Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Shining

Updike’s ladder

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Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 13, 2017.

Last year, the author Anjali Enjeti published an article in The Atlantic titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to what Enjeti writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says dryly, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I first encountered her article while reading the authoritative biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” Even Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the sheer productivity and variety of Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being prolific. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of chasing after a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially account for the prevalence in literary fiction of frustration and unresolved narratives. It also explains why it helps to be privileged enough to fail for years.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even as you’re transformed by it. I think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder, including Enjeti, who I’m pleased to note finally scored her book deal—she has an essay collection in the works from the University of Georgia Press. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

The tip of the spear

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Over the last couple of days, mostly by coincidence, I’ve been thinking about two sidelong portraits of great directors. One is Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, the diary by Eleanor Coppola that was later adapted into the unforgettable movie Hearts of Darkness. The other is Filmworker, a documentary about Leon Vitali, who served for decades as the assistant to Stanley Kubrick. By approaching their more famous subjects from an angle, they end up telling us more about Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick than a more direct engagement ever could, just as we arguably learn more about Sylvia Plath from Janet Malcolm’s oblique The Silent Woman than by reading volumes of the poet’s books and letters. Major artists, especially movie directors, can be overwhelming to contemplate, and they’re hard to view objectively, as Eleanor Coppola notes in her journal:

[Francis] started talking about how lonely he was. How essentially there are only two positions for most everybody to take with him. One is to kiss his ass, tell him he is great, and be paralyzed with admiration. The other is to resist him. That is, show him that no matter how rich and successful and talented he is, they are not impressed. Hardly anyone can just accept him, say, “That’s great, and so what?”

That’s equally true of biographers and critics, which is why it can be so valuable to listen to the memories of family members and associates who were close enough to see their subjects from all sides, if never quite to take them for granted.

Between Eleanor Coppola and Vitali, it’s hard to say who had the more difficult time of it. In Notes, Coppola hints at what it was like to be married to a director whose fame in the seventies exceeded that of any of his contemporaries: “When I am cashing a check or using a credit card, people often ask me if I am related to Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes I say I am married to him. People change before my eyes. They start smiling nervously and forget to give me my package or change. I think I look fairly normal. I wear sweaters and skirts and boots. Maybe they are expecting a Playboy bunny.” But that level of recognition can also cause problems of its own. Coppola has a revealing passage about the aftermath of her husband’s birthday:

His gifts were unloaded onto the table in the hall. This morning I was straightening up. I couldn’t help reading some of the cards. “Thanks for letting me participate in your greatness. Love…” Some days I am tried and just want out. It seems hopeless. There will always be a fresh crop of adoring young protégées waiting in the wings. This current situation stated during Godfather II. I was on location with Francis, away from San Francisco, my friends and the things that stimulated and interested me at the time. I was so angry with myself, angry that I couldn’t just get totally happy focusing on Francis and the making of his film. Someone else did.

That last line is left hanging, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of so much outside adoration.

In Kubrick’s case, much of this tension seems to have been unloaded onto Vitali, who was the director’s right arm for the last quarter century of his life. Vitali was a promising young actor who made a strong impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but he became fascinated by Kubrick, whom he approached with the offer to work for him in any capacity whatsoever. Kubrick took him up on it, and Vitali found himself testing five thousand children for the role of Danny in The Shining. For the next twenty years, they were inseparable, as Vitali saw after everything from casting and coaching actors to checking the foreign dubs and transfers for every film in the director’s back catalog. He was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and he was the perpetual object both of Kubrick’s unexpected tenderness and his sudden wrath. (Vitali also appeared on camera one last time, his face unseen, as the figure in the red cloak who asks Tom Cruise for the password for the house in Eyes Wide Shut.) Serving as a director’s personal assistant can be a hellish job in any case, and it was apparently even worse in the service of such a notorious perfectionist. Vitali lasted in that role for longer than seems humanly possible, and Kubrick had no compunction about using him for such unenviable tasks as informing the actor Tim Colceri, who had been cast eight months earlier as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, that he had lost the role to R. Lee Ermey. And the work continued even after Kubrick’s death. Before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali personally checked one out of every five prints, or over five hundred in all, by screening them nonstop for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, he had to ask someone else to watch the screen for a few minutes so he could leave the room to throw up. Speaking of this period in the documentary, Vitali, who is otherwise so candid, says after a moment: “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

