Archive for ‘James M. Cain’

May 18, 2011

remembering, repeating

by Megan Abbott

Almost back to back this morning, I heard the news that Philip Roth had just been awarded the Man Booker International prize and that one of the judges—author and publisher Carmen Callil—had withdrawn in protest. According to The Guardian, Callil said that Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

I think Philip Roth takes up more shelf space in my apartment than almost any other author. I have a complicated love for both him and his work that seems to mirror my feelings for Sinatra and Freud, except I never grow weary of Sinatra and Freud and never, ever feel the need to defend my complicated love.

With Roth, however, I am sometimes frustrated, even bored. I have, after reading some of his books, said things similar to Callil’s comments. How many times, Mr. Roth, must I read about the older intellectual in sexual thrall with the beautiful, brilliant young woman a fraction of his age?

There is a wonderful quote that I am going to butcher by a writer whom I can’t recall now. It says something to the effect of every writer has one story to tell and he tells it over and over. And I have to admit, it feels true to me. But maybe that’s the kind of writer I am drawn to.  But the authors I love The other authors on my shelves that take up similar amounts of space are Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Ellroy, Salinger. And certainly the same could be said of them.  The plots may change, the time period, the arc of the tale. But something at the core remains, some irresolvable issue or obsession that can’t help but sneak it.

I’m distinguishing here from authors who recycle plots, etc. Instead, I’m talking about recurring themes, dynamics, obsessions, fixations that seem to form the spine of many of their books and other times just seem to push their way in as if the writer can’t control it.

The risk of an artist returning to touchstones is an insularity of world which I sometimes find in Roth (that suffocating quality Callil cites does resonate with me; Roth’s Manhattan, for instance, seems trapped in amber at times). But when these authors discover a new way into their obsession, a new vantage point, or a new subject that may ultimately lead us back to their recurring story—it can be their greatest achievement.

Because, after all,  we are drawn to these authors to begin with because something about their story feels like ours.

James M. Cain may have written a half-dozen books dealing with the unstoppable lure of sex and money and the dark corners it drops us down, but, as discussed here before, when he becomes fascinated with the restaurant business (Mildred Pierce), or insurance (Double Indemnity), or taps his own love of opera (Serenade), the tale is reinvigorated even as it may follow the same deep treads he’s set down before.

Roth’s fascination with the glove industry or diamond business have produced some of his most exquisite prose ever. The vitalizing energy of American Pastoral seems to come from him wanting to use his alter ego, Zuckerman, to tunnel us into a very un-Roth-like pair of characters, an all-American straight-arrow and his beauty queen wife and what happens when their lives unfurl. His hero, Swede Levov, simply wouldn’t do the things Zuckerman and so many of his other heroes would. As a result, everything changes, and yet feels too like we’re returning to many of his fascinations—American success models, the family romance, Jewish identity and Roth’s own, often-blinding nostalgia for post-WWII-pre-counterculture moment—but from a new place. Which changes everything for us. And it’s thrilling.

But I guess I’m not really writing this post to talk about Roth. I guess I’m wondering how universal this feels. Are all writers writing variations on the same story? (Story, not plot–though I know there are writers who do that too!).  Is in fact what sparks writing is the desire to work through something? If so, it’s likely he or she doesn’t really want to work through it because then it would be over, and they don’t want it ever to be over.

For myself, I have trouble stepping back and looking at my books in concert. I don’t think I’d want to see what elements, obsessions keep returning across the books. Because once you see it, then what might happen? What would be left?

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March 20, 2011

haven’t I given you everything

by Megan Abbott

It is with complicated feelings that I anticipate the upcoming HBO production of Mildred Pierce. (Of course, I don’t have HBO, so it will be an attenuated anticipation.) Supposedly, it’s a more faithful adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel than the 1945 film, impeccably cast with Joan Crawford at her best (both warmer and funnier than she’s ever remembered), Ann Blyth, sly and impudent and magnificent.

And I particularly love the superb Jack Carson, an actor so often stuck in the role of the wisecracking sidekick, parts he made memorable anyway, including with his famed doubletake. Here, he hits the perfect sweet spot of sleazy warmth, a combination for which I’ve always had a weakness. (Recently, I’ve had several conversations about Carson–about his immense capacity to teeter just slightly towards the rancid edge of true sordidness, and pathos. If only he’d had lived long enough to have a part like Gig Young in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Think of how dark he may have let himself get…)

As much as I love the original Mildred Pierce, however, I am not so enraptured with it that a remake seems verboten. My larger worry stems from my deep love of the book. (For a wonderful homage to the book, see Laura Lippman’s piece here, or in A Hell of A Woman.)

For those who know it, the book is an impossibly fascinating study of a woman’s rise in the restaurant business during the Depression. Cain, a master storyteller, tells a too rarely told tale, how a woman, under perilous circumstances (a ne’er do well husband, two daughters to support, about to slip from middle class to the dangerous nether-zone of underclass) makes herself into something quite powerful. And the pleasure it gives her, such as when she makes her first shy pitch to Wally, who will become her business partner:

They have steak places. And fish places. And I thought — well, down where I work practically every other order is for chicken, so it looks to me as though we ought to have plenty of customers. And then I wouldn’t have to fool around with those a la carte prices, or bookkeeping, or menus or leftovers, or