Sugar and Sweat

Like any writer, I seek to improve my skills. Most days I’ll return to the imaginarium to watch how other authors have whetted the nib, so I can improve the down strokes on my keyboard, but some days I’ll read a how-to book to get some insight, another perspective on Process.

In James Scott Bell’s Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure, I came across this nifty, but simplistic schematic that distinguishes the differences between Commercial and Literary plots. I call it Sugar and Sweat. See the paradox? See the inverse relationship?

graph

The Commercial plot is a lot of work, with its forward and backward, its ups and downs, its emphasis on Action, yet it is the successful one in terms of that elusive goal: readership and sales. Sweat in terms of Plot, but sugar for success. Its counterpart, Literary is deceptively easier, strong on Character, far more linear, and splits off into two destinations like a subway train. Action is less hectic, more serious and introspective. In a word, sugar for Structure and sweat for success: the results (read sales and shelf space) TBD, to be determined. As Commercial implies popular, the bestseller and quick fix at the airport, Literary is elitist and intellectual. The question that looms like an ominous shadow over the book cover is: Does the Literary book ‘feel’ difficult for the sake of being difficult, or is it worth the effort?

Whatever your opinion is of his style, his themes, or his treatment in his works of race and women, you can’t help but notice that William Faulkner dabbled with both plots. Who else could have created Benjy Compson, whose ‘Here caddie’ indicates that his idiot creation understood neither past nor present or his sister’s permanent absence? Who else could have conjured up Caddy Compson, Lena Grove, or Rosa Coldfield? Yet Faulkner reached for sugar; he tried the Commercial plot. In his Introduction to the Modern Library Edition of Sanctuary, Faulkner confessed that he wrote Sanctuary in three weeks, worried about poor sales, while two of his novels, The Sound and the Fury and Flags in the Dust (the latter mysteriously and inexplicably renamed Sartorius) languished. While working the late-shift shoveling coal at a power plant, he wrote As I Lay Dying, using the back of a wheelbarrow for a desk. After its publication in 1930, Faulkner would receive the galleys for Sanctuary and substantially revise it for publication in 1931.

The Sound and the Fury (1929) would achieve iconic status as a difficult book, challenging generations of readers with its four-part narrative structure, its Literary plot, its long stream-of-consciousness passages such that those new to Faulkner are advised to read As I Lay Dying or his short stories first. Faulkner himself directed readers to Sartorius, the book he thought would establish his literary reputation. Sanctuary, the most commercial of his output, does not figure into the majority of recommendations; it was the book that Faulkner called his ‘cheap idea’ and a ‘horrific tale.’

Unknown-2Sanctuary is a hard-boiled potboiler, about a southern belle named Temple Drake. It would seem that with this book, which he had written so early in his career, Faulkner had sold out; he had gone Commercial. The irony is that the novels after The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying: his Light in August (1932) and Absalom! Absalom! (1936), would put Faulkner squarely on the path to the Nobel Prize (1950). Yet, he was out of print by 1944, his health deteriorated throughout the 50s, and he died in 1962. The resuscitation of Faulkner’s career came from the unlikeliest of sources: the scholar and his translator Maurice Coindreau at Princeton. He was the first to champion Faulkner. Coindreau’s translations would inspire Sartre to write an essay on The Sound and the Fury in 1947 and André Malraux, a preface to Sanctuary in 1952.

In the aforementioned Introduction, Faulkner was aware of his own artistic compromise. He wrote The Sound and the Fury for ‘pleasure’; money mattered little (his father had been supporting him at the time) because he was ‘young and hard-bellied,’ but then he got ‘a little soft’ and, seeing no money from sales, thought of himself as ‘a printed object.’ Temple Drake, the Ole Miss debutante and daughter of a prestigious judge, is no astute Scarlett O’Hara who had tried to get Ashley Wilkes to declare his love for her. Miss Drake’s behavior and methods would make Lindsay Lohan’s escapades appear tame. Temple demands sex. She drinks. She ridicules Popeye’s impotence and for that he’ll rape her with a corncob and imprison her in a whorehouse where she prostitutes herself. She’ll demand sex from Red in a back room, have intercourse with him while Popeye watches them. She flouts convention, but in the lurid end several lives are destroyed. Whether Temple Drake is a femme fatale or an anti-heroine is a matter of semantics.

william_tales_02In 1933, Paramount Pictures released The Story of Temple Drake, with Miriam Hopkins in the lead role. The film escaped the strictest of Joseph Breen’s censors and instigated the Hays Code, the precursor to our current movie-ratings guidelines. The Story of Temple Drake is considered Southern Gothic and an antecedent to film noir. Film noir itself is difficult to define, but if Otto Penzler is correct in that it and noir fiction are about ‘losers,’ their bad decisions and the ‘downward spiral from which they cannot escape,’ then Temple Drake fits the bill almost to a T. She did escape, unscathed and unpunished.

Raymond Chandler, because he wrote genre, bemoaned the fact that he was never considered a real writer: ‘the mystery writer is looked down on as sub-literary merely because he is a mystery writer.’ Isn’t all fiction some form of genre? Faulkner dodged that writer’s curse with his admission into the literary canon. Faulkner, however, paid his bills for twenty-two years in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He worked on numerous films, but his two most famous credits were adaptations for Howard Hawks: Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1944) and Chandler’s Big Sleep (1946).

That’s a lot more sugar than sweat.

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The Twice-Murdered Dream

Richard Yates chronicled the American Dream from the inside, as he knew and lived it; he was an American writer. Compared to Chekhov and considered the poor man’s Fitzgerald for his style, Yates received praise from the likes of Andre Dubus, Dorothy Parker, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams, yet sold so few books in his lifetime for him to make a living as a writer; in fact, the only novel of his that I’ll bet you’ll find at your bookstore is his Revolutionary Road. Yates is our inside man.

MV5BMjAxNzkwOTk5Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzE5NDg4Nw@@._V1_SY317_CR49,0,214,317_AL_Georges Simenon, a Belgian and a name that nobody associates with the American Dream, wrote about it from the outside, as an astute observer, when he lived in Lakeville, CT, while his son attended the prestigious Hotchkiss School. Yates’s post-mortem is Revolutionary Road (1961). Simenon had rendered his conclusion in The Rules of the Game (1955). Like The Mahé Circle, which French publisher Gallimard released in 1946 and Penguin made available to readers in a translation this spring, Game had slept for decades until it was translated into English in 1988.

The American Dream; it is the national epic, the story of the self-made man who becomes somebody, a contender for upward mobility, a number in the race for economic and material security; a dream that F. Scott Fitzgerald satirized in The Great Gatsby, that Arthur Miller eulogized in Death of a Salesman, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to resurrect in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” At the heart of the American Dream, beneath the noble sentiment of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” is Obsession, which is the theme and backdrop to all of Yates’ writing and all of Simenon’s romans durs, his ‘hard’ psychological novels.

newyatesxYates and American writers before and after him have responded to the existential crisis that film noir illustrates so well: the good guy works hard and does all the right things but goes nowhere, often making some bad decision along the way. The schoolbook yarn about republican simplicity, the virtue of a selfless life and public service are not enough. As the nation grew, so did its economy with its cheap labor from slaves, immigrants, or its exploited lower and middle classes. Whether it was Old or New Money, the wealthy imitated European aristocracy, built their palatial mansions, housed servants, and hosted costume balls. These new aristocrats would establish exclusive clubs and marry their daughters off to European royalty, who had titles but no money. They sent their children on grand tours of Europe and reintroduced the practice of tipping, a custom that the Founding Fathers despised because it implied class distinction. The few who had so much lived well, while the many who had so little did not.

45001Frank and April Wheeler do all that society has asked of them. They are middle-class. They buy a house in the burbs. They have children. They are subscribers to the Dream. Both are conformists. He has a monotonous job, a monotonous commute and she suffocates in taking care of the house and minding the children. They are miserable; they come to loathe one another. They are frustrated failures, unhappy with their lives. The Wheelers are domestic combatants, skilled at verbal and physical abuse. They aspire and they reach for more because they feel entitled, but neither Frank nor April has the will or impetus to effect change. They have a vision, they have a plan that they fail to execute. Their antecedent, Gatsby, had charisma, energy and a romantic imagination in his destructive quest for Daisy Buchanan, and dies a tragic figure, having been blinded by his obsession. Jay Gatsby was murdered in the end, but he was a living suicide inside an unsustainable dream. Death had saved him.

Death does come to Revolutionary Road, but there is no overt tragedy in its wake. A clueless character, a stagnant person remains unchanged. The American Dream is flawed, dead at the end of the street Yates named Revolutionary Road, but the people doing the dreaming were dangerous, dull, and unimaginative. In a word, unending materialism and a lack of self-awareness lead to narcissism and nihilism. Readers today are accustomed to, if not desensitized to, suburban malaise, but the psychological portrait of the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road remains a very uncomfortable and visceral read. Yates paints a portrait of devastation, using simple words and layering the details, page after page, letting them sneak up on the reader.

rulesSimenon’s Walter Higgins is the opposite of Frank Wheeler. He sincerely loves his wife, worries about his tomboyish daughter, Flo, and does all that is expected of him, including mowing the lawn, without any bickering. Walter, however, is restless, but he has a plan. The problem is that he is dependent on others. His bootstraps have lifted him only so far.

Walter believes that membership in the town’s country club will prove that he has ‘arrived.’ The club is his Obsession. He believes that this one thing will secure respect and status for his family. He is rejected. Worse, he knows the individuals who voted against his application, and worse than that is that he is rejected a second time. Simenon’s cynicism is darker than Yates’s in that the reader knows that Walter will never be accepted. The reader understands the country club acceptance as something banal. Walter does realize where he came from, how far he has come up in society. He goes back to the neighborhood where he grew up with his difficult mother, appalled at the complacency and ignorance he finds there. He returns to the burbs, grateful, but his is an embattled contentment. His quiet despair is not in living the life of quiet desperation, but understanding that human life has no worth in American society. This is the unspoken rule in a cynical game.

Just as the fisherman places a stick in the pail to stir his captive crabs, the grocer bands the lobster’s claws to prevent cannibalism, likewise Yates and Simenon demonstrate their interpretations of the American Dream. Yates knows that inevitably a crab will try to climb its way up the stick and out of the pail because the crab, just as the Wheelers, wants more. In real life, in this analogy, the other crabs in the pail will pull down the ambitious escapee. The Wheelers drown each other. Simeon, though, has a deeper, noirish understanding of the situation; he knows that there are greater social forces at play: someone stirs the water with a stick to create chaos, while another bands the claws to protect his interest.

There is no crime in Rules and readers may think that not much happens in this novel, unlike Road where each scene between Frank and April blisters with tension. Simenon’s style is understated, just as cumulative in his details as Yates, but the violence isn’t the car accident as it unfolds frame-by-frame with Frank and April, but how fast, how senseless and how worthless life is to the people on the street before and during the accident. People will walk on.

Simenon valued his romans durs because he considered the psychological portrait harder work than his popular procedurals – this from a man who wrote over four hundred novels, seventy-five of them with Inspector Jules Maigret. Simenon extends some hope. Where the Wheelers remain ignorant, Higgins has some awareness. The crime is that nothing will change, despite his energy, his movement to better himself. It is easy to forget Simenon’s prescience. He wrote Rules in 1955, at a time when Ozzie & Harriet was on television.

Yates wrote from his own life. He did ‘all the right things,’ yet success eluded him. He was married (twice) and had three daughters. Revolutionary Road, his debut novel, was nominated for the National Book Award along with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 but lost to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. He received a Guggenheim, wrote speeches for RFK, and scraped by with teaching positions and the largesse of friends. All the literary praises and rewards did little for Yates. Perhaps, Simenon was correct: try, but it might not matter. Yates would experience several shattering mental breakdowns. His one-time student and lifelong supporter and admirer, Richard Price, wrote:

Richard Yates was a magnificent wreck, a chaotic and wild-hearted presence, a tall but stooped smoke-cloud of a man, Kennedyesque in dress and manner, gaunt and bearded with hung eyes and a cigarette-slaughtered voice…

Yates died a bitter and sick man in 1992, aged 66, not from a daily 4-pack-a-day cigarette habit that rewarded him with emphysema, or from drink, but from complications arising from a hernia surgery.

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Excerpt from Roma Series Book 4: Turning to Stone

“We should go, Alessandro,” Gennaro said.