But you also see why he stayed with Kubrick so long. As another interview subject in Filmworker notes, Vitali wasn’t just a spear carrier, but “the tip of the spear” in one of the most complex operations in the history of filmmaking, and that position can be very addictive. (You could compare it, perhaps, to the role of the White House chief of staff, an awful job that usually has people lining up for it, at least under most presidents.) Kubrick and Coppola were very different in their directorial styles, as well as in their personal lives, but few other filmmakers have ever managed the hat trick of being simultaneously brilliant, independent, and the beneficiary of massive studio resources. Coppola only managed to stay in that position for a few years—he was personally on the line for millions of dollars if Apocalypse Now was a failure, and after he miraculously pulled it off, he threw it all away on One From the Heart. Kubrick hung in there for decades, and he depended enormously on the presence of Vitali, who served as his intermediary to Warner Bros. According to the documentary, Kubrick would often sign his assistant’s name to scathing letters to the studio, and after his death, Vitali bore much of the repressed rage from people who had felt slighted or mistreated by the director during his lifetime. Eleanor Coppola’s position was obviously very different, and she shared in its material rewards in ways that Vitali, who was left in borderline poverty, never did. But if they ever meet, they might have a lot to say to each other. Coppola closes her book with an account of reading the journals of American pioneers during the westward expansion, of which she writes:

I particularly identified with one account in which a family in their journey reached the landmark Independence Rock. The husband described scaling the sides and the remarkable view from the top. The woman wrote about trying to find a patch of shade at the base where she could nurse the baby and cook lunch for the family.

American Stories #6: The Shining

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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. You can find the earlier installments here

“Vanderbilts have stayed here, and Rockefellers, and Astors, and Du Ponts,” Stuart Ullmann, the manager of the Overlook Hotel, smugly informs Jack Torrance in the opening pages of Stephen King’s The Shining. “Four presidents have stayed in the Presidential Suite. Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon.” After Torrance replies that they shouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon, Ullmann adds, frowning, that the hotel was later purchased by a man named Horace Derwent, “millionaire inventor, pilot, film producer, and entrepreneur.” Just in case we don’t make the connection, here’s what Torrance, now the caretaker, thinks to himself about Derwent hundreds of pages later, while leafing through the scrapbook that he finds in the hotel’s basement:

[Derwent was] a balding man with eyes that pierced you even from an old newsprint photo. He was wearing rimless spectacles and a forties-style pencil mustache that did nothing at all to make him look like Errol Flynn. His face was that of an accountant. It was the eyes that made him look like someone or something else…[His movie studio] ground out sixty movies, fifty-five of which glided right into the face of the Hayes Office and spit on its large blue nose…During one of them an unnamed costume designer had jury-rigged a strapless bra for the heroine to appear in during the Grand Ball scene, where she revealed everything except possibly the birthmark just below the cleft of her buttocks. Derwent received credit for this invention as well, and his reputation—or notoriety—grew…Living in Chicago, seldom seen except for Derwent Enterprises board meetings…it was supposed by many that he was the richest man in the world.

There’s only one mogul who fits that description, and it isn’t William Randolph Hearst. By hitching his story to the myth of Howard Hughes, who died shortly before the novel’s publication but would have been alive during much of its conception and writing, King taps into an aspect of the American experience symbolized by his reclusive subject, the aviator, engineer, and movie producer who embodied all of his nation’s virtues and vices before succumbing gradually to madness. It’s no surprise that Hughes has fascinated directors as obsessive as Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, Christopher Nolan—who shelved a Hughes biopic to focus instead on the similar figure of Batman—and even Orson Welles, whose last film, F for Fake, included an extended meditation on the Clifford Irving hoax. As for Stanley Kubrick, who once listed Hughes’s Hell’s Angels among his favorite movies, he could hardly have missed the implication. (If we see the Overlook’s mysterious owner at all in the movie, it’s in the company of the otherwise inexplicable man in the dog costume, who is identified in the novel as Derwent’s lover, while in the sequel Doctor Sleep, which I haven’t read, King evidently associates him with the ghost who offers the toast to Wendy: “Great party, isn’t it?”) The film’s symbols have been analyzed to death, but they only externalize themes that are there in the novel, and although King was dissatisfied by the result, his attempt to treat this material more explicitly in the later miniseries only shows how right Kubrick was to use them instead as the building blocks of a visual language. The Overlook is a stage for reenacting the haunted history of its nation, much of which can only be expressed as a ghost story, and it isn’t finished yet. Looking at the pictures in the scrapbook from the hotel’s grand opening in 1945, Torrance thinks: “The war was over, or almost over. The future lay ahead, clean and shining.”

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January 8, 2018 at 7:46 am

The unstrung hero

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Despite the fact that writers have an obvious interest in talking about their lives, there are surprisingly few truly satisfying portraits of novelists in fiction. Until recently, I would have said, in all seriousness, that the best depiction of a writer that I’ve ever seen is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But my new favorite, which I discovered just a few weeks ago, is Edward Gorey’s early illustrated story The Unstrung Harp. This little book, which first appeared in 1953, was included two decades later in the collection Amphigorey, which I bought last month for my daughter. Its central figure is Mr. Clavius Frederick Earbrass, “the well-known novelist,” whose books include A Moral Dustbin, More Chains than Clank, Was it Likely?, and “the Hipdeep trilogy.” (Even in the first two sentences, you can hear the voice, more Edwardian than any Englishman could manage, that makes it all the more startling to realize that Gorey was born in Chicago and spent most of his life on Cape Cod.) In November of every other year, we’re told, Mr. Earbrass starts a new novel, and we meet him as he’s about to commence work on The Unstrung Harp, a title that he chose “at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book.” This is all good stuff, but a passage on the fourth page is what really caught my eye:

Several weeks later, the loofah trickling on his knees, Mr. Earbrass mulls over an awkward retrospective bit that ought to go in Chapter II. But where? Even the voice of the omniscient author can hardly afford to interject a seemingly pointless anecdote concerning Ladderback in Tibet when the other characters are feverishly engaged in wondering whether to have the pond at Disshiver Cottage dragged or not.

This is so close to my own experience of writing that I began to read the book more closely. Two pages later, there’s a line that feels inexpressibly right: “[Mr. Earbrass] cannot help but feel that Lirp’s return and almost immediate impalement on a bottle-tree was one of his better ideas.” On the next page, however, we find the writer “engaged in making diagrams of possible routes and destinations, and wishing he had not dealt so summarily with Lirp, who would have been useful for taking retributive measures at the end of Part Three. At the moment there is no other character capable of them.” This is frighteningly accurate. Every page or so, there’s another exquisite detail, as when Mr. Earbrass thinks of the perfect epigraph, but can’t remember the source of the lines: “His mind’s eye sees them quoted on the bottom third of a right-hand page in a (possibly) olive-bound book he read at least five years ago.” And Gorey’s description of the revision process is one of the best that I’ve found:

Some weeks later, with pen, ink, scissors, paste, a decanter of sherry, and a vast reluctance, Mr. Earbrass beings to revise TUH. This means, first, transposing passages, or reversing the order of their paragraphs, or crumpling them up furiously and throwing them in the waste-basket. After that there is rewriting. This is worse than merely writing, because not only does he have to think up new things just the same, but at the same time try not to remember the old ones.

It’s the combination of “a decanter of sherry” and “a vast reluctance” that gets at the heart of what every writer feels when approaching a new draft. I’m feeling it this morning.

