Columbus in Reverse : Henry James – “The American”

ABOVE: Voulez vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?

When we first meet Christopher Newman, he’s an American in Paris, exhausted by a visit to the Louvre, trying hard to appreciate a painting by Murillo, (an aesthetic exercise which has practically drained him). We deduce that he’s interested in the painting because the Baedeker guide has marked it with an asterisk, and therefore it’s more worthy of his valuable time; because the Catholic Marian imagery is exotic enough to excite his Protestant interest; and, perhaps as importantly, because there’s a comfortable divan placed before it. Also, there’s a pretty French girl nearby working on a reproduction, and she’s probably less virginal than the painting. Newman approaches her and his first word, the only French word he knows, is: “Combien?”

“How much?”

ABOVE: The moon-borne Immaculate Conception by Murillo.

When Newman flirts with the girl, she’s bemused by his name. He mistakenly assumes “Christopher” is the bemusing part, so he points out defensively that it’s a perfectly fine European name, very Columbus-y. We readers know that it was the “New Man” part which amused the girl. Perhaps it’s a little on the nose, this new reverse Columbus discovering the Old World (it reminds me of Brian Griffin in “Family Guy” playing at being a novelist: “And his name will be Norm Hull, ’cause he’s just a normal guy. But not everybody will get that. That’s just for the scholars a hundred years from now.”)

With the opening scene of “The American,” Henry James has said much of what he needs to say about Yankees in Europe: the cultural innocence ; the need to “keep up” and “improve oneself” that antedates “Top 10 Paintings You Must See Before you Die” listicles; the democratic reduction of art to monetary considerations, (democratic, because it divorces art from the class system to which it was tied, and gives it to whomever can afford it.)

The rest of “The American” elaborates on that idea as Newman, a “commercial” man, courts Madame Cintre, a French woman from a reduced but noble family.  We’re told Newman is “…the great Western Barbarian, stepping forth in his innocence and might, gazing a while at this poor effete Old World and then swooping down on it.” But the Old World resists the new invader, and soon Newman slams himself against the glass doors of the French class system. No, “glass doors” is wrong: that suggests some frailness. They’re proud concrete ramparts  that happen to be invisible.

Newman doesn’t understand why Madame de Cintre’s relatives look down their noses at him with a mixture of scorn and disdain, why they delay the union: after all, he has the money they don’t!

His “problem” is that he’s an American, a democrat, an enemy of smugness and bigotry. The servants and the nobility elicit an equal level of respect from him. The faces of maids and doormen brighten when Newman comes around: “Newman, for indefinable reasons, enjoyed the confidence of the liveried gentry.”

Not so indefinable. They confide in him because he doesn’t assume they’re inferior. And I really liked Newman. The latter scenes, when it becomes obvious the “noble” family won’t let the marriage happen, probably strike the average James fan as melodramatic, not “realistic” enough (which makes sense considering “The American” was intended as a riposte to Alexandre Dumas fils’ “The Foreigner” – and so there are duels, and seeeeecrets, and women running off to convents to protect their honor). I have unusual fondness for melodrama, and “realism” in literature is not one of my priorities. I’m cool with duels and seeeeecrets and convents… if there’s enough ROMANCE to make me believe in them.

That’s where “The American” loses half a star, (as people who like to rate things might say).

It hinges on Newman quixotically bucking against the caste system, trying to change it by the sheer force of his “love” for Madame de Cintre. But it’s hard to call it love. It’s more like he doesn’t mind her too much and finds her less threatening sexually than other women (like Noemi Nioche, the scandalous French girl from the first scene at the Louvre, whose sexual exploits are painted as positively disgusting). Newman seems merely amenable to the idea of marrying her and frustrated by the obstacles.

He is impotent against the pretensions and prejudices of the Old World.  To the European aristos, he is of the wrong race, the AMERICAN race… and that’s all they need to know about him.

Glass doors can be broken, concrete ramparts can be breached; but the closed mind is the most insurmountable barrier of them all.

ABOVE: There’s a BBC movie of this with Matthew Modine. Chances are it’s very boring. Love Henry James. Not necessarily blockbuster material, though.

I said we “deduce” things in James’ novels, because they almost work as mysteries, except what we’re trying to solve aren’t crimes, but emotional puzzles. Although James’ authorial voice seems heavy at first sight, it’s actually very subtle: he only hints at the implications, and he lets us do the detective work. He’s the narrator who is never obtrusive and always welcome, because he knows how to strike the absolute perfect balance between showing and telling. On any given scene, he’ll give you HALF of his omniscient opinion- and then discreetly withdraw to let you fill in the other half. Here’s an example of what I mean, (that also shows he’s hardly humorless):

“Newman uttered an imprecation which, though brief – it consisted simply of the interjection “Oh!” followed by a geographical, or more correctly, perhaps a theological noun in four letters—had better not be transferred to these pages.”

ABOVE: Geographically incorrect

So, Newman says, “Oh! Damn!” and James intrudes to tell us that jokingly: he makes that intrusion worth our while with a fun word riddle that brings attention to, and subtly mocks, James’ own reticence. That’s the right kind of literary collaboration: one in which the writer is ever present and distinctive as a stylistic force, but also courteous enough to let you, the reader, put in some effort. He gives you room to READ, so to speak.

RATING : MASTERPIECE!!! Minus half a star. 4.5 out of 5!

Sauerkraut Western : Karl May – “Winnetou, the Man of the Prairie” and “Old Shatterhand”

ABOVE: Karl May, posing as Old Shatterhand.

Karl May was to Hitler what Emilio Salgari was to Che Guevara and (one imagines) Mussolini: a purveyor of adolescent fantasies about macho adventurers in lands that were just aching to be conquered. Having an infamous, horrible fan is a mean thing with which to saddle an artist, of course. It’s particularly unfair in the case of May (1842-1912) whose best trait is that, as a German writer dealing with second-hand notions of the American Western, he was years ahead of his American counterparts in imbuing his Native American characters with a full humanity; that is, his novels are full of good Injuns, bad Injuns, indifferent Injuns, cowardly Injuns, brave Injuns, drunken Injuns and teetotaler Injuns- a spectrum on Injunness that matches the spectrum of his Pale Faces. If he can’t exactly transcend the racism of his time, he’s still less racist than, say, Joseph Conrad.

May’s German take on the frontier legends ( let’s call it the Sauerkraut Western) unfolds ambitiously in a series of long novels depicting the friendship (indeed, blood brotherhood) between the noble Apache Winnetou and May’s quasi-alter ego, Old Shatterhand. A man of colorful psychology, May came to have trouble differentiating between himself and Old Shatterhand, a confusion encouraged by readers who mistook his fictions for autobiographical travel accounts. May didn’t even travel to the United States until late in life, when he adventurously got as far as Albany, New York.

ABOVE: The artwork of the many editions is particularly evocative to me.

The most widely read of all German writers, May is virtually unknown in the U.S. In fact I’ve only read him in French and Spanish. Attempts at American translations have failed. ( Here is a very abridged, and unnecessarily altered, version of “Winnetou 1″.) When the time would have been ripe for America to discover him, WWI broke out. There was little room between wars for America to care about German literature: Thomas Mann practically absorbed all of our interest. Then WWII came, Hitler declared himself a fan of May, and that was it; the unfortunate connotations doomed Old Shatterhand to be the Richard Wagner of literature. Although May regained his popularity in Europe in the ’80s, there were few people to care this side of the Atlantic: the Western is a dead genre whose fandom shrinks daily, and who wants to hear some German’s old-fashioned, inaccurate fantasies about the Wild West?

ABOVE: Among the cultural inaccuracies: Apaches are incapable of flight. May must have been thinking of the Cherokees.

So the question is: why translate May into English at all? I think young readers of adventures would highly enjoy the tales of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, and as an adult I got some nostalgic value from it all. They’re not as badly written as Salgari’s; in quality they compare to Edgar Rice Burrough’s and H. Rider Haggard’s. They belong to a simpler world of narrative cliches where there was little effort to surprise the reader: the bad guy with the sinister mustache will do the bad things you think he will, the good guys will do their best to maintain their moral rectitude, a promise is a promise, and women… well, women aren’t really a factor in May’s world. Winnetou and Old Shatterhand are always one brokeback mountain away from scandalizing the reader. I wonder how Hitler would have felt about THAT.

ABOVE: I wish I knew how to quit you!

RATING: COOL!

The American Scream : Peter Milligan – “Shade, the Changing Man”

ABOVE: AAAACCCCKKKK

What surprises me about the Vertigo artwork of the mythically grungy 90s, (as seen in Sandman, Lucifer, Swamp Thing, and Hellblazer) is that I now find it half-assed and amateurish, when at the time it felt like the height of sophistication. There are exceptions, like Steve Dillon’s clean, simple designs for “Preacher,”  but mostly there’s a certain hurried feel to it all that I once thought was artistic and now find suspect. For instance, look at this sample from Peter Milligan’s (otherwise excellent) “Shade the Changing Man.”

