Occupational hazards of the novelist

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand.”

— Olga Tokarczuk, from her Booker-winning novel “Flights,” a luminous series of human and existential journeys revealed in shards and fragments. A supernova of imagination and intellect.

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The Polish author won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

One of those grab-bag blogs filled with mad miscellany

— In New Orleans next month, I’m forgoing the vaunted National WWII Museum for the more mischievously skeevy Museum of Death, a labyrinth of the gross and ghoulish and other alliterative G’s (ghastly, grisly … ). Body bags, coffins, car accident photos, Manson family ephemera, cannibalism — and, well, I’m making a poor case for my mental stability. Why not do both museums? Because I’m booked for a cemetery tour (I know, I know), a paddleboat cruise on the Mississippi, a French Quarter tour and a hop through the Dixie Brewery, which is $5 compared to the war museum’s nearly $30 entry, which is twice as much as Museum of Death tickets. And, really, aren’t both museums monuments to mortality in their ways? (Plus, I’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan.” It didn’t go well.)

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— People slap flashy stickers and decals all over their laptops, without realizing the machines are not skateboards and are anything but billboards of hip. A Dell? Fine. A Mac? Plain vandalism.

1hFFNNJHOVyul0OLXpKgpcKM2MOF6S_large— Best movie from the ‘70s I recently re-watched: rattling rock melodrama “The Rose,” starring an atomic Bette Midler, shrill and crazy, on a Criterion DVD. Directed by Mark Rydell, the tipsy tragedy, loosely based on Janis Joplin’s hasty flame-out, was shot by storied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with assistance on the feral concert scenes from lens legends Conrad Hall, László Kovács and Haskell Wexler. Toni Basil choreographed Midler’s bestial gyrations. The movie, a buckling downer, holds up rapturously. (Watch it with “A Star is Born.” Discuss.) 

— I saw the trailer for the new Wes Anderson movie, “The French Dispatch.” My eyes bled. My mind sizzled in its teeny brain-pan. Once upon a time, Anderson was one of our most exciting young filmmakers (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore.”) He’s now one of our most exasperating. And cloying. And irritating. And incurably cutesy.

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“All gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime or a woman or a friend.” — Burt Lancaster, philosophizing in 1957’s otherwise poky “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Sometimes I wonder: Am I a gunfighter?

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— I liked but didn’t love Oscar history-maker “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho’s catchy Korean comedy-thriller-horror flick. It swept the Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign-language movie to win Best Picture, which I’m all for. But the movie doesn’t explode. It’s not “Crash” or “Green Book” bad, somehow and embarrassingly snatching top honors — not even close. It is, simply, the most overrated movie of 2019. I placed it #8 on my top 10 list. It is very good. And I am so happy it shut-out “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” patently one of the year’s worst films. For those who haven’t seen “Parasite” but have followed its triumphs, I’m afraid some shade of disappointment is possible. 

Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker is one of the sharpest art critics I’ve read, and one of the lushest, most literate prose stylists around. Gifted as he is, he still says things like, “I’ve toiled all my life, in vain, to like myself.” He adds, “Writing is hard, or everyone would do it.” It is humbling.

—  This is the most poignant line I’ve read in a book in some time: “There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.” It’s from Jenny Offill’s deep and droll new novel “Weather.” I also liked this: “I’m too tired for any of it. The compromise is that we all eat ice cream and watch videos of goats screaming like women.”

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— Winter is fast receding. Son of a bitch.

— I noted above that “Saving Private Ryan” and I had a dubious relationship upon its 1998 release. As a full-time movie critic, I gave the summer blockbuster two stars out of four. I recently located my love letter to the film, part of which reads:

“The World War II epic ‘Saving Private Ryan’ begins with a screen-size image of the American flag. The banner ripples in the breeze with patriotic solemnity, as John Williams’ score puffs its chest and gives a stern salute to our tear ducts.

“Dissolve to a scene of soft-focus Americana plucked from Norman Rockwell, featuring a family borrowed from a life insurance commercial. As this ideal of scrubbed, middle-class solicitude walks quietly toward a white cross in a military cemetery, the screen fairly creaks with labored pathos. You start to wonder if you’re watching a parody of a Steven Spielberg movie.

“Actually, it’s an inadvertent self-parody, for this is a Spielberg movie, his latest and most contrived attempt at serious adult filmmaking. Despite its unflinching (almost desperate) depiction of battlefield carnage, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is marred by mawkish indulgence and counterfeit drama, Spielberg’s twin weaknesses. The man can’t help it: He lards the film with freeze-dried sentiment, tingle-inducing declarations and cello cues. The considerable gore is largely separate from the main story; it’s a bombastic stage setter.”

