Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Two! Two! Two blogs in one!

Blogging may be light this week, but take heart!--for (Good god, it's fun to mix an em-dash with another piece of punctuation--what could possibly feel more eighteenth century, other perhaps than dying of syphilis?) the reason is that I'll also be filling in this week for the vacationing Scott Esposito, editor of the Quarterly Conversation, over at Conversational Reading.

My first post is on Gary Indiana, whose book of reviews and essays, Utopia's Debris (2008), is one of those admirable collections that convinces me to lay yet more books on the already vertiginous heights of my to-be-read pile. Because of Indiana, I'll soon be adding Mary Woronov, Caroline Blackwood, and Gavin Lambert. At Conversational Reading I've drawn on Indiana's essay about the last of those, and I want to share here one passage that I wasn't able to find a place for in that post. After acknowledging that many of the important characters in Lambert's tales of debased Hollywood can be tied directly to real-life models, Indiana makes an argument that will be familiar, and comforting, to any fan of Proust or Powell, among other writers:
The game of guessing who's really whom in a novel, however, despite its inevitability in cases like Proust (with whole albums of photographs devoted to the writer's familiars, who are thus rendered identical to their fictional incarnations), cheapens the whole enterprise of writing fiction, as if fiction has been invented simply to avoid libel suits.
He goes on to relate the following personal anecdote about Lambert, which I find both deeply touching and revealing of the empathetic insight required of great writers:
I knew Lambert personally, and well enough, to be impressed by his generosity, in print, toward certain people he privately couldn't bear; even one individual whom Gavin consistently referred to as "it" (keeping his back turned on "it" for an entire evening when the three of us happened to be at the same Los Angeles party), Gavin mentions in his writings without a hint of disdain. This could, I suppose, be dismissed as self-protective tact, but I think it had more to do with his understanding that his opinion might be true for himself, but was still just an opinion. (He did get a certain amusement from privately sticking pins in certain friends who weren't present--who doesn't?--but was also quick to credit their accomplishments and worthy personal qualities. His sense of fairness was exemplary.)
When a novel fails for me, it is most often because I feel that the writer is not being fair, that his thumb is in some way on the scales, distorting the distribution of his empathy; when a novel works, it is because, like Tolstoy, the god of fictional understanding, the writer has managed to make everyone's reasons, cares, and self-justifications comprehensible and compelling, even undeniable. It really is almost that simple, and at his best--as in the brilliant Do Everything in the Dark (2003), about which I've written before--Gary Indiana can almost overwhelm us with exactly that sort of clear-eyed and world-weary, yet fiercely unyielding love for his characters.


  1. Anonymous7:10 AM

    You might like to put Gary's latest novel The Shanghai Gesture on your nightstand, too -- it's beach reading on steroids!
    - MJZ

  2. Gavin Lambert and Caroline Blackwood are wonderful. The former's 'The Slide Area' is one of the best Hollywood fictions I've ever read, and the latter's 'Great Granny Webster' and "Corrigan' (both in print from NYRB) are great black, black comedies.