What’s remarkable about The Unstrung Harp is that it seems to know so much about writing and publication, but it was actually Gorey’s first book—it came out when he was just twenty-seven, in the same year that he moved to New York to work for Doubleday. As for its origins, Gorey unhelpfully recalled in the interview collection Ascending Peculiarity: “I remember I started writing The Unstrung Harp to order, except I don’t know if anybody gave me the idea for it. They just said give us an idea for a book that you think we might find feasible. Why they found that feasible, I cannot imagine at this late date.” The result turned out to be the longest story that he would ever write, at least in terms of word count, and it was also an outlier, compared to the themes and tone that he would develop and refine so obsessively over the next few decades. After it was reprinted, Gorey’s good friend Peter F. Neumeyer wrote to him:

I’m just delighted with [The Unstrung Harp], not because it’s a masterpiece…but because it’s rich and warm and represents directions which are potential in your writing which you may sometime, when life has taken you there, draw on again, after perhaps a year or so more of the strange syntax in the minuets which you favor now frequently.

As it happened, Gorey never seems to have revisited this early mode, leaving it as something singular and strange in his body of work, which would find its greatest success in darker places.

But The Unstrung Harp reads now like the work of a young man with both an unusually strong voice and an uncanny sense of what he might become. Gorey spent the next seven years turning out book covers and illustrations for Doubleday, where he must have learned far more about the business of publishing, but it’s hard to imagine anything better than his description of “the worst part of all in the undertaking of a novel,” the preparation of the clean copy from the revised manuscript: “Not only is it repulsive to the eye and hand, with its tattered edges, stains, rumpled patches, scratchings-out, and scribblings, but its contents are, by this time, boring to the point of madness.” Or the day when Mr. Earbass has to review his page proofs:

The galleys have arrived, and Mr. Earbrass goes over them with mingled excitement and disgust. It all looks so different set up in type that at first he thought they had sent him the wrong ones by mistake. He is quite giddy from trying to physically control the sheets and at the same time keep the amount of absolutely necessary changes within the allowed pecuniary limits.

But my favorite moment, and one of the most purely humane that Gorey ever allowed himself, is when Mr. Earbrass decides impulsively to spend a few weeks on the Continent, with the last page of the book capturing him in a state of mind that all writers must know well: “Now, at dawn, he stands, quite numb with cold and trepidation, looking at the churning surface of the Channel…Though he is a person to whom things do not happen, perhaps they may when he is on the other side.”

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2017 at 8:25 am

Updike’s ladder

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In the latest issue of The Atlantic, the author Anjali Enjeti has an article titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you can mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to Enjeti when she writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says drily, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I came across her article while reading the biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” And Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the qualities that we associate with Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being productive. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of waiting for a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially explain the literary world’s fondness for frustration and unresolved narratives.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even you’re transformed by it. I seem to think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

Seven children and It

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Note: With the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It out in theaters today, it seems like a good time to revisit my thoughts on one of my favorite novels. The material in this post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on November 22, 2011 and October 2, 2013.

We read fiction for a lot of reasons, but its most fundamental attraction must be the chance to experience lives other than our own. At their best, novels can create men and women who seem as real as ourselves or our own friends, as well as places that feel as familiar as the landscape of the towns where we grew up. A lot of books have done this for me, but the one that haunts me the most is Stephen King’s It, which might seem like an unlikely candidate for America’s greatest popular novel. Yes, it’s about an evil clown who stalks the children of a small city in Maine, but that description doesn’t do justice to the richness of this book, into which King, one of our shrewdest storytellers, distills everything he knows about youth, storytelling, and the melancholy process by which we leave our childhood selves behind. The result is a monster of a novel that seems to have bewildered even its own creator. King has said that It was an attempt to put everything into one story, a sort of “final exam on horror,” and it shows: few novels of any genre have invented so much. A book so large and sprawling inevitably has its flaws, but in its scope, ambition, and emotional power, It represents the best of what genre fiction can do, and in the twenty-five years since I first encountered it, it continues to grip my imagination. For me, it remains the popular novel, the primal reading experience I’m always trying to recreate, and literally dream of discovering again.

