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.
When my friend John moved to Philadelphia recently, I considered bringing a bag of rice to his new apartment. At the time I was in the middle of my second consecutive Nigerian novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart after Half of a Yellow Sun (which I wrote about last week), and it seemed like the kind of thing that would have happened in Okonkwo’s village, tagged to a parable about a frog and an eagle, and bearing the sentiment “may hunger never sleep beneath your roof.” My fiance, who is used to my flights of cultural longing, counseled against the idea, and reminded me that we have traditions of our own for this sort of thing. A bottle of wine might be more appropriate, she suggested (if my friend John is reading this, he’ll note that he ended up with neither the rice nor the wine).
In an early review of Things Fall Apart, released in 1958, The New York Times lamented the disappearance of “primitive” society as among its primary responses to the novel. Reading this in a profile of Achebe that appeared in the May 26 issue of The New Yorker, I couldn’t immediately tell if I was supposed to object to the lament or the lamented, whether the Times’ error was in wistfully recalling a culture that was never its own, or in characterizing that culture as “primitive.” Thinking about my own experience reading Things Fall Apart, I recognized the phantom nostalgia with which I read about the life of the Igbo people. I don’t know if culture is always opaque to those living in it, or if Igbo life really was richer in that way, but regardless, I found myself hungering for a time when there were fewer choices to be made and stronger reasons for making them.
Things Fall Apart is set on the eve of the colonial encounter between British missionaries and a group of Igbo villages called Umuofia. The book tells the story of Okonkwo, a village leader, who became famous as a young man for his wrestling prowess and ferocity in war, and later enjoys high status owing to the abundance of his yam harvests. Okonkwo is proud of what he’s achieved, but also afraid that he’ll be perceived as weak and lazy like his father, which leads him often to brutal acts of overcompensation.
When the missionaries arrive late in the book, it is with the slyness of a stranger sneaking ashore at night. They take advantage of local superstition to gain a foothold in the village, building a church in the forest of Evil Spirits, and their first converts are the villagers who suffered from the cruel side of Igbo culture, mothers forced to abandon newborn twins into the bush, and other varietals of outcast. Although he clearly has no patience for the progress narratives of colonialism, Achebe renders the first celebrations of the Sabbath, with gospel songs spilling out of a pristine church, as a kind of reprieve from the intolerance and arbitrariness which gather over time in tradition. But the end of Things Fall Apart is as inevitable and tragic as the history of colonial conquest. There are moments of hope, but the circumstances are inexorable and there are not enough good men around to hold them back.
There is a tantalizing moment in the book, though, when the first missionaries arrive and innocuously ask to build a church on the outskirts of the village. If the village leaders had known the ruse, could they have prevented the British from taking root? Even more to the point, how should the Igbo have reacted to an outsider come along, bearing a different culture, and asking to live right next door? Set aside the nefarious motives of the British, and it’s the same question of pluralism which we face a million ways over in America, in everything from gay marriage to immigration and assimilation. At most junctures, we have answered the question affirmatively, expanding the boundaries of how people live in our country. But pluralism necessarily comes at the expense of tradition and when you move too far along that curve, you end up with the quandary of an American staring at a supermarket aisle full of cereal. So many options, and no compelling reason to choose any of them.