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Save me, Private Ryan.

It’s cold. Let’s read.

Books and movies. I do a lot of both during the hibernating winter months. I’ve plowed through some good books so far this season, with more to come …

Stripped-down realism is so refreshing. That’s what Elizabeth Strout’s cold-water splash “Olive, Again” delivers in the return of the author’s forever-stubborn, wryly splenetic septuagenarian Olive Kitteredge, reluctant heroine of the eponymous, Pulitzer-winning novel from 2008 (“Olive Kitteredge”). The matte finish of ordinary life somehow glistens in these prosaic pages, as Olive and her kin and the locals of small Crosby, Maine, get on with life with all the grace they can muster. Amid the deceptive, lulling ordinariness emerges Olive, who gives just about everyone a pain in the ass. 

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“God, Olive, you’re a difficult woman,” says a suitor. “You are such a goddamn difficult woman, and fuck all, I love you. So if you don’t mind, Olive, maybe you could be a little less Olive with me, even if it means being a little more Olive with others. Because I love you, and we don’t have much time.” The truth as prod — perfect.

Unfailingly elegant, with literary punch and panache, Christopher Isherwood’s classic 1964 “A Single Man” follows George, a gay, British, middle-aged English professor in suburban Southern California, as he manages life after the death of his partner. Solitude reigns, though George experiences symphonic emotions, from fury to attraction, all in finely wrought descriptives. Called a “lyric meditation on life as an outsider,” the novel is at once explosively alive and exquisitely melancholy. 

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In Kevin Wilson’s quirky, arguably gimmicky, new novel “Nothing to See Here,” the main attractions are 10-year-old twins who self-combust when stressed or agitated. Right: they go up in flames. Yet the young author doesn’t belabor the peculiarity, mingling a heavy heart with a breezy tone that depicts events in buoyant deadpan. And while the conflagrations are certainly a metaphor for something, I’m not sure what that is. (Wilson’s fires are more light than enlightening.) 

When the twins’ caretaker Lillian first witnesses one of their freak shows, she shakes off the shock and mildly observes, “Then, like a crack of lightning, she burst fully into flames, her body, a kind of firework, the fire white and blue and red all at once. It was beautiful, no lie, to watch a person burn.” 

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The book is clearly some fun, though it’s braided with furrowed, moving passages about taking care of people, avoiding pain and erasing past hurts. “How did anyone keep this world from ruining them?” Lillian wonders. “I wanted to know. I wanted to know so bad.”

Garth Greenwell’s fawned-over “Cleanness” is more than its homoerotic parts, excuse the imagery, though it certainly is that, too. This novel (or is it a story collection?) sketches a psychosexual character study of an American teaching in Bulgaria, sifting through his cluttered past of intimacies. We see (smell, feel) it all in a journey of desire, love and loss.

This follow-up to Greenwell’s adored “What Belongs to You” falters a bit in a cluster of sex scenes dominating the final stories. It becomes repetitive, fetishistic, rather dull. And yet you don’t give up, because the writer knows exactly how to lull you, with a masterly, agreeable control that’s never pushy.

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On the nightstand now: The brand-new “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood” by crack showbiz historian Sam Wasson. Propulsive prose, staggering detail and wise reflection turn this history into a 3D pop-up book of period L.A., pinballing from the Manson murders and its impact on hot auteur Roman Polanski (who would, of course, helm “Chinatown”), to the creative relationship between Jack Nicholson and screenwriting eminence Robert Towne and the very seeds of SoCal noir. And that’s just up to page 70. 

Concerned largely with the making of a quintessential masterwork of ‘70s film, the book promises to be “the defining story of the most colorful characters in the most colorful period of Hollywood history” and is being compared to classic, unflinching making-of studies “The Devil’s Candy”and “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” 

Already, I’m gripped.41O2b3Fog0L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

A writer’s journey from journalism to fiction to television

One of the best books I read last year was the pungent novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Studded with surgical social perceptions, mordant laughs and vibrating relevance, it’s dubbed a “timely exploration of marriage, divorce, and the bewildering dynamics of ambition.” If you’re married, or divorced, beware: It has teeth.

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I attended a recent discussion and Q&A with Brodesser-Akner, led by one of her editors at The New York Times Magazine and complemented by a full house of admiring readers. The discursive confab was funny, at times boisterous, always sharp.  

The author is well-known for her smart and sassy celebrity profiles in the NYT Magazine. Among her most famous, and infamous, subjects are Bradley Cooper, Tom Hanks and Gwyneth Paltrow. Some interviewees have not been taken by her resulting articles, but, as a one-time celebrity profiler, I had to applaud when she said that she couldn’t care less what her subjects think of what she’s written about them; she cares only what her editors and her readers think. Truth first, feelings second. Or even sixth. 

Brodesser-Akner’s novel — a smash bestseller, award-winner and named a best book of 2019 by numerous publications — is being turned into a TV series for FX that she is writing with utmost fidelity to the source, she says.

With a showy, dimply smile, big laugh and swift, expansive wit, Brodesser-Akner regaled some 100 fans, chatting about her book’s characters and motivations, responses to the novel, the jump from journalism to fiction, family, parenthood, marriage and TV writing.

Some snippets:

 — “I always just wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to make my money writing. I went to film school because I wanted to be a writer and that program had no math or science requirements, which fit my educational criteria. I fell into journalism when I found out after college that they didn’t just hire you to write screenplays. I looked in The New York Times, which used to have a robust jobs section, and there was a job there for a magazine called Soaps In Depth. And I got a job there. A year later, because of my tremendous productivity and my rapport with my subjects [she laughs], I was approached by a larger soap opera magazine.” [From there, she contracted with GQ and the Times.]

About writing personality and celebrity profiles: “You come in with the stakes being pretty low. Profiles have been so done to death that all you have to do is make sure they’re true, and then you can experiment with them. It’s like what they say about chefs and roast chicken: When chefs all get together they make for each other roast chicken, because that’s the thing you’re supposed to show from this place of plainness what you can do with it. And that’s how I think of profiles: the roast chicken of journalism.” 

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On midlife, a looming theme in the novel: “Midlife is pretty shocking. I did not know how confusing it would be at this particular age. It’s like a second adolescence. But at least when I was an adolescent I thought I knew what I was doing. Now I know enough to know that I don’t. And there’s the constant strains of contentment and being distraught being in line with each other. It’s the way I feel about the suburbs. I can walk down the block and think, ‘This is beautiful. Wait, what kind of person finds this beautiful?’ That’s middle-age for me.” 

About turning “Fleishman is in Trouble” into a nine-episode TV series: “I am writing it now, and it is very hard to write television. They want it very faithful to the book, at least for the first season. They talk about a second season because that’s all they can do. That’s all TV executives do. They’re sharks; they can only swim forward. They want it to mimic the book as much as possible, which sounds easy and it is not. What’s hard about it is if you think about what my specific skills are — when there is no story, I can still write a story. I came to prominence on a story about Nicki Minaj in which I went to interview her and she remained asleep for the duration. I wrote 6,000 words about it. It was a rollercoaster.”

On going from magazine to fiction writing: “Magazine to fiction writing was amazing. Because the book was like a profile — that’s how I kept it in my head, it’s just a long profile that I’m making up. The hardest part of it was, whereas I think I’m a decent observer of people, to make people up and then have to observe them is to kind of deny what is so amazing about people, which is that they always contradict themselves and they’re unpredictable. Whereas creating something is to make up a series of predictable things.” 

“When I decided to write (the novel), I had this gut feeling of: ‘Oh, this is the one.’”

Brilliant bite-size books

I might be a tad late on this, but I’ve just discovered the marvels that are the mighty, mini hardbacks of the Picador Modern Classics series. I’ll be brief, out of breathless excitement and, well, what can I possibly add to the unadorned fact that these books exist and that, from what I can tell, there are only 12 titles available in this novel (pun, intended) format?

So, like the books themselves, I will be compact. 

But I repeat, with a shill’s enthusiasm, I am enamored of these brilliantly itty-bitty books, which are about the same dimensions of an iPhone 11 — if thicker, more paper-y, less glassy (and, alas, devoid of Siri’s seductive, dulcet tones). 

At less than six inches tall, the books are made for pockets, but they are still chunky, quality hardbacks, running about $16 list. They’re so adorable and beautifully designed, they’re practically edible, or at least highly collectible.

I just finished Christopher Isherwood’s devastating novel “A Single Man” in the Lilliputian edition. (My review: radiant.) Now I’m re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical 1980 masterwork “Housekeeping.Rarely do I get the urge to make a phone call on it, as mostly I’m wholly aware it is a book.

Other titles in the Picador collection include Denis Johnson’s masterly, evergreen stories “Jesus’ Son”; Joan Didion’s indelible essays “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”; Jeffrey Eugenides’ breakout novel “The Virgin Suicides”; Michael Cunningham’s shrewd reinvention of “Mrs. Dalloway,” “The Hours”; and Susan Sontag’s landmark study “Regarding the Pain of Others.

