Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bad boys

David Castronovo’s Blokes is a study of four more-or-less blokey post-war British (indeed English) writers: the poet Philip Larkin, the novelist Kingsley Amis, the playwright John Osborne, and the critic Kenneth Tynan. Castronovo is an American academic, and in some ways his American-ness – or at least his non-Britishness – shows. He is under the impression, for example, that “ratbags” is a singular term, like “jackanapes.” He also believes that Philip Larkin wrote a poem called “Sunny Penstatyn.” (The place is called Prestatyn.) And several times he uses the hideous epithet “cheesy” to denote general awfulness. It’s depressing to learn that even highbrow Americans have started using this crass term. Americans are entitled, I suppose, to invent an orange product that comes out of an aerosol can and call it cheese; but to proceed to coin a word suggesting that cheese is an inherently shitty substance is going a bit far. Those of us who enjoy the subtler varieties of the fermented curd must resist the internationalisation of this term at every opportunity. Has Castronovo never savoured a slice of barbecued haloumi, or carved himself a wedge of Brie? He is writing, remember, about a country in which the Ploughman’s Lunch is a justly celebrated staple.

But these are side issues. The main question is this: how well is Castronovo able to conceal, or transcend, the fact that he is an academic, writing an academic treatise? We know what books like this can be like. Amis himself, in Lucky Jim, cruelly nailed the properties of the publish-or-perish endeavour: the selection of the “strangely neglected” topic; and then the article itself, with its “niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-inducing facts, the pseudo-light it [throws] upon non-problems.” I should say right away that Castronovo’s book isn’t as bad as that ... [read more] 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Steady on, Oprah

On Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

When a character in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom embarks on a reading of War and Peace, she confirms something you probably already knew. Jonathan Franzen’s ambitions are Tolstoyan. Not that Franzen tries to emulate Tolstoy at the technical level: he isn’t that audacious. But he does want to bring the serious social novel out of retirement. He wants to write big realist books that get all of modern America in. This is a laudable aim. In many ways, Franzen’s execution is laudable too. Freedom is a rich and readable book. But those who want to rank Franzen with the American greats must have an impoverished notion of what literary greatness is. Freedom showcases Franzen’s shortcomings as vividly it demonstrates his strengths. It confirms, for my money, that his high seriousness as a thinker is not nearly equalled by his technical resources as a writer ... [read more] 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Jack the lad

On Michael Caine's The Elephant to Hollywood

There is a revealing scene in Michael Caine’s new autobiography. Caine is at a lavish Oscar party, sitting next to the socialite Arianna Huffington. As the ceremony plays live on a big screen, Caine gives Huffington his “uninhibited” views about the winners. After a while, he asks her why she keeps fiddling with her BlackBerry. She tells him she’s transmitting a live blog of the proceedings. Caine is horrified: he fears she’s been telling the world what he really thinks about his peers.

It turns out that she hasn’t. And Caine, narrating the incident, is not about to tell us, either. He will divulge his real opinions, for free, to a quasi-celebrity with the table manners of an eight-year-old. But it doesn’t strike him that an autobiography might be an appropriate place to speak his mind. And who can blame him? Nobody expects full candour from books like this. Celebrity autobiographers are celebrities first and autobiographers second. The image must be preserved.

Caine’s autobiography never threatens these conventions, but it’s an unusually good book of its kind. For one thing, Caine genuinely seems to have written it himself. If he didn’t, it was ghosted by a master impressionist. For instance, Caine writes that he used to be “a bit of a jack-the-lad.” Try not to hear Caine’s voice saying that, genially withholding the consonants. Maybe some of Caine’s non-Cockney readers will be puzzled, even alarmed, by such locutions as “I opened my mouth to give the thief a bollocking.” But his lingo gives the book charm.

Caine was born in a London slum called the Elephant and Castle: hence the first part of the book’s title. His unpromising real name was Maurice Micklewhite. A congenital disease gave him permanently swollen eyelids. Then he got rickets from malnutrition. During the blitz, German bombs rained perilously close to his home.

They don’t self-make them like Michael Caine any more. After a near-fatal stint of national service in Korea, he patiently built his career. His early struggles are evocatively described. But let’s be honest: in books like this, it’s the part after the struggle that really interests us. What’s Hollywood really like, assuming it’s really like anything?

Inevitably, Caine’s most vivid impressions of Hollywood come from the late 1960s, when he was first making it there. On the subject of his more recent films, he can’t always rustle up much narrative verve. “I played Nicole Kidman’s father in Bewitched and then went on to play Nicolas Cage’s father in The Weather Man. Neither movie was a big hit …” And that’s pretty much all we hear about both films, and both Nics.

Caine has better fun with his inability to ride horses – a recurrent theme. After early fiascos, he instructs a film company to provide him with a docile mare. Instead he gets a large-testicled steed named Fury. Fury bolts, with Caine on top of him: “We were eventually brought to a screaming halt (it was me doing the screaming).”

Improbably, Caine doesn’t seem to have run across a famous actor he doesn’t like – although he does call Joaquin Phoenix “somewhat strange.” You shudder to imagine what this might mean, because Caine, when it comes to his fellow stars, seems oddly tolerant of aberrant behaviour. His stories about his icon buddies almost always make the icons sound kind of appalling. Frank Sinatra, for example, was a “great friend”, but “everything was on his terms … there was no equal partnership.” 

Similarly, he considers Sylvester Stallone an old mate, but recalls an incident when Sly deliberately kept an entire film set waiting for three hours. Who’d want to be friends with someone like that?

There may be a clue in a story Caine tells about himself and Jack Nicholson. The two are overdue on set, and Caine starts to run. Nicholson says: “Don’t run, Michael. They’ll know it’s us who are late.”

Like most Hollywood maxims, this is clever, but it embodies a monstrous ethical code. You half-expect the no-nonsense Caine to realise this, and give Jack an outraged bollocking on behalf of the common man. Instead, he embraces the Nicholson creed as his own: he hasn’t hurried to a set since. So Caine is a bit less like us than we might hope, and a bit more like Jack and Sly.

Still, Caine has stayed remarkably sane, considering the ego-deforming pressures of movie-star existence. His book hints at how weirdly hollow that existence can be. Off set, there is constant recognition. On set, there is boredom, “hanging about,” and – in more exotic locations – diarrhoea. Nor does Caine try to conceal – how could he? – that sometimes it’s only about the money. “You get paid as much for a bad film,” he says, “as you do for a good one.” When he won the Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters, he couldn’t accept it in person: he was in the Caribbean filming Jaws 4.

Despite having made over a hundred films, Caine runs out of things to say about them well before the book is done. Maybe, you feel, there’s just not that much to report. The last fifty pages feature a lot of repetition and padding. Finally Caine is reduced to imparting several pages’ worth of cooking tips, including his recipe for toast.

Reading Caine is like watching him. You can’t dislike him. He’s the right man to confront us with the deflating realities of his trade. His second Oscar was for The Cider House Rules. He played Charlize Theron’s obstetrician – which sounds like a promising role. But when Charlize turned up for the big examination scene, and placed a foot in either stirrup, she proved to be wearing a pair of hideous male Y-fronts. 

(Originally published in The Weekend Australian, November 13-14, 2010) 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Divine comedy

On 30 Rock 

Contemplating the aesthetic properties of an Emmy statuette, you wouldn’t guess that the people behind the Emmys had especially good taste. The trophy, in salute to TV’s fusing of the arts and sciences, depicts a winged muse holding aloft an unusually large atom. She looks like a soccer goalie in drag, pulling off a fingertip save while being struck in the back by two bolts of lightning.

But when it comes to detecting on-screen excellence, the Emmy people seem to have their heads screwed on right. For the last three years, the Emmy for TV’s outstanding comedy has gone to the show that really is TV’s outstanding comedy: the dazzlingly clever 30 Rock. When the 2010 Emmys are awarded later this month, 30 Rock will be in the running for its fourth golden goalie in a row. But it will be facing some high-quality opposition. The established comedies Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office are also nominated, along with a trio of new shows: Nurse Jackie, Modern Family and Glee.

Each of these shows has its strengths, and its posse of line-quoting fans. But whatever your personal favourite happens to be, we can probably agree that this is an excellent time to be watching American sitcoms. “American sitcom”: there was a time, not long ago, when the very phrase was a byword for awfulness, like “English Beach” or “Christian Rock”. But after the innovations of Seinfeld in the nineties, the sitcom is no longer something that a self-respecting adult must pretend not to watch. We might even be living in the genre’s Golden Age. Today’s best sitcoms are fresh, formally adventurous, and packed with the kind of dialogue you no longer hear in movies: dialogue written with genuine literary flair. 

At the risk of firing up the Gleeks, and the Curb enthusiasts, and the Office aficionados, I’m bound to say that 30 Rock still strikes me as the wittiest of the current sitcoms. In Australia the show belongs to the Seven network, which runs it in the slap-in-the-face timeslot of 11.30pm on Monday nights. Fortunately, we're free to return the slap by getting the first three seasons on DVD. Each volume costs about the same as a novel, and there aren't many contemporary novels that will so generously repay the investment.