It didn’t take long to discover that, as an introduction to Rick Moody’s writing, The Diviners is a poor choice, though at least I know that The Ice Storm, considered by many to be his best work and an exceptional novel in its own right, is still out there. I don’t have to give up on Rick Moody even though reading The Diviners was an exasperating, though occasionally exhilarating, experience.To sketch out the plot, we follow a cast of characters that are all connected, some loosely and some directly, to Means of Production, a New York based production company with a reputation for high-brow films, and its new, potentially blockbuster project, a miniseries called “The Diviners.” The miniseries itself is a cipher, the project has been invented out of thin air by production assistant Annabel Duffy and washed up action hero Thaddeus Griffin, but it is fitting and probably intentional that this novel is centered around a figment. At one time or another nearly all of the novel’s characters get excited about “The Diviners,” often viewing it as the solution for one work-related problem or another. The problem is, it is hard for the reader to get excited about the miniseries or, more importantly, the characters who are obsessed with it.There is something tongue in cheek about all this, obviously, a comment on a bloated culture seeing salvation in a bloated TV production – the novel’s main character, Means of Production head Vanessa Meandro, is quite literally bloated, if we missed the point, addicted to Krispy Kreme and mercilessly mean to boot. All of this action, which includes a number of side plots like an attack on a young gallery curator by a random brick wielding maniac and the descent of Vanessa’s mother into alcohol-fueled madness, is set in the days after the disputed Bush v. Gore election, when our boom economy was beginning to crack and the seriousness of terrorism and war awaited around the corner to put a stop to the frivolity.The problem is that Moody, in his excess — 576 pages, to be specific — comes off as one of those pleading killjoys, like a crusading vegetarian who is unpleasant to eat with or a person who doesn’t watch TV and tut-tuts those who do. Perhaps there is something compelling about the notion that our culture is vacuous, but really, hasn’t this statement been made so many times, and so much more subtly, before?Nonetheless, there is an unmistakable virtuosity in Moody’s writerly abilities. In every chapter he visits us upon another of his characters – some we visit two or three times or more – with set pieces that are inexhaustible in their creativity. One takes the form of a diary entry, another a police report, and another is the internal monologue of an autistic child.Perhaps most grandiose of all is when he alights again on nearly all of the book’s characters as they watch “Werewolves of Fairfield County,” a hit show in this alternative universe. He gives us nearly a blow by blow of this particular episode as we find that almost all of his characters can be joined only as they gaze at the television alone, together. And if that seems like a somewhat trite message, it felt that way too. For such complex, writerly book, the underlying message felt like it too should be complicated, not just one-note angst about our supposedly vapid culture.As the book ends most of the characters are all still chasing “The Diviners” and what it represents, deliverance from their empty lives. All through out the book, the diviner, that ancient holy finder of water, is returned to as a motif, and so it seems fitting that as the book nears its close, several of Moody’s creations are wandering in the desert, finding nothing.
Growing up, parenthood wasn’t central to my fantasies of adult life — but it wasn’t in opposition to them, either. By the time I was in my 20s and working as a bookseller and writing, and then going to graduate school and then getting married, and still writing, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have kids. But when I turned 29, the urge to be a mother arrived, and it was so powerful it embarrassed me. Baby Fever! I had it! It wasn’t so much that I made a decision as the decision was made for me, by my body. Thankfully, my husband thought it was a good idea. A year later, there we were: someone’s mother and father.
There are some parents who feel that parenting is their vocation, the central reason for their existence. I don’t feel that way. Raising my son is an important and beautiful facet of my life, but it’s not the only one. Maybe that’s because the desire to have a child came upon me suddenly, almost by surprise, or maybe it’s because I already have a vocation, writing, which took hold of me long ago. Despite my biological imperative, I’m certain I would have still lived a fulfilling life had I not had my child. For me, that makes parenting all the more pleasurable and meaningful. It wasn’t the only path of fulfillment and happiness I saw before me, and it’s never felt like some destined part of my identity, and yet, I chose it. I choose it every day.
The truth is, sometimes my childless self shadows me as I kiss my son’s soft, impossibly milk-pale neck, or when I’m answering one of his big questions (“Why do we have to die, Mama?”), or when we’re kneeling on the sidewalk inspecting a potato bug with the focus of portrait painters. That self is there for the shitty stuff too: when I fail to control my voice as I tell my son, for the sixth time, to get dressed for school already, or when all I want in this world is for him to go to bed so that my husband and I can have the evening to ourselves. My childless self is alternately bereft and relieved at the path not taken. My son has taught me so much about the world, myself, and the human animal in general, but to have decided not to do something — well, that would have taught me something too, wouldn’t it?
Both of my selves, the real one with a kid and imagined one without, read Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum, which offers a diverse array of personal experiences despite the commonality of subject. Daum writes in her introduction, “I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against non-parents and assumes the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income.” That’s refreshing for this reader, who’s a parent but who also has no trouble identifying with non-parents; though we might come to different decisions (to become parents or not), we still worry and ponder and project in similar ways. Or maybe not: for example, compare Geoff Dyer’s witty opening, “I’ve had only two ambitions in life: to put on weight (it’s not going to happen) and never to have children (which, so far, I’ve achieved”), with Kate Christensen’s more sobering, “I don’t have kids, and I’m very glad I don’t, although there was a time when I wanted them more than anything.” The anthology’s variation in tone proves that, like those with children, the childless aren’t some monolithic group with identical motives.
As a mother, I found comfort in Laura Kipnis’s essay, “Maternal Instincts,” which puts parenting in its historical context. Kipnis reminds us that the maternal bond is a fairly recent social invention, writing: “No one ever talked about such bonding before the rise of industrialization, when wage labor first became an option for women.” Sigrid Nunez echoes this sentiment in “The Most Important Thing,” describing her upbringing: “When I think of the people among who I grew up, it’s as if I were looking back not fifty but more than a hundred years, to an era before modern belief in the sacredness of childhood and children’s rights had emerged, before childhood had come to be seen as a time of innocence deserving protection, the part of every person’s life that should be carefree and full of fun.” It’s not that I don’t believe in the preciousness of childhood or the maternal bond — I’m a woman of my era, after all — but it’s liberating to recognize that many of my essential behaviors are learned, just as it was liberating to read Gender Trouble by Judith Butler in college and question the naturalness of my female identity. Such recognition and questioning gives me the freedom to be whatever and whomever I want; it also, in the context of parenting, lets me share with my husband the tasks and responsibilities of child rearing without feeling like I’m any less of a mother. (If I had a penny for every time a person asks me, somewhat alarmed, “Where’s your son?” when I’m out doing a reading, I’d have at least a dollar by now…) It also keeps me from expecting myself to feel a certain way about parenthood: that I should love this part of it, or complain about that part of it, an endless list of shoulds that doesn’t make me a better, more present mother.
Within days of my son’s birth, people kept asking me if I was in love with my baby, if I felt a love greater than anything I had ever known, etc., etc. They expected my answer to be a resounding yes, and it didn’t feel like there was room for another kind of answer. “Sheesh,” I would say instead, “I only just met the guy.” In fact, many of my mother-friends have reported their love for their babies with a mixture of manic delight and intense relief. (Relief, that is, that one isn’t a monster, as feared, but a true, rightful mother.) Laura Kipnis reminds us of the pernicious political and social consequences of perpetrating the “natural” myth: “What’s the most advantageous story to adopt about female biology and nature? If we keep telling the one about nature speaking to women in a direct hookup from womb to brain, then guess what? This will parlay into who should do the social job of child rearing and under what conditions.” The cultural pressure we place on all women to want and have babies has a negative impact on those women who do end up having kids, and we are foolish to forget it.
The essays I enjoyed most in the anthology used the theme of childlessness to talk about something else. The first in the collection, “Babes in the Woods” by Courtney Hodell, depicts the author’s meaningful relationship with her brother, only 11 months older. She writes of their “private mythology of brother and sister as two faces of a coin” and describes how her own sense of self shifted when he became a dad. While she fears she’s “a kind of human geode: sparkly and hollow,” she is surprised to discover that her brother is a natural father. “How was he allowed to be different from me?” she asks. We’ve all been close to someone, and we’ve all asked ourselves this.
In “Just An Aunt” Elliott Holt is honest about her struggles with depression, and writes, “The fact that I don’t have kids is less the result of a decision than a collapse.” She’s referring to a deep depression she fell into at age 36, just when she would have had to make parenthood a priority; Holt uses that dark period to think back to other moments of depression and personal anguish and how that’s influenced her decision to remain childless. Holt is clear-eyed about herself and her struggles, and there is courage in admitting, “if I have another debilitating depression, I won’t endanger any kids.” Her spare style and her voice, at once confident and vulnerable, moved me.
In “The New Rhoda” Paul Lisicky writes, “In a not-so-distant past, men like me often died in their twenties and thirties.” His essay brilliantly glances at the anthology topic on its way to documenting what sex, life, and death meant for a gay man in the 1980s, and what it means to him now:
Imagine it. Look at a drop of your blood, your semen, your saliva, and think of it containing a thousand little grenades. Not just for you, but for the lover you came into intimate contact with. How could your life change? Could you ever disappear into yourself, your skin again? When you finally got the nerve to be tested, and found out that you did not carry those grenades, could you still think of that fluid as a substance you’d choose to make a baby with? Imagine it.
One does not feel exactly undead after being dead for so long.
This essay knocked me flat. As with Holt’s, I loved its honesty: “I thought I could imagine what it could be like to be in my straight male friends’ skin, to be swept and stopped by some beautiful woman as she walks down the street. But the sexual allure of reproduction? Really?” A sentence later, he isn’t afraid to assert difference: “I’ve never been more alien from the men I thought I’d known.”
In the end, though, what most fascinated me about this anthology was how certain some contributors were that parenthood would have kept them from writing. For her essay, “Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later,” Lionel Shriver interviews another childless mother who says, “Had I had children, I would have written no books, nor would I have become a particularly successful journalist.” Sigrid Nunez, in her essay “The Most Important Thing,” quotes Jeanette Winterson in an interview she gave in 1997: “I can’t find a model, a female literary model who did the work she wanted to do and led an ordinary heterosexual life and had children.” Sigrid also quotes an interview with Alice Munro, in which Munro regrets batting her young daughter away from the typewriter. A couple of pages later, Nunez asks herself:
Can I be the kind of mother I would have wanted to have? Just give them lots and lots of love — oh, this I believed I could do. But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die. And so long as this was true, and so long as writing continued to be the enormously difficult thing it has always been for me, I didn’t think I could be a real mother. Not the kind I would have wanted for my child. The kind to whom he or she was the most important thing, object of that unconditional love for which I had desperately yearned as a child myself and the want of which I have never gotten over.
I had a different childhood than Nunez, which makes a big difference, for I never went into motherhood with the expectation of total devotion, and I never placed before myself an either/or choice: writing or parenthood. I do think it’s possible to love your child unconditionally, and to also care deeply about one’s artistic pursuits. They aren’t mutually exclusive. (And I doubt that Alice Munro’s daughter holds a grudge against her mother!) For me, at least, there are quite a few female literary models to look to for support and guidance.
In “The Hardest Art” Rosemary Mahoney chronicles the anxiety she experienced upon becoming pregnant from artificial insemination and the feelings of inadequacies that took over. She quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife Sophia’s rules for good child rearing: “Infinite patience, infinite tenderness, infinite magnanimity — no less will do, and we must practise them as far as finite power will allow.” Finite power is right, people! Sheesh, is anyone, anyone at all, capable under this exacting rubric? (Also, do we need to be taking such ye olden parenting advice? I feel like Laura Kipnis would have something to say about this!) In her essay, Mahoney is wonderfully self-aware about her own faults, but I bristled when she pronounced, “The one who brings a child into the world has a responsibility to give the child everything, to put the child before all else.” This, to me, sounds like a kid talking, and in some ways it is, for the smart and thoughtful writers in this anthology speak not only as artists, but also from the experience of being children. Many of them still retain the specific longings and resentments of that role. Perhaps Danielle Henderson is most up-front about this in her essay “Save Yourself” when she writes, “I decided to take the love I’d have for a child and give it to myself.”
