I have tried hard, so very hard, to appreciate William Vollmann, a wildly original postmodernist obsessed with history and human aggression who is considered a great intellect by several people I respect. I've eagerly bought his thick, intimidating books, and I have put in solid time trying to read them. I will not try anymore.
William Vollmann is, in my opinion, the David Blaine of literature. It's all an endurance act. Can a skinny kid with pimples and glasses really write a seven volume chronicle of the settlement of North America, follow it with a 3,300 page history of human violence and then toss out an 800 page rumination on the Eastern Front in World War II? Yes, he can. But if you take the "wow" factor away from William Vollmann, does his work stand up? I'm really not sure.
Call it sacrilege ... I just can't get behind this Joan Didion craze. She wins the second position on the Litkicks Overrated Writers List of 2006.
Joan Didion is a skillful and smart writer. But I've always considered her a quintessentially cold author, the epitome of the jaded, detached modernist. I once tried hard to read her most acclaimed novel, Play It As It Lays, because somebody told me it was great. I couldn't get to first base with this book. The sentences were sharp and the transitions were slick, maybe too slick, because my attention kept glancing off the brushed-steel surface of Didion's gleaming prose.
It was all cool anomie, all tone and attitude. Here's a typical passage from Play It As It Lays:
We had a lot of things and places that came and went, a cattle ranch with no cattle and a ski resort picked up on somebody's second mortgage and a motel that would have been advantageously situated at a freeway exit had the freeway been built; I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last.
That's nicely phrased, and it would work well as the setup for an exciting plot. But as I read on, it began to sink in that paragraphs like this were the plot. The book was an exercise in boredom, an exquisite portrait of nothingness. Here's how the teaser text on the book's jacket describes the main character: "Maria is an emotional drifter who has become almost anesthetized against pain and pleasure".
That's supposed to be a selling point? Not for this reader. I see emotional sterility all around me. I read books to cure this condition, not to reinforce it.
Philip Roth once wrote a great, great book. It's called Goodbye, Columbus and it's his first book, published in 1959. The title novella is a hilarious, piercing tale of a doomed love affair between a poor bookish urban Jew and a spoiled Jewish-American Princess from the suburbs. The story reaches its sublime peak when the hero visits his girlfriend's palatial home and gapes, astonished, while her college-educated brother sits in his bedroom and listens over and over to his "Columbus record", a souvenir from his beloved Ohio State University. Goodbye, Columbus is one of my favorite books, and, yes, it establishes Philip Roth as a superb writer.
Unfortunately, as I said, this book was written in 1959. The "You can listen to my Columbus record" scene was not only the peak of this novella but also the peak of Roth's entire literary career. Did fame spoil Philip Roth? Maybe, because a paranoid, cranky dislike of humanity began to dominate his writing by the early sixties. I'm not sure what went wrong between his first book of short stories and the later books, though it may have had something to do with the difficult personal struggles he eventually chronicled in an autobiography, The Facts.
Paranoia became Roth's central theme, and it permeates most of his novels, from Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral to The Plot Against America. Roth's paranoia is different from the cold high-tech creepiness of Don DeLillo or the proud anti-establishment defiance of Ken Kesey. In Roth's world, it's the ones we know best and love most who are trying to oppress and destroy us: our parents, our friends and neighbors, our lovers, our children. This is a harsh and depressing world view, and while I don't begrudge Roth the right to call the shots the way he sees them, I do not find his theme very universal. Even less do I find it edifying. This is why I must disagree when I hear him described as a great writer of our age.
The results are in, and I have no choice but to say this straight out: Beloved is indeed something very special, and I can hardly argue with its position on this list. In fact, it's such a good book I feel embarrassed to have never read it before. Where the hell was I?
Well, Beloved was published in 1987, five years after Alice Walker's similar The Color Purple. I liked The Color Purple very much, and I guess I had some conception of Toni Morrison as a tamer, less gritty Alice Walker. I was wrong. The Color Purple and Beloved have many similarities -- they both feature a sexually abused heroine, an elder female wisdom figure and a whole lot of useless men -- but Toni Morrison's book is by far the richer, more symbolic and more carefully wrought fictional experience. I am simply blown away by some of the author's touches -- the tree on Sethe's back, the butter on Halle's face. The book sustains a hellish pitch with scene after scene of social anarchy and sexual humiliation, and in parts the book nearly boils over with anger. It's incredible that I once thought Toni Morrison lacked grit.
