dragons or elves do. The West Wing for me was a fantasy show, less realistic in some ways than Game of Thrones, and in its last sections Others of my Kind similarly became for me a fantasy novel, a comforting one in which for once we don’t get the politicians we deserve.

Guy also had some doubts about the final parts of the book, but overall liked it much more than I did. A review in The Independent calls it “exquisitely crafted” and talks of Sallis’s “sublime hands” (which I agree he has actually, but not consistently here in my view). A review on a crime fiction blog here calls it “subtle” and “nuanced” (which it often is, just not always here, I do absolutely though agree with their comment that “the descriptions are tight, yet lucid”).

Sallis is a genuinely good writer, so if the political elements of the book sound to you like they might be interesting the odds are you’ll like this a lot. If however that part sounds less persuasive, this may be one to you’ll want to pass on.

12 Comments

Filed under Sallis, James, US fiction

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.

productimage-picture-my-face-for-the-world-to-see-367

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). 

25 Comments

Filed under California, Hayes, Alfred, US fiction