30 Rock is the brainchild of the former Saturday Night Live star Tina Fey. As SNL’s head writer, and anchor of its fake news, Fey established herself as a kind of female Woody Allen - significantly better-looking, but with a similar knack for the impeccably worded one-liner. Sample joke: when Hollywood was proposing a remake of Casablanca starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Fey suggested it would be "the perfect film for people who liked the original but wished it was terrible".

When she left SNL to develop her own show, you wondered if Fey had walked away from her ideal format. Would she really be able to make a sitcom accommodate her sceptical, Grouchoesque sensibility? 

It turned out that she could. Her 30 Rock character is Liz Lemon, head writer of a weekly NBC sketch show called TGS. (30 Rock is short for 30 Rockefeller Centre, the address of the New York studio where TGS, like SNL, is shot.) In lesser hands, this self-referential set up might have yielded nothing more than a lot of tiresome in-jokes about American showbusiness. But for Fey, it's a vantage point from which to be funny about things most sitcoms wouldn't touch with a barge pole: corporate politics, the inanity of celebrity culture, the brazenness of the American Right, the wishy-washiness of the Left. She's also uncommonly fearless on the topic of race. When Tom Wolfe chides his fellow American novelists for shying away from such big public themes, he's not entirely off the mark. Yet here is Tina Fey, in a sitcom, pitching her tent right on top of these big American faultlines.

Lemon’s political nemesis is Jack Donaghy, the corporate executive in charge of her show. Beautifully played by Alec Baldwin, Donaghy is a vice president of NBC's parent company GE, and a perennial contender for the top job. He's also a hardline Republican, cocksure patriot, and firm believer in synergy. Exchanging fire with the liberal Lemon, he gets more than his share of snappy lines.

Watching Baldwin deliver them, you swiftly dispense with the idea that his move from film to television has been a step down. Artistically, it's been a step up. He has gone to where the decent dialogue is. Shows such as 30 Rock are resuscitating the art of sharp, lively screenwriting. Playing underwritten roles in average movies, Baldwin seldom got the chance to show what he could do with an intelligently conceived character. But in 30 Rock, furnished with dialogue that does a lot more than just advance the plot, he has been a revelation. He has evolved a set of mannerisms with which he can sell even the most information-packed Donaghy line: a distinctive head wobble, a mid-sentence pause for breath, a sudden surge of pace to drive home the laugh.

"I have the entire liberal media establishment at my disposal," he brags to Lemon at one point. "The same manipulation machine that got people to vote for Barack Obama and donate all that money after Rainstorm Katrina." This is a typical 30 Rock line, dense with American backstory. If you are unfamiliar with the kind of real-life cultural warrior who says things like that, your reading of Donaghy will be seriously compromised. 30 Rock keeps up with the news. In theory, sitcoms have always been free to do that. But they have generally preferred to set their action in some semi-mythical America, hermetically sealed off from the real one. Gilligan's Island was the ideal sitcom premise. Such shows were effectively generic: you could get every single joke whether you were an American adult or an Australian child.

30 Rock asks a lot more of you. In one episode, Donaghy falls in love, inadvertently, with a Democratic congresswoman. The congresswoman, while dallying with him, misses a chance to vote down a Republican bill to legalise recreational whale torture. A caption on a TV screen reveals that the bill is sponsored by senators Lott and Specter. A non-American would have to know an indecent amount about American politics to recognise both those names. But this is the essence of information-age comedy. It throws a blizzard of highly specific cultural references at you, and dares you to understand them all. The Colbert Report is one big reference. Its tone would mystify anyone who hadn’t seen the kind of God-awful news show Colbert is sending up.

30 Rock moves at such a hectic tempo that the occasional allusion is bound to fly over your head. Its scenes are short and brisk. Characters are always on the move, chased around the set by a dynamic camera. The frame is full of information. There is no laugh track, let alone a studio audience. When sitcoms were lumbered with those devices, a given piece of dialogue was either a laugh line or it wasn't. But these days, no particular line is under pressure to deliver the big, show-stopping laugh. 30 Rock is playing for lower stakes than TV used to. It can risk the obscure joke that not everyone will get, but that will make a small number of people laugh very hard.

This, for example, is how Donaghy offers Lemon his services as a mentor. "Lemon, I would like to teach you something. I would like to be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another way to rap." Even if you haven't seen the movie he's talking about, you've seen that kind of movie. And it’s startling to hear a mainstream American TV show venture the heresy that such movies might be a bit naff. When a joke like this connects with you, you get the thrill of being reached on a wavelength that not everybody is tuned to.

