I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
If I were using affairs as a measuring-stick to classify books, Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal would be a savory one-night stand, which turns into a lingering dalliance that’s later hastily broken off. The novel is an enticing read; the narration is hypnotic, intelligent, and embracing. The suspense takes the form of a disappearance: Lilia, the girlfriend of Eli, announces she is going out to purchase a paper and never returns to their Brooklyn apartment. Although Eli is aware of Lilia’s itinerant past, her abrupt exit catches him off-guard. In her wake, Eli loses his footing, and after receiving mysterious letters from a woman named Michaela, beckoning him to come to Montreal to find Lilia, he leaves New York to do just that.Sometimes when I’m reading a book, cracking the spine triggers a spell. The characters emerge fully formed when they are transported from their parallel world. In this case, it wasn’t the characters but the narration that struck me as vibrant and whole, providing guidance through Lilia’s disappearances, from Eli’s life and from her mother’s home long ago. The narrative voice is a siren’s call that recounts the stories of Eli and Lilia, and intersperses them with scenes from Lilia’s childhood on the road. Abducted by her father at the age of seven, Lilia came of age while barreling through the nexus of American highways, spending nights in nondescript hotels and taking dinners at local diners and off-the-interstate restaurants. She and her father made lengthier stays, but they never laid roost long enough for her to feel at home. Now that she’s older, she finds constancy uncomfortable.The strength of the narration is also the novel’s Achilles’ heel. The distinct voice resonates with greater clarity and assurance than those of the characters, whose voices seem muted in comparison. Part of this derives from the difficulties of conveying absence. Lilia is pieced together in fragments: we enter in media res as Eli withers with the aftershock of her absence. She is his central obsession, and so we learn of Lilia through Eli, and yet she’s still once removed.Of Lilia, Eli remarks, “you can skate over the surface of the world for your entire life, visiting, leaving, without ever falling through. But you can’t do that, it isn’t good enough. You have to be able to fall through.” He accuses Lilia of always removing herself to avoid emotional risks. This is also an apt critique of the novel and the way we come to know Eli, Lilia, and later, though to a lesser extent, Michaela. Lilia never becomes comfortable with staying, so she always goes. Eli is dominated by inertia in both his writing and his obsession for Lilia. Michaela is slightly more complicated – she is envious of Lilia and suffers from her parents’ abandonment. The layered story adds to our understanding, but the characters rarely stray from these roles. Mandel begins to delve into the greater issues of love, art, and life – there are urban dilettantes who talk creativity, truth, and beauty, but do little to actually to create; the isolated central characters long for connection but often fail miserably in their attempts. And yet these central ideas aren’t developed as carefully as the plot points of the story. Eli accuses Lilia of forever remaining on the surface, and yet she was the one person he knew who was actually living a life of truth and beauty. Was her detachment necessary to cultivate her artwork? Can one create a balance that allows for both?Mandel leaves me wondering, and wanting, and yet this is as much a criticism as a remark on my involvement, the result of being drawn in. The careful depictions and graceful writing beckoned me to keep reading even when the characters lacked dynamism and the plot became slightly contrived. The voice was enough to string me along, to overlook the blemishes, at least for a time.
New York City, 1924: the Volstead Act has spawned a thriving bootlegging industry, jazz throbs from secret speakeasies, the hemlines are scandalous, and girls are bobbing their hair. The world has changed so rapidly that even some of the young are disoriented. Rose, Suzanne Rindell’s narrator, is a straitlaced young woman who was raised by nuns. She views the excesses of the jazz age from afar and with some suspicion. Rose understands that some people have the luxury of risking the wild freedoms of this new era, and others don’t. She has an orphan’s understanding of the precariousness of her place in the world. She follows the rules.
In early adulthood, she’s built a respectable life for herself: she’s employed as a typist at a police station in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she sits in on confessions and types up reports, and goes home in the evenings to a boarding house. She is extraordinarily competent in her work — 160 WPM on a manual typewriter? Okay, fine, it’s fiction — and cautious in her day-to-day life.
The other typist is Odalie. When she appears for a job interview at the station, she exerts a magnetic pull on the others; Rose is mesmerized, as is the sergeant, the lieutenant detective, and everyone else. “There was an excitement in the air around her,” Rindell writes, “an excitement that might include you in some way, as though you were her secret collaborator.”
Rose is wary of “modern girls” like Odalie, with their bob haircuts and their casual entitlement, their way of moving through the city as if the city existed for their amusement. The Other Typist is a chronicle of a woman’s unraveling, but it’s also a subtle examination of economic privilege. The rapidly loosening mores of that time looked like freedom, but the level of risk that comes with freedom is never, of course, the same for everyone. Everyone who frequented the speakeasies of 1920s New York was taking a risk, but some had a net to catch them if they fell, and others didn’t. Rose’s impression that the new era isn’t for people like her doesn’t seem unwarranted.
But for all of Rose’s love of the rules, she has a certain weakness. She introduces herself as an orphan, but technically she isn’t, or at least she wasn’t when she was dropped off at the orphanage as an infant. Rose wasn’t orphaned, she was abandoned by her family, and Rindell expertly suggests the subtle vulnerability that lingers in her as a result. Odalie is a con artist, but in order for a con to work, the dupe has to want to believe. When Odalie turns the full force of her charms on Rose and eventually invites Rose to move in with her, Rose is flattered and grateful enough to ignore her doubts. By the time Rose discovers Odalie’s true business and what she’s doing working at the police station, it’s too late. She is enmeshed, for precisely the same reason that no one thought to ask why a woman of such obvious means as Odalie required employment as a typist in the first place: “I can only say we are all susceptible to blind spots when exposed to the right dazzling flash.”
Given the era, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons between Odalie and Jay Gatsby. Odalie is magnetic, charming, mysteriously wealthy, and engaged in shady business practices. There’s even a climactic party on Long Island. But if anything, Odalie is Gatsby’s mirror image; the trick of Fitzgerald’s character was that while Gatsby was obviously a fraud — James Gatz of North Dakota — he was in some essential sense a better and truer man than the careless and frivolous and perfectly respectable people who used their own names and their own unembellished backstories as they flitted through his life. Odalie is much darker. It isn’t that her charm and beauty and mysterious wealth conceals any malice; in order to feel malice, a person has to care.
There’s a certain amount of unnecessary exposition in the first half of the book, and the novel is hampered at times by a weakness for excessive foreshadowing; in the early chapters especially, there are a great many of those “but little did I know what would come next” asides that do little to move a story forward and that can even suggest a certain — in this case entirely unwarranted — insecurity on the part of the writer. But Rindell is a fine writer, and she’s written a suspenseful and well-executed novel. The Other Typist is an elegant debut.
Just a few days before I embarked on Colum McCann’s new novel Let the Great World Spin, we had a movie night at the Magee household. Lauren made some ice cream and our neighbors came over with Man on Wire, the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit and his walk on a tightrope strung between the two towers of New York City’s World Trade Center in 1974, in hand.While the film portrays Petit as a roguish eccentric (as anyone with his “hobby” would have to be), it also captures his famous walk as not so much a stunt as a sublime gesture – a graceful figure, clad all in black, impossibly high up, framed by massive towers and set against the huge morning sky. The film builds to this impressive, balletic payoff, a beautiful counterpoint to the antics of Petit and his cohort as they plot out and set into motion their daring plan.Petit’s personality is larger than life and so was his act. So it is perhaps no surprise that in centering his novel around Petit’s walk, McCann makes the walk the book’s gravitational center and ignores the voluble Petit almost entirely. In an author’s note at the end of the book, McCann writes, “I have taken liberties with Petit’s walk, while trying to remain true to the texture of the moment and its surroundings.” And anyone who has watched Man on Wire will also find that with his few descriptions of the Petit’s preparations, McCann has invented for him a new, if thinly sketched, backstory.A tightrope walker graces the cover of the book and though many reviews (as this one has) will likely devote ink to the famous act, it is little more than a backdrop to a disparate cast of characters. If Let the Great World Spin were a play, the action would take place in front of a painted backdrop showing the towers and the speck-like walker bathed in the morning light. The backdrop would sometimes be alluded to, but the action it depicted would never be a part of the foreground. The book traces a number of lives, ranging from mother and daughter hookers to a judge to an Irish priest of a particularly ascetic order. The priest is Corrigan, who, as a peculiarly selfless child, wandered from home and gave the blankets from his bed to homeless drunks. As an adult, he entered the priesthood and got himself posted to the Bronx where he lives in a housing project and becomes a sort of den mother and mascot to the complex’s many prostitutes. Among them are Tillie and Jazzlyn Henderson, the mother and daughter pair, deeply