Thursday, March 25, 2010

Westlake on datedness

In my interview with Charles Ardai that was posted on the University of Chicago Press's blog yesterday, Ardai explained one of the reasons that Donald Westlake never published Memory, his early 1960s novel that Hard Case Crime is publishing next week:
Years later, Larry [Block] says he urged Don to unearth the book and show it to publishers again, on the theory (surely correct) that Don's stature as a writer had grown to the point that publishers would have been glad to see a serious mainstream novel from him. But Don declined, telling Larry he feared that the book had become too dated in the intervening years. That may or may not have been a reasonable criticism then, but it certainly isn't one now. In the early 1970s, a book written and set in the 1960s might have seemed a bit stale, like it had been intended for earlier publication and just left on the shelf too long … but today, with almost fifty years having passed, what might once have felt dated is now a period novel, one that not only works at the level of character and plot but also as a time capsule of an era long gone.
When I conducted the interview last month, I hadn't yet read Levine (1984), a book of short stories about an NYPD cop that Westlake wrote here and there over three decades. In the introduction to the book, he describes the dilemma he faced in writing the final story twenty years after he'd written the previous one: should he update the earlier stories, or should he make the final story a period piece? His thought process, and his conclusion, fall in line nicely with Ardai's position:
I've thought about the problem of updating before this, and generally speaking I'm against it. I believe that television has made a deep change in our perception of time--at least of recent time--and that in some way all of the last fifty years exists simultaneously in our heads, some parts in better focus than others. . . . Without our having realized it--and without the academics yet having discovered it as a thesis topic--we have grown accustomed to adapting ourselves to the time of a story's creation as well as to its characters and plot and themes.
He goes on to explain that updating is far from simple anyway:
The assumptions of the moment run deep; removing them from a generation-old story isn't a simple matter of taking the hero out of a Thunderbird and putting him into a Honda. It's root-canal work; the moment of composition runs its traces through the very sentence structure, like gold ore through a mountain. . . . It is equally unlikely for me to erase the last twenty years from my own mind and write as though it were 1962 in this room, I am twenty-nine, and most of my children aren't alive yet. If I write a story now, this moment will exist in it, no matter what I try to do.
What he decided on, then, was essentially to split the different: the final Levine story offers no obvious indication its period, neither overtly pretending to be from the '60s nor embracing the '80s. It's hard to say whether that would work if it were a standalone story, but because of the assumptions we bring to it from having read the other Levine stories, the lack of specific period cues easily goes unnoticed.

As Ardai goes on to say in the interview, the authentic period detail--the stuff that was included not to set an era, but to set a scene--is a big part of the draw of Hard Case Crime: given the gloriously retro design of the books,
Nobody who picks up a Hard Case Crime book ever says, "Hey, that's dated!" if they see that the book is set in the '40s or '50s or '60s. It's what they're looking for.
And it's certainly part of the interest of the Parker novels: in The Hunter (1962), Parker can forge a driver's license just by swiping a form from the DMV and making a stamp; by the time of Dirty Money (2008), he has to buy that sort of identification from a specialist in forgery. Watching him adapt in order to negotiate a world that's become that much more regimented and documented is a big part of the fun.

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