You will notice, too, that Baldwin's character doesn’t take the precaution of saying "African American" instead of "black". Neither does anyone else on 30 Rock. The show talks about race in a bracingly robust way. It's a satire about American excess, and it doesn't stop satirising when the perpetrators of the excess happen to be black. TGS's marquee performer is a black ex-movie star named Tracy Jordan. Played by the comedian Tracy Morgan, the character is a grotesque parody of rapperesque self-indulgence. He wears solid-gold shoes; he has an entourage; he carries, and at one point plays, an actual race card. He says things like: "If it wasn't for you people I'd be back in Africa - gorgeous, politically stable Africa."

Inevitably, a few nervous pundits have wondered if 30 Rock is a little racist. But the show's unpatronising openness on racial matters, its readiness to joke about them in an atmosphere of intelligent goodwill, has a boldness that makes the timidity of the politically correct seem musty and irrelevant. The show is way ahead of such people. Indeed it pre-empts them, by mocking the empty pieties of its own twitchy white liberals. Lemon is forever congratulating herself about her colour-blindness, in terms that suggest she might have a little way left to go. "I never make assumptions about race," she insists. "Remember when I asked that black guy if he’d seen Sideways?"

On another occasion, after loftily protesting that she is free of racial hang-ups, she steps into an elevator occupied by a lone black man. "And good morning to you, sir," she says, with a flourish of self-approval, as if she's clinched her case.

When a sitcom can make such a nuanced joke about racial attitudes, you wonder if America has become definitively less tongue-tied about race than it was ten years ago. Then again, not many other voices in America sound as untrammelled as Tina Fey’s. If there is a trend in America towards freer talk about race, 30 Rock isn't following it. It's setting the pace, by daring to crack jokes that are right out on the boundary of what the public will tolerate.

Seinfeld, operating back in the heyday of political correctness, was similarly unafraid to go after the dangerous, liberating laugh. The show flourished under the strictures of PC, for the same reason Al Capone flourished in the era of prohibition. It took the rules as a provocation. During Seinfeld's golden period, one episode after another seemed deliberately fashioned to take on the big taboos. Even the Holocaust wasn't off limits, although the writers approached it in a typically tangential way. (Jerry got caught making out during a showing of Schindler's List.)

But the one taboo that Seinfeld conspicuously didn't take on was race. Unlike 30 Rock, the show had no permanent black cast members. It was therefore poorly positioned to defy America's ultimate no-no. Students of Seinfeld lore will know that the staff writer Larry Charles once pitched a storyline in which George got himself into trouble by observing that he'd never seen a black person order a salad. But the idea was deemed too controversial to proceed with.

30 Rock, just 15 years later, is constantly getting away with stuff a lot more confronting than that. You could choose to believe this is because America has become more racist over the intervening period. But it seems more reasonable to suppose there has been a gradual loosening of America's uptightness about race. This seems an unambiguously good thing, and American comedy writers ought to take some of the credit for it. On TV of all places, they have been gently expanding the limits of the sayable. 30 Rock is keeping that honourable tradition up. It continues to push its luck. It continues to address itself to that portion of the audience that wants to hear things it hasn't heard before.


AND then, on the other hand, you have the movies, with their terrified reluctance to say anything that might startle or provoke you. Still weighed down by the fiscal albatross of having to entertain everyone at once, Hollywood “product” seems destined never to entertain any single viewer very deeply. If a movie's ending upsets the expectations of the test audience, a new ending will be shot. For your convenience, each movie's plot will describe an "arc" that is unashamedly designed to follow the arc of every other movie you've seen. If the movie is a comedy it will probably be a romantic one, and everyone knows how the romance will go. In the penultimate reel, the hero will make Julia Roberts hate him for a while. And then, no more than 15 minutes later, he will get her back. This he will achieve by apologising to her, lavishly, in a public venue. Ideally a giant screen at a sporting event will be involved.

Have movies lost the plot? At a time when the best TV shows whip every 20-minute script through an almost fanatical succession of quality-control checkpoints - the busy writers' room, the hands-on executive producers, the cast read-through, the last-minute tweakings on the studio floor - Hollywood no longer even seems to want its scripts to be good. It wants them to be rudimentary. It wants dialogue that does nothing but move you straight ahead as fast as possible. Lines that sound interesting in themselves are an impertinence, a distraction.

You could call this an unwritten rule of the business, except it's more than that. It's a written rule. The screenwriting manuals, for which there is a huge market, insist on it. Robert McKee's Story, the Bible for Hollywood's next generation of hacks, has this to say on the matter: "The best advice for writing film dialogue is don't. Never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual impression."

The screenwriter William Goldman, in his moderately diverting books about the film trade, pushes the same Hollywood dogma. Screenplays, he says, are all about structure. Dialogue is "one of the least important parts of any flick". His italics.

But does this have to be true? No doubt it's true of the films Goldman writes. Then again, the films Goldman writes have rarely been all that great. So one is tempted to reply, after a bit of this word-bashing: Fair enough, gentlemen, but perhaps American films would be a lot better if they weren't all written by guys like you.

If the screenwriters won't stand up for decent dialogue, at least one Australian director is ready to. Bruce Beresford's 2008 book about Hollywood, Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants to Do This ... , was a lot more literate than anything by Goldman or McKee. It was also scandalously frank about the consequences of lousy scriptwriting. Halfway through the book, Beresford reluctantly attaches himself to a dodgy action film, The Contract, even though he finds the screenplay alarmingly thin. Among its many deficiencies, "it doesn't have a plot". A script doctor named J. D. Zeik is called in to perform surgery. Beresford is unimpressed by his work. To Beresford's ear, Zeik's dialogue sounds "perfunctory". All his characters have the same speech pattern. When Beresford asks Zeik if White House staffers would really use the same slang as the bad guys, Zeik says yes.

Morgan Freeman and John Cusack commit to the film. Beresford sardonically wonders whether either actor can have read the script. The production date looms. The screenplay continues to strike Beresford as underdone. "Interesting that no one seems to be worried except me, probably because no one in the production company other than [one producer] has read the script." He wonders whether the movie will go straight to DVD.

Which is exactly what it did. When you consider how much money producers gamble on such a film, their languid indifference to the quality of its screenplay is hard to credit, unless you suppose that a near-suicidal contempt for scripts is simply a given of the movie business. Sometimes this contempt pays off, at least financially. A lot of the time it doesn't. Almost always it results in bad art.

The film buff will protest that the cinema has finer flowers to offer than The Contract, which probably wasn't even meant to be good art in the first place. But if we raise our sights towards the films that are meant to be art, we encounter an altogether more sinister enemy of decent writing: the giant furphy of the director as auteur.

Consider Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. It's hard to believe that more than 10 years have passed since that movie was made, not including the year it took you to watch it. Frederic Raphael, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick, published a memoir of their collaboration titled Eyes Wide Open. The book is out of print, but anyone sceptical about the claims of auteur theory should hunt down a copy online. Proponents of the theory who can read books might also want to take a look at it. 

As Raphael tells it, the story of the script's evolution confirms everything you had feared about the illiteracy of the great auteurs. Unable (of course) to bring a screenplay into existence himself, Kubrick provides Raphael with some rather hazy specifications about what he's after. Raphael delivers drafts, which Kubrick actively purges of every remotely "literary" feature. He stamps out jokes, wit, backstory. He wants types instead of characters. Above all, he seems "not very interested in words". He rejects dialogue on the grounds that it's "too good". "You're not seriously suggesting we make it worse?" Raphael asks. Kubrick seems to think maybe they should.

Some time after submitting his final draft, Raphael is presented with Kubrick's revision of it. Elegant dialogue has been systematically replaced by tripe. It’s as if Kubrick "had to possess the script ... by swallowing it", Raphael says. "It had, so to say, to pass through his gut."

Raphael declines to follow this metaphor any further south. But we are free to reach our own conclusions about the merits of what Kubrick ultimately delivered. Of course, we have to take Raphael's word for it that his own draft scripts had more "literary grace" than the final product. But why disbelieve him? We already know that the big directors don't want their films to sound as good as they look. Just take a listen to them.

Before the concoction of auteur theory, it was generally felt that a director's job was to realise a good script. On TV shows such as 30 Rock, this ethic is still in force, and a lot of viewers like the results. 30 Rock has many different directors, and all that's required of them is the technical competence to transfer the writers' work effectively from page to screen. The show is written to such a high standard that it would be superfluous, indeed damaging, for a movie-style director to impose his "vision" on the script. The script is the vision. Interestingly, Tina Fey reveals, during one of her DVD commentaries, that certain sequences of one episode had no director at all. It doesn't show, because the real auteurs of 30 Rock are the people who write the words.

When television caught on in the 1950s, Hollywood responded to its threat with technical gimmicks: wider screens, bigger formats, 3-D. Now that the best TV shows are getting remarkably good, Hollywood is resorting to more visual trickery: CGI, more CGI, 3-D (again). It's throwing awesome sums of money at teams of geeks on computers, who create not-very-convincing virtual environments in which not-very-convincing virtual people utter dialogue that would disgrace a high school play. A staggering amount of work went into the visuals of Avatar, but the script was so cursory that you should have been issued with earmuffs along with your 3-D glasses. It was hard to quarrel with that movie's success, but listening to its characters talk made you want to. As long as the producers were spraying all those millions around, couldn't they have lobbed a few dollars at that other kind of geek on a computer: the kind with something original to say, and the power to say it well?

(Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, August 2010.)  