jaded, scarred by heroin, but still irrepressible. These three, Corrigan’s brother, and several others form one of the book’s poles, and they are tied by a car accident to the novel’s other pole, a couple living on Park Avenue, Solomon and Claire Soderburg. He is a judge, she an heiress, devastated by the loss of their only son in Vietnam. Claire has joined a support group with other mothers who have lost sons. She is painfully self-conscious, on the morning of the tightrope walk, about having the group – all hailing from the outer boroughs – into her status-signifying Park Avenue penthouse. There are a number of other characters as well, all tied to New York City in the 1970s in one way or another.To string his line between the towers, Petit shot fishing wire across the gap with a bow and arrow, and then he and his helpers tied progressively stronger and heavier ropes together until his heavy, steel wire could be hauled across. In the same way, McCann’s characters are at the outset connected by only the thinnest of filaments – proximity and shared experiences and not much else – but through the machinations of the plot and by dint of mishap and employment and chance they become more connected, sometimes tragically.McCann’s mastery of character and voice is on full display in Let the Great World Spin, especially the Claire Soderburg’s fragile inner monologue and the mournful, staccato prison diary of Tillie Henderson. The novel is a bit shorter on plot, with much of the narrative energy devoted to the car accident at the center of the action and prizing out its impact on the lives of the characters. Some readers may wish the novel had more narrative to it, but McCann’s well-sketched characters and sense of place may be enough to satisfy.
Two authors walk into a room. One – brooding, macho, fixated on war, fighting, hunting, and conflict in general. The second – driven to drink, floating above the revelers, with a crazy wife to deal with. If the mythmakers have done their job over the decades, you know exactly who I’m talking about. Even if the facts deviate from, or even contradict, the myth.
Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald – two pillars of early twentieth century fiction. Two fixtures of 1920s Paris. Two writers whose actual lives weren’t quite what the mythological line would have us believe.
Morley Callaghan’s That Summer In Paris, written in 1962, reveals Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s true nature, and offers an insider’s view of the events in Paris, in the summer of 1929.
Callaghan in the mid 1920s was still years away from being the Canadian literary lion that he would become. A college student in Toronto, Callaghan had written a handful of short stories and was employed as a reporter for the Toronto Star. Returning to the newsroom after several years writing European dispatches for the Star was another writer of fiction, a few years Callaghan’s senior. That correspondent was Ernest Hemingway, and for the next few months in Toronto, Callaghan and Hemingway struck up a friendship. Recognizing a kinship, they became sounding boards for each other’s fiction.
Fast forward to 1929. Hemingway had by then left the Star, had decamped and returned to Paris to focus on his fiction. Already established, with In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises behind him, and A Farewell to Arms well underway, Hemingway was already a legendary figure in Paris, at times helping to cultivate his own public persona.
He’d stayed in touch with the young Canadian and helped him get some attention from publishers when, in 1929, 26-year-old Callaghan and his wife moved to Paris. It was a heady time, but one which seemed to be entering some kind of transition. Scott Fitzgerald – wealthy and established – was there, but his legendary friendship with Hemingway was fragile, and when Callaghan arrived, they weren’t speaking. Ford Madox Ford was in town. So was James Joyce. These were the closing months of what Hemingway would dub the “moveable feast.”
Callaghan, becoming a hot young writer, became part of the scene, and his encounters with these legends make for a fascinating memoir. More fascinating still are the close friendships that he developed – separately – with Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In private moments, as they read each others’ manuscripts, we see glimpses of their lives away from the glare. We realize that the myths that surround them – then and now – are only a small part of a bigger picture. Not that they didn’t propagate their own myths, but their quieter selves shine through – sometimes sweet and shy, sometimes arrogant – but often surprisingly insecure.
Fitzgerald, in particular, comes off as a gentle – and gentlemanly – sort. Eager for Hemingway’s friendship which had gone off the rails, Fitzgerald always remained Hemingway’s biggest fan, and took it personally when others slighted his old friend Ernest.
Hemingway was a bit harder to get a read on. He could be thoughtful and sweet, and he was a good companion – and sparring partner in the boxing ring – to Callaghan during his early weeks in Paris. But as his strained relationship with his old friend Scott demonstrates, he could also be remote, withdrawn.
Callaghan’s memoir is more conventional in style, but its insider’s view makes is essential for anyone interested in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the closing moments of 1920s Paris.