Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Short Takes: Grace Metalious

I read as much of this as could keep my interest. There’s a recent spark of interest in Metalious again, partly because some (sigh) feminist press recently reissued Peyton Place, partly because Sandra Bullock is apparently going to play her in a biopic.

Peyton Place is not exactly a good book. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing to try and reestablish her reputation, nowadays, but it all sounds kind of fake to me, a lot of protesting too much. There’s a small group of people -- Ed Gorman comes to mind -- who legitimately seem to think this is a great novel. Well, nostalgia is a powerful thing.

It’s not a bad book. It’s rather well written, and has moments of real power: the drunken nightmare in the cellar is a good bit, as is the stepfather coming on to Selena, as is the Principal’s arrival in town. Like a lot of episodic novels (The Young Lions; From Here to Eternity) it’s most powerful in episodes. Metalious wrote with a kind of freshness and frankness that seems perfectly current now, though she surely blew a lot of minds back in her day.

But a novel of episodes is just that, a novel of isolated incidents, and Peyton Place falls on the same rocks that a lot of others do -- James Jones, for instance. There’s just no sense that this trip is ultimately going anywhere, that it has some kind of greater meaning. It clops along, one Revealing Moment after another, until it just sort of kinda stops. This is a fault of not approaching the book as a completed intrinsic work -- one begins to suspect it’s a fault of trying To Report Life In All of it’s Truthfulness. Because let’s be frank, life doesn’t have that kind of neatness we want or need from stories. Life tends to be episodic, moving from bead to bead on a necklace until we just kinda sorta stop. And that’s fine with life, because after all we’re living it. But it sucks for stories.

Stories are not life. Stories are fashioned things, and they provide us with things life cannot.

Peyton Place fails the further it goes, as these kind of things tend to do. For whatever reason, these type of novels tend to shoot their load early, giving us all the effective incidents in the first part. It also gets more shrill as it goes on: these sorts of books That Try To Reproduce Life In All of It’s Truthfulness generally have missionary leanings, and that’s particularly true of Peyton Place, which in the end boils down to that tired “if only we were more frank and open about sex life would be better” bit that apparently sounded so fresh in the Fifties.
But while I can’t recommend it as a piece of fiction, it’s interesting to read if you’re interested in the history of fiction, particular in how American popular fiction has gone in the post WW II period. Metalious’s vision of small town life: a hotbed of repression, a wandering omniscient viewpoint, an episodic style, a reportorial vibe with an implicit point of view -- this has been profoundly influential in American fiction. It’s hard to think of ‘Salem’s Lot, to pick a novel off the top of my head, without Peyton Place. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter for another piece, though.

I also think Metalious’s life is interesting, especially for writers. She embodies a lot of the hopes and nightmares of the American writer: she struggles, suffers setbacks, hits it incredibly big, becomes very rich, blows it all, can’t ever reproduce her original success, and dies regretting it all. There’s something almost parable-like in her life -- hell, this may be one of the few biopics I actually go to.

Worth cautiously dipping into, I’d say.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jones online

This is a reasonable piece on Jones, albeit rather more adulatory than I would be. It does talk, interestingly enough, about Some Came Running, a book that's almost impossible to find nowadays but one I'm very interested in. I have generally come to the conclusion that the books writers feel are their best usually are their best. Especially if the writer is worth any salt to begin with.


David Foster Wallace has listed The Thin Red Line as one of his favorite books. It's sandwiched between Red Dragon and Fear of Flying:


There's some other stuff out there, but I don't feel like chasing it down right now.

Quick Look: James Jones

Yeah, I know, it’s been a long time since I’ve updated this thing. Hey, I was sick.
Anyway, Jones. I read From Here to Eternity -- at least as much of it as I could get through -- and The Thin Red Line -- ditto -- awhile back. I found Jones a frustrating experience.

He’s frustrating because he’s so damn good in miniature. Parts of both books are just extremely good, so good that you can’t quite believe you’re reading something that good -- but it just fails to cohere as a whole.

Since my rhythm’s all off this is going to have to be shorter than I intended, as I don’t even have my copy of From Here anymore to refer to. Originally I intended this to be a rather long piece, as I think Jones, while by no means a good writer, is an extremely interesting writer to look at, particularly in an historical context. But well, hell’s bells and all that. We work with what’s given us.

From Here has a drive and push and an authenticity which feels wholly lacking in somebody like Irwin Shaw, who’s The Young Lions, while it has it’s virtues, does feel like an upscale Boho’s feeling of What War Must Be Really Like. In short bursts it’s a wonderful book -- the scene in the bordello, the fake marriage of the officer and his wife (see, I don’t have the book here, I can’t even remember their names), the slow torture of Prewitt when he refuses to join up the boxing brigade, etc. This is all great stuff.

But it’s all in the service of this: “Will Prewitt join the boxing team or not?” Yes, I know Jones tries to imbue this with some kind of mythic significance, that it’s some kind of eternal battle writ small. Yeah, yeah, I get it. That doesn’t change the primary fact that in the “real world” of the book, we’re asked to participate in an epic about Whether or Not Prewitt Will Join the Boxing Squad. I mean, a lot of fuss and bother about not much of anything.

And yeah, I get the idea that the eventual Pearl Harbor attack makes this all sort of meaningless, too. But that just butresses my point: I’m being asked to devote almost a thousand pages to pointlessness, when you get right down to it, and at the end of the day I’m asked to celebrate the giant waste of time this involved.

It’s frustrating. It’s like being roped into a club being promised Live! Naked! Girls! and discovering all you get is a Borscht Belt comedian. It’s like staying up late to watch a Shannon Tweed movie but she doesn’t get naked. All tease, no follow-through.

I’ve been reading a lot of novels from this period (immediate post WW2) and I plan on reading a lot more, and I’ve become absolutely convinced that the besetting sin of this era was the English Class attempt to write The Great American Novel. A hopelessly middlebrow project, and writers inevitably crashed on the shoals of this mirage. People were so interested in writing something meaningful they lost their focus on writing something good.

From Here to Eternity would’ve worked much better as a series of short stories, this is a collection of small ideas that is simply afflicted with hardcore bloat.

The Thin Red Line actually has a storyline all wrapped up and handed to it -- it’s about the battle of Guadalcanal, or as near as dammit, anyway. And it’s better than Eternity, at least it’s about something real and important. And as always, Jones’s view of the army, and of war, and of what men do there seems dead-on accurate. I also particularly like Jones’s use of pov here: there is no one set protagonist -- the brigade itself is the protagonist -- and Jones travels like God over all of them, dipping into their minds when he needs to. It’s quite smart, and rather more sophisticated than the rather off-the-rack structure of Eternity (which even features two straightup love stories, one done reasonably well, one shoehorned in and, well, not so much.)

But I ended up giving up on this one, too. It seemed to me that Jones has his say in about the first hundred pages or so -- and after that it goes on, and on, and on, restating the same damn thing over and over again. It too suffers from bloat, just not as much. Line would’ve worked better as a novella, I think. (Or novelette. Do they still call them that?) I would’ve ended things after the attack on the Elephant, myself.

Jones was a small talent trying to conform to the market and sociological realities of his day; he’s an interesting example of how an artist who doesn’t really understand himself can be subsumed by the world around him. There are nuggets of value in these books, but I think in general Jones has to be considered a failed writer. His vision feels too compromised.