Shade

Superficially, it’s all cool: there’s perhaps too much text (Vertigo was seriously aiming for literature) but  JFK’s photo-realistic image works well. However, look closely at the face of the man in the middle panel. That’s a face that only looks like it’s well drawn if your eyes are flying over to JFK’s presidential grin. Read any slower, and the drawing reveals itself as inferior: look at the unnecessary sooty lines by the temple (fake grit), the hair sticking out where it shouldn’t, and particularly the weird indent of that anatomically suspect cheekbone. It’s a bad rushed drawing.

… And a fairly typical look for “Shade the Changing Man.” (Not knocking Chris Bachalo’s work, but being prolific takes a toll.)  Originally a Steve Ditko creation, Rak Shade is a nebulous character donning a “madness vest”; his counter-cultural superpower seems to be the ability to make comic pages go all psychedelic.

His nemesis in the early issues is “The American Scream,” a mad disruption of reality that brings to life all the “American” stereotypes  that Milligan (a Brit) probably gleaned from Twilight Zone re-runs, documentaries on McCarthyism, and JFK assassination pamphlets.  Fans of “Hellblazer” will find Shade to fit comfortable alongside that trench-coated figure… matter of fact, Shade and John Constantine are currently fighting the ambiguously good fight together in “Justice League Dark.”

ABOVE: Pink Heaven That You Painted Black? Uh-huh…

RATING: COOL!

POST-SCRIPT:

Jamie Hewlett (best known for “Tank Girl” and the Gorillaz) designed a few of the typically synapse-exploding covers.

 

Castaway : William Golding – “Pincher Martin”

Inferior to “Lord of the Flies” and “The Inheritors,” (and a much rockier read) William Golding’s “Pincher Martin” delights on the bleakness inherent in the conflict between man and nature, (hint: nature usually wins, and when it appears to be defeated, it is simply retreating to plan its revenge.)

ABOVE: That synopsis makes it sound like a tigerless “Life of Pi”

If I say “Pincher Martin” borrows from Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” I might be giving away too much- and making it sound like fun. Instead, most of “Pincher Martin” drags. The language is heavy – some would say leaden – particularly the early sections, that find Christopher “Pincher” Martin fitfully dragging himself up the rocky shores of the mysterious, purgatorial island in which he’s been hurled after a shipwreck.

There are fans for this novel, but I was left cold, (as if bathed in the freezing depths of an uncaring, primordial ocean, really.) Perhaps Golding’s pet thesis, about how we’re all one accident away from being reduced to bestial behavior, would have worked better if  the flashbacks didn’t reveal that Pincher was already out as a beast, long before the shipwreck.

The final sections, in all their fiery rage-at-the-heavens existentialism, do pick up, but then I was underwhelmed by the final revelation: It’s easy to see that it must have been a stunner in the 50s, but to this modern, jaded, plot-twist-sniffing reader, it adds nothing but flash, and may even diminish the efficacy of the intellectual argument.

“Pincher Martin” does provide the answer to the question: “What would it sound like if Virginia Woolf had written the pitch for ‘Lost’?” It’s just that I don’t think many people were asking.

RATING : Intellectually: COOL! Emotionally: SHRUG

The Sequeling : Stephen King – “Doctor Sleep”

ABOVE: What a terrible cover. It’s like trying to purchase a book at an opium den.

There’s one main problem with “Doctor Sleep” (and a couple of minor ones we’ll discuss later.) The main problem is that it never needed to exist. “The Shining” is one of Stephen King’s most successful exercises at sheer ratcheting suspense – and beloved for it – but it doesn’t suggest a sequel anymore than “Cujo” did…

(Unless someone took Cujo to Pet Sematary. HMMM. There’s an idea for Stevie!)

And “Doctor Sleep” is only HALF a sequel to “The Shining.”

ABOVE: Things ARE scarier in twos, though.

It’s important to establish what a pure sequel is and isn’t.

A sequel isn’t a series: they’ve been designed from the origin to bear the brunt of many stories happening to the same characters, and whether the interest decreases with each installment in, say, a Maigret novel or a Harry Bosch novel, it has more to do with the jaded reader or the exhausted writer than with something inherent in the nature of the story.

A sequel isn’t a part of a saga.

Novels that happen to take place in the same world are also not sequels. Is “The Lord of the Rings” a sequel to “The Hobbit”? Not really, they’re simply works that happen within the same geography and with a shared history. That’s also true of “Gone with the Wind” and “The Sound and the Fury.”

Is “The Two Towers” a sequel to “The Fellowship of the Ring”? No, it is a direct- and necessary- continuation of the events.

A true sequel comes after an original, finite work of art has proven commercially rewarding, and there’s a desire to recapture the effect. It doesn’t have to be a shameful cash-in, and it can be as good as, or better than, the original, but it IS, by definition, unnecessary. It tries to recapture the same effect of the original and it can do it in two ways: by re-setting the PLOT so that the action of the original can be repeated (bigger and bolder, of course) ; or by re-setting the CHARACTERS so that the lessons of the original can be re-learned.

The first possibility is more popular: a new batch of killable meat arrives at Crystal Lake!  Precocious kid is left home alone… AGAIN! The other possibility is only slightly less shop-worn and it usually involves buddy cops re-learning to buddify, or grumpy old men getting even grumpier. (Oh, those grumpy old men! They never learn.)

So there are two obvious ways to write a sequel to “The Shining,” (and this has been out for quite a while so I hope my spoilers are minimal):

a) We focus on replicating the plot. Either the Overlook Hotel, which has been burnt to the ground, goes back up and the ghoulies are still there, or else the freaking Bates Motel opens in its place and the ghoulies are still there. SOMETHING opens in the grounds, and we get another haunting story.

b) We concentrate on character. But Jack Torrance is dead; Wendy Torrance and Dick Hallorann are pretty secondary; Danny Torrance is the logical option. He has the TITULAR SHINING! So let’s find out what that entails! What is it like to live with the legacy of the Overlook Hotel? (There ARE other options in the “character” area, all unsavory: Jack T0rrance isn’t REALLY dead/ Wendy Torrance goes through the crazening too for some reason / Dick Hallorann gets a wheelchair and opens a school for kids with “the shining”!)

Danny works best, and Kings knows that, because he understands the basics of story – even his detractors have to give him THIS. But he doesn’t always know how to finish his stories – even his biggest fans know THAT. He knows he has to start a sequel to “The Shining” with Danny Torrance, but he doesn’t know where to FINISH with Danny Torrance.

ABOVE: “Why wasn’t I cast for E. T.? I can do that thing with the finger just fine!”

Before I go into all sorts of plot spoilerage for “Doctor Sleep,” let me reassure potential book purchasers: this IS a good book, part of King’s late-career renaissance. It is well-written as usual, the mannerisms are reined in, the 500 or so pages go by briskly, and it has two likable main characters in Danny Torrance and Abra Stone. But this IS a post on the Internet: why praise when we can point out the problems?

Like I said, there’s a few of those.

It might be presumptuous, but I’m pretty sure that “Doctor Sleep” is the final uneasy result of four disparate ideas that King sensed were as tottery as new-born calves- and instead of patiently waiting for maturation he lassoed them together, hoping they would hold each other up.

ONE of those novellas, the “character sequel” to “The Shining,” involved Danny Torrance realizing that alcohol is the true ghost he’d inherited from his father, and recovering through the magic of AA. The SECOND novella, the “plot sequel,” involved ‘The Shining” being presented in a new child, Abra. The THIRD novella involved a kindly doctor who’s aided by a magical cat in euthanizing his patients. A FOURTH novella involved the family ties between a band of quasi-vampiric RV-ers called the True Knot, who perpetuate the child-stealing Gypsy stereotype that the weak Gypsy lobby hasn’t managed to stamp out.

This is to say that only about half of “Doctor Sleep” has any claim to being a sequel to “The Shining.” Marketing has its demands, and Stephen King obeys. It’s testament to his story-telling prowess that, with abundant use of mirror and smokes and galvanic tricks, he tricks you into thinking these four novellas are an entity, but every now and then you see the badly-healed scars in the monster.

Here’s how the novellas individually fail.

1-The Danny story is a well-meaning but cliched recovery drama, with a splash of AA pamphleteering. It doesn’t work as a sequel to what’s arguably one of the greatest horror novels of all time, for the same reason that a musical comedy would have been a bad idea for a follow-up to “Alien.”

2-The Abra story fails simply because she’s not surrounded by the Overlook. Instead, she’s surrounded by suburbia, an under-developed mother, an unnecessarily over-developed great-grandmother, and a weirdly characterized father.* Abra basically sits around as uneventful YEARS pass, amusing herself with occasional Carrie-like spoon tricks, and texting Danny with her MIND, (an ability that became a lot less impressive in the 2000s when we all realized we could text each other with our PHONES.) When Abra finally does something, it’s the absolute pop-culture-referencing nadir of Stephen King’s career:

She transforms into frikkin’ Daenerys from George R. R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones.”

ABOVE: Yup, THIS Daenerys

This is a thing that actually happens in “Doctor Sleep”! You can tell I consider Stephen King a genuine MASTER because I didn’t fall down to the floor in convulsive laughter, which I would have been done had any lesser artist attempted such a pandering moment of idiocy.

*This review is long enough, but I kind of want to talk about the minor unpleasantness that is Abra’s father, David Stone. King is at his worst when in “all men are pigs” mode, every single time, and one can almost hear him (or Tabitha, or Joe Hill, or whoever helps him with his prolific output these days): “Hmmm. I don’t like the idea of there being a HAPPY suburban heterosexual marriage. How about we have the father be a wife beater? Naaah, we already have five other abusive assholes in the novel. Let’s just make him roll his eyes in a snooty, jerky manner every time a woman speaks and be like: ‘Stupid female! Must be on her period!’ Yeah, like that! Let’s set him up as this unpleasant, possessive, middle-class normo. Maybe it will be relevant to the plot toward the end? Eh, whatever. Maybe not. Forget it. Let’s just make him nice from the middle of the story on out. It’s not like he matters.”

3- The Doctor Sleep story fails because it’s not even a story, merely a premise. Turns out Danny’s “shining” (you know, the talent that made him see dead people and telephatically talk to Abra) also SOMEHOW turns him into some sort of morphine dispensary while he works at a hospice. How stupid is it for a guy who is tormented by his ability to see ghosts to apply for a job at a hospice? There’s also a cute magical cat who appears for a few scenes, and can sense when people are going to die. Can cats get the Shining, just like they get feline AIDS? Is Danny’s “Doctor Sleep” talent going to be relevant to the fight against the True Knot? Is the hospice story going to turn into a soapboxy speech about euthanasia? The answers are: “Who knows?” “Not really,” and “No way! We used up all the preachiness in the AA section!”

ABOVE: Cat Nap!

4- The True Knot story fails for the simple reason that King has absolutely no idea if they’re soul-less child-killing monsters, or essentially noble sons (and daughters) of anarchy, or vampires, or Grateful Dead fans journeying after the ghost of Jerry Garcia. There’s dozens of them you won’t care about. They have vaguely undignified hobo names (“Barry the Chink”! “Token Charlie”! “Apron Annie! She has an APRON, see! I hope that makes her memorable!”) Their leader, Rose the Hat, is repeatedly described as a beautiful, queenly vamp, but comes across like a slatternly truck-stop madam.

NOTHING about the True Knot makes sense. NOTHING. They’re classy, ancient billionaires with magical talents who have amassed power for centuries… BUT they’re also crass, stuck-in-the-1970s, broke-ass losers who slug from trailer park to trailer park with all the majesty of cockroaches. Huh? They’re above all governmental power, their papers are always in order, and no agency can touch then… BUT they also creep by leprously on the fringes of society to avoid trouble. There’s hundreds of them, they’re all deadly killing machines, they control supernatural forces… BUT they’re undone in ten minutes by a recovering alkie and a teenage girl whose big trick is PICTURING DAENERYS IN HER HEAD. That’s not a power! I DO THAT THREE OR FOUR TIMES A DAY ALREADY.

Simply put, King didn’t think enough about what he wanted the Knot to be: an endearing if sui-generis family? A shadowy menace? How menacing can someone nick-named “The Hat” be? Rose the KNIFE is menacing. Rose the Hat is a Disney cartoon.

ABOVE: Rose the Hat

The Overlook Hotel is a character in “The Shining,” a more important one than Danny Torrance ever was. King knows all his strands MUST converge there for the climax to the sequel to provide any satisfaction- but he doesn’t have a compelling reason for any of them to go there. So he pushes and nudges and contrives while his characters rebel against the imposition: they have no business there! It’s LITERALLY scorched earth.

The point of scorched earth is that you don’t go back to it.

RATING : I’m vacillating between GOOD ENOUGH and COOL!