John P. Marquand
First of all, a couple of ground rules. We won't be talking about Marquand's Mr. Moto books, although the one I read I remember liking quite a bit. These are best discussed in their own context -- especially since Marquand himself saw these books as something "apart" from his serious work.
We're also going to be talking about Marquand's books a bit out of order. Most people, when they talk about Marquand, usually mention The Late George Apley, Wickford Point, "something else" (I'm going to be talking about H.M. Pulham, Esq., although you could substitute others of its type) and Point of No Return. Well, I'm going to talk about Wickford Point seperately. I don't understand why it's constantly mentioned in the same breath as these others -- well, I do understand, it's laziness, basically -- but it very much exists as it's own thing.
There's a lot of interesting things to say about Marquand. His struggles to be accepted as a "serious" writer even while becoming famous and rich through his popular fare embodies a certain kind of struggle that a lot of American writers, particularly writers of the immediate post WW Two generation, suffered. (And hell, still suffer, although it's not what it once was). The brief flurry of interest in Marquand a couple of years back is also interesting: I suspect that was driven almost completely by a piece Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote on him. The fact that one voice, even one as "esteemed" as Yardley, could push Apley and Wickford back into print says something about where "high" literary culture is right now.
But I want to talk about Marquand's goals, and what he was obviously trying to do and how that contrasts with other writers of his ilk who are looking to do something else. Call it, for now, "directed" writers versus "non-directed".
You can divide up writers in fifty gajillion ways, but one good way to do it is to think about writers who are driven to "tell" you something, and are using stories as a way to do that, versus writers who are interested in other aspects of storytelling: stylistics, characterizations, some kinds of experimentation. (Some kinds of experimentation are actually full square "directed", it kinda depends.) It's the difference between trying to get to a destination and enjoying the trip.
Sometimes all a writer is "driven" to do is tell you a story -- that's actually a fairly rockin' description of pulp, in fact. What is pulp? Pulp is writing where story subsumes everything else -- where there's nothing but the plot. At a higher level, though, it's all about relating the theme through the story.
Sounds pretty high schoolish, huh? Well, it is, sort of, although these things can be done with greater degrees of sophistication and subtlety, of course. I'm really not trying to make a value judgement here -- most anybody can think of good books like this. What I am trying to say is that you know this kind of thing when you encounter it.
And you encounter it with Marquand.
Marquand wants to tell you something. The best way to understand Apley, Pulham, and No Return is to see the progression as Marquand's gradually increasing artistic development within his formula, which he set up to try and tell us something. He's thus a very interesting writer to examine, you can almost feel him growing as you read along.
Here's the formula. Amusingly, it comes from Wickford Point, which isn't about this kind of stuff at all
Continued next post