The odds didn't look good for the new film version of The Great Gatsby this weekend, I thought, as I donned my plastic 3-D glasses and entered the dark theater. I wasn't expecting to like the movie much at all.
I don't love glitzy Hollywood spectacle, though I was willing to give the much-hyped new version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great novel a chance because it was directed by Baz Lurhmann, a commanding figure in popular experimental cinema with an almost Warholian taste for edgy spectacle. I'd loved his Moulin Rouge, a wicked send-up of chic Paris in the era of Toulouse-Lautrec and absinthe.
If any big director was going to ruin Great Gatsby, I thought, it might as well be Luhrmann, who had apparently hired Jay-Z, Beyonce, Q-Tip, Lana Del Rey and Will.i.am for an anachronistic soundtrack (Moulin Rouge, similarly, gave us Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 19th Century France, and made it work.)
But my hopes weren't very high as I entered the theater and put my Gatsby Glasses on. The idea of a 3-D version of a literary love story seemed ridiculous. I was also unhappy with the casting of the histrionic Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. I'd watched this overrated actor bluster through several promising literary movies already: Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse, Gangs of New York, Revolutionary Road. I knew he only had six facial expressions, and I was sick of them all. I was ready to start hating the movie, as the lights in the theater went out.
E. L. Konigsburg, author of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, has died at the age of 83. This book had the best concept of pretty much any children's novel I remember ever reading: two spirited tweens (12-year-old Claudia and 9-year-old Jamie) decide to run away from their boring posh suburban home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The fascination for readers was to plot with Claudia and Jamie how to pull it off -- hiding in restroom stalls, bathing in the fountain in the middle of the night, having snappy answers ready for inquisitive security guards. Eventually they uncover a secret about a statue that may or may not be a Michelangelo, and meet the elderly art patron of the title.
Despite the enormous impact of the Watergate scandal, the actual purpose of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices has never been conclusively established.
-- Wikipedia, The Watergate Scandal.
I was thinking about this long-mysterious motive after reading Thomas Mallon's subtle, well-imagined historical novel Watergate, which speculates (among other things) that the purpose of the illegal spy operation in June 1972 that eventually brought down Richard Nixon's presidency was to find evidence of a Fidel Castro/Cuban connection to the Democratic party. This is one of several common explanations for the spy operation.
Another one, suggested by Bob Haldeman and tentatively endorsed by Jeb Magruder, is that Nixon wanted to find evidence that the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes was secretly funding the Democrats. Others have suggested that Nixon wanted dirt on Ted Kennedy, and a recent book called Watergate: The Hidden History: Nixon, The Mafia, and The CIA by Lamar Waldron tries to build a case for a Mafia connection. Still others have guessed that the whole botched operation was a trap by Nixon's opponents, intended to embarrass the President (if this was the case, the trap was an amazing success).
I don't think that any of the above answers are very good, and I have a better one to suggest. The motive for the Watergate break-in is something primal, dreadfully familiar, awkwardly obvious. The answer is there in plain sight -- and it's also certainly there in the memoirs written by the principal Watergate criminals, particularly Blind Ambition by John Dean, An American Life: One Man's Road to Watergate by Jeb Magruder, The Ends of Power by Bob Haldeman, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years by John Ehrlichman, Will by G. Gordon Liddy and Born Again by Chuck Colson (all of which I've carefully read and reread to help me reach the conclusion I'm about to explain).
Watergate is not a very distinctive title for a novel about the 1972-74 USA presidential scandal by Thomas Mallon. It was, however, a great name for the scandal.
The term "Watergate" originally referred to the office-hotel complex in downtown Washington DC where, on a quiet day in June 1972, a gang of hapless spies with indirect connections to the Nixon White House were caught in a botched bugging operation. The name "Watergate" always felt right for the scandal, even though it's a made-up word, the invention of a real estate corporation. The "water" refers to the Potomac River and Rock Creek, which merge at the complex's northwestern edge, and the "gate" does not seem to refer to any specific thing at all. (UPDATE: see comments below for a variety of interesting explanations for this name.) But the Watergate complex was a cool, exciting new locale in 1972, a swirling, innovative work of postmodern architecture that belongs to the same era of urban design as New York City's World Trade Center. The image of water crashing through a barrier seems to evoke something meaningful about the entire scandal that was born there.
It's not clear what Thomas Mallon was aiming for when he gave his imaginative novel the flat title Watergate. There are already many books called Watergate, and this one is different because it's a sensitive, smart literary historical novel, a work of creative invention. Fortunately, the title is the only thing about this clever, humane book that doesn't work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it helped me think about the years of Nixon's fall in a few new ways.
A tweet from @sarahw alerted me to the news that The Other, Thomas Tyron's fetching 1971 thriller about a good twin named Niles and a bad twin named Holland has been rediscovered and republished by the New York Review of Books with a new introduction by Dan Chaon.
Tyron's book is a rewarding read ... but I couldn't help noticing the marked difference in book cover styles represented by the original paperback cover that I remember so well and the new NYRB version. Strangely, even though I see that the new cover (above, right) attempts to be more artful and evocative than the old (above, left), it actually feels less effective and more conventional. Or are my fond memories of an old favorite book clouding my mind? Have book cover designs gotten better or worse since the 1970s? Good twin, bad twin, good cover, bad cover ...
I don't know much about the noir genre, but I checked out a new graphic novel called Dark Heat by Barry Graham and Vince Larue because I like Vince's beat-inspired writing and artwork, which often emphasizes themes from Michael McClure and Gary Snyder. Vince Larue also drew a very cool cover for my 2011 Kindle book about poker, The Cards I'm Playing: Poker and Postmodern Literature.
It's a strange leap that Larue makes from Snyder-inspired Zen Buddhism to macabre mystery comix, but Dark Heat shows many familiar influences, and also touches upon psychological and spiritual themes that remind me of The Sopranos, Psycho, Paul Auster, The Watchmen, Fletch, Taoism and a whole lot of good movies that have Steve Buscemi and/or Viggo Mortensen in them. This story begins in gritty realism, and ends with a postmodern exploration into what's real and what's not. For your noir pleasure: Dark Heat by Barry Graham and Vince Larue.
HHhH, a remarkable new historical novel by a young French author named Laurent Binet, has been getting a lot of attention. The book, a sly and woolly ponderance of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovokia during World War II, is as good as all the hype suggests.
What makes HHhH stand out is the author's approach to his historical plot. Years ago, before he became a published author, he lived and taught in Slovokia and became possessed by the legend of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich's assassination in Prague in 1942. He wanted to write a fictional treatment of the event, but he dreaded the banal literary conventions he'd have to grapple with if he wrote a classic work of historical fiction. He also felt overwhelmed by the moral gravity of the terrible story he wanted to tell, and he feared fumbling the fine line between truth and fiction.
So, to make his book possible, he opened up the toolkit known as metafiction. He wrote the story of himself writing this book, interweaving historical scenes with humorous skits about himself as bumbling author. The result is something like the history equivalent of Nicholson Baker's comically self-referential study of John Updike, U and I.
1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:
The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.
2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.
3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?
In a nod to my childhood fascination with Halloween and things that go bump in the night, I still reserve the month of October for books about dark subjects. I’ll sample the latest in horror fiction or bury myself in non-fiction accounts of unsolved mysteries or infamous killers. This year, my October selections were two recent works of historical non-fiction: Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King and Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay M. Smith.
At a glance, these books might seem to have little in common, other than the fact that they both take place in France. Monsters of Gévaudan, after all, is about the well-documented events that took place in the rugged, rural mountains of south-central France from in the 1760’s, when a mysterious creature – known simply to the French as La Bête – viciously attacked over 200 women and children, killing at least half. Death in the City of Light, on the other hand, takes place in more modern times, telling the story of a mad doctor who used the chaos of the Occupation to murder scores of Parisian Jews and gangsters eager to flee the beleaguered city. But beyond the French connection and the murderous monsters at the center of each book, many more striking similarities exist.
I learned about drinking whiskey, specifically bourbon whiskey, from Raymond Chandler. Actually, I recently read in his letters that Chandler was more of a gin man. So I really learned about drinking whiskey from Chandler’s alter ego, Philip Marlowe.
Actually, "drinking" is not the best description of how Marlowe imbibed his Four Roses or Old Forester. He was more of a self-medicator, administering a slug of booze from the office bottle before going downtown to talk to the cops, or after a rough night on a case, or just because. No mixing or pouring it over ice. Just powering it down neat and strong as God intended.
Needless to say, this is not a good way to learn how to drink, at least not in a socially acceptable way. When I first read the Philip Marlowe stories, I was enamored of his hard-boiled lifestyle, and I tried having a slug of bourbon a la Marlowe from time to time, but I soon realized that it was better to have bourbon on ice, or in a Manhattan. It is much easier on the liver that way.
But Chandler knew what he was talking about, because he was an alcoholic, and probably no stranger to bottles in the deep drawer of his office desk, and slugs of drink to keep him going when blocked on a writing project, or maybe just down in the dumps.