I'm now backfilling my knowledge of this book, which was apparently based on the horribly sad true story of Margaret Garner. I just rented the DVD of the 1998 movie version, which stars Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover and was directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs). I found the movie very effective in parts, and only slightly disappointing in its literal depiction of the ghost that haunts the house at 124 Bluestone Road (I prefer to wonder what the apparitions would have looked like). I'm not surprised that the movie wasn't a big hit (it's no feel-good tale) but I do think it's worth watching as a supplement to the book.
I know that Cynthia Ozick recently disparaged this novel in a panel discussion about the Top 25 List. I honestly find her comments inexplicable, especially since Ozick's The Shawl has much in common with Morrison's book.
And, even though I continue to feel strong overall contempt for the New York Times' much, much too blogged about Top 25 List, I am awarding a single match point to Mr. Tanenhaus. His list got me to read a book I should have read long ago.
But please don't get any ideas that you're going to catch me with a wheelbarrow full of late-period Philip Roth novels next. That's just not going to happen.
2. I'm looking forward to a John Updike appearance at the New York Public Library this June 15. I like this writer very much, and I'll be very interested in reading his new Terrorist, which Charles McGrath discusses in today's New York Times.
Also, Lev Grossman asks Updike some questions in this week's Time Magazine, though his interview falls unfortunately limp. Updike is too cagey for pokey questions like these; I don't feel anywhere close to a revelation. And Lev Grossman (who I used to work with, by the way, and who is a swell guy though a tame critic) slips up when he describes Updike's 1968 novel Couples as "still shocking", which reveals the fact that Lev Grossman has never read Couples and shouldn't be trying to talk about it. Couples is a great Updike book (I'll trade you four and a half Rabbits for this book), but it's salacious rather than shocking. The lead character thinks about architecture and religion a lot, and most of the action between the eponymous married couples involves mixing Tom Collins's around a patio table or sneaking furtive kisses in a hallway. PG-13 at best, but no less a great book for it.
Postmodern novelist Steve Aylett was born in 1967 in the Bromley Borough of London, England. His first book, The Crime Studio, was published in 1994, and his later works include Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic and his most recent tour de force, Lint. Aylett's work has been variously described as cyberpunk, slipstream, postmodern, bizarro, or, in the words of Grant Morrison: "The Matrix choreographed by Samuel Beckett for MTV."
Steve Aylett's new Lint is to literature what Spinal Tap is to heavy metal music: a brilliant send-up of anecdotal, cult-of-personality biographies. The parody swings freely between the sci-fi genre, the Beats, and classic pulp magazines. We follow a comix legend named Jeff Lint, who lived in the age when "dozens of new magazines appeared, with titles like Astounding, Bewildering, Confusing, Baffling...Useless...Appalling, Made-Up ... Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Swell Punch-Ups" and editors would order up "an octopus, a spaceman, and a screaming woman" for the cover of a typical issue.
I like to call Aylett's work a combination of sci-fi, satire, and psychedelia. His sentences are not only sublimely expressive; they are beautiful in and of themselves. It's like opening a pop-up book to see gemstones and charms strung together on bracelet chains, rising to display the black noir onyx, the blood-red ruby, the diamond center of the mind, the flaming gold-leaf giraffe trinket of surrealism.
Karloff's Circus lights up the town of Accomplice with an anarchic assortment of demons, clowns, factory workers, zombies, politicians, and giant Steinway spiders. The action seems absurd until one realizes that the real world is no less freakish. Even today, we have people kept alive in hospitals against all laws of nature, connected to machines by tubes. We see self-mutilation in the form of extreme piercing and grotesquely overdone plastic surgery. Our children are sent to war by incompetent politicians. Well, you get the idea. Once we establish that our world is crazy, it makes no difference whether Aylett is using surrealism to parody reality, or if he is writing a straightforward story about paranormal creatures in a parallel universe.
Aylett cites Voltaire as an influence, and the influence shows. "Organised religion added Jesus to the food groups," he tells us, or "Pause any country and you'll spot subliminal torture in the frame."
Jacque Derrida maintained that all words have varying shades of meaning to each reader; therefore, every reader brings a certain amount of the story with them to a book. Maybe that is why I like Steve Aylett's prose so much -- he gives us plenty of raw material to process.
