Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James M. Cain

The stuff of thought

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On December 4, 1972, the ocean liner SS Statendam sailed from New York to Florida, where its passengers would witness the launch of Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon. The guests on the cruise included Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter, and the newscaster Hugh Downs. It’s quite a story, and I’ve written about it elsewhere at length. What I’d like to highlight today, though, is what was happening a few miles away on shore, as Tom Wolfe recounts in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Right Stuff:

This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17. I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.

Wolfe’s “ordinary curiosity” led him to tackle a project that would consume him for the better part of a decade, driven by his discovery of “a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than half a century: military flying and the modern American officer corps.”

And my mind sometimes turns to the contrast between Wolfe, trying to get the astronauts to open up about their experiences, and the writers aboard the Statendam. You had Mailer, of course, who had written his own book on the moon, and the result was often extraordinary. It was more about Mailer himself than anything else, though, and during the cruise, he seemed more interested in laying out his theory of the thanatosphere, an invisible region around the moon populated by the spirits of the dead. Then you had such science fiction writers as Heinlein and Asimov, who would occasionally cross paths with real astronauts, but whose fiction was shaped by assumptions about the competent man that had been formed decades earlier. Wolfe decided to go to the source, but even he kept the pulps at the back of his mind. In his introduction, speaking of the trend in military fiction after World War I, he observes:

The only proper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlisted man, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as Everyman, as much a victim of war as any civilian. Any officer above the rank of second lieutenant was to be presented as a martinet or a fool, if not an outright villain, no matter whom he fought for. The old-fashioned tale of prowess and heroism was relegated to second- and third-rate forms of literature, ghostwritten autobiographies, and stories in pulp magazines on the order of Argosy and Bluebook.

Wolfe adds: “Even as late as the 1930s the favorite war stories in the pulps concerned World War I pilots.” And it was to pursue “the drama and psychology” of this mysterious courage in the real world that he wrote The Right Stuff.

The result is a lasting work of literary journalism, as well as one of the most entertaining books ever written, and we owe it to the combination of Wolfe’s instinctive nose for a story and his obsessiveness in following it diligently for years. Last year, in a review of John McPhee’s new collection of essays, Malcolm Harris said dryly: “I would recommend Draft No. 4 to writers and anyone interested in writing, but no one should use it as a professional guide uncritically or they’re liable to starve.” You could say much the same about Wolfe, who looks a lot like the kind of journalist we aren’t likely to see again, in part because the market has changed, but also because this kind of luck can be hard for anyone to sustain over the course of a career. Wolfe hit the jackpot on multiple occasions, but he also spent years on books that nobody read—Back to Blood, his last novel, cost its publisher a hundred dollars for every copy that it sold. (Toward the end, he could even seem out of his depth. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I never read I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel about “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one” that was published a few years after I graduated from college. Wolfe’s insights into undergraduate life, delivered with his customary breathlessness, didn’t seem useful for understanding an experience that I had just undergone, and I’ve never forgotten the critic who suggested that the novel should have been titled I Am Easily Impressed.)

But that’s also the kind of risk required to produce major work. Wolfe’s movement from nonfiction to novels still feels like a loss, and I think that it deprived us of two or three big books of the kind that he could write better than anyone else. (It’s too bad that he never wrote anything about science fiction, which is a subject that could only be grasped by the kind of writer who could produce both The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) Yet it isn’t always the monumental achievements that matter. In fact, when I think of what Wolfe has meant to me, it’s his offhand critical comments that have stuck in my head. The short introduction that he wrote to a collection of James M. Cain’s novels, in which he justifiably praised Cain’s “momentum,” has probably had a greater influence on my own style—or at least my aspirations for it—than any other single piece of criticism. His description of Umberto Eco as “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac” is one that I’ll always remember, mostly because he might have been speaking of me. In college, I saw him give a reading once, shortly before the release of the collection Hooking Up. I was struck by his famous white suit, of course, but what I’ll never forget is the moment, just before he began to read, when he reached into his inside pocket and produced a pair of reading glasses—also spotlessly white. It was a perfect punchline, with the touch of the practiced showman, and it endeared Wolfe to me at times when I grew tired of his style and opinions. His voice and his ambition inspired many imitators, but at his best, it was the small stuff that set him apart.