And I was lucky to read it at just the right age—or rather, the wrong age, which is really the same thing. I’ve pointed out before that the best time to discover Stephen King is when you’re just a little too young for it to be appropriate. It is the ultimate example, because in an era when the “young adult” category has been diluted by works really written for grownups, this is legitimately the greatest young adult novel of all time, at least in the sense that reading it can turn children into adults. As the novel begins, its main characters, the Losers, are in the fifth grade, and I was only a year or so older when I first read it. (Even now, I can’t look at the cover without remembering the library in my hometown where I borrowed it for the first time, like Ben Hanscom.) With its sex, gore, and rock music, It was an education in itself, and also the most realistic depiction of my inner life I’d ever seen. And it’s only now, after I’ve gone through precisely the process of forgetting that King spends much of the novel warning us about, that I can appreciate the intensity and accuracy of his evocation of youth. This is really a book about childhood, and only incidentally about horror. King is the most intensely personal of bestselling novelists, and at his finest, he uses horror to get at issues revolving around death, loss, and survival that stand out more clearly when they’re cast into a fantastic form. This doesn’t deny his roots in the great pulp tradition that values scares for their own sake, but the qualities that first drew me to his work aren’t necessarily the ones that have kept me there.

As a result, It no longer scares me much, any more than Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining does on my twentieth viewing. Reading it again a few years ago, I was surprised to discover that while so much of it remained fresh—its humor, its sense of place, its immersion in the popular culture of two different eras, both of them now period pieces—the horror aspects felt a little tired. It might seem strange to say this about the most epic of horror novels, but the more I revisit It, which I’ve probably read in pieces at least a dozen times, the more its supernatural element seems like a fictional convenience, a clothesline on which to hang a series of episodes about memory and coming of age. King, in his prime, treated horror less as a subject than as a medium, and in this book’s central conceit, of a monster that takes a multitude of shapes and returns once a generation, he found a potent image for the ways in which we’re haunted by our youth but unable to fully recall it. A novel isn’t always about what we initially suspect it is, and when I think back to It now, the last thing that comes to mind is the killer clown in the sewers or the convoluted cosmology that assumes center stage in the book’s untidy conclusion. What I love, instead, are King’s descriptions of a clubhouse in the woods, of a first crush, and of how it feels to live in an inner world still peopled by creatures from comics, movies, and horror novels. And King’s inimitable voice, often copied but never equalled, has drawn me back again and again.

The result is one of the few works of fiction that make me feel as if I’d be objectively poorer if I’d never read it. It’s a densely structured novel that moves back and forth between multiple time periods, with excursions into remote corners of the history of Derry, Maine, but it’s also one of the great natural reads of all time: I can open it to any page and get sucked in all over again. King is an intuitively strong teller of tales and also a fine craftsman, and the novel is crammed with sequences—my favorite is Ben Hanscom’s encounter with the clown by the frozen river—that read like master classes in the use of atmosphere, detail, and suspense. There’s also a relaxed, genial curiosity that permeates even the most frightening scenes: King is as intrigued by this town as we are, and he spends hundreds of pages exploring it, until we feel that we could find our way around it without a map. Derry is a haunted place, and King works mightily to remind us of this, but he also loves it. That tension between nostalgia and terror is never resolved, and It is like a dream that oscillates unbearably between a nightmare and a fantasy where you’re still the child you always meant to be. If its succession of boogeymen no longer has the power to frighten, it’s only because I’ve reached the age of its protagonists as adults, and I’ve started the process of forgetting my own childhood that King warned me would happen one day, as a child’s purity of terror gives way to more ordinary anxieties. The monster in It sleeps for a quarter of a century before it returns, which is perhaps a sign that everyone who read this book when it came out should revisit it now. Because the children who first read It are grownups at last. And they might be surprised by how much this novel still has to say.

Written by nevalalee

September 8, 2017 at 9:01 am

Posted in Books

Tagged with , ,

The steady hand

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Danny Lloyd in The Shining

Forty years ago, the cinematographer Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam. It was a stabilizer attached to a harness that allowed a camera operator, walking on foot or riding in a vehicle, to shoot the kind of smooth footage that had previously only been possible using a dolly. Before long, it had revolutionized the way in which both movies and television were shot, and not always in the most obvious ways. When we think of the Steadicam, we’re likely to remember virtuoso extended takes like the Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas, but it can also be a valuable tool even when we aren’t supposed to notice it. As the legendary Robert Elswit said recently to the New York Times:

“To me, it’s not a specialty item,” he said. “It’s usually there all the time.” The results, he added, are sometimes “not even necessarily recognizable as a Steadicam shot. You just use it to get something done in a simple way.”