I asked the author some questions by email:
Q: It seems like you establish patterns of phrasing that are independent of the plot but that the reader can "pick up" on while reading.
Steve Aylett: Yes, there are several threads of sense going through it at different depths. I think the mind picks up which bits link in to which other bits. Some's almost a subliminal sort of thing going on, and then at the simplest level there's the running gags or repetitions like the "Snail, Sarge" conversation, which is just so stupid I really like it. And if you don't like all that there's always the story to fall back on.
Q: Even though Lint is a parody, I find that you throw in some semi-profound ideas. Like, commands materializing from thin air where someone's mouth happens to be. The opposite of cause and effect.
Steve: The parody thing was secondary to the meanings I was putting in there. I enjoy parody and stupid stuff, but more often than not I'll use it as a housing for old-time satire, politics and bitter axe-grinding. That thing about authority was about the fact that authority is actually quite arbitrary, and doesn't manifest any inherent quality. Traced to its root it's the result of luck, happenstance, crime and the sustaining of a set-up over many years as people hold on to power. It has no moral weight that stands up to a moment's scrutiny, and is enforced by the threat of violence. Reduced to its constituent atoms authority doesn't really mean anything. It's all just people.
Q: When you refer to Karloff Velocet as the "Fall Marshall" is this a reference to the idea of the "fall of man?"
Steve: As far as I can recall this was mainly from The Fall's album The Marshall Suite -- and he is marshalling the various falls and collapses in the circus. His circus is all about entropy.
Q: Which is better -- for countries to worry continuously about other countries' ability to build nuclear bombs, or the "stalemate effect" of each country already having nuclear bombs?
Steve: As long as America has the 'pre-emptive' policy of attacking non-nuclear countries without provocation, it's probably better that other countries have nuclear weapons also, as a deterrent to the U.S. (which doesn't like an even fight) -- but in any case there'll be a nuclear catastrophe at some point, either through psychotic panic or a technical error. It's inevitable.
Q: Did you ever hang out with the Krays?
Steve: No, I never met the Krays, but I knew their lawyer, and Ronnie liked The Crime Studio.
Q: Now I'm sort of freaked out because I'm not sure if you are serious. The Crime Studio was published in 1994, Ronnie was with us until 1996 ... are you serious?
Steve: Yeah. Actually, Ron liked it so much he wrote a story of his own, which he got to me via a mutual acquaintance.
Unfortunately, it was crap.
I think I'd got the book to him because the small publisher that did The Crime Studio originally wanted a quote from a 'name' of some kind, and I didn't know anyone in the literary world back then. Unfortunate things used to happen to people when I sent them books for cover quotes. I sent the re-print of The Crime Studio to William Burroughs and he died a week later; I sent Bigot Hall to Stephen Fry and he went insane -- temporarily.
Q: Uncanny! Speaking of insane, did you do the artwork for The Caterer? It is so classic.
Steve: It all started out as samples from a lot of 1970s comics -- that blonde grinning jock appears throughout those comics. Then I flipped them, changed colors, changed expressions and body positions etc, blended them into different backgrounds and with different characters, muted the colors down again, then added dialogue. Often I was doing so much re-drawing I was virtually drawing the character from scratch, by the end.
Q: Near the end of Karloff's Circus we read, "On the bluff behind them an angel landed, fragile as a feather made of bones. Under a sky deep as grief it closed its silent white wings."
Is Mike Abblatia the angel? And, at the beginning of the book, when Mike Abblatia jumps off the bridge, is everything that happens in the rest of the book happening in the instant that Mike falls?
Steve: I don't think the book occurs in Mike Abblatia's mind/dreams or whatever -- it happens, after he jumps. Regarding the mystery angel at the end, I wanted to make the suggestion that it might be Barney.
Q: On some level, Bigot Hall made me think of Kerouac's Doctor Sax, even though they aren't all that similar. Did you ever read Doctor Sax?
Steve: Yes, I've read Doctor Sax. Used to be a big Kerouac fan. That one was different from his others of course, being sort of cinematic and constructed.
Q: You write a lot about other dimensions; did you ever read Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott?
Steve: I have read Flatland, though I still believe he cribbed it from Charles H. Hinton, author of The Fourth Dimension (who I mention often in my books).
Q: If they made a Lint movie, who should portray Lint as an old man -- P atrick McGoohan or Christopher Lee?
Steve: McGoohan is more grouchy, so I'd go for him.
Q: I knew it! That would be my pick as well. So, do the English really say variations of "isn't it" all the time? For example, in reply to my last question, you might say, "Well, Lint is American, isn't he?"
Steve: English people say isn't, aint, aren't, innit, wot, and other things.
This is the last installment of my three-part study of William James, a philosopher I find uniquely compelling. William James was born in New York City in 1842, spent most of his adult life at Harvard University, and died in 1910 at his home in New Hampshire. He originally trained to be a medical doctor, and in this capacity he spent his early academic career absorbing the fascinating writings of new European "psychologists" like Ivan Pavlov and Sigmund Freud. He represented America at international conferences devoted to this then-controversial discipline, helped found Harvard's psychology department, then left the field to turn his attention towards epistemology and philosophy, where he would have his greatest influence.
William James's best books include The Varieties of Religious Experience, The Principles of Psychology and Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. His books are a breezy pleasure to read, and the arguments they present are not only enlightening but also heartening. Reading a book by William James can feel like escaping from jail. His approach to difficult or age-old philosophical debates like the free-will question is to point out that taking any stance on this question is a self-defining action that will determine the apparent "truth" about the matter. The truth does not define the stance; rather, the stance defines the truth. James demonstrates this with his answer to the free will question: "My first act of free will is to believe in free will".
James's concept of truth, which he labelled "Pragmatism" (building upon the work of an earlier American philosopher, Charles Peirce, who used the term "pragmatism" in a less forceful way), became his claim to fame. Interestingly, William James was not the only famous intellectual in his immediate family; the great novelist Henry James was his younger brother.
These are two of the most remarkable American minds, and yet surprisingly little information can be found about the relationship between the brothers. What follows is the evidence I've been able to gather by examining three sources: the biographical record, the published letters, and the fiction of Henry James. Here's what I found:
According to Leon Edel's classic biography of Henry James, the two brothers were close in age but never in temperament. William, the family's eldest, conducted himself with a purposeful moral seriousness, whereas Henry had a puckish sense of humor and a wholly artistic view of life.
In the way that close siblings sometimes do, William and Henry seem to have strictly defined their intellectual borders to oppose and exclude each other. William was generally disinterested in literature and fiction, and Henry scoffed gently at philosophy. The two even seemed to avoid each other physically; William left New York for the green pastures of Harvard University, and Henry abandoned America entirely, so fully losing himself in the rich pleasures of English dinner parties and literary salons that he is often mistaken for a European writer.
A thick Penguin Classics edition of Henry James's letters gives us a direct glimpse at the relationship between the two brothers. They clearly liked and respected each other, but they did not write often, and when they did they tended to chat about the health of their parents, the activities of their three younger siblings and other impersonal matters. But what, I am dying to know, did William think of Henry's remarkable novels? And what did Henry think about his brother's groundbreaking and controversial academic work?
They don't waste much time with praise. In 1905, William wrote to Henry about his latest weighty novel:
I read your Golden Bowl a month of more ago, and it put me, as most of your recenter long stories have put me, in a very puzzled state of mind. I don't enjoy the kind of 'problem,' especially when as in this case it is treated as problematic (viz. the adulterous relations betw. Ch. & the P.), and the method of narration by interminable elaboration of suggestive reference (I don't know what to call it, but you know what I mean) goes agin the grain of all my own impulses in writing; and yet in spite of it all, there is a brilliancy and cleanness of effect, and in this book especially a high toned social atmosphere that are unique and extraordinary. Your methods & my ideals seem the reverse, the one of the other -- and yet I have to admit your extreme success in this book. But why won't you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style?
Amazingly, William James seems to have wished for Ernest Hemingway as a younger brother, though the world would be much poorer for it.
As befits their lifelong pattern, Henry adopted a bemused shrug when discussing his older brother's important books. He never argued with William's conclusions, but sometimes pretended (the pose is hardly believable) to have had to struggle to follow them. In 1907 he apologized for failing to respond more quickly to William's Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, claiming that the book waylaid him even as he agreed with it:
I simply sank down, under it, into such depths of submission and assimilation that any reaction, very nearly, even that of acknowledgement, would have had almost the taint of dissent or escape. Then I was lost in the wonder of the extent to which all my life I have (like M. Jourdain) unconsciously pragmatized. You are immensely & universally right ...
Two years later, Henry writes, ending a long friendly letter:
All this time I'm not thanking you in the competent way for your 'Pluralistic' volume -- which now I can effusively do. I read it, while in town, with a more thrilled interest than I can say; with enchantment, with pride, & almost with comprehension. It may sustain & inspire you a little to know that I'm with you, all along the line -- & can conceive of no sense in any philosophy that is not yours!
Praise is the major note in this letter, yet Henry sneakily speaks in negative outlines: the novelist can conceive of no sense in any other philosophy, but it is not clear that he conceives of sense in any philosophy at all.
Henry James grasped the power of pragmatism, but many of his novels feature pragmatic and manipulative villians who destroy the lives of starry-eyed innocents. Gilbert Osmond, Doctor Sloper and the Marquise de Cintre are entirely willful and pragmatic (if not Pragmatistic); Isabel Archer, Catherine Sloper and Christopher Newman are their victims.
There is a danger of over-dramatizing the intellectual gulf between these two liberal thinkers, who clearly respected each other tremendously. Perhaps it's best to conclude that vast significances lie between the Apollonian opinions of the Harvard professor and the Dionysian observations of the London socialite. Both brothers seemed to have liked their younger sister Alice better than they liked each other. Maybe there was just too much brilliance abounding in the room for a single family dinner table to comfortably contain.
Come Back by Claire and Mia Fontaine
This memoir by Claire and Mia Fontaine tells a familiar story -- teenage bad attitude, growing pains, massive drug abuse, a painful recovery. What makes this book unique is the mother-daughter concept: Mia Fontaine is the book's topic, but she and her mother Claire take turns telling the tale. Claire opens the book with a harrowing tale of Mia's toddler-age sexual victimization by an eccentric hippie father. The first cut is the deepest, as Cat Stevens says, and her mother sees Mia's later traumas as a natural progression from this disturbing start.
The dual narrative format provides a fascinating study in contrasts, and the voices sharply outline the separate roles the mother and daughter play in this relationship. Claire seems to be bursting with a story to tell, and she's a skillful writer with a vivid style. But Mia's contributions tend to be short, gritty and stubbornly un-decorative. Claire seems more excited about Mia's recovery than Mia does, which seems to point to some larger truth about the nature of addiction recovery: it is a lifelong hard grind, and to the recovering addict the process rarely feels like joy.
Mia's description of her painful and invasive recovery regime forms the center of this book. The mother's story sometimes recalls a classic of this genre, And I Don't Want To Live This Life by Deborah Spungen, though Come Back happily ends differently. My one complaint is that some of the expressions of maternal love could be cut, and nobody should ever describe a scene where a beautiful child runs laughing with her family on the beach. But this flaw is easy to overlook ... Come Back is an honest and unusual book, and I would not be surprised if other families in crisis discover it to be helpful.
The Elagin Affair by Ivan Bunin
Ivan Bunin is a 20th Century Russian writer who endeavored during his lifetime to represent his country's tremendous literary tradition. He lived in exile in France after the Bolsheviks took power, remaining highly active and winning the Nobel Prize in 1933.
But Bunin's legacy is more literary than historic; this author intended to write like his great forebears, and so his stories are full of grand passions, violent philosophical arguments and sociological perversions. The best of his stories have been newly translated and published as The Elagin Affair.
In the title story a soldier murders the woman he dearly loves, and we slowly find out why. I am constantly reminded of the great tradition of Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy ... almost to the point that I can't figure out where the tradition ends and Bunin begins. But Bunin's characters and plots are his own, and his original presentations made him more popular during his lifetime than he is now. This new book aims to correct that. If you're interested in Russian literature, this book has a place in your collection.
The Stars Above Veracruz by Barry Gifford
I wanted to love Barry Gifford's book of interlinked short stories, The Stars Above Veracruz. The author will always be in my good graces because of his work on Jack's Book, a classic oral history/biography of Jack Kerouac published back in 1978 when very few people cared about Kerouac. He also wrote the novel that became David Lynch's Wild At Heart, which is somewhat impressive, despite the fact that this is Lynch's worst movie.
I can't say I loved Gifford's new collection, but I did like it. His voice is crisp, his tall tales of colorful shady characters around the world are mercifully short, and I really like the way he ends each tale with a small koan-like poem. On the negative side, the author didn't seem to be trying very hard to write great literary fiction ... I sense an author who feels he has little to prove. I also have a problem with the fact that a mysterious character called Ropedancer seems to thread through various of these pieces. I don't like mysterious characters called Ropedancer anymore than I like laughing children running along the beach.