That means there are five more worthy titles to check out in the series. Do so HERE.

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Things we used to like

We all have embarrassing lists of things we once thought were beautiful, whatever they are, like Monet haystacks or Kieslowski films.” 

— Megan O’Grady

 

Confession: Once upon a time, I was entranced by the poetry of Jim Morrison. Well, entranced is pushing it. I was interested in it, I liked it, I thought it was … neat-o.

At 17, I was spongey and vulnerable, easy prey for a bad poet with good hair who’d whisper sweet nothings (and I do mean nothings), like:

Did you have a good world when you died?/Enough to base a movie on?/I’m getting out of here./Where are you going?/To the other side of morning.

Blush.

At a friend’s urging, I had just finished the cathartically lurid biography of Morrison, “No One Here Gets Out Alive” (a sensational read, I’m telling you). It’s a thick mass market paperback and, as a budding rock ’n’ roller (I drummed for years, had hair down to here), I snarfed up Morrison’s simultaneously literary/glittery exploits, his Nietzschean excesses and his laughable self-crowning as the “Lizard King.” And of course his rockstar antics on- and offstage as the Dionysian frontman of The Doors. (Dead at 27. Long live the King!)

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The “Lizard King”

In retrospect, Jim Morrison was a ridiculous, even dangerous cultural icon, despite that nimbus of curls and his body’s perfect synergy with tight leather pants. He was heedless, abusive, narcissistic, a drug addict, pure outsize ego and unshackled id. I thought he was cool. I hung a poster of him in my college dorm room. Until I put away childish things — in the dumpster.

As journalist Megan O’Grady points out at the top of this post, “We all have embarrassing lists of things we once thought were beautiful, whatever they are.” And what are they? They run from the sentimental and the tacky to the precious and pretentious. It’s stuff we grow out of, intellectually and aesthetically, as we mature or plainly change. 

(Such things are not to be confused with guilty pleasures, those so-bad-they’re-good objects: “a film, a television program or a piece of music, that one enjoys despite understanding that it is not generally held in high regard,” explains Wikipedia, that handy font of clickable sagacity. Did someone mention the 1965 schlockfest “Village of the Giants”? So delectably awful, so crazily unimpeachable.) 

Some other things I’ve changed my mind about or sloughed off like so much dead skin:

— In my late teens and early 20s the paintings of Salvador Dalí mesmerized me — all that trippy dream razzle-dazzle, latticed beauty, gimcrack grandeur and overblown symbolism. Yet Dalí the man, P.T. Barnum with an easel and vaudeville villain’s mustache, was a showoff, charlatan and prankster — not the king of Surrealism, but its preening court jester. With cartoonish Freud-meets-frenzy, he sabotaged his art, which was ultimately hollow and self-aggrandizing and so often silly.

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Dali’s ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony”

— As stated, I fell for Jim Morrison’s sophomoric poetry — and, almost as tragic, his band The Doors, which couldn’t afford a bass player so let Ray Manzarek fill the role with his corny, carnivalesque “keyboard bass.” I wish, like Morrison, I could blame whiskey and psychedelics for this troublesome stretch. Addled adolescence takes the rap.

— Oh, ’80s-era stone-washed jeans (before they inevitably got hip again). Whoever thought these were a good look (um, me) probably digs denim shorts. They scream John Hughes, “Dirty Dancing” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” More a shriek than a scream really.

— Early in my dubious hard rock heyday, I fell briefly under the spell of metal hair bands Ratt, Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P. They were loud. They were flamboyant. They were L.A. bad boys. They spritzed gallons of Aqua Net on voluminous tresses. In the case of W.A.S.P., the singer drooled fake blood. (Gene Simmons should sue.) I can only snicker now, with a sour wince. I blush a mean shade of fake blood.   

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— How this happened, the cosmos will never tell, but during its bestselling peak I actually enjoyed Robert James Waller’s saccharine rural romance “The Bridges of Madison County” (I know). I eagerly recommended it to my mom. I think she finally decided not to strangle me in about 2011.

— It was adorable the first time, candied, cooing and so très French. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s twee 2001 romantic comic fantasy “Amélie is a juicy smooch of primary-color whimsy, lush style and steroidal art direction. Its star Audrey Tautou is a human gumdrop. When I watched the film again, all of these descriptives became detractions. It grated and cloyed. It was unfunny and charmless, smitten with its own labored cutes. And Tautou’s mincing protagonist was someone to be throttled, not adored. The pixie was now poison.

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