This occasional motif of parenthood-as-complete-devotion isn’t a flaw of the anthology because it got me thinking a lot about why I made the choice to have a kid, and how my role as a mother has shaped my writing life, how it’s both energized and limited it. As Jeanne Safer writes in her essay, “there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything — no mother, no nonmother, no man. The perfect life does not and never will exist, and to assert otherwise perpetuates a pernicious fantasy: that it’s possible to live without regrets. Every important choice has benefits and its deficits.” It’s this kind of open-minded honesty that will move the topic away from its limiting us versus them binaries.
Emailing about this very subject, a friend recently asked me, “Doesn’t anyone bumble around, scared and uncertain about the future? Doesn’t time just sometimes pass? Isn’t everyone just doing their best? Isn’t everyone scared? Isn’t everyone worried about meaninglessness?” After finishing Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, and after living my own life, I can say with conviction: Yes. We all do. I’m happy to have the company.
(And, now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pick my son up from school.)
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.
Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk — somewhat unsurprisingly — is about what we don’t say when we say things.
Recently re-issued by NYRB Classics, Rosenkrantz’s Talk was a small sensation when it was first published in 1968. The book condensed a series of summer-long conversations between three late-20-somethings — one modeled after Linda herself — during one sweltering and sandy summer spent at the beach in East Hampton, N.Y.
Thanks to a ’60s script of psychedelics and psychoanalysis, Talk is characterized by introspective and scrupulous self-analysis. The three friends — Emily, Vincent, and Marsha — spend their 1965 summer discussing what most young people discuss: sex, relationships, and more sex. Much of the pleasure of Talk is the fact that though we readers feel we are reading a “script” — inherently a type of contrived and falsified dialogue — in fact we are reading the actual, although slightly altered, conversations of three friends over a Hamptons summer.
In 1965, Rosenkrantz lugged her enormous tape recorder — what she calls “the bulky monster” — to the beach and recorded conversations. The end product was some 1,500 pages and a stable of some 25 characters. She condensed the tome of transcribed papers to a slim 250-page paperback and reduced the character count to three. Marsha — modeled on the author — is an aspiring writer; Emily is a young actress who recounts her struggles and triumphs; and Vincent is a gay painter who shares in Emily and Marsha’s candid conversations about S&M and masturbation.
What made Talk such a sensation in the 1960s was that not only the salacious content, but the fact that it was a series of recorded conversations presented as a novel. In an era of New Journalism, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Rosenkrantz’s book was a hybrid of sorts. Talk took its premise from theatre, but its politics from the likes of The Feminine Mystique and the recent legalization of the pill. It was a character study; a story of three under-represented and oppressed classes — women, gay men, artists — which were given an unobstructed avenue to see their conversations and experiences and stories shared. The voices of women and gay men were so often marginalized; Talk made them the focal point.
But Rosenkrantz had a hard time convincing a publisher of the book’s literary and cultural merits. She shopped it around for over a year, sending out countless manuscripts to prospective publishers and collecting “a long trail of less colorful rejection letters,” as she recently wrote in The Paris Review. Many editors were shocked by the risqué and confessional content contained in the conversations. Rosenkrantz writes that one well-known editor rejected the proposal, calling the book “repellently raunchy.”
In early 1968, Talk finally saw daylight. Publishing house Putnam — as a means to avoid any type of legal consequences after publication — presented the work as completely fiction. Rosenkrantz says that she was thrilled when the book was finally published but admits that she had been “completely complicit in the betrayal of the book’s mandate — which was to present raw reality.” Talk, published as a work of fiction, would not carry the same cultural and literary currency had it been released under its original “mandate.”
Then, as now, the intersection of truth and fiction is a complicated place. The quality of Rosenkrantz’s extracted conversations is both visceral and intimate. But equally there is a falseness that belies their sense of authenticity.
Case in point: in one exchange, friends Marsha and Emily are discussing Emily’s recent “breakthrough” in her acting class. Emily was able to cry on cue in a monologue she performed from La Notte. (Emily is talking about performing a scene from a play; we are reading a “scene” from Talk.) In this particular monologue she describes, Emily was asked to weep after reading a letter her character receives. As a way to “embody” her character, Emily pretends the letter is from one of her own former lovers, Philippe. Emily imitates her own actions when she received a letter from him, as she performs the scene from La Notte for her class. The fact that Emily and Marsha are discussing a moment of acting — ironically about a scene from La Notte where no words are spoken — really serves to only point out their dialogue, their exchange, the fact that Emily and Marsha are talking, but also are not.
It would appear that their conversation is based on a real exchange of ideas, in which Emily is talking about her efforts to show an “authentic” character in her acting class. Emily then goes on, telling Marsha that later at a party the following evening, a crush of hers named Michael Christy, appeared and her “hysterical feelings” for him were filtered from “damaged, love feelings about Phillippe.” The overwhelming irony underscoring this is that Emily’s rawness and realness on stage is truer than the performance she gave at the party. The exchange calls into question the whole idea of character and performances we all give in our daily lives, at work, at home. Rosenkrantz’s indulges in a clever paradox here: Emily is fake when she’s being real and is real when she’s being fake.
Talk offers these wonderful — if slightly meta — interventions into the daily lives and (recorded) conversations of young creative people, as well as those from social and gender groups otherwise marginalized by the larger 1960s cultural milieu. This is what made Rosenkrantz’s book (not “novel”) so revolutionary and transgressive. It is recorded away from mainstream America and at the beach, a place so often for self-reflection and deeper, more intimate prying. It is also set in a hub of queer and non-heteronormative people and experiences and ideas, all of which are examined and told through the dialogue of Emily, Marsha, and Vincent.
What adds to the more political dimensions of Talk is the sheer excess of dialogue Rosenkrantz presents. The fact that the entire book is a series of exchanges between two women — and often their gay friend Vincent — is deeply transgressive in the context of 1960s mainstream publishing. While the 1960s offered rare moments of feminist and queer representations, like Leslie Gore’s hit song “You Don’t Own Me” or CBS’s notorious “The Homosexuals” TV interviews, women and gay men were not often given space for individual and unmitigated self-expression. Talk is not just about giving women and gay men the space to be open and honest about their sexual and emotional lives, but acknowledging that this is a legitimate and real set of experiences.
As a point of comparison, look at popular film representations of women at the time. These include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where the star of the film is undressed and then slaughtered 40 minutes into the narrative; Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), about a lonely call girl whose entire existence is mediated by a nameless cat, rich men, and a cantankerous and aggressive upstairs neighbor; and Barbarella (1968), in which we see Jane Fonda shoot alien men with beehive hair and low-cut skin suits. While these films suggest they are giving “air time” to more women and women’s issues, they only masked a more insidious silencing of women by a larger patriarchal world.
Talk disengaged with and disturbed this. It said that women speak about sex, drugs, alcohol, S&M, masturbation, boys, adultery, abortion, the pill, vaginas, urination, underwear, penises, and periods. It vocalized an unfairly hidden world.
Rosenkrantz’s title emphasized this simplicity; it is a book with “just” talking in it. But what was so important about Rosenkrantz’s intervention (recording these conversations) and then regurgitation of these discussion was that talk, as a literary device or indeed as a type of text endemic to the cultural and political sphere of the time, was not taken seriously. Rosenkrantz elevated it to argue that the discussions women — and, to an extent, gay men — have about sex and relationships and everything else are worthy of print and publication and politics.
Although Rosenkrantz later made a name for herself — ironically enough — by producing popular baby name guides (Cool Names for Babies is one), Talk is an era-defining text. With its unvarnished “realism” and its celebration of marginalized groups, Talk argues that the everyday language of men and women is valuable, important, and worthy of a book.