Thursday, July 1, 2010

If you want to know the truth

On Kenneth Slawenski's J. D. Salinger: A Life

Kenneth Slawenski’s new biography of J. D. Salinger is a maddening book. Its swift appearance on the heels of Salinger’s death – he died in January this year, at the age of 91 – raises the suspicion that it has been published in haste, and its stark lack of textual add-ons doesn’t do much to quell that fear. It contains no photographs, no note about the author, and unusually little in the way of bibliographical fortification. But Slawenski assures us, in his introduction, that he worked on the project for seven years. And there’s no doubt that some solid labour has gone into it. Slawenski knows the facts of Salinger’s life back to front, and he’s done a yeoman’s job of marshalling them into a readable and sometimes compelling narrative. Unfortunately he also writes like a yeoman. His prose bristles with gauche errors, and he has a worrying inability to convey basic pieces of information without distorting their meaning. The Australian edition of his book bears the imprint of a university press, and calls itself the “definitive biography.” No biography making that claim can afford to be as compromised by basic technical problems as this one is.

So who is Kenneth Slawenski? He seems bent on coming across as a man of mystery, like Salinger himself. All we’re told about him, in the book, is that he lives in New Jersey, and runs a Salinger fansite called “Dead Caulfields.” You can find out a bit more about him – but not a lot more – by surfing to that site. (Is this sort of thing about to become the norm? Is paper really that expensive?) Slawenski bills himself, over at Dead Caulfields, as an “amateur reader.” This is meant to remind you that Salinger, in the dedicatory note to Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, wondered “if there is an amateur reader still left in the world.” Slawenski, fifty years later, wants to affirm that there’s still at least one. The implication is that he is neither an academic nor a trained writer, but might be the kind of webmaster of whom Salinger would have approved.

But running a website is one thing. Can an amateur reader produce a respectable literary biography? In theory, there is no reason why not. There are academic biographers who know everything about their subjects except how to write books about them that a normal person might want to read. They can’t bring themselves to stop writing after one volume, or even two. Probably there’s a Salinger specialist at work on the definitive multi-volume life right now, the first instalment of which will appear in 2015 and will take us up to the appearance of J. D.’s first zit. For the moment, the field is wide open to the amateur. But is literary culture still robust enough to produce amateur biographers who can write to professional standards? Not quite, if Slawenski’s book is any guide.      

It’s a pity that Slawenski lacks formal know-how, because he’s a more than decent storyteller. He’s especially good on Salinger’s early life: the school years, the dating years, the army years. Salinger saw combat in some of World War Two’s most harrowing engagements, although you wouldn’t know it from his fiction. He landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, fought at Hürtgen Forest and in the Battle of the Bulge, and was present during the liberation of Dachau. Norman Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead – the towering novel of the war – after a tour of duty in the Philippines during which he mainly served as a cook. If Salinger extracted far less from his war experiences, it wasn’t just because he was a different sort of writer. It was also because he saw too much. 

Before the war, and even during it, Salinger had sold stories to a series of increasingly prestigious American magazines. Not long after his return from Europe, the most prestigious organ of them all, The New Yorker, put him on a lavish annual retainer. All he had to do was give them first refusal on his short fiction. From then on he was a professional writer. In 1951 he published The Catcher in the Rye – his only novel, and his masterpiece. When that book brought him more attention than he could deal with, he withdrew to a fenced rural compound in Cornish, New Hampshire. From inside he issued pieces of short fiction at long intervals. Finally he stopped issuing them altogether. His last novella, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. For the remaining forty-five years of his life, he didn’t publish another word. 

Salinger’s self-imposed silence gives Slawenski a juicy central mystery to chew on, but it also presents him with a problem. At the exact mid-point of Salinger’s life, the biographical evidence dries up. There weren’t many witnesses to his life in Cornish, and most of them have proved pretty good at keeping their mouths shut. The whopping exception is Salinger’s daughter Margaret, who in 2000 published a memoir called Dream Catcher. That book contained many a scandalous revelation about Salinger’s late eccentricities: he drank his own urine, he spoke in tongues, he flirted with the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard. But Slawenski, wearing his fan’s hat, can’t bring himself to report such scurrilous stuff. He does note that Salinger “developed an intense interest” in various forms of alternative medicine, but declines to mention that one of his preferred home cures, according to Margaret, involved jamming blunt wooden dowels into his children’s flesh.

Taking what he considers the high-minded path, Slawenski prefers to explain Salinger’s later isolation by returning to the fiction, and combing it for autobiographical clues. But that approach might be more harmful to Salinger than Slawenski thinks. For one thing, it calls for a pretty good literary ear, and Slawenski doesn’t have one. His own prose gives it away. He’s the kind of writer who says “garnished” when he means “garnered”, “blind-sighted” instead of “blind-sided”, “doubtlessly” instead of “doubtless”, “fallout” instead of “falling out”, “adverse” instead of “averse”, “Lugar” instead of “Luger”, “take precedent over” instead of “take precedence over.” Errors like this, which are rife on the Internet, are characteristic of people who aren’t on very intimate terms with the printed page. Nor do Slawenski’s sometimes awkward critical pronouncements give you the impression that he reads much literary criticism: “It is a singularly Salinger concept and a component that distinguishes his writings.” And his grammar can be pretty fancy-free: “Having embraced Salinger’s spiritual views, the event likely threw Claire into a crisis …”

A person who writes like this might not be the ideal target man for Salinger’s subtler linguistic gambits. One thing Salinger liked to do, when writing about characters who were sophisticated beyond their years, was to have them make small but telling verbal slips. Esmé, in “For Esmé with Love and Squalor,” says “intransically” instead of “intrinsically.” She misuses the word “extenuating.” Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, doesn’t always get his grammar right: “D. B. took Phoebe and I to see [Hamlet].” Salinger, who wrote in a relatively literate era, could be fairly confident that his contemporary readers would notice such gaffes. But already he has a biographer who can’t even detect such malapropisms and howlers in his own prose.    Are such effects beginning to pass outside the range of our hearing? 

Hampered by his ear, and strapped for hard information about Salinger’s later life, Slawenski has a tendency to treat The Catcher in the Rye as if it were a work of straight autobiography. In a way you can’t blame him. Does Holden Caulfield not fantasise about removing himself to a little cabin in the woods, where he will pretend to be a deaf-mute in order to avoid having “stupid useless conversations” all the time? But it’s important not to leap too ravenously at the bait. Holden was no doubt a portrait of Salinger’s younger self. But Salinger maintains an ironic perspective on him, by filling his prose with defiant little catchphrases that reek of juvenile insecurity. “If you really want to know the truth,” Holden says, “I’m a virgin. I really am. I’ve had quite a few opportunities to lose my virginity and all, but I’ve never got around to it yet.” He protests too much. Adolescents, who talk like that too, read the book as if its author were Holden. But adult readers will find the undercurrent of Salinger’s irony harder to miss. Holden is the classic unreliable narrator, who can’t talk without revealing more of himself than he wants to.

It’s true that Slawenski, during his set-piece analysis of the novel, takes proper measure of its ambiguities. But later on, while raiding the book for biographical fuel, he’s not above talking as if Salinger were Holden Caulfield. This reading yields a pretty one-dimensional Salinger: Salinger the tireless, indeed tiresome, scourge of the phonies. No doubt Salinger did become unattractively like that later on, after he’d dispensed with his worldly goods and his sense of irony. But Slawenski seems perversely determined to give us a Salinger who never had a sense of irony – a Salinger who was Holden all along. 

This is a strange thing for someone who likes Salinger to want. But on the face of it, Slawenski does present some pretty startling evidence in favour of this view. Consider something that happened in 1951, before Catcher was even published. The Book of the Month Club had read the manuscript, and wanted to make the novel their summer choice. But they had reservations about its title. “When they asked Salinger to change it,” Slawenski reveals, “he became indignant. Refusing, he maintained that Holden Caulfield would not agree to the idea, and that was that.”

So maybe Slawenski is right after all. This Salinger positively invites us to confuse him with Holden Caulfield at his least lovable. But wait a moment. How much of this did Salinger actually say? Slawenski’s source for the story turns out to be a book of literary anecdotes called The Making of a Bestseller. And here, as it appears in that book, is the original story:

When The Catcher in the Rye was chosen as the main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1951, the club’s editorial staff approached J. D. Salinger about changing that curious title. No, Salinger wrote back, ‘Holden Caulfield wouldn’t like that’ – and so the title remained …

You’ll notice, first of all, that this passage gives Slawenski no warrant to suggest that Salinger’s refusal was “indignant.” Indeed it reveals something that Slawenski has rather misleadingly failed to tell us – that Salinger’s refusal was tendered in writing. Slawenski, no doubt by accident, has managed to make it sound as if Salinger issued his refusal during some sort of heated face-to-face showdown. But all we’re really dealing with, it turns out, is a five-word phrase in a letter. How Salinger was feeling when he wrote it is purely a matter of guesswork. Maybe “Holden wouldn’t like it” was his standard blow-off line for people who approached him with impertinent requests. (When Elia Kazan wanted to turn Catcher into a Broadway play, Salinger rebuffed him with exactly the same phrase.) Slawenski has subtly contaminated the record, by overdubbing his own views onto what looks like a straight report of the facts.

He has an unfortunate habit of doing this. A little later on, he’s obliged to talk us through a famous episode. Just after Salinger moved to Cornish, a local high school girl interviewed him for a class project. The girl then betrayed him by publishing the results in the local newspaper. But at least she managed to ask him the money question: was The Catcher in the Rye autobiographical? This is how Slawenski reports the next part:

When asked if the novel was autobiographical, Salinger appeared to hesitate. ‘Sort of,’ he hedged. ‘I was much relieved when I finished it. My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book … ’

But again it’s worth consulting Slawenski’s source. Here is what the schoolgirl reporter actually wrote: “When asked if it was in any way autobiographical, Mr Salinger said: ‘Sort of, I was much relieved when I finished it. My boyhood …” And so on. There is no suggestion, from the schoolgirl on the spot, that Salinger “appeared to hesitate”, or that he was “hedging.” These suggestions come from Slawenski, who is once more exercising his knack for retrospective ESP. Convinced as he is that Catcher was straightforwardly autobiographical, he thinks Salinger must have been hedging – and doesn’t hesitate to shoehorn this impression straight into his account of the girl’s interview. It doesn’t occur to him that “sort of” might be an honest and indeed pretty instructive answer. 

I don’t get the impression that Slawenski, when he takes such liberties with his sources, knows he’s doing anything wrong. He just doesn’t know enough about the rules to know when he’s breaking them. But if this is how he handles the sources we can check up on, what about the ones we can’t check up on? Salinger’s unpublished letters are sequestered in various university archives, and they’re subject to unusually tight copyright restrictions. Biographers are allowed to read them, but they’re not allowed to quote from them. They’re only permitted to give a loose summary of the contents. Can Slawenski’s accounts of these letters be relied on? If I were a Salinger scholar, I wouldn’t be postponing my trip to the archives on the strength of this book.

Salinger kept writing during his later years, and he’s said to have earmarked certain manuscripts for posthumous publication. One seriously doubts that this trove of unpublished works will contain a candid autobiography. Salinger was fanatically committed to the principle that his private life was nobody’s business. But his attempts to evade attention looked crazily self-defeating from the start. He was too famous to keep the biographers out, so he tried to deprive them of the facts. But that only encouraged them to eke out fact with speculation, and left him more at their mercy than he was to start with. Even the well-meaning Slawenski distorts our picture of the man, by leaving out facts he doesn’t like, over-interpreting facts he likes too much, and shaking down the fiction for facts that aren’t there.

(Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, July 2010)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Writing is hell

On the Paris Review Interviews, Volume 4

INTERVIEWER
How did you read this book?

REVIEWER
Semi-recumbently.

INTERVIEWER
You read on a bed?

REVIEWER
Or a couch, yes.

INTERVIEWER
Do you use a tri pillow?

REVIEWER
Generally not. I prefer the organic feel of multiple stacked pillows. It feels less artificial to me. There’s a kind of primitiveness in it that aids the reading process ... [read more]

Monday, March 22, 2010

Houdini's rectum


Are literary biographies bad for you?


Late last year, Clive James published The Blaze of Obscurity, his fifth volume of memoirs. The book was an amusing enough diary of James’s working life in TV, but it confirmed one’s feeling that the Unreliable Memoirs are getting less and less personal as they proceed – to the point where they feel, at places in this latest volume, as if they’ve become a mechanism for shutting you out of the author’s inner life. As a long-time fan of the memoirs, I find it hard to be thrilled about their diminishing frankness. But I think I can see why James has found it necessary to throttle back on the intimate revelations. For a couple of volumes now he’s been dealing with the part of his life that involves his family, whose right to privacy he has always staunchly defended. Moreover, he has always objected, as a critic, to the way that fame culture fails to distinguish between a celebrity’s public and personal life. So it shouldn’t surprise us that his memoirs, especially lately, have followed the principle that there are certain things about the author that the reader is not entitled to know.  

In the information age, this is an unusual principle to have ... [read more]

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nowhere man

On Paul Auster's Invisible

Paul Auster is nothing if not readable. I mean this as a compliment, but it could also serve as a rather unkind gesture towards his limitations. Beyond his knack for spinning superficially compelling plots, Auster doesn’t have many conspicuous strengths as a novelist. His prose can sound a bit robotic, and it’s far from cliché-proof. His characters are types. His dialogue can be radically unconvincing. You could take the view that Auster keeps these things flat deliberately, because he wants his novels to have the texture of fables. Or maybe his novels read like fables because he has no style. I don’t think we can rule this explanation out. 

But let’s stay with Auster’s virtues for a moment. He’s in touch with the excitements of old-fashioned story-telling. He employs multiple narrators, Chinese-box structures. He gives you enigmatic strangers, femmes fatales, books within books, other books within those ones. He’s also good at beginnings ... [read more]