Each story is set in a different locale -- Romania, Buenos Aires, San Francisco -- and they often consist of small anecdotes told via overheard bits of conversation. In one story, a man is murdered by a romantic rival on a small tropical island, but few seem to mind, because "Nobody liked George Morgan". The amusing set pieces form some kind of Paul Bowles-esque worldly quilt, I guess, but I did wish for a greater thrust from somewhere within. Like the faint stars in the Veracruz sky, these stories may burn brightly somewhere, but they feel cool and distant from where I stand.
Want a Book?
The publicist for Come Back sent me two copies by mistake (I'm noticing that publicists tend to do this). Would you like to read this book? Be the first to email me your mailing address and it's yours (we'll throw in a copy of LitKicks Action Poetry too).[UPDATE: the prize has been claimed, and is on it's way to the Guangdong province in China.]
The hero of The Possibility of an Island is a neohuman variously known as Daniel1, Daniel23, Daniel25 and so on, who lives on the Canary Islands near Africa with two female neohumans named Esther and Isabelle. They all practice a religion called Elohimism, the common faith of the neohumans.
I find the novel's concept exciting because it refers to a classic metaphysical question: are our entire souls implanted in our memories? If I transfer my memory system into an precise implementation of my genetic blueprint, has this copy suddenly become me? If so, what is left behind in the old me? Philosophers like Daniel Dennett have examined this question, but Houellebecq's new novel simply lets the scheme happen and shows us where the chips fall.
Michel Houellebecq is a French sensation, a postmodern brutalist whose fables recall those of Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Pahlaniuk. But he is much darker and more cynical than Vonnegut, and he's probably even nastier than Chuck. He's also funny, with something like Douglas Coupland's droll computer-age satire combined with Norman Mailer's political outrageousness, and to top it all off there's a bit of William Vollmann's show-offy super-intellectualism.
That's some happy meal, and John Updike takes a bite and makes a face in his well-written New Yorker review of this book. John Updike is probably my favorite literary critic, just because his sentences are so damn amusing, and he doesn't disappoint in this thoughtful and tempered smack-down.
The usual Houellebecq hero, whose monopoly on self-expression sucks up most of the narrative's oxygen ...
Updike delivers the knockout punches early in the article, then props the pummeled author up and admits that he liked one of his earlier novels. But Updike makes the book sound interesting even as he tells us to skip it, and some of his criticisms seem cloaked, as when Updike criticizes Houellebecq's sentiment that "All energy is of a sexual nature" (this would certainly seem to be an Updike-ean thesis).
Later, Updike describes a dull moment in the novel as "an interminable blog from nowhere", which is a sudden unexpected swipe at my profession when I thought we were in the middle of beating up this French guy. Well, it's such a funny line I'll forgive Updike for it, even though it's totally unfair (A New Yorker writer is going to talk about interminable?) ...
Anyway, it's an entertaining review , but I think I'm going to read the book even though Updike doesn't like it. It sounds like my kind of story.
I didn't expect or even want to spend two hours watching this movie, but I was drawn in by the lucid photography and exquisitely mannered acting of the 1934 drama, in which at least four people utterly fail to find love. Bette Davis's sharp-tongued waitress is several steps below Leslie Howard's crabby medical student on the social scale, and when he falls in love with her she suspects he's slumming and subjects him to a painful regimen of indifference. He presses his pursuit, but it turns out she's in love with an older and gruffer man who cares for her as little as she cares for our hero. To complete the never-ending chain of unrequited love, a timid but perfectly acceptable young romance magazine writer pines for Leslie Howard even as he pines for Bette Davis, and he rejects her as coldly as Davis rejects him. Bette Davis acts her heart out in this film, while Leslie Howard makes an impression mostly by staring into the camera with limpid wet eyes, a look of bitter sadness on his sensitive face (the noble passivity that so impressed Scarlett O'Hara when Howard played Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind is displayed here as a sign of weakness, and the character is unlovable).