American Stories #1: The Postman Always Rings Twice

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today.

The opening sentence of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice—“They threw me off the hay truck about noon”—is my favorite first line of any novel, and I’ve written about it here before. Yet when you look more closely at the paragraph in which it appears, you find that what Tom Wolfe praised as the “momentum” of Cain’s style is carrying you past some significant material. Here’s how it reads in full:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Cain described his narrator, Frank, as “a hobo with good grammar,” but he’s also a white man who passes easily back and forth across the border between Mexico and southern California. When he meets Cora, the wife of the doomed gas station owner Nick Papadakis, he drops a casual reference to “you people,” prompting her to shoot back: “You think I’m Mex…Well, get this. I’m just as white as you are, see? I may have dark hair and look a little that way, but I’m just as white as you are.” But Frank sees to the bottom of her indignation at once: “It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.”

Yet it’s Nick Papadakis, whom Frank always calls “the Greek,” who somehow emerges as the book’s most memorable creation—he may be the most vivid murder victim in all of crime fiction—and Cain’s ability to make him real while channeling everything that we know about him through the narrator’s contempt is an act of immense technical skill. Nick is also the figure in whom the story’s secret theme comes most clearly into view. In order to be alone with Cora, Frank tricks Nick into going into town to buy a new neon sign, and he comes back with a resplendent declaration of love for his adoptive land: “It had a Greek flag and an American flag, and a hand shaking hands…It was all in red, white and blue.” Later, after Nick has unknowingly survived a botched attempt on his life, he proudly shows Frank his scrapbook: “He had inked in the curlicues, and then colored it with red, white and blue. Over the naturalization certificate, he had a couple of American flags, and an eagle.” It isn’t the murderous couple’s shared lust, but Cora’s resentment toward her immigrant husband, that really drives the story, and it spills out in her bitter words to Frank: “Do you think I’m going to let you wear a smock, with Service Auto Parts printed on the back…while he has four suits and a dozen silk shirts?” It still rings uncomfortably true today, and it echoed in the imagination of Cain’s most unlikely imitator. As Alice Kaplan writes in Looking for The Stranger:

When [Albert] Camus said The Postman Always Rings Twice inspired The Stranger, he didn’t go into detail. It is easy to imagine that when he observed the effect Cain got by using “the Greek” in place of a proper name, he realized he could create a similar effect by calling the murder victim in his own novel “the Arab.”

The poetry of insurance

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Wallace Stevens

If you know only one fact about the poet Wallace Stevens, it’s that he spent most of his career working as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s arguably the most famous literary day job of the twentieth century, and the contrast between what the critic Peter Schjeldahl recently called “Stevens’s seraphic art and his plodding life” tends to stick in our minds more than, say, T.S. Eliot’s stint at Lloyd’s Bank or Henry Miller’s years as a personnel manager at Western Union. In part, this is because Stevens simply stayed at his job for longer and rose higher in its ranks even after he had become the most acclaimed poet of his generation. (The story goes that he was offered a faculty position at Harvard after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, but he turned it down because it would have meant giving up his position at the firm.) It’s also a reflection of how we see the insurance business, which seems like an industry suited more for painstaking drudges than for the kind of visionary personalities that we associate with poetry—although every good poet also has to be a great bookkeeper. If we want to drill down even further, we could say that there’s something inherently unpoetic about the methods of insurance itself: it deals with human beings in the aggregate, as a statistical abstraction without a face, while poetry is naturally concerned with the individual, the unquantifiable, and the unexpected.

But we can also draw a clear line between Stevens’s life at the office and the development of his poetry. In his review in The New Yorker of Paul Mariani’s new biography The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, Schjeldahl notes that the book “ignores the details of Stevens’s day job, probably as being too mundane to merit attention.” Yet Schjeldahl does his best to invest them with meaning, in an eloquent paragraph that has been rattling around in my brain ever since I read it:

Stevens’s specialties, surety and fidelity, turn profits from cautiously optimistic bets on human nature. (Surety covers defaulted loans and fidelity employee malfeasance.) Something very like such calculated risk operates in his poetry: little crises in consciousness, just perilous enough to seem meaningful. The endings are painstakingly managed victories for the poet’s equanimity.

I like this insight a lot, because there’s something to be said for a conception of poetry as an ongoing act of risk management. A rational artist wants to take on as much risk as he or she possibly can, because high risk goes with high return in art as much as it does in other kinds of investment—but only if you can live with it. If you’ve miscalculated your tolerance for volatility, as many aspiring artists do, you’re more likely to go out of business.

James M. Cain

The insurance industry also seems like a good place for a writer to learn something about the complex ways in which institutions and impersonal systems interact with human nature. Kafka’s job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institution, for instance, clearly played a crucial role in the development of his vision, and far more explicitly than it did with Stevens. But my favorite example comes from another singular voice in American letters: the novelist James M. Cain, who sold insurance for the General Accident Company in Washington D.C. He seems to have only worked there for a short time, but that’s interesting in itself—he repeatedly returned to the subject in his fiction, which implies that he regarded it as a great source of material. It provides a central part of the plot of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, which are fables, in essence, about the collision of messy emotions with the clinical, depersonalized logic of the insurance business. In the former, it leads to a surprise twist that makes nonsense of the violence that came before it; in the latter, it’s a plan for the perfect crime, conceived by a crooked insurance agent, that is quickly undermined by such basic, uncontrollable emotions as greed and lust. And Cain correctly realized that the intersection between insurance and human desire was the perfect territory for noir, which is often about the contrast between what we think we can plan and what the unfair universe really has in store for us.

That’s true of poetry, too. It’s traditionally the most exacting and precise of literary forms, but it puts itself in service of emotions and ideas that resist understanding and explanation, which is another form of calculated risk. The works of a poet like Shakespeare, who was a shrewd businessman in his own right, are notable for the way in which they seem to combine total specificity of detail with oracular opacity, a combination that can only arise from an artist who knows how to surrender control while retaining enough of it to bring the work to a conclusion. A career in insurance provides one way of thinking about such problems, as long as the poet can keep the core of his spirit intact. As the poet laureate Ted Kooser wrote:

This writing business you have to accustom yourself to is about failing again and again, and to not let that hold you up because if you keep at [it] day, after day, after day, after day, eventually you’ll get better. The same thing would be true if I had taken up longbow archery with the same zeal that I took up poetry writing: I could put forty arrows on a paper plate from one hundred yards away. So that is what it’s about—showing up for work.

A poet, in short, succeeds by learning how to manage many small instances of failure, which is the definition of insurance. And Kooser would know—because he worked in insurance, too.

“Maddy looked at the Peter the Great egg…”

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"Maddy looked at the Peter the Great egg..."

Note: This post is the eleventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 12. You can read the previous installments here.

“Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy,” James M. Cain once said to The Paris Review. “There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.” That’s true. Yet solving those problems—small or large, trivial or crucial, easy or impossible—can be a source of enormous pleasure in itself. If I was initially drawn to writing as an excuse to explore the world around me, I’ve kept at it largely because of the puzzles it tosses up along the way, which make for some of the most absorbing work imaginable. It reminds me of what Janet Malcolm says about psychoanalysis, a discipline that has a lot in common with the art of fiction. On the one hand, you have a road that leads ever further outward across the entire culture, influencing fields as different as history, criticism, law, and education; on the other, you have the road that leads inward into therapy itself, within the mysterious confines of the consulting room, “a hidden, almost secret byway traveled by few.” Malcolm notes that Freud traveled both paths. And writers find themselves doing much the same, wandering far into the wild world while also posing and solving their tiny problems like obsessives in an attic.

And writing, like analysis, is most interesting when those two halves of the process collide. A writer’s reading or direct experience might suggest an idea for a scene, but he’s also forced to reconcile it with the demands of the plot and his own structural assumptions. Anyone who enjoys puzzles can tell you that they’re more challenging in direct proportion to the number of constraints they impose. Reality, of course, yields the most productive restrictions of all. And the more carefully a particular narrative thread has to weave its way through constraints provided by the real world, the more inevitable it seems. It feels less like a solution to a problem, and more like the solution, as if the story had no choice but to move in a particular direction. In Eternal Empire, for instance, there’s a detailed subplot involving a Fabergé egg. It’s the kind of thing that feels like it would have been part of the novel’s conception from the beginning: if I were talking to another author who was writing a trilogy about Russian oligarchs and art, I’d tell him to work Fabergé in there somewhere. But it really fell somewhere in the middle of a long chain of reasoning.

"None of this is under dispute..."

As far as I can recall, my thought process went something like this: “Well, let’s see. I want Maddy, my main character, to go to work for a Russian oligarch—that’s an essential part of the plot. I’ve already established that her background is in the art world, so it makes sense that she’d be working for him in that capacity. He’s a nationalist and deeply involved in politics, so maybe he’s trying to repatriate cultural artifacts back to Russia. Okay, that works. So I need to build the subplot around a particular art object. I’ve already done icons in the previous novel, so what else is there? A Fabergé egg? That feels right. It’s certainly fits into the larger themes of the series. So I should see if there’s one that I can use. [Gets a book from the library on Fabergé eggs, spends hours looking at pictures online.] All right. Here’s the Peter the Great egg. Inside, there’s a tiny figurine of a rider on horseback. And I’ve already used that image elsewhere in the novel. That isn’t so surprising, since it’s a common symbol in Russian iconography. So it sounds promising. Let’s see, then. It says that the Peter the Great egg is currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. So I need Maddy to work on repatriating it. But how?”

And that’s how Chapter 12 of the novel ended up taking place in Virginia. Maddy meets with the director of the museum and lays out a complicated case for repatriation, based on the egg’s provenance, the museum’s financial troubles, and the rules governing the sale of artwork to cover operating expenses. The information here is all accurate, at least as far as I could make it, and working through the tangle of available facts felt a lot, as Cain says, like working on foreign policy. (Katherine Neville, author of The Eight, who was kind enough to blurb the book, happened to be familiar with the museum and its board of directors, and she seemed to think that my description here was believable.) More to the point, it all serves a purpose within the narrative. For Maddy to prove her usefulness to Tarkovsky, she has to come up with something ingenious, so I had no choice but to do the same. If it hadn’t worked—if there hadn’t been a suitable egg, say, or if the case for repatriation went nowhere—I probably would have come up with something else. Looking back, though, it seems like it was all meant to be, partially because you remember the ideas that work and forget the ones that don’t. But in this case, lucky for me, it turned out to be a good egg…

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2015 at 9:42 am

Quote of the Day

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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

When it’s too good, you do it over again. Too good is too easy. If it’s too easy you have to worry. If you’re not lying awake at night worrying about it, the reader isn’t going to, either. I always know that when I get a good night’s sleep, the next day I’m not going to get any work done.

James M. Cain, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

February 18, 2015 at 7:30 am

“It was over in less than a second…”

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"It was over in less than a second..."

Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 14. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Violent scenes in a suspense novel are like the big numbers in a Hollywood musical: if they aren’t something that you feel you can write, you might just need to switch genres. I’ve had an ambivalent relationship toward the violence in my own novels for a long time, and I’ve found that I can approach them best as a technical and stylistic challenge that comes with its own set of rules. Writers are often advised, for instance, to keep detailed descriptions of violence to a minimum, which makes intuitive sense. We’re told that suspense and the slow buildup of dread are more effective as narrative tools than a blow-by-blow account of the action, and that any violent moments that we describe can’t compare to the version in the reader’s imagination. This is true enough in itself, but it also raises a few questions of its own. We aren’t advised to avoid describing a beautiful landscape because it won’t be as good as what the reader can imagine; if that were the case, novels would read more like screenplays, with the bare amount of description necessary to get from one plot point to the next. So why is violence any different?

For a clue, we can turn to the work of James M. Cain, arguably the greatest pure stylist that the suspense genre ever produced. I’ve always liked Tom Wolfe’s take on the subject in his introduction to the excellent Cain x 3 anthology, which I recommend to anyone interested in an overview of such essential elements as violence, momentum, and telling detail. Wolfe writes:

The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are about murders, but Cain takes no relish in the brutality. In Double Indemnity he passes up the blow-by-blow description almost completely, telling the reader, in effect, “The guy breaks the man’s neck—O.K.? Fill in the gasps, gurgles, hyoid snaps, and blue bloat any way you like…” Yet you come away feeling like you have been through a long and extremely violent experience.

For purposes of illustration, here’s the passage that Wolfe is referencing:

I raised up, put my hand over his mouth, and pulled his head back. He grabbed my hand in both of his. The cigar was still in his fingers. I took it with my free hand and handed it to her. She took it. I took one of the crutches and hooked it under his chin. I won’t tell you what I did then. But in two seconds he was curled down on the seat with a broken neck, and not a mark on him except a crease right over his nose, from the crosspiece of the crutch.

"On the top shelf of the closet..."

This is clearly an effective passage, and it exemplifies Cain’s brilliant use of selected details: the cigar in the victim’s hand, the oddly gentle way in which the killer takes the cigar and hands it to his adulterous accomplice, and the final image of the crease over the dead man’s nose, which feels—as Ruskin says of Dante’s description of the centaurs in the Inferno—like the sort of thing that no writer could have thought of unless he’d seen it for himself. But the crucial point here is that Cain’s reticence is less about trusting to the reader’s imagination than a question of pacing and narrative context. The murder isn’t the key element of interest; we’re more curious about the aftermath, as the narrator tries to make it look as if the dead man—who was killed in the driver’s seat of his own car—later went on to board and fall from a moving train. Cain is a master of structure, and he knew that a full description of the murder would only distract the reader’s attention from what really mattered. Violence, in other words, can be as fully described as anything else, but only at points in the narrative that can sustain the full burden of that emotional assault.

Once we start to think of violence as a category in itself, which is likely to overwhelm the rest of the story if it isn’t kept in control, the rationale behind minimizing its description starts to make more sense: it isn’t about squeamishness, or even about allowing the reader’s imagination to do the work, but a matter of emphasis, or of managing a specific kind of scene that would otherwise throw the rest of the work out of balance. Chapter 14 of City of Exiles, for example, contains perhaps the coldest murder in any of my work, in which Renata Russell, who for all her flaws is fundamentally an innocent bystander, is killed by Karvonen solely because she stumbled across something she shouldn’t have seen. The murder itself is over in a few lines, and I described it as obliquely as I could. And although I’m not sure if I was thinking in those terms at the time, looking back, I suspect that I deemphasized it both to highlight the inherent cold-bloodedness of the act—Karvonen himself doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it—and to concentrate on what I found more interesting: the aftermath, the cleanup, and the consequences. Violence draws so much attention to itself that it needs to be reined in, just as a matter of sensible authorial practice, except when it serves as a climax. And we’ve got a real violent climax just around the corner…

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2014 at 10:02 am

What is writing like?

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Irwin Shaw

Writing is like a contact sport, like football. Why do kids play football? They can get hurt on any play, can’t they? Yet they can’t wait until Saturday comes around so they can play on the high-school team, or the college team, and get smashed around. Writing is like that. You can get hurt, but you enjoy it.

Irwin Shaw

Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.

James M. Cain

Writing a novel is like living next door to a family that has just moved in. At first you just see the people coming and going, in and out of their house. After a while their habits become more familiar, and then one day you go in for coffee.

Rosemary Wells

William Styron

Writing a novel is like walking from Vladivostok to Madrid on your knees.

—Attributed to William Styron

Writing a novel is like living in a house. You rummage around in the cellar and the attic, and you can afford to screw up a couple of rooms because there are always others that will be better.

Irvin Faust

Writing a novel is like taking an examination on which your whole future depends.

May Sarton

C.S. Lewis

Writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainly go into it.

C.S. Lewis

Writing is like wrestling crocodiles. The better you do it, the easier it looks.

Harvey Bullock

Writing is like being a boxer. If you don’t want to get knocked down, you shouldn’t be in the game.

James Purdy

John Gregory Dunne

Writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.

John Gregory Dunne

Writing is like diarrhea: it pipes off the things that are in a ferment.

Henry Green

Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.

Molière

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