The opening scene of Vertigo is one of the most spectacular in film: across a series of San Francisco rooftops, the city and bay glittering in the background, a cop and a detective chase a criminal—until the detective slips and the cop falls to his death. Hanging from a ledge that seems certain to rip away, Jimmy Stewart eyes the twisted body below him, and the movie’s narrative is set. Will Stewart’s acrophobic sleuth conquer his vertigo as he trails a possessed woman who’ll also take a plunge? We watch to find out, even though the film’s dominant image—and theme—has already been revealed.
I thought of Vertigo, Hitchcock’s masterwork, as I watched the latest episode of Damages, the FX series starring Glenn Close that returned for its third season this Monday. Nominally a legal drama, the show’s serpentine plotting and titrated flashes of violence make it a first-rate thriller, and Close plays her quasi-villain to the hilt. As Patty Hewes, an attorney more ruthless and brilliant than any before seen on TV, she projects ambiguity at every moment. It’s impossible to know what her role in the plot is, a tension only heightened by Damages’ “flash forwards,” which depict each season’s brutal denouement from the outset. This season’s premiere showed Tate Donovan’s character, Patty’s right-hand man, in a body bag, while six months earlier he’d become a named partner at her firm. The image of his death is returned to again and again, as the temporal gap starts to close.
This back-and-forth dynamic is nothing new—it’s the classic whodunit structure, and the show’s creators have credited the Greek tragedies as an inspiration—but as Vertigo did back in 1958, Damages makes the conceit an integral part of its effect. As compelling as Close is (she towers over her incipient awards rival Julianna Margulies, whose attorney character on CBS’s The Good Wife would be chewed up by Patty in court), the show’s obsessive, almost fetishistic circling is what keeps me watching. It heightens the suspense, yes, but it also viscerally expresses the main characters’ central emotion: a constant, uncertain dread. As a narrative tactic, the flash forward enacts a perfect mimesis for the viewer.
It’s an impressively artful technique at a time when TV still hews to conventional (read: boring) three-act plots, with conclusions that are all too predictable. Shows that neatly wrap up at the end of every episode have a better shot at maintaining ratings both seasonally and year to year, since missing an episode doesn’t matter. In its first year, viewership for Damages fell from roughly 3.7 million to around 1.4, where it perilously remains. A new ABC series this fall, FlashForward, in which an earthquake-like event gives everyone in the world a glimpse of their lives six months hence, experienced a similar decline and may now be canceled. (The show is based on a 1999 science-fiction novel of the same name, a genre that has the future-present duality at its core.) Even Lost, a one-time juggernaut that also features flash forwards, kicks off its sixth and final season next week.
But plenty of shows have complicated plots that reward consistent viewing, especially premium fare like HBO’s Big Love (which, in its fourth season, continues to mesmerize). And many have earned the honorific “literary,” or “novelistic,” like the incomparable The Wire. It’s also true that Damages is not quite in their league, given its tendency for outright melodrama and writing that could be sharper across the board. This season’s Madoff-inspired story arc already seems tired, despite the presence of Lily Tomlin and Martin Short as the family’s respective matriarch and lawyer. (And what else can possibly be said about Patty’s relationship with Ellen, her protégé-turned-nemesis? Rose O’Byrne is still wooden in the perpetually fuzzy role—the show might be better off without her.)
But by employing the flash forward, Damages is innovating in a way these other shows haven’t, in a medium that’s traditionally an also-ran in trends of any kind. Eleven years after Vertigo was released, Robert Coover published his remarkable story collection Pricksongs & Descants, including the celebrated piece “The Babysitter.” In it, a period of about two hours is dissected into various characters’ perspectives and moments that go in and out of linear sequence. (The 1995 film adaptation starring Alicia Silverstone notably flattened out this bumpy chronological terrain.) By the end, the story—ostensibly about a young woman who’s raped while the couple she’s babysitting for are at a dinner party—is beside the point, smothered in a pile-up of implausible, outlandish details. Coover’s point is to show the narrative sleight of hand at work—a literary tradition we may take for granted now but which Damages brought to TV.
The publishing industry (and every other industry) may be going down the tubes, but readers won’t be wanting for good new books this year, I suspect. Readers will get their hands on new Pynchon, Atwood, Lethem, and Zadie Smith – those names alone would make for a banner year, but there’s much more. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to this year. (Garth penned a few of these little previews, where noted. And special thanks to members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In February, T.C. Boyle returns again to his unique brand of historical fiction with The Women. The four women in question all loved famous architect (and eccentric) Frank Lloyd Wright. Given the time period and subject matter, this one may resemble Boyle’s earlier novel The Road to Wellville. PW says “It’s a lush, dense and hyperliterate book – in words, vintage Boyle.”Yiyun Li wowed quite a few readers with a pair of standout stories in the New Yorker last year, and all her fans now have her debut novel The Vagrants to look forward to. PW gave this one a starred review and called it “magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim.” Quite a combo. All signs point to Li being a writer to watch in 2009 and beyond.Out of My Skin by John Haskell: I like John Haskell’s writing a lot, and I like books about L.A., and so I think I’ll like John Haskell writing a novel about L.A. (Garth)Home Schooling by Carol Windley: This book of short stories set in the Pacific Northwest is certain to garner comparisons to that other Canadian, Alice Munro. (Garth)March brings Jonathan Littell’s very long-awaited novel The Kindly Ones. American readers have waited for an English translation since 2006, when the book was originally published in French. The German reviews for this Prix Goncourt winner were decidedly mixed, but I’m still intrigued to read this novel about an S.S. Officer. Literature, pulp, or kitsch? We’ll know soon enough. (Garth)Walter Mosley, best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, offers up The Long Fall, the first in a new series, the Leonid McGill mysteries. The new book is notable in the change of venue from Los Angeles, Mosley’s heretofore preferred fictional setting, to New York City. PW says Mosley “stirs the pot and concocts a perfect milieu for an engaging new hero and an entertaining new series.”In Castle by J. Robert Lennon, “A man buys a large plot of wooded land in upstate New York, only to find that someone has built a castle in the middle of it–and the castle is inhabited.” Intriguing, no? (That description is from Lennon’s website.) In related news, Lennon’s collection of stories Pieces for the Left Hand will be published also in March. It’ll be the book’s first U.S. edition.Mary Gaitskill’s 2005 novel Veronica was a National Book Award finalist. Now she’s back with Don’t Cry. The title story in this collection appeared in the New Yorker last year.I’ve already devoured Wells Tower’s debut collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Tower’s eclectic style is on full display here. Some of these stories are masterful iterations in the New Yorker style, while others experiment with voice and style. The collection closes with the title story, his most well known, an ingenious tale of vikings gone plundering. Normally a debut collection wouldn’t merit much buzz, but readers have had their eye on Tower for years because of his impressive long-form journalism in Harper’s and elsewhere. (Tower also appeared in our Year in Reading this year.)Zoe Heller had a huge hit with What Was She Thinking in 2003. Her follow-up effort, The Believers arrives in March. PW gives it a starred review and says it “puts to pointed use her acute observations of human nature in her third novel, a satire of 1960s idealism soured in the early 21st century.” The book came out in the UK last year, so you can learn plenty more about this one if you are so inclined. Here’s the Guardian’s review for starters.April brings Colson Whitehead’s novel Sag Harbor, which jumped a few notches on many readers’ wish lists following the publication of an excerpt (registration required) in the New Yorker’s Winter Fiction issue. Based on that excerpt (and the publisher’s catalog copy), we are in store for a coming of age story about Benji, a relatively well-off African-American kid growing up in New York (and summering on Long Island) in the 1980s.Colm Toibin has a new novel coming in May called Brooklyn. This one looks to be a novel of immigration. From the catalog copy: “In a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the 1950s, Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home. So when a job is offered in America, it is clear that she must go.”I’ve been following Clancy Martin’s How to Sell as it’s appeared in excerpts in NOON and McSweeney’s. The writing is terrific, funny, and disturbing: ripe for a Coen Brothers adaptation. (Garth)Summer reading season gets going in June with Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which his publisher is calling “his most ambitious work to date.” This one sounds like it will look in on the lives of several disparate characters in New York city in the mid-1970s. Audio of McCann reading from the book is available at CUNY Radio.Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won tons of praise for Half of a Yellow Sun. Now she’s back with a collection of stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, likely including “The Headstrong Historian,” which appeared in the New Yorker last year.Monica Ali is back with her third novel, In the Kitchen. This one is based in London and apparently involves a murder at a hotel.July: William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August: When the deliberate and reclusive Thomas Pynchon puts out a new book it’s a publishing event, and with Pynchon set to deliver a new book just three years after his last one, well, that’s like Christmas in July, er, August. This one is called Inherent Vice and its cover is already causing much speculation (and some consternation) among the Pynchon fans. Expect rumors about the book to be rife through the first part of the year. Pynchon’s publisher Penguin, meanwhile, has called it “part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon – private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.”The Amateur American by Joel Saunders Elmore: I have to mention this novel by my old friend Joel, sections of which I read in manuscript. Surreal yet propulsive, it has one of the sharpest opening lines I’ve ever read… assuming he kept the opening line. (Garth)September: Scarcely a year goes by without Philip Roth sending a new novel our way. Little is known about his forthcoming novel except the title The Humbling. Amazon UK’s listing for the book puts it at just 112 pages which seems like just an afternoon’s work for the prolific Roth. As Garth notes, his last two outings have been underwhelming but with Roth there’s always a chance of greatness.Kazuo Ishiguro’s collection of stories also comes out in the U.S. in September (though it will be out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world in May). The catalog copy calls Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall “a sublime story cycle” that “explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood. There’s not much info on this except that it is being described as “a journey to the end of the world.”E.L. Doctorow has an as yet untitled novel on tap for September.As does Jonathan Lethem. According to Comic Book Resources, Lethem said his untitled novel is “set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange.” I like the sound of that.A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s first new novel in over a decade will arrive in September. The Bookseller sums up some of the excitement.October: You probably already know that Dave Eggers is working with Spike Jonze on a film version of Where the Wild Things Are, but did you know that Eggers is doing a novelization of the childrens classic too? It’s apparently called The Wild Things and will show up in October.Arriving at some point in late 2009 is Zadie Smith’s Fail Better. With her critical writing in The New York Review, Zadie Smith has quietly been making a bid to become the 21st Century Virginia Woolf. When she writes from her own experience as a novelist, she’s sublime; when projecting her own anxieties onto others, she’s less so. It will be interesting to see which Zadie Smith appears in this book of essays on books and writing. (Garth)We encourage you to share your own most anticipated books in the comments or on your own blogs. Happy Reading in 2009!