“Just a minute, Boss. I’m waiting to see what the financial analysts have to say.”

“We can listen to the news in the car.”

“I know, but why wait when we can get the forecast now.”

Alessandro, standing near the office’s flat-screen television, clicker in hand, spiked the volume. Gennaro DiBello resigned himself to staring out of the high-rise window, overlooking the Bay of Naples. He saw a U.S. destroyer in the distance en route to Bagnoli.

Dante was putting his papers away before leaving for lunch. He put the stack into his desk drawer, locked it, and began the ritual of backing up his electronic files to a jump key and powering down his monitor. Living with Bianca was showing in his daily work habits. Silvio was at his desk, in his own world, with his own mound of paperwork, his Italian-English dictionary closed but ready.

“Here they are,” Alessandro pointed the remote at the screen and stepped up the volume again. He was a defiant kid who had to get the last word, Gennaro thought.

Gennaro saw their boss, Pio Piersanti, approaching. “Incoming.”

“What is it?” Alessandro said and, seeing Piersanti through the glass, shut off the television.

“What’s the word, DiBello?” asked the man entering the room.

“The word is nothing.”

“Monotti,” Piersanti gestured toward Alessandro, “turn that back on. I want to see what they have to say.”

The television screen crackled to life. A scrolling marquee on the bottom of the screen repeated Moody’s judgment: Downgrade on Italian bonds.

Piersanti’s face soured. “Shit. There goes the bond auction tomorrow.” He turned from the screen to Gennaro and said, “Shouldn’t you be on your way to meet with Giurlani, DiBello?”

“I am. We are. I’m waiting for them.”

“Late lunch,” Piersanti said, confirming the time on his wristwatch.

“Yes, and then we’re back here to give our reports to you and Giurlani.”

“Excellent. Giurlani has a lot faith in you and your group here. He pulled some serious strings to get your team transferred from Milan to Naples, including Isidore Farrugia. The Brooks murder was a PR nightmare. I don’t know how he did it.”

“I thought the answer was simple: Aldo Giurlani is the regional commissioner, and when Milan talks, Naples and Rome listen. If you’ll excuse me, we should get going.”

“I won’t delay you. You and this crew of yours have healthy appetites so please don’t kill me on the expense report. My boss might think I’m in bed with the System.” System was local slang for the Camorra, the infamous Naples crime syndicate.

Pio Piersanti, Gennaro’s new boss, was a decent man, with an alliterative and triplet of holy names. Unlike Pinolo, Gennaro’s former boss in Rome, he wasn’t a penny-pincher or a ball-breaker. Perego, their boss in Milan, was supposed to come to Naples, but was called away to another investigation.

Dottore?” It was Enzo, the mail clerk.

“Something for me?”

“Yes. I have a package. You’ll have to sign for it.”

“What is it?”

“Books in English. All the same title and author,” the young man answered.

Gennaro’s name and address were typed out. No name in the sender space. All rather peculiar, Gennaro mumbled. He hadn’t forgotten the heightened security measures. The postmark was days old because the Neapolitan Guardia di Finanza Security downstairs used canine units for sniffing out suspicious parcels for chemicals and explosives. Security was not victim to Italy’s latest austerity measures.

Gennaro signed and handed over the clipboard. Enzo left and Alessandro, Dante, and Silvio gathered around him as he examined the contents. The enclosed books were rubber-banded together. Five copies.

“What is it, Chief? Looks like a thin volume. Poetry?”

“You’re just like a kid, Sandro. You know that?”

Dante looked at the cardboard mailer and noticed the postmark. “Better for a package to be late than have someone go to pieces. Literally. Security probably dusted this for prints.”

“C’mon, Boss. What is the title?” Alessandro pestered.

The Man of Smoke. Aldo Palazzeschi, a dead writer,” Gennaro answered.

“Why five copies, Chief? And why in English?” Alessandro asked.

“How the hell should I know?” Gennaro said, as his eyebrows lifted. “There are four of us here. One for each of us, I guess, but that leaves one extra copy.”

Dante took his copy and then another. They all looked at him.

“One for Bianca since she is part of the team. Now, let’s go meet the commissioner for lunch. The elevator is waiting. Shall we?”

Alessandro said to Gennaro when the bell chimed, “Palazzeschi was the pen name for Aldo Giurlani.”

“I know, Sandro. He was an anti-Fascist.”

 

Commissioner Aldo Giurlani, who had worked with them in Milan, insisted on meeting the group in the city center for lunch. A public place was best, he had said, but had kept his travel itinerary secret. All Gennaro knew was the name of the restaurant, the appointed hour, and that the commissioner was arriving by car with a modest security detail. The commissioner, who had been receiving death threats, was fast becoming a worthy successor of Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone for his innovative strategies against organized crime.

Gennaro, at the wheel, was stalled in a stagnant sea of cars on Via San Biagio. They heard them in the distance, but could not see any emergency vehicles in the side-view mirror. Nee-nah. Nee-nah.

“What the hell is going on?” Alessandro said in the backseat.

“No idea,” Gennaro answered, peering in his side-view mirror.

People were running on foot between cars, around them, like water over rocks. The flood of flesh was fleeing like hordes of humanity in a science-fiction film. Gennaro gripped the wheel, seeking some escape with his small Fiat Punto. He had navigated the construction site near the Greek and Roman ruins, passed remnants of colonial rule, ignored the Fascist architecture of Banca di Napoli on Via Toledo. Yet there he sat, stranded, adrift, among motionless cars, surrounded by people on foot. As he surveyed the congestion as far as the eye could see, he realized he could get out of his Punto, walk over to the Banca Commerciale Italiana, visit the Caravaggio on the second floor, and light a votive before any car began to move again.

Sandro’s finger tapped his shoulder. “There’s a lollipop.” One of the carabinieri, a blue-suited policeman with a Stop-and-Go paddle, had come out to direct traffic.

Gennaro rolled the window down. The policeman’s torso neared his window. Gennaro showed his identification before he asked for an explanation. There was the intimation of smoke in the summer air: Gennaro could smell it. The policeman held up his lollipop and peered down and surveyed the group inside the car. The policeman tipped his hat.

“There’s been a car bombing in the Spanish Quarter on Via San Gregorio Armeno.”

“Camorra?”

The officer shrugged. “Perhaps. I can use my whistle to move you to the curb.”

“We’re supposed to meet someone for lunch.”

“I’m afraid that you’re not going anywhere, unless you can fly. I will direct you to the side of the road. Park there and call your party on your cell phone. You will be at least half an hour late. They still have to cordon off the scene.”

“Damn,” Gennaro said. He slapped the steering wheel hard. He decided to admit defeat. He said to the cop, “That’ll do, thank you.”

After several loud whistle blows and slow, painful cuts of the wheel and hostile stares from other drivers, Gennaro managed to squeeze his Punto near the curb. His parallel parking would have failed a driver’s exam. Giurlani was going to be pissed off, but what could he do?

“Let’s get out and see what we can make of the scene,” he told his passengers. Dante exited from the passenger side, Alessandro and Silvio maneuvered out of the backseat. Once he was on the sidewalk, Gennaro flipped open the cell phone and speed-dialed Giurlani. Without saying a word they started walking uphill in the direction of the acrid stench until they saw wisps of black and grey smoke.

“No luck getting through to Giurlani?” Dante asked.

“I’m trying, but he’s not picking up.”

Dante’s own cell phone began to ring. He fished it out of his jacket pocket. “Pronto . . . Isidò? Where are you?” Dante stood still and the rest waited for him to say something. Dante cupped the receiver. “Farrugia heard about the car bombing. He’s at the restaurant. I’ll tell him that we’ll be late.” A few words later Dante closed his phone.

They traversed the cobblestones together. Farrugia had been working undercover to track the Camorra’s trade in steroids and recreational drugs. Narcotics work was where he had started his career until he became an anti-mafia expert. Illicit drugs in Naples were yet another hothouse of endless euros for the System.

“It smells nasty,” Alessandro said, squinting his eyes and coughing.

“Burnt rubber and melting plastic are the worst,” Dante said while Gennaro tried Giurlani again on his cell phone. Dante noticed but didn’t say a word.

“No answer,” Gennaro said, snapping the cell phone shut.

The stench and smoke worsened as they crested the hill. They saw the car and several policemen across the street. Firemen had yet to arrive. The car and its contents were nothing now but crackling flames and twisted steel. The top of the car had been sheared off at a jagged angle. A torso in what was the driver’s seat was still visible, smoldering, as well as the shape of an arm and a hand faithful to the wheel. The passenger in the backseat was nothing more than a charcoal stump of charred flesh. Gennaro thought of the late Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, and fried jumbo grasshoppers.

Alessandro, flashing his badge, called over to one of the cops, who began walking toward them. “What happened?” Alessandro asked.

“Witnesses said the car was coming down the street when three motorcyclists ambushed it. One motorcyclist came out in front to block the car. The driver jammed on his brakes. Two gunmen with Kalashnikovs on the other motorcycles sprayed the car while the one in front took out a bazooka or an RPG and fired it into the car.”

The young policeman pointed to the ejected shell casings and shattered glass on the stony street.

“A bazooka, an RPG?” Alessandro asked. “I wouldn’t expect witnesses to know the difference between a bazooka and a rocket-propelled grenade.” Alessandro wiped his tearing eyes. “Did any of the witnesses have anything to say about the gunmen or the victims?”

“Not really. The motorcyclists wore helmets, visors down. Three men were in the car. We’ll know more once we trace the plates.”

“Camorristi with AK-47s. Typical,” Dante said.

Gennaro, like the rest of them, looked at the license plate. Milan.

Dante said, “Maybe you should call Giurlani again, Chief?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Why not?”

“Still have that book?”

“It’s in the car. Why?”

“Because the books were a message.” Gennaro stared at the car wreck. His eyes seemed distant and immune to the smoke.

A confused Alessandro asked, “What is he talking about?”

“Aldo Palazzeschi was a pen name. You said so yourself, Sandro.”

“For Aldo Giurlani, why?”

Gennaro nudged his chin at the wreckage. “Dante’s book might be in my car, but Giurlani is in that one.”

Alessandro stared at Gennaro for an explanation.

“That’s the message. Our Commissioner Giurlani is now a man of smoke.”

Gennaro started the descent back to his car.

Nee-nah. Nee-nah. The sirens had arrived.

Turning to Stone

TTS

COPYRIGHT © 2015 by Gabriel Valjan

Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing

Please visit Winter Goose Publishing and browse around to find excellent books, new authors, enjoy their blog, and subscribe for e-mail updates.

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Jagged Ice: The Works of Iceberg Slim

Ever discover an author who made you feel like as if you’ve been living under a rock? And I don’t mean just discovering good writing, but, to quote Hammett, “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let [you] see the works”?

I found Iceberg Slim by accident. After writing a series of blog posts on World War I, I went into the I-section of the BPL stacks to reacquaint myself with Ibáñez, whom I had read when I was younger, fascinated by the cover art for the author’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In pulling Ibáñez from the shelf, out popped a slim volume entitled Trick Baby.

0870679333Curious, I read the first few pages and was like, “Who is this guy? [Insert expletive here].” I then pulled Mama Black Widow, Long White Con and Death Wish from the shelf, read the first pages of each novel and decided I had to read the man. All the books, with the exception of Doom Fox, which was a reissue with a Pam Grier-like profile on the cover and an introduction by Ice-T, were sad, tattered copies from the seventies.

Iceberg had done the bulk of his writing by 1978, with Airtight Willie & Me, his last work, published in 1985. Doom Fox was a posthumous publication. Iceberg died at 73 in 1992 from complications of diabetes. I borrowed Trick Baby and his autobiography Pimp from the library and read them together before I moved on down the line to his other works in chronological order.

I was a kid in the seventies ( and I know that I’m generalizing here) but it was either the punk scene, metal or rap music that ‘spoke’ to my peers when we were teens in the eighties. It was all a pose, but adolescents in search of expression and an identity latch onto what they can. Another sweeping statement: blaxploitation was already a cliché and, having been weaned on Norman Lear productions for television such as Good Times, Sanford & Son and The Jeffersons that brought black families and their concerns into the living room, we didn’t know Black outside of epics such as Roots, but what we did see we thought was prefabricated as cereal inside a box; and with Reagan retro-morality running 24/7, a serious examination of race was dismissed as oh so liberal and très progressive. To my friends, hip-hop and rap were their music, just as Delta or Chi blues was authentic Black music. We, at least, didn’t buy the subscription that Elvis had invented rock. We knew Black folks had been ripped off since Day One.