Like digital video, the Steadicam has had a leveling influence on the movies. Scenes that might have been too expensive, complicated, or time-consuming to set up in the conventional manner can be done on the fly, which has opened up possibilities both for innovative stylists and for filmmakers who are struggling to get their stories made at all.

Not surprisingly, there are skeptics. In On Directing Film, which I think is the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read, David Mamet argues that it’s a mistake to think of a movie as a documentary record of what the protagonist does, and he continues:

The Steadicam (a hand-held camera), like many another technological miracle, has done injury; it has injured American movies, because it makes it so easy to follow the protagonist around, one no longer has to think, “What is the shot?” or “Where should I put the camera?” One thinks, instead, “I can shoot the whole thing in the morning.”

This conflicts with Mamet’s approach to structuring a plot, which hinges on dividing each scene into individual beats that can be expressed in purely visual terms. It’s a method that emerges naturally from the discipline of selecting shots and cutting them together, and it’s the kind of hard work that we’re often tempted to avoid. As Mamet adds in a footnote: “The Steadicam is no more capable of aiding in the creation of a good movie than the computer is in the writing of a good novel—both are labor-saving devices, which simplify and so make more attractive the mindless aspects of creative endeavor.” The casual use of the Steadicam seduces directors into conceiving of the action in terms of “little plays,” rather than in fundamental narrative units, and it removes some of the necessity of disciplined thinking beforehand.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

But it isn’t until toward the end of the book that Mamet delivers his most ringing condemnation of what the Steadicam represents:

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” one might say, “if we could get this hall here, really around the corner from that door there; or to get that door here to really be the door that opens on the staircase to that door there? So we could just movie the camera from one to the next?”

It took me a great deal of effort and still takes me a great deal and will continue to take me a great deal of effort to answer the question thusly: no, not only is it not important to have those objects literally contiguous; it is important to fight against this desire, because fighting it reinforces an understanding of the essential nature of film, which is that it is made of disparate shorts, cut together. It’s a door, it’s a hall, it’s a blah-blah. Put the camera “there” and photograph, as simply as possible, that object. If we don’t understand that we both can and must cut the shots together, we are sneakily falling victim to the mistaken theory of the Steadicam.

This might all sound grumpy and abstract, but it isn’t. Take Birdman. You might well love Birdman—plenty of viewers evidently did—but I think it provides a devastating confirmation of Mamet’s point. By playing as a single, seemingly continuous shot, it robs itself of the ability to tell the story with cuts, and it inadvertently serves as an advertisement of how most good movies come together in the editing room. It’s an audacious experiment that never needs to be tried again. And it wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the Steadicam.

But the Steadicam can also be a thing of beauty. I don’t want to discourage its use by filmmakers for whom it means the difference between making a movie under budget and never making it at all, as long as they don’t forget to think hard about all of the constituent parts of the story. There’s also a place for the bravura long take, especially when it depends on our awareness of the unfaked passage of time, as in the opening of Touch of Evil—a long take, made without benefit of a Steadicam, that runs the risk of looking less astonishing today because technology has made this sort of thing so much easier. And there’s even room for the occasional long take that exists only to wow us. De Palma has a fantastic one in Raising Cain, which I watched again recently, that deserves to be ranked among the greats. At its best, it can make the filmmaker’s audacity inseparable from the emotional core of the scene, as David Thomson observes of Goodfellas: “The terrific, serpentine, Steadicam tracking shot by which Henry Hill and his girl enter the Copacabana by the back exit is not just his attempt to impress her but Scorsese’s urge to stagger us and himself with bravura cinema.” The best example of all is The Shining, with its tracking shots of Danny pedaling his Big Wheel down the deserted corridors of the Overlook. It’s showy, but it also expresses the movie’s basic horror, as Danny is inexorably drawn to the revelation of his father’s true nature. (And it’s worth noting that much of its effectiveness is due to the sound design, with the alternation of the wheels against the carpet and floor, which is one of those artistic insights that never grows dated.) The Steadicam is a tool like any other, which means that it can be misused. It can be wonderful, too. But it requires a steady hand behind the camera.

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