A happy ending is tacked onto this film, but this ending is so forgettable as to barely register. The pattern of infinitely recursive longing for those who don't love us (human bondage, indeed) is already firmly established, and the film's ending serves only as a salve for the aching pain of its bleak message. This bleak message is also hammered home by Maugham's novel, which covers a wider expanse of time (we meet Leslie Howard's character as a child, and follow him further into adulthood) but does not have a larger emotional scope; melancholy is the message, and there is no meaning to the novel, or the film, beyond the naked fact of the depraved sadness of life.
What happened to the melancholy novel? This format once thrived, and authors like Thomas Wolfe and Theodore Dreiser built careers upon the construction of depressive plots featuring miserable characters who do depraved things and then feel sad about it. In fact, this genre dominated American fiction through the 1950's, and both Jack Kerouac's On The Road (melancholy on wheels) and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (melancholy in Central Park) owe a lot to the tradition.
The melancholy novel is not completely dead today (not with Rick Moody around, anyway). But the days when major literary publications or expensive Hollywood films were regularly made to showcase the plaintive tones of life's misery are gone; cinematic depressiveness is strictly indie territory, and the prevailing mood in contemporary fiction is much more frenetic and satirical. If you want to bathe yourself in the warm waters of pure unhappiness, your best bet is to fire up Turner Classic Movies and spend an evening with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Writers, filmmakers: let's bring misery back to center stage where it belongs.
My Name Is Red isn't Orhan Pamuk's most recent book, but it might be his best. This is a surprise because Snow was so good, but in fact the books make a great pair. One is as current as yesterday's newspaper and paints a frozen world of whites and grays, while the other takes place in 1591 and bursts with color and pure vision. Both books are classics, in my opinion, but My Name Is Red is the bigger book, and reaches for the grander statements.
Orhan Pamuk has a calm and modest demeanor, but this book is much a tour de force as anything Chuck Pahlaniuk's ever written, and it's nearly as manic. The book is mainly a murder mystery, set among a highly exclusive community of artists, soldiers and politicians in Istanbul at the height of that city's golden age (the Sultan himself even makes a cameo appearance in this book). The best painters in the Ottoman Empire work here as manuscript illuminators, or miniaturists. They are treated like celebrities, and their talents are viewed as mystical expression of Islamic ideals by their customers and fans. But the artists struggle to find their artistic boundaries, because their religion disdains representative illustration, which they all indulge in, as a form of vanity.
Much of the dialogue in the book revolves around this problem, and in this sense My Name Is Red is similar to other works that encapsulate religious debates, like T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral or Chaim Potok's The Chosen. Pamuk, however, is clearly more interested in art than in religion (he used to be a painter himself), as are most of the characters in the book. In fact several of them are literally crazed by the beauty -- and the forbidden vanity -- of visual art.
And one is more crazed than the others, because he starts killing people. That's the setup, and the murder plot gives the book plenty of forward momentum. But it's Pamuk's literary intelligence that raises this story to a much higher level than that of, say, a Turkish Da Vinci Code. Pamuk always writes with great control, and in this book he carries on a unique narrative conceit, allowing the story to unfold in a series of connected vignettes told in first person by each of the main characters in turn.
The first character to speak is the corpse of the murder victim. We then hear from a soldier, the woman he loves, a dog, each of the artists, a Jewish matchmaker, a horse, Satan, etc. As a writer, Pamuk probably got this idea from James Joyce and Ulysses (the vivid sex scene that closes the book, told in the voice of earth mother/mystical wife Shekure, recalls Ulysses as well). But, as an artist, Pamuk may also have borrowed this idea from Pablo Picasso, because his narrative has the same concise super-logical effect -- seeing the world from God's point of view -- as one of Picasso's Cubist paintings.
An overly clever narrative technique can doom a book where it doesn't belong, but this unique approach is a perfect match for this story, which is all about seeing. When the story finally reaches its crisis, I am pleased to report the surprise ending does deliver a strong punch (and it was better than any of the surprise endings I'd guessed). Here, the book begins to feel like The Alienist by Caleb Carr, as we approach the inner mental state of the killer and discover the secret object of art he has been hiding from the others, which he killed to protect.
I was also intrigued to discover a short chronology of Ottoman history at the book's end, which explains that one of the book's characters, the aging master artist Osman who yearns for blindness as the ultimate proof of sublime vision, is based on a real person. There is also a suggestion that another key character is based on a historical figure named Velijan, but Google turns up nothing about this name and I suspect Pamuk is just getting metafictional with us again.