Screenplay by MacDonald Harris

An enthralling, time-traveling version of Alice, in dual wonderlands of 20th-century Hollywood.

screenplay

Originally published in 1982, Screenplay by MacDonald Harris (The Balloonist) exhibits remarkable sleight of hand with two parallel versions of Los Angeles. Alys was raised in the late 20th century by fabulously wealthy, unconventional parents and orphaned at age 18. With no personal connections and unlimited money to burn, he amuses himself with unusual old books and music and soulless sexual liaisons. An odd old man shows up at his doorstep and requests to rent a room–though no room has been advertised. He introduces himself as Nesselrode, a film producer, and says he can get Alys into pictures.

Soon Alys’s tenuous link to modern 1980s L.A. falters as he steps through a screen into black-and-white 1920s Hollywood with Nesselrode as a surly, time-obsessed guide. In this alternate world, he falls in love with a beautiful starlet, but can they make a life together in her time? Or in his?

In addition to the unmistakable overarching reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Harris’s novel recalls the moral questions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Alys himself could have stepped from the pages of The Great Gatsby. Even with such classics for comparison, Screenplay is a masterpiece of darkly playful cunning. Harris’s evocative prose, in Alys’s disturbingly clinical, coldly self-indulgent first-person narrative, is both intoxicating and disquieting; the altered reality here is more sinister and sensual, even erotic, than in Carroll’s Wonderland. The tension in this memorable and singular dreamscape builds with perfect pacing to an ending that raises more questions than it answers.


This review originally ran in the December 30, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 toasters.

book beginnings on Friday: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

killing

Be excited about this one: a modern retelling of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and it is excellent! It begins:

“Hello, there,” she said.

I looked at the pale, freckled hand on the back of the empty bar seat next to me in the business class lounge at Heathrow Airport, then up into the stranger’s face.

“Do I know you?” I asked.

And there we have it. A plane replaces a train; and our protagonists are a man and a woman rather than two men. Let the fun begin.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

This collection of Raymond Chandler’s reflections and witticisms, edited into themed chapters, will equally satisfy his fans and readers unfamiliar with the noir master.

chandler

Though born in Chicago in 1888, Raymond Chandler was raised in England, so when he returned to the United States at age 24 he felt rather foreign. He had to study and learn what he called the “American” language, but conquered it in writing The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye and many short stories in the noir style–a style he helped perfect. He created the famous Philip Marlowe (an archetypal hard-boiled private investigator who has trouble with the ladies) and wrote screenplays for Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia and Strangers on a Train. When he died in 1959, he left a variety of written works behind, and many are respected as classics today. In The World of Raymond Chandler, editor Barry Day (The Noël Coward Reader) compiles Chandler’s published and epistolary writing to form a picture of the man behind Marlowe.

The voice of this book is as much Day’s as his subject’s. Rather than a memoir by Chandler or, as the subtitle might suggest, a narrative told in his words, this is a collection of quotations. Beginning with an excellent brief introduction, Day sketches the major events and publications in Chandler’s life, largely avoiding a standard biography. Selecting from letters and articles, but more often from Chandler’s fiction, Day patches these fragments together with commentary into chapters on themes or common topics of Chandler’s work: cops, dames, Los Angeles, Hollywood. We see Chandler invent the strong sense of place that helps define such writers as Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke today. Day makes the argument fairly successfully that Marlowe’s voice represents Chandler’s, particularly in their later years, as both softened (but not, Chandler insists, mellowed) until Marlowe in The Long Goodbye was “as hollow as the spaces between the stars.”

Chandler fans will be tickled by a great many pithy aphorisms that both describe and exemplify his distinctive style. “To justify… certain experiments in dramatic dialogue… I have to have plot and situation; but fundamentally I care almost nothing about either.” About his preference for small casts, he wrote, “If more than two people were on scene I couldn’t keep one of them alive. A crowded canvas just bewilders me.” And what Day calls the master’s “ground rules” (Chandler labeled them “Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel”) are treasures, including “The mystery must elude a reasonably intelligent reader” and (sadly) “The perfect mystery cannot be written.” At the end of this admiring collection, Day’s reader is left wondering if Chandler came closest.


This review originally ran in the December 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 disconnected quotations.

Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind by Donald McCaig

A familiar, but not unoriginal, expansion on a beloved character from a classic American epic.

ruth

In Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Donald McCaig (Rhett Butler’s People) tells the full story of Scarlett’s beloved nursemaid. He begins in France with Miss Solange, a wealthy heiress who travels to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). There she takes in a local child to be part servant, part daughter, and names her Ruth, then moves to Savannah. Switching focus to Ruth, McCaig details her eventual brief marriage to a free man in Charleston, years of tragedy and rebellion, and her return to Savannah.

Though McCaig does touch a bit on Scarlett’s well-known story, the bulk of the narrative is focused on Ruth’s early life: the voyage to the U.S., her transition to adulthood, her loves and losses, and the moment she deliberately gives up her name and identity in favor of a new moniker: Mammy. Miss Solange has a daughter, Ellen, who in turn gives birth to the memorable Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Where Scarlett is petulant, Mammy is resilient. Through decades of love, death and betrayal, she consciously puts on a smile. She is cursed to foresee the ugly futures of those she cares for, but, as she repeats to herself, it is not for mammies to speak all that they see.

McCaig echoes the saucy, tongue-in-cheek tone of Mitchell’s classic. Mammy’s story is complex, and she commands respect. Lovers of Gone with the Wind will be the most obvious fans of Ruth’s Journey, but it stands on its own merits as a sweeping epic of time, place and history, thoroughly worthy of its inspiration.


(Final comment: Those readers who were concerned with the racial insensitivity of Mitchell’s original will not find any clear redemption or compensation here; but McCaig’s treatment is respectful and nuanced, certainly no worse and arguably slightly better than the classic in this regard.)


This review originally ran in the October 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 husbands.

Teaser Tuesdays: The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

chandler

Yes, it’s true, I just recently did a book beginning; but Chandler is just so quotable (thus this whole book, of course). I couldn’t let this one pass us by.

I write when I can and I don’t write when I can’t, always in the morning or the early part of the day. You get very gaudy ideas at night but they don’t stand up.

That first sentence is unclear: which condition happens always in the morning or the early part of the day? the can, or the can’t? I choose to believe that it is the can; many respected writers (ahem Hemingway) do or did their best work in the mornings. I am certainly a morning person myself. And I like this idea that our nighttime ideas are “gaudy”; I think that’s perfect. I get ideas at night, but they never stand up to sunlit scrutiny. What about you?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

chandler

I love the Chandler quotation that opens the lovely introduction to this collection of his writings in little snippets. I had to share.

I’m just a fellow who jacked up a few pulp novelettes into book form… All I’m looking for is an excuse for certain experiments in dramatic dialogue. To justify them I have to have plot and situation; but fundamentally I care almost nothing about either. All I really care about is what Errol Flynn calls “the music,” the lines he has to speak.

I think that is a fine way to note what sets Chandler aside, which is in many ways the quintessential gruff wit of hard-boiled, pulpy dialog. (Or dialogue.) I love it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (audio)

tortillaTortilla Flat is set in the neighborhood by that name in post-WWI Monterey, California, and involves a group of paisano friends. Perhaps I am just being lazy, but I do think that Steinbeck himself can tell you best what the book undertakes. I give you the first paragraph of his Preface:

This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.

And that is, very much, what the book is about.

Danny inherits two houses from his grumpy grandfather upon returning from the war. He is astonished by his good fortune and newfound riches, but also dismayed at the great responsibility of owning property. He takes in friends, one by one by one, and they become a strange, disordered household. It is true that critical readings of this book treat it as an interpretation of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table; but I think it’s worth pointing out that these men are a rather dirty, devious, and intermittently disloyal version thereof. They steal from each other on occasion; and their main purpose in life is to obtain wine, and drink it. Not necessarily a bad thing. Steinbeck writes as impressively as ever about the wine:

Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two paisanos. Spiritually the jugs maybe graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point anything can happen.

You might also call it a picaresque, being full of minor adventures that often run to humor and pathos by turns.

My audio version is narrated by John McDonough, and I like his interpretation very much. The Spanish-in-translation word order and sentence structure gives an accurate paisano feel, and McDonough reflects that in the lilt and rhythm of his speech. (Note that I did not say he puts on an accent.) I enjoyed hearing this story told. I did not always like the players, but that’s not a requirement for liking a book.

I won’t rate this one above the best of the Steinbeck I have read, Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. But it is recognizably Steinbeck, and worth the time.


Rating: 7 jugs of wine, naturally.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 403 other followers

%d bloggers like this: