Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Airport

The frankly bad

with one comment

“You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad,” Gertrude Stein once told the young Ernest Hemingway. It was Paris in the early twenties, and Hemingway had just confessed that he had been reading Aldous Huxley, whom Stein contemptuously described as “a dead man.” (In fact, Huxley was still alive, and he would go on living for decades, surviving Hemingway himself by more than two years.) But it isn’t hard to guess what she meant by this. In his memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recalls that he had been reading Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and other writers “to keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked.” When Stein asked why he even bothered, his reply was a simple one: “I said that his books amused me and kept me from thinking.” And her response—that he should read only the truly good or frankly bad—strikes me as genuinely useful. On the one hand, we can’t subsist entirely on a diet of great books, and there are times when we justifiably read to avoid thinking, or to keep our minds off the possibility of writing for ourselves. Anything else would destroy us. On the other hand, the danger of reading what Stein called “inflated trash” is that we’ll lose the ability to distinguish between fake value and the real thing. When we don’t have the time or energy to fully engage with a book, it might be better to stick with something that we know is frankly bad, so we don’t waste time trying to make the distinction.

Personally, I’ve learned a lot from works of literature that occupy the middle ground between mediocrity and greatness, but I’ve also found myself unapologetically seeking out books that are frankly bad. They aren’t even great trash, as Pauline Kael might have put it, but trash of the most routine, ordinary kind. The most obvious example is my fascination with the novels of Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace, two men who were among the bestselling writers of the sixties and seventies, only to be almost entirely forgotten now. Yet I keep reading them, and I can rarely resist picking up their books whenever I see one at a thrift store, which is where most of them seem to have ended up. (As I type this, I’m looking at the back cover of Wallace’s The Prize, which is described by its jacket copy as “one of the most compelling bestselling novels of all times.” As far as I can tell, it’s long out of print, along with all of Wallace’s other novels.) I particularly like them on long plane rides, when I’m too tired or distracted to focus on anything at all, and I can skim dozens of pages without any fear of missing anything important. On a recent trip to Europe, I carried so many of these books in my bag that it set off some kind of special alarm at security—the sensors evidently detected an unusual amount of “organic material,” in the form of yellowing mass market paperbacks. And when the security agent pulled out my flaking copies of The Prize and Hailey’s Overload, I felt like a confused time traveler with very bad taste.

This isn’t the place for a full consideration of either writer, but I feel obliged to share a few passages that might help to explain what they mean to me. Here’s my favorite line from Hailey’s Airport:

In the Cloud Captain’s Coffee Shop, Captain Vernon Demerest ordered tea for Gwen, black coffee for himself. Coffee—as it was supposed to do—helped keep him alert; he would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome.

As I’ve noted here before, another writer might have written, “He would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome,” trusting that the average reader would know that people sometimes drink coffee to stay awake. An author who wanted to be perfectly clear might have added, “Coffee helped keep him alert.” But only Hailey would have written “as it was supposed to do.” As for Wallace, take the moment in The Prize when a distinguished scientist contemplates cheating on her husband with a younger colleague:

Lindblom discoursed with nervous enthusiasm about the work in progress. His love for algae strains and soybean nodules and Rhodophyceae and Chlorella dinned on her eardrums…Trailing Lindblom, she peered at her watch. She had arrived at 11:05. It was now 11:55. The zero hour that she had set herself loomed close. The ultimate decision. Question One: Should she do it? There were two courses open: (a) mild flirtation, a holding of hands, an embrace, a kiss, romantic whispering, to be followed by similar meetings devoted to the same and no more; or (b) sexual intercourse.

That’s a big load of organic material. Yet it also wouldn’t be quite right to say that I’m reading these writers “ironically.” I view them totally without affection, and I don’t gain any cultural cachet by being seen with them on an airplane. You could even argue that I’m guilty of a weird reverse snobbism by reading books that aren’t beloved by anyone, but I prefer to think of it as a neat act of triangulation. The real risk of spending time with “frankly bad” books is that you’ll either dull your own taste or turn your default mode as a reader into one of easy condescension. I’ve found that Hailey and Wallace allow me to indulge my need for bad books in the least harmful way possible. Both authors are long dead, so their feelings can no longer be hurt. They were smart men who made enormous amounts of money by aiming squarely at the mainstream, and they clearly knew what they were doing. These weren’t cult books, but novels that millions of readers bought and promptly forgot. Neither left a devoted following, and they’ve dated so badly that they can barely be endured even as period pieces. But they’re still readable in their own way, and they can hardly be mistaken for anything except what they are. For all their attempts to inject sex and scandal into their Parade magazine view of the world, they’re the most complacent books imaginable, and I could even argue that they tell us something valuable about the complacency of their original readers. But that would be taking it too far. They amuse me and keep me from thinking—as they were supposed to do.

Written by nevalalee

September 5, 2018 at 8:13 am

The Airplane! novel

leave a comment »

Airport by Arthur Hailey

In the Cloud Captain’s Coffee Shop, Captain Vernon Demerest ordered tea for Gwen, black coffee for himself. Coffee—as it was supposed to do—helped keep him alert; he would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome.

—Arthur Hailey, Airport

Whenever I find myself trying to explain the peculiar appeal of the novels of Arthur Hailey—who for a short period in the late sixties was possibly the bestselling author in the world—I think about the latter of the two sentences above. Another writer might simply have written “He would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome,” trusting that the average reader would be aware of the fact that people sometimes drink coffee to keep themselves awake. An author who was a little more anxious about being perfectly clear would have added “Coffee helped keep him alert.” But only Hailey would have written “as it was supposed to do.” Few novelists of any era have ever been so eager to discourage their readers from doing any thinking for themselves. Not trusting us to understand why an airline pilot might want to drink coffee is the least of it: Hailey spent much of his career pulling off the tricky feat of writing “thrillers,” a genre supposedly built on surprise, while never allowing a line to slip past that might even momentarily upset the reader’s equanimity. But sometimes we don’t want to be challenged. And this tells us as much about the needs of his audience, including me, as it does about Hailey himself.

Hailey is all but forgotten today, and I expect that many contemporary readers would confuse him with Alex Haley, the author of Roots. Like Irving Wallace, another fixture of bestseller lists in the sixties and seventies, he has disappeared from public consciousness, and he’s undoubtedly remembered best for the parody of the movie made from his most famous novel. Yet I find him oddly irresistible. When I was moving from New York six years ago, a battered paperback copy of Hotel was the only book I kept in my empty apartment after shipping the rest of my library to Chicago, and I read most of it in a sleeping bag on my bedroom floor. I recently took Airport with me on a vacation to the Dominican Republic, and I devoured it on the beach and on the plane ride home. His books are the perfect summer reads, especially when you mentally picture all the characters, as I do, with the faces of the cast of Mad Men. Hailey’s bland, reassuring, slightly constipated style; his Parade magazine level of research; his predictable plots, which recall nothing so much as an episode of a nighttime soap opera spun out across five hundred pages; they all go down like a glass of warm milk, or a welcome cup of coffee, on a long plane trip when half your attention is directed on the toddler in the seat beside you. Whenever I pick up another novel by Hailey, I’m tempted to say, along with Jeff on Community: “That’s gonna be the worst book I’ll ever read cover to cover.”

Arthur Hailey

Hailey was famous for his level of “realistic” background detail, which is occasionally impressive, but more often consists of characters delivering huge chunks of undigested exposition at ludicrously inappropriate times. At the end of Airport, for instance, there’s a scene in which the heroic airport manager Mel Bakersfield has to decide whether or not to order a crippled plane pushed off the runway to make room for another jet landing after a bomb has blown a hole in its side. At what should be a supreme moment of tension, just minutes before the final choice has to be made, a nearby reporter asks him to comment on the future of aviation. Mel responds with a long lecture on trends in airport design: “A few airports are being built as circles—like doughnuts with car parking inside, instead of somewhere out beyond…” Only after the full speech has been delivered does he turn his attention back to the hundreds of people whose lives hang in the balance. Airport is full of dozens of such excursuses, none of which stick in the memory any longer than a listicle on Buzzfeed. It’s filler, but so are the plot and characters, leaving us with the uncomfortable realization that a novel by Hailey is all filler, and no less delicious as a result. (It’s worth noting that most of his predictions about the coming innovations in air travel, like interchangeable “people-pods” that passengers would board at the terminal before being slotted onto the plane by conveyor belt, turned out to be hilariously wrong.)

Throughout, Hailey is careful to titillate his readers without presenting any ideas that could possibly threaten any of their cherished notions. Captain Vernon Demerest and his stewardess girlfriend Gwen, facing an unplanned pregnancy, discuss the possibility of abortion with a frankness that might have seemed daring at the time—”Maybe, then, a quick flight to Sweden would be the thing”—but it’s counterbalanced, two hundred pages later, by a lengthy argument, delivered by the copilot, in favor of the right to life. The one thing that can be hard to stomach is Hailey’s treatment of race, which tries its best to look progressive while being totally reactionary. His depictions of black characters are relentlessly “positive,” but they exist solely to enable the journeys of the white leads, and they’re described in language so unintentionally monotonous that it only highlights how superficial it all is: “A cheerful young Negro”; “a tall, lean Negro”; “a tall, lean Negro”—again; “the efficient, amiable Negro.” (In subsequent editions, Hailey revised “Negro” to “African-American,” while leaving all the underlying attitudes intact.) None of his books survive as anything other than period pieces, but there’s something irresistible about their sheer complacency, and I expect that I’ll eventually work my way through every title from The Moneychangers to Strong Medicine. And if you tell me that my time would be better spent reading just about anything else, part of me agrees, even as another part feels like responding: “Surely, you can’t be serious.”

Written by nevalalee

November 20, 2015 at 10:02 am

Posted in Movies

Tagged with , ,

%d bloggers like this: