A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, December 3, 2007

Now, Voyager

This review appeared recently in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Malcolm Lowry in His Own Words
Edited by Michael Hoffman
New York Review Books, 512 pp., $24.95

Malcolm Lowry has a reputation as a one-book wonder, even though he published two novels in his lifetime, and volumes of stories, poems, letters and uncompleted novels followed his death. But as he wrote in a poem titled “After the Publication of ‘Under the Volcano,’” “Success is like some horrible disaster.”

If Lowry regarded the success of “Under the Volcano” as a disaster, it was because he dreamed of a larger success, in which that great novel would become part of a multi-volume magnum opus based – at least in one of his imaginings of it – on Dante’s “Divina Commedia.” “Under the Volcano” would be the “Inferno,” to be followed by a “Purgatorio” and a “Paradiso.”

But Dante’s epic was a voyage with an end in view. Lowry’s voyage, as the title of Michael Hoffman’s artfully selected collection of stories, poems, drafts and letters suggests, was not the kind to have an ending. Even Lowry’s death in 1957, when he was only 48, has something inconclusive about it: The coroner ruled it a “death by misadventure,” unable to determine whether the lethal combination of alcohol and sleeping pills had been taken intentionally.

In two of the stories Hoffman includes in this collection, Lowry alludes to a now mostly forgotten play by Sutton Vane, “Outward Bound,” which takes place on board a ship. An alcoholic young man is the first to recognize that he and the other passengers are all dead and facing a judgment whether their voyage is to heaven or to hell. Vane’s sentimental fantasy seems to have stuck with Lowry as a metaphor for his own wanderings, which took him not only to the Mexico that provided the phantasmagoric background for “Under the Volcano,” but also to a beachfront shack near Vancouver, where he did the finishing work on that novel.

Many of the stories in Hoffman’s book are about journeys, including the original “Under the Volcano,” a short story that was reworked into Chapter VIII of the novel, in which Hugh, Yvonne and the Consul take a harrowing bus ride through the Mexican countryside. In the story “Through the Panama,” the novelist Sigbjørn Wilderness, Lowry’s improbably named alter ego, travels from Vancouver to Rotterdam via the Panama Canal; in the Atlantic, the ship is caught in a terrible storm, and much of the voyage is narrated with side-notes in the manner of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

But the story titled “China” perhaps best underscores the sense of futility that underlies so much of the restless journeying in Lowry’s stories. The young narrator is obviously modeled on the young Malcolm, who postponed his entrance to Cambridge University to work as a deck hand on a ship bound for Asia. He tells us “I had been looking forward to something anxiously and I called this China, yet when I reached China I was still looking forward to it from exactly the same position. … Haven’t you felt this too, that you know yourself so well that the ground you tread on is your ground: it is never China or Siberia or England or anywhere else … it is always you.”

For Lowry, the means of breaking down the wall between the self and the world was alcohol. He disastrously came to rely too much on the muse in the bottle, but not before she inspired him to literature’s best-known portrayal of the D.T.’s – or as Lowry put it, in one of the Joycean puns he delighted in, “delowryum tremens.” (He also referred to one of his journeys as a “tooloose-Lowry-trek.” ) But the alcoholic writer is caught in a bind, as Lowry himself observed: “With a bad hangover your thoughts are often incredibly brilliant but you can’t put them down because you cannot believe yourself capable in such a state of doing a single constructive thing, least of all what your higher self wants to do. … When you start putting your thoughts down again, that means you are getting over your hangover. But by this time the thoughts are no good.”

Lowry did find a brief spell of peace and stability in the middle of his life, when he and his wife, Margerie, settled in a shack on a coastal inlet near Vancouver. The experience there is beautifully recounted in the story “The Forest Path to the Spring,” an idyll that evokes Thoreau and, in its fascinated and lyrical observation of nature, D.H. Lawrence – without Lawrence’s incessant sermonizing. The story contrasts remarkably to the tragic course of “Under the Volcano.” Lowry’s narrator says that he writes about the experience “in the Montaigne-like belief … that the experience of one happy man might be useful.”

One doesn’t usually think of Lowry as a happy man. But thanks to Hoffman’s collection, we can now think of him as sometimes just that. And also as a deeply insecure man, fretting about the fact that another novel about alcoholism, Charles Jackson’s “The Lost Weekend,” had appeared before the publication of “Under the Volcano,” or boasting in a letter asking his brother, Stuart, for money that he was “the only Canadian writer ever to be placed in the Encyclopedia Britannica.” (He was English and never became a Canadian citizen. It may have pleased him to be a big fish in what was then a very small literary pond.) He could be proudly defensive, as in his long, brilliant letter to his British publisher, Jonathan Cape, in which he responds to the criticisms of the manuscript of “Under the Volcano” set down by one of the publishing house’s readers. It’s an essential companion to reading that novel.

But most of all this anthology reveals Lowry as writer – a witty, tormented, frustrated, keenly observant writer, engaged with the world and always compelled to account for his painfully uneasy place in it.

Monday Night on the Tube

The hemi-season finale of Heroes -- or the full-season finale if the writers' strike doesn't get settled -- reminded me oddly of why I don't go to the movies anymore. For the movies have become so dominated by digital special effects that such niceties as plot and characterization get lost. Heroes keeps us hooked with its characters, even though most of them don't make a lot of real-world sense. And because, unlike most movies, it doesn't have to worry about telling a complete story in two hours, it can afford genuine suspense and surprise: Sylar's got his mojo back! Nathan's dead! Adam's buried alive!

The second night of Tin Man was for me rather more engaging than the first, largely because we didn't have to spend so much time spotting parallels with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (Though there was a nicely witty spin on the MGM version's "lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" and the Toto-shapeshifter character was a clever idea.) Alan Cumming is, as usual, terrific, and Neal McDonough is quite moving as the tormented "tin man." Still, the miniseries seems a little padded out, and I still don't understand what the point of translating one fantasy into another is.

Burn, Baby, Burn

This review appeared recently in the Dallas Morning News. Other critics liked this novel more than I did, but I think I made my case against it, and I'll stick by it. Judge for yourself -- it's at least an intriguing read.

By Brock Clarke
Algonquin, 303 pp., $24.95

Whimsy, satire, and black comedy. Those are three tough genres to pull off, especially when you try to do them all at once, as Brock Clarke does in his new novel. And Clarke has dared us not to read his book by giving it one of the most intriguing titles to be seen on shelves this fall: “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.”

This is the odd odyssey of Sam Pulsifer, who went to jail at age 18 for burning down the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, Mass., unwittingly killing the man and woman copulating in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Sam has done his time and gone straight – or as straight as anyone in this irrepressibly loopy tale. But now, 20 years after the conflagration, his past has found him out. Someone has tried to burn down the homes of Edward Bellamy and Mark Twain, and Sam, afraid he’ll get the blame, needs to find out who.

He has no lack of suspects. Although he was reviled for torching the Dickinson house – “in the Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore of big, gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches at Salem, and then there’s me” – Sam also gained fans. In his parents’ home is a box full of letters from people asking him, for a variety of personal reasons, to burn down the writers’ houses in their neighborhoods. But the new arsonist might also be the son of the couple who died in the Dickinson conflagration, out to frame Sam. Or it might even be Sam’s own mother.

So “An Arsonist’s Guide” is partly a detective story, but don’t bother reading it to see whodunit. For after the many Immelmann turns of its plot, the novel winds up in as much of a muddle as when it started. What Clarke’s novel is really about is books and the people who read and write them. It’s full of literary in-jokes, including references to the James Frey faux-memoir scandal, Jane Smiley’s insistence that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a better book than “Huckleberry Finn,” and a self-referential bit in which Sam, in a bookstore, picks up a copy of “The Ordinary White Boy,” Clarke’s first novel.

Clarke finds just the right voice for Sam, who narrates, and he studs the narrative with juicy aphorisms. On the suburban life of minivans and malls, for example, he observes, “This is how it is these days: you can live in a place without having to actually have a life there.” There are even aphorisms about aphorisms: “For those of us who’ve lost it, love is also the thing that makes us speak in aphorisms about love, which is why we try to get love back, so we can stop speaking that way. Aphoristically, that is.”

But as that quote may hint, there’s a little too much postmodern knowingness about “An Arsonist’s Guide,” a little too much wit without quite enough heart. The premise is intriguing, but the outlandishness of the way it’s worked out, and the absence of any character other than Sam with enough substance to latch on to, allows Clarke’s novel to meander too often and too far away from cleverness into tedium.

Honorees Among Thieves

I had to laugh this morning when I saw the photograph of the Kennedy Center honorees in the balcony next to George and Laura. They included a druggie (Brian Wilson), a diva with a huge gay following (Diana Ross), and the director of The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese). What must George have been thinking? ("Why couldn't they have honored Bo Derek and Chuck Norris?") But then, what must the honorees have been thinking?

It's nice to see Steve Martin honored -- Roxanne and All of Me are among my favorite movies, and he should have been nominated for an Oscar for both of them. But has the Kennedy Center ever honored Woody Allen? Or did the Soon-Yi thing put an end to that possibility forever?