Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov’s publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov’s mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov’s book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It’s pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book’s subject matter is difficult, the Gradov’s shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.
Nathanael West’s classic novel The Day of the Locust, unsurpassed in the writers-writing-about-Hollywood genre, ends with West’s would-be painter protagonist Tod Hackett in the back of an L.A. police cruiser, attempting to determine whether the noise he hears is the squad car’s siren or his own voice bellowing out a plaintive, animal howl. For eighty years now, Hackett’s death-rattle screech (“tod” is German for “death”; he’s literally a dead hack) has stood as an emblem of the silent but no less maniacal inner wail of every true artist that has wound up as collateral damage in the Hollywood carpet-bombing of the ancient territories of drama and storytelling.
When I recently picked up John Domini’s Movieola!, which pitches itself as a story collection but really isn’t for reasons I will explain in a moment, I figured it would add a new wrinkle to a well-established sub-genre. Anticipatorily, I thought back on several recent additions to the HollyLit tradition. First I recalled Stuart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, which chronicles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda-less time in Tinseltown, his loneliness a triangulation on the city’s institutional mandate to suck souls. Next I thought of Woody Allen’s latest anti-film film, Café Society, which resurrects the Studio Era in all its glorious finery only to crucify it, and makes its most pointed statement when a man at a glittery soiree is introduced as a two-time Academy Award winner, but warns, “You haven’t heard of me — I’m a writer.” And last, digging back a bit this time, I recalled Charles Johnson’s “Moving Pictures,” a wonderful little meditation on books-turned-into-films that is eclipsed by several even better stories in Johnson’s much-undervalued collection, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Of these, Movieola! is closest to “Moving Pictures,” but Domini’s offering is no mere twist or turn on a trajectory you already know. Rather, it’s an amplification of Tod Hackett’s mournful scream – a new shriek for a new century.
There are two kinds of short story collections, both of which have merits. The first is simply an assemblage, a sampler plate of an author’s various experiments or momentary preoccupations (e.g., The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and it is perhaps this sort of anthology that John Cheever was thinking of when he described his own collected stories as “a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.”
The second kind of story collection — the so-called “connected” stories — may come in two versions of its own: first, stories connected by plot and characters; second, stories connected by theme. It may be a mistake to call either version a “collection,” as the word suggests an absence of an overriding book-length idea. Stories that are connected by character, however, certainly have some of the same goals as novels (e.g., Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid), and stories connected by theme can sometimes seem quite treatise- or manifesto-like (e.g., Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried — sure, there’s lots of character in there, but the book’s true purpose is its philosophical thread on truth and storytelling).
Movieola! is a volume of the latter sort, a compilation of pieces first published here and there, but which adds up to a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. Of course that was the goal all along. The book borrows its structure from its subject, launching with a meditation on movie trailers, and ending with another on closing credits. In between, Domini offers a range of visions and voices that reflect anew, each in their own way, on what Hollywood has done to storytelling and culture.
For example, there’s “Wrap Rap Two-Step,” the monologue of a weary script guru at the end of a weekend-long concept seminar (tailor-made for NPR’s “Selected Shorts,” if anyone is listening…), and this piece, along with several others, emphasizes that to write for the screen, these days, is to set up shop at the unholy intersection of Hollywood and self-help (i.e., the secret of The Secret is that you don’t have to “read” it). As well, there’s “Home’n’Homer, Portmanteau,” in which a latter day Norma Desmond, preparing for her scream rather than her close-up, wanders home to find all her anxiety and regret channeled into the vision of a creepy little bugbear sprung not from a nightmare but from something more like DreamWorks SKG. Hence, à la West, Hollywood generates madness.
These are two of the more traditional pieces in Movieola! Others include disembodied dialogues; pieces sunk so deep into the free indirect thing you sort of forget they’re in the third person; and meditations in a royal “we” that reads likes the dark twin of the critical “we” that pollutes scholarship. This last comes off almost like an intrusive narrator, the sort that long ago forsook the novel, and the suggestion of this voice — which we hear bantering about story ideas as stories unfold — is that we really, finally have become Roland Barthes’s “scriptors,” compiling readymade snippets into tales that please with familiarity rather than novelty. The deep-down message of Movieola!, then, is that stories no longer emerge from communion with a nubile muse curling her finger from the other side of a lacy partition of consciousness, but rather from a much lewder encounter with our own corrupt souls.