We didn’t use the word African-American then. It was Black, just black, and no hyphens needed. African-American poetry and drama, if and when it was taught to us College Caucasians, was Baldwin, Ellison, Jones and Wright. Poetry was Angelou, Brooks, Giovanni, McKay, and Wheatley. Hansberry was shoehorned in with Wilson. When I was in college, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were not in the curriculum. Rodney King hadn’t happened yet. So finding and appreciating Iceberg Slim is a function of accident and curiosity.

Flash-forward to the present: in my mind, one of the most cynical and capitalistically exploitative acts in entertainment was that a bunch of white middle-aged record executives sold the idea to white kids that they could act Thug and dress Gangsta. Norman Lear is still alive, but the stunning TV-series Empire might just convince people that Black people are caught up in what Ice-T and Iceberg’s called The Game. Empire vindicates what U2 had said in Bullet the Blue Sky, “Outside, is America.”

Iceberg Slim jumps off the page because he writes with authenticity. He has a voice, but it isn’t the Voice of the MFA workshops. His honesty is brutal and lacerating. If you are PC about language, gender relationships, and are MLK-idealistic about race relations, or need trigger words, then don’t read Iceberg. Samuel L. Jackson in rant-mode could take a few pointers from Iceberg Slim — not that his stories are anti-white, hateful and venomous. No. I think that misses the point. They are unpleasant and they are raw. He does say harsh, misogynistic things about women, not because he dislikes women, but rather he is all business. Imagine a black Michael Corleone saying, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” That’s Iceberg Slim. He doesn’t give a F.

Iceberg-slim

There is brutality and there is the tragic. Slim tells the reader that in order to survive in business, to survive in the world, to survive in America, a person can’t bare his or her feelings. Weakness is stone cold fatal. To be clear: he isn’t about redefining masculinity and drumming in the woods with Robert Bly. He is crystal about one thing: people will take advantage of vulnerability, including women, family and friends. He doesn’t buy into men are providers and women are nurturing. We are social and tribal animals. Life is a ledger book and it is either profit or losses; it is a matter of life and death. Go soft, get comfortable, and you might as well put the toe tag on yourself.

Surprisingly, Iceberg Slim was not born into abject poverty. His dad had abandoned the family. His mother worked hard, owned a beauty salon, and provided him with a middle-class existence and education in Depression-era America. That is quite remarkable, regardless of race. He attended college (with Ralph Ellison) but dropped out. Ice started pimping in 1936, seduced by the money and artificial sense of power.

At the height of his own empire, he had 400 women in his ‘stable,’ and at his lowest, he was a desperate, strung-out heroin junkie; and from apex to nadir, he perfected a ruthless persona as cold as a coroner’s drawer. When you read any of his novels, you feel the weight of the mask, the conniving; the energy it takes to stay one-step ahead and others (mostly women) underfoot. Ice wasn’t worried so much about The Man as he was about maintaining his niche in the urban food chain. His stories are a metaphor about American capitalism: there is no such thing as a Free Market: it is all domination and somebody is always under the wheel. Money is green and it doesn’t care whether the pocket is White or Black. The Game isn’t about the justice thing, nor is it a social thing, and gender has nothing to do with it: Survival in America is Darwinian. Deal with it, or die. Welfare and social programs are not a helping hand, but dangerous narcotics. Unfortunately, Ice makes it clear that pimping has always been a Black thing.

9781451617139_p0_v1_s260x420Iceberg landed in jail, did ten months in solitary confinement. He left the Cook County Jail a changed man. He stepped away from pimping and hustling because by then he was an old man in the game. He was 42 in 1961. He started writing about his life, about cons, about mulattoes, and “his whores.” Holloway House, an independent Black publishing group in Los Angeles, would publish all of his books, starting in 1967. Cash Money Content now reprints all his titles with distinctive covers. Iceberg Slim became an underground icon to rappers like Ice-T, Tupac, and Notorious B.I.G. Ice-T would take his stage name from Iceberg. Later, he would back a documentary on Iceberg Slim. The documentary is available on DVD at Amazon.

Slim writes in a dialect that has probably dated itself, along with the clothes, but the dialectic is frighteningly clear: the hard work that it takes for the entrepreneurial success of Horatio Algers — whether they are from the street or tony MBAs with inherited wealth from suburbia — is predicated on predation. The pimp may use intimidation and the corporate wingtips may use lawyers and loopholes, but the result is the same. Slim doesn’t stop there. Equality in America, especially for Black Americans, equality between men and women are all smokescreens for the vicious necessities for survival in a nihilistic society that eats its own. I suspect that, as Ice-T wrote in his introductory essay to Doom Fox, Iceberg Slim gave a voice where there was no voice. Slim didn’t bemoan the state of Black existence in America; he accepted it as self-evident. Deal with the Reality, play the Game, or it will kill you. There is no sideline, or place to catch your breath.

Now, the lure behind Iceberg’s stories is the Hollywood glamorization of the pimp lifestyle, just like the mafia has been romanticized, but I think that is to read the man wrong, for he’s very forthright: all that is a fast track to the morgue, and why make it easy for others who want to put you there in the first place? In his autobiography, his advice is to educate yourself, steer clear of smack and enrich your life with reading; it might be square and Old School, but you’re not the fool and you’re keeping it real.

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Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?

malcolm-xFifty years after his assassination in New York’s Audubon Ballroom, the name Malcolm X remains synonymous with militancy and rage, with the angrier voice in the Civil Rights Movement. If Malcolm Little’s path to becoming Malcolm X and, before his death, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, is the hero’s journey, with all its epiphanies and tribulations, then Martin Luther King Jr. is the stranger who had come to town.

No two men could have been more different. Where X was accusatory and inflammatory, King was diplomatic and measured; where Malcolm was Icarus, flying close to the edge of violence, King was Amos, eroding racial inequality with Thoreau’s civil disobedience. Both men died as martyrs, but I’d like to offer a perspective in which both men were alike, why they were both ideological threats, and why both men remain relevant with one resonant message.

