Sunday, January 20, 2008

An American Tragedy

I have a thing for big novels. Not physically. Physically, I like slim little Muriel Spark-sized novels. Physically, big novels are too heavy to read in bed late at night. But emotionally … well, that’s another matter entirely. For me, emotionally, big novels are commitments, big novels pay off, and that’s why I keep going back to them. That’s why I read Gone with the Wind over and over and over when I was in junior high. That’s why I stuck with the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo (more than 1,400 pages), even when I realized that every other member of my classics book club was reading the abridged version---not their faults, as the version they bought didn’t mention anything about abridgement. And that’s why I’m nearly through The Golden Notebook.

Big novels often have one thing going against them, though. Setup. They can take so long to get into. At the beginning of last year, I started Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. I can’t remember why I decided that I had to read this book, but I did have to, so I started it, and then put it down, and then read some more, and then put it down … by September I was only 300 pages into it. I had put it down and picked it up countless times, and read many other books in between, but the crazy thing was that whenever I started to read it again, I remembered every single detail of what I had already read.

The reason it took me so long to get into it is that Dreiser loves his sentences so much that he repeats them, often, sometimes in new ways, sometimes in the same way. When you’re just getting to know characters and nothing much has happened in the story, this can be a bit burdensome. But then something happens—perhaps intentional, but probably not—and the rhythm he has created with his repetition serves as a kind of hypnotism, along with a brilliant use of incomplete sentences, such as this one, which I think about often: “Bitter cold and bright stars.” The rhythm rocks you (though doesn’t lull you) into the story, to a place where you couldn’t back out even if you wanted to … and I didn’t want to.

Halfway into the book, I couldn’t put it down. Based on the true story of a murder in the early 1900s, An American Tragedy is just what its title suggests: a very American story about a man who wants more than he has, what he will try to do to have it. It is about that sad side of the American Dream, that willingness to do anything to in order to have. It was a perfect reflection of its time, when there was suddenly so much to want and have in America, and it’s a perfect reflection of these modern times---or maybe it’s just that America hasn’t really changed much over the past 100 years. As I read it I thought often about the novels of Joyce Carol Oates, with their explorations of morality and fatality. And I often found myself humming Kris Kristofferson’ssong, “In the News,” which begins:

Read about the sorry way he done somebody's daughter
Chained her to a heavy thing and threw her in the water
And she sank into the darkness with their baby son inside her
A little piece of truth and beauty died

While this opening stanza is about Laci Peterson, the song is overall about the abuse of power on all levels; it is about horrific acts committed purely for selfish reasons, from one man’s murder of his wife to one country’s invasion of another, consequences be damned. Of course, this song is also relevant because Lacy Peterson was drowned by her husband and in An American Tragedy (I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, and in any case, I found the book more compelling because I knew what was going to happen), a young man does the same to his pregnant ex-girlfriend, simply because he wants out, and wants something else. And what is more American than getting what we want? And what is more tragically American than doing so at the expense of another?

An interesting thing happened while I was reading this book. Just as I got to the part about the trial, I was called in for jury duty, so there was a weird continuum between my days and nights, as I sat on jury listening to a trial and then went home and read about a trial. Granted, my trial was for a DUI, not murder, and no one in the book was distracted by the prosecutor’s panty lines or the ‘80s rock song of a cell phone that someone occasionally forgot to turn off or the dilemma of whether or not to date the jury foreman, but still, there was a courtroom and lawyers and judge and all the legalities that are still the same … it lent a surreal aspect to my reading, which had reached the page turner stage by then. Because if you make it through the beginning of An American Tragedy, by the time you reach the trial, you will not be able to put it down.

The one thing I found interesting about my own eventual obsession with the book was how scandalous I found it: illegitimate pregnancy, attempts at abortion, murder. The latter of course is always shocking, but the first two are hardly the stuff to raise eyebrows in the 21st century. Naturally, there was a part of me that was imagining what it would have been like to read this book when it came out in the 1920s---with its mention of Freudians and psychic sex scars and the heroin that the victim’s mother was given to calm her after her daughter’s death. But what really affected me was that even though this kind of thing happens too often (just read the CNN home page), it is still shocking to think about one person harming another, deliberately, for purely self-serving reasons. For purely self-serving reasons. To plot it out. To cover it up. To look into another person’s eyes and still be able to conceive of the act, which to me is just short, morally speaking, of carrying it out.

The night after my last day of jury duty was also the night I finished reading. After closing the novel, I grabbed my Netflix and watched 12 Angry Men. Now I’m watching A Place in the Sun, which was based on the book. Leave it to Hollywood to make Montgomery Clift sympathetic and the victim (played by Shelley Winters) nearly seem deserving of her fate … an American tragedy, indeed.

Monday, January 7, 2008

All About Eve (Babitz)

Culturally, LA has always been a humid jungle alive with seething LA projects that I guess people from other places can’t see. It takes a certain kind of innocence to like LA, anyway. It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in LA, to choose it and be happy here.
- Eve’s Hollywood, by Eve Babitz

I’m a binge reader. Though this habit had been dormant for so long that I’d been unintentionally on the wagon until my friend Janet mentioned the library. For the past year, I’ve been in a read-everything-about-LA mood, and she recommended Eve Babitz. I hopped on Amazon, only to discover that all her terrific early stuff is out of print. I started scouting my favorite used book sites when Janet asked me why I didn’t just go to the library. Why, indeed? I loved the library when I was a kid, but I confess, I hadn’t been to one in years, inexcusable for a bookaholic, and even more so since my Fairfax branch reopened recently in a gorgeous new Spanish mission-style building just a few blocks from my house. I drove over and got myself a card (my old one had expired), and ordered up Eve’s Hollywood; Slow Days, Fast Company; and Sex & Rage. I had them all within a week. I had them read before the following week was out.

I ADORE binge reading. In my early twenties, during my first years working at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, I overdosed regularly: Anita Brookner, Margaret Drabble, Laurie Colwin, MFK Fisher, etc. etc. etc. But I hadn’t done this in ages, and my bender with Eve brought back all that old intoxication---the red wine I drank while I read her helped. Eve Babitz is brilliant, and the fact that she’s gone out of print somehow solidifies for me her brilliance all the more in these days of soap suds women’s memoirs; just because something bad happened to you, doesn't mean you have an interesting story to tell; you need to be an interesting writer, as well. Sure, she can be all over the board with style, but when it comes to insight, she is the premier LA writer. I have nothing but the greatest respect for Joan Didion, and I think Nathaniel West and John Fante are tops, but Eve gets LA more than anyone else I’ve ever read.

I don’t care that she slept with Jim Morrison. I don’t care about her nude photo playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. I care that this girl can write like nobody’s business. She’s courageous. She’s not coy. She’s a chick, but you’d never put her in a pink dust jacket (I hate it that chicks and pink are now forever associated with one another), not even a pink straightjacket. She’s grammatically correct, even when writing about things that have nothing correct about them. And, yes I know I already mentioned this, she genuinely gets LA, mainly, I think, because she doesn’t see LA as someplace/something “to get,” like most other writers who tackle the subject.

Recently, I read a book, which shall remain nameless, in which the author moved to L.A. and wrote a book about her experience. She has nothing good to say about LA, falling back on the whole derisive gambit that most writers like to employ when trying to capture this city that just isn’t capturable---this is why they do it, perhaps. To deflect from their inability to capture. In one section, she drives out to the Salton Sea, and I felt that the only reason she did this was to be able to flex her ability to "get" the desolation of the place. Yep, desolate it is, especially if that’s all you want to see.

Alternately, in Eve’s Sex & Rage, the main character Jacaranda observes: “She remembered that there was a petrified ocean, an ocean that was caught inland while the rest of the ocean departed. You could see down to the bottom, so far, absolutely clear turquoise, all the sea life that belonged in the ocean---starfish, sea anemone---things that didn’t belong in an inland body of water, a lake, which usually had trout or salmon. But the Salton Sea was absolutely clear and absolutely pure and absolutely patient … The Salton Sea didn’t move unless you touched it; it was unbidden by the moons, it had no tides, it lay there in perfect beauty, perfect stillness, out in the middle of the desert.” It takes bravery and brains to write like this.

There is such a satisfying intensity beyond the clichés of LA. Everyone talks about the earthquake weather, for example. It’s de rigueur if you live here to know what earthquake weather is, and it’s a badge of honor when sometimes you’re even right about it … even though the odds are with you on taking that bet. But Eve, ah Eve, she sees it clearly for what it is: “She could feel the rancid tension in the air beneath the lopsided yellow moon’s malevolent regard. She could feel some kind of hazy snap, some uproar, about to happen. In Los Angeles it's called 'earthquake weather,' but Jacaranda knew earthquakes were just a metaphor for any out-of-control slant suddenly tilting beneath your feet."

Eve gets it because she’s not afraid to like this indescribable pocket. And she’s not afraid because it doesn’t occur to her that there’s anything to be afraid of in liking it. And she likes liking it, unlike most people I know here who reluctantly like it, or like it but don’t want to and so pretend not to, or just simply hate it. She’s decadent. She’s real. She's unfazed. She’s fresh more than thirty years after publication. Get yourself to the library and start with Slow Days, Fast Company. Then hop online and check out her Smithsonian Oral History Interview. Then mope until you find a new author to take you on another bender.