Introducing a mid-eighties edition of The Day of the Locust, critic Alfred Kazin noted that the truly horrific days of Hollywood were over. It was now possible to make films outside the studio system; the monopoly was ended, the trust busted. Today, they say, we’re in a golden age of television, the vast free market of cable opening up new avenues for how moving picture stories come to be. So is the crisis averted, then? No. Part of the thrust of Domini’s argument is that big screen filmmaking now finds itself threatened by its own creation, all those little screens like an army of ants taking down an elephant. One monster replaces another.
And that such a thing can even be claimed about a book pitched as a collection of stories reveals that Movieola! is much more than just that. This is made most clear in the conclusive “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” an address to a movie viewer still plopped down in his seat:
You risked a doddering and fusty entertainment based on how long a person can go without having to pee. The flicks themselves have long since run out of surprises: if the assassin doesn’t fall in love, the bookish girl in black whoops it up in a candy-colored romper room. There never was much opportunity for surprise, in ninety minutes or a hundred, and there’s even less these days, when you need a multimillion-dollar urban-renewal package just to save the downtown moviehouse. The star-studded American shebang, winding up through the coming attractions and down through the credits in their grave-rows, that’s long since been squeezed dry and shoehorned into smaller screens.
There is no character here, no story at all. Thus, Movieola! is not aptly described as a gathering together of fun tales. Rather, it’s a concise and intelligent assessment of the state of modern storytelling, and its joy — it’s edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanger thrill — stems from what it offers by way of philosophical critique.
This is what happens when I don’t take notes. Two months ago, I sat down to read Yesterday’s People, a collection of eight short stories by Goran Simic. Born in Bosnia, Simic was already a noted author and poet when he immigrated to Canada ten years ago. I decided to write about these spare, haunting and haunted stories, many of them about life in Sarajevo in the mid 90s. But for reasons that now completely mystify me, I wasn’t making notes, which would have been fine had I begun writing this immediately. Two months and three or four novels later, I began to write and I hit a brick wall.While I remembered the images and the tone of the stories, damned if I could remember any names, or specific details. And the images that I did remember were beginning to blend into each other. I was in a haze. I had been immersed in that world. And then I was out. I had shifted through time and space into other worlds. I was in Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, then in Stephen Clarke’s contemporary Paris, and most memorably I was amongst Balzac’s characters in 1800s Loire Valley, as drunk on his words as I would be if I’d been one of his wine growers in the French countryside. The images of the Bosnian war had been overshadowed. I could never do them justice.So I began to re-read. I cracked open Simic’s collection and dove back in, revisiting the characters, and the horrors of war, and the resourcefulness and resilience of spirit that had moved me the first time.I revisited Nina. We were back in Sarajevo, during the war. A gothic wild west of thievery and morgues, where “we were all slowly going mad.” Nina and our narrator shared a past, and our narrator now spots her amongst the people lining up for water, “a shadow of what she used to be.”In “Minefield,” volunteer soldiers protect a ravine. Their initial Rambo bravado is shattered when one of them blows himself up with a grenade. They grow up fast. They begin doing deals with the other side: “as time passed and our ammunition dwindled, we shot less and swore more.” It’s trench warfare except the two sides volley benign insults and supplies. And then grim reality throws them a curve.In “The Story Of Sinan” we see the early days of the war when “we thought it all a brief private nightmare that the world had nothing to do with.” We meet Sinan whose daily routine has been inconvenienced by the war. To him, it’s an annoyance. He’s a gambler and carouser who lives by his wits. (He tells women, when he’s through with them, that his wife has been released unexpectedly from prison though she was supposed to have served five more years for murdering his ex-mistress). Then another curve, this time a sudden and unexpected act of kindness and selflessness.And as I re-read Yesterday’s People I noticed something that I hadn’t really picked up on the first time. I noticed that the stories are not just about Bosnians – then. They’re also about Canadians – now. In every story, a character either escapes to Canada or someone linked to him does. Sometimes the stories are actually written from the point of view of someone here, now, flashing back to his life there, then. There are photos throughout the stories, snapshots of the narrator’s past. The stories are about memory, about trying to remember and trying to forget. They’re about one’s tenuous link to one’s history. They’re war stories that don’t end in the trenches or in the long line-ups for water. They don’t end when the shooting stops. They’re brought up to date through the memory of the narrator. They’re immigrant stories.