Malcolm X did the one thing that Americans claim to appreciate but seldom respect: he used blunt, direct speech. People will remember his “chickens coming home to roost” after JFK’s death, but forget that he spoke about the equally abhorrent and senseless murders of Medgar Evers, Patrice Lumumba, and the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing in the same sentence.

Malcolm X was angry, and Anger is easy to reject because it implies the irrational, whereas America could tolerate Outrage, if it is articulated within the framework of that familiar cultural touchstone, the Christian sermon, regardless of denomination. Like musicians, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. rang out their messages in two different keys. Where Martin appealed to the ideals of the New Testament, Malcolm invoked the punitive register of the Old Testament, which makes sense since Islam is a continuation of the Old Testament. Muslims consider themselves the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s half-brother. The irony is that Martin was optimistic, for he spoke to what America aspired to, but lacked the courage to embrace, whereas Malcolm X was a hardened realist, for he spoke about the streets as they were, as he knew them as a petty criminal, and as a citizen of these United States under Jim Crow.

As to how these two men were ideological threats, it is too simplistic to point to events and their biographies, but I think my point will be clear after a brief look at one American writer. I had said that Martin was the stranger who had come to town because he had a better sense of who he was as a person. Malcolm Little did not. He could easily have stood in as Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, an angry, confused man, whose anger and confusion are redirected under the auspices of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X could have been either Ellison’s riot provocateur Ras or the titular Invisible Man, but I’d suggest a different character altogether: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Abe North.

Tender is the Night is Gatsby revisited, with Dick Diver as Jay’s unlikely protégé. Doubt the comparison, then read this:

But to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world. So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation, but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said or done.

Is that not Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island? My point is this: there is a section in the 1934 novel that I believe Fitzgerald wrote to both satirize and comment on racial violence in America. That Fitzgerald died in 1940 does not diminish his insight. In the novel, Nicole receives a call from the Parisian police. She is told: “We have arrested a Negro. We are convinced that we have at last arrested the correct Negro.” The police, in doing their job, do right wrong; they make a mistake and identify Abe North, a pianist, as ‘Afghan North.’

Fitzgerald, the pun on Abe for Abraham Lincoln notwithstanding, will also pun on the name ‘Mr. Freeman’ and add some humor when Abe tells Dick to look out for a Negro from Copenhagen who makes shoe polish. The tragedy is that Abe North wants to return to New York and he is murdered, beaten to death, outside a speakeasy. A dark comedic argument occurs after the murder because it is questioned whether a Negro like Abe could have been admitted into the speakeasy. It is a Negro’s blood on Nicole’s pillow that causes her crack-up. The horror of Abe’s violent death is negated for the sake of Nicole’s precarious state: “Look here, you mustn’t get upset over this—it’s only some nigger scrap.”

Malcolm and Martin were alike because both understood that there is no ‘correct’ Negro, so long as he or she questions the status quo, or tries, as Abe North did, to realize the ‘American Dream.’ James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner and Richard Wright can dramatize racism in America, but Fitzgerald did for American letters with Tender is the Night what Molière had done for comedic theatre and social critique three centuries earlier. Martin worked with the confines of legal and moral codes. Malcolm rejected both outright; and both approaches proved fatal.

Martin advocated for dignity and justice throughout his ministry. Malcolm campaigned for nationalism and separatism, often using provocative and polarizing rhetoric, because he had no hope for racial peace and equality in America. Like Joe Christmas and Bigger Thomas, he had seen too much: life was like a dubbed foreign film; the words do not jibe with the moving lips. It wasn’t until Malcolm had made the Hajj, after his break from the Nation of Islam in 1963, that he softened somewhat, for during that pilgrimage he had seen Muslims of all colors.

Why did Martin and Malcolm pose a threat? Why was their message metaphorical, relevant to all Americans? I don’t think that the threat they posed concerned race; rather it had to do with economics. In today’s circles, had Martin Luther King, Jr. continued his course unchanged, he would be called a socialist democrat. The direction that he was taking at the end of his life suggests that he envisioned an all-encompassing ministry for social justice. King was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone not to speak about race again, but about the inequity in pay and about the rampant discrimination against striking sanitation workers, both black and white. His ministry sought to redress economic disparities among all Americans.

Martin believed in autonomy, yes, but Malcolm also called for economic independence. Through the Muhammad Speaks newsletter, which Elijah Muhammad had started in 1960, Black communities in major urban areas formed their own news services; but it was the militant groups that Malcolm had inspired that made self-defense and separatism a reality, for the Black Panther ‘survival programs’ provided free sickle-cell anemia testing, breakfasts for children, security for the elderly, health clinics and even veterinary services. With economic success, there is self-sufficiency, and Black self-determination would have no need for interdependence with White businesses, or America. Had Malcolm and Martin converged on the realization that though race was an issue, it is economics that is the greater lever for parity?

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Malcolm died in 1965, probably murdered by men he knew and recognized in his final moments. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr met for all of one minute, just long enough for photographs. King died in 1968, taken down by a sniper’s bullet. Malcolm X’s death picture foreshadows Robert F. Kennedy’s. The photograph of the balcony at the Hotel Lorraine is iconic, with accusatory fingers pointing in the distance. Nobody knows how they would have matured into elder statesmen. Martin is not around to give his assessment of whether the Dream has been denied or deferred, fulfilled or coopted by opportunists. I wish that I could listen to Malcolm’s opinion on ISIL, who are, as he was, Sunni Muslims. By 1968, ‘Black’ had replaced ‘Negro’; the term African-American came into use later, at some uncertain date. I suspect that Malcolm would see the name-change as no different than corporate shell games and the con man’s skilled hand at distraction. He would remind us that we had been ‘hoodwinked’ and ‘bamboozled’.

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A Defense from the Gutter: the case for Crime Fiction as ‘Serious’ Literature

In a recent review of Jake Hinkson’s latest effort, the reviewer’s choice of words: “The Deepening Shade is very much at the literary end of the crime genre…” chafed me like sand in a bathing suit. I remain perplexed why crime fiction, particularly hard-boiled or noir, is considered less than ‘literary’, less than ‘serious’, as if the writer were slumming his or her talent for story-telling.

What if I told you that the first novel in western European literature was crime fiction? I’m well aware that the Jeopardy answer for the first novel is Cervantes’s Don Quixote or that the survey classes in English literature cite Samuel Richardson’s Pamela as the first novel in English. I’d argue, though, that the more accurate answer preceded Don Quixote by half a century and Pamela by almost two centuries. I’m talking about the anonymously written Lazarillo, published in 1554. Both Don Quixote and Lazarillo are classified as picaresque tales, a genre that retails bumbling adventures, with touches of buffoonery and satire; but Lazarillo is a very dark work of crime fiction. There is nothing amusing in Lazarillo. Lazarillo is, in my opinion, the first hard-boiled novel.

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Image from Wikipedia.

Lazarillo offers so many atrocities that all of the horrors found in Dickens seem quaint; in fact, Lazarillo rivals most of the modern nonfiction novels that deal with child abuse and some of the the violence in today’s crime novels. It is that graphic and disquieting. Young Lázaro, like a Chaucerian pilgrim in steerage class, tells stories of what it is like to serve as an apprentice to a variety of social superiors, starting with a blind man who, despite his handicap, manages to smash in the boy’s face with a wine jug. His misdeed? Thirst. It doesn’t get better for Lázaro; the blind codger, thinking the boy had stolen sausage, pries open his mouth, sticks his pronounced nose into the boy’s mouth and forces him to vomit the stolen food. The blind man is but the first station on the path of miseries. Lázaro will go on to serve a priest, a squire, a friar, a pardoner, a chaplain, a bailiff and an archbishop. Only Dante had an extra circle in hell. The novel was banned for its realism, for its use of the poor as main characters, and for its anti-clerical and anti-aristocratic tone. Lazarillo did not, in a word, elevate its audience; the anonymous author reminded them all too well of the gutter. Until Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Lazarillo had been the only novel — perhaps the first — I know to depict the inequities women experienced and an interracial family (Lázaro’s mother is white; his father, black).

Lazarillo de Tormes is a story of survival, literally about finding food and outwitting sadists, who were protected by their class and privilege. Jean Valjean was a man sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, whereas Lázaro was but a child. The darkness of the story is, on the surface, the series of tribulations that the boy endures, and later, below the surface, all the negotiations and forfeitures he has to make in order to become a town crier at the end of his ordeals. Perhaps, the tradition of cynicism found in the modern hard-boiled protagonist may have started here, with a young man’s shattered childhood; it would just take a few more centuries and a passage through several languages for that cynicism to be wedded to the descendants of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, the first literary detective, and then for the femme fatale for a love interest to be added.

Noir, hard-boiled’s second act, requires the protagonist to make a really bad choice. Since I started with Jake Hinkson’s The Deepening Shade, I’ll pick an example from one of his other works. In Hell On Church Street, a self-professed tough guy picks a fat man as an easy score. Big mistake. Paul meets Geoffrey Webb, the equivalent of Hammett’s Kasper Gutman as a driver; for those readers who haven’t read The Maltese Falcon, imagine carjacking a rotund creature behind the wheel that turns out to be as lethal and cagey as Mike Tyson.

If Lazarillo is hard-boiled, then Francisco de Quevedo  (Historia de la vida del Buscón in Spanish) is noir; it appeared in 1626, and what a crime spree it is. Imagine Quevedo as James Dickey: a writer first known for poetry, until he pens a novel such as Deliverance. The hero here, a young Pablos, undergoes a gruesome education very much like the one Lázaro experienced, except worse. Where Lázaro does what he does out of hunger and survival, Pablos does the same, at first, but then enjoys the role of criminal. If Flaubert offered an education in feelings (L’Éducation sentimentale), Pablos is the graduate of numerous humiliations and depraved rituals, not unlike Musil’s Törless at his military school. Pablos is beaten, spat on, peed on, and shat on. The degradation of the flesh here is scatological, the inverse of hunger. The result? Pablos becomes an astute liar, a master con man. He chooses the criminal path. Pablos lives day to day, using his only weapon: words. Is it here that the noir hero or anti-hero’s witty repartee originates? Much of modern noir opens up with a snarky line said in a bar, during some act of violence, or spoken by a has-been to a woman next to him in bed. The snarky line, which, if spoken in a bar, would get the speaker the business end of a shotgun in the ribs or the bouncer’s choke-hold; or, at the very least, a well-deserved slap across the face from the woman in bed.

 

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Image from Wikipedia.

For an anti-hero, Pablos enjoys striking the pose, looking the part (quedar bien, in Spanish). He has that criminal tough-guy bravado of Paul in Hell On Church Street: “I’m also one mean son of a bitch,” or the pluck of Jim Thompson’s grifters, except that Pablos does not escape unscathed. One of the complaints Raymond Chandler had about pulp writers in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” was that there was no comeuppance, no more morality. He sensed a trend, an inherent nihilism in contemporary stories; in Quevedo’s Swindler, Pablos survives the con, but there is a terrible price: his face is cut in half, from ear to ear, like The Joker in Batman. The Swindler ends with Pablos lighting out for the New World, but not before he commits yet more crimes, including murder. In both of these Spanish novels that I have mentioned, the hero’s desire and journey is survival. Lázaro starves and suffers; Pablos is victim and then deceiver. Lázaro elicits sympathy, while Pablos receives the same until he makes his decision. Their stories are a rite of passage, albeit a brutal one that anticipates the con men of Balzac and Dickens.

So crime fiction grew up from boys with ‘street smarts’ to men with despicable characters. More than that changed in modern times: Sam Spade might have “looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan,” or Marlowe, a “shop-soiled Sir Galahad,” but there was a chivalric code of conduct, a boy’s-only club. On the point of misogyny, I have read little on the sympathy that James Cain showed to single mothers in his writing, although Robert Polito did touch on it lightly in his introductory essay to the Everyman’s Library edition. I don’t know whether or not the ‘code’ originated with the boys centuries ago with Lazarillo and Swindler, but there is a stigma attached to crime fiction; it is not considered ‘serious literature.’

I guess that there are numerous questions, all of them with uncomfortable answers. Why would anyone read a narrative with such brutal violence, excessive profanity and queasy sex? I imagine that Lazarillo and Swindler would have scandalized their first readers. A modern reader is likely to raise an eyebrow and then move on, somewhat desensitized. Is the appeal of crime fiction mere wish fulfillment – a subliminal desire to be bad, to exact revenge out of a feeling of impotence, or the thrill of getting away with it? I say this from two sides of the equation: the anti-hero is the criminal and the detective is often flawed and unlikeable. Items in the gallery: Dexter, Erlendur, and Kurt Wallander, to name but a few.

To relegate crime fiction to the lower shelf as not ‘literature’ and hold the writer in lesser esteem because they choose not to offer slick wordplay that they footnote (David Foster Wallace and David Eggers) for the reader, ramble on for hundreds of pages, offering opinions on everything (Robert Musil), or any other acutely self-conscious post-modernist tricks, is unfair to the writer’s skills. Crime fiction has plot; it has an arc, a beginning, middle, and end to satisfy Aristotle, even if the hero or the ending is frustrating. Is not Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl crime fiction? Are other genres not ‘serious literature’? Readers may read YA because they hunger for a good story, are tired of the ‘serious’ and choose to ignore the designator, ‘Young Adult’ because they want to be entertained, taken elsewhere. A writer does not need ‘the chops’ to make characters sympathetic in crime fiction; good writing does that in and of itself and genre is but is just an arbitrary flavor in the variety on the bookshelves. No stigma, please.

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The Bear and the Bulldog

There are two parts to this argument, and neither of them offers a definitive conclusion. There is the novel – the bear – of the title and then the short story, the bulldog.

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Nobody would think twice about who would win in a confrontation between a bear and a bulldog, but that’s exactly the analogy I think about. What translates better to film? The novel or the short story? As a general rule: the bulldog usually wins, on paper. A glance at the list of short stories made into films proves that the awkward bulldog, with its low center of gravity, outruns and outdoes the lumbering bear.

James Joyce’s “The Dead” became John Huston’s last film in 1987.

Hemingway’s “The Killers” was done twice: in 1946 with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, and then in 1964, with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. On that ‘last of’ theme: the 1964 version would cast Reagan in his last cinematic role and first role as a villain before he entered politics.

A gaggle of P.K. Dick stories became films. “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” are two of his most well know stories put to celluloid, although Blade Runner the movie had seven possible endings. Dick didn’t live to see the film open, but he did see alt-versions of BR endings and hadn’t liked what he had seen or read.

There are other bulldogs in the list. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” has been made into a film three times. The number of Cornell Woolrich short stories adapted for the screen could populate a kennel. His “It Had To Be Murder” is likely the one most people might know from his noirish oeuvre because it became Hitchcock’s Rear Window. 153 – yes, 153! – of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories have been made into films. The granddaddy bulldog of them all is – believe it or not, it is not the ubiquitous Stephen King, although close –the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, with 70 films made from his short fiction.

Now, the novella is more like a cub than a bear. The problem here is whether the novella is a long short story or a short novel. Henry James’s The Turn of The Screw, which inspired two films, The Innocents in 1961 and most recently The Others with Nicole Kidman, clocks in at a mere 75 pages. I mention the page count because Stephen King’s novellas vary from the 65-page Ride The Bullet, which was the world’s first electronic book for you trivia fans, to the 230-page The Mist. The point is Mr. King’s idea of a short story is broad: the bulldog is more like Cujo – a little long in the tooth.

There are novels and there are NOVELS. Case in point: The Maltese Falcon, just as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, is a hair over two hundred pages, yet these novels inspired films in which the dialog was lifted verbatim, as if Strunk and White’s “Omit Needless Words” was taken to heart. Maltese, by the way, was put to film three times. The Shootist is another example where script and dialog blurred. Coincidentally, the other Hammett novels are somewhat lean and inspired films: Red Harvest became (loosely) Miller’s Crossing and then there is the series of Thin Man movies.

The granddaddy bear, though I don’t think that he’d have appreciated the pun, is Henry James. I know that an argument can be made for Stephen King, but I picked James for a reason. Where the bulldog reaches for the ankles, the bear is a massive predator that can swipe your head off, which is exactly the problem that faces screenwriters. A short story is compact and concise, and no matter how much leash given the bulldog, he isn’t going to outrun the walker. His legs are capable of only so much. The screenwriter who has to confront Henry James, or Dickens, or Tolstoy, or King himself has the unenviable task of trying to give a bear a haircut with toenail clippers. The powerhouse team of Merchant Ivory and the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala translated James to film several times. The fundamental challenge is sheer scale, the sprawl of the canvas, and the aesthetic decision (or guess) whether the reader and viewer want to luxuriate in seeing “The Figure in the Rug” (a James short story), the stir of the teaspoon in afternoon tea, or get from here to there as fast as possible. The camera loves the bear. The bulldog likes to talk. The camera shows. Dialog is action. Both are revelatory in their own way.

What stays and what goes is the question that a (screen)writer must tackle in the process of moving the story from the pages of a novel onto the screen. Whether that person is working with Henry James or Stephen King, how does he or she make a doorstopper into a paperweight? Without revealing spoilers, I asked the same question about Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her novel, Gone Girl. I selected her because 1) I saw the movie and then read the book, although I had tried to read the novel but couldn’t ‘get into it’ and 2) Flynn had that rare opportunity for the novelist to adapt her own work to the screen. For the record, King has done it numerous times, with mixed success. Flynn nailed it.

I won’t write any spoilers here, but Gone Girl is all about surfaces. The novel can be summed up in one quote from Ford Maddox Ford: “Who in this world knows anything of any other heart – or of his own?” There I did it: I gave the bear a landing strip for a haircut. Flynn had some hard choices to make: keep this or chuck that over her shoulder. No matter what your opinion is about plausibility and the contested and decried ending, she had to kill her darlings. She had two unlikeable characters: facile, insipid and shallow people. She kept Nick’s ‘move’ – and here I am reminded of Hannah’s asking Jacob what his move was in Crazy, Stupid, Love – because it is what puts Amazing Amy over the edge. What Flynn ripped out of the novel and gave short order for the film, in my opinion, are two things: the growth of Nick from milquetoast to shocked state of awareness, and Amazing Amy’s parents co-opting her childhood (Told not Shown). Amy, possibly the diva of unreliable narrators, tells Nick all about Daddy and Mommie dearest, yet Gillian Flynn did manage to trim the bear while allowing it kept its claws. I hope to see a published screenplay because I think it would provide writers with lessons on how to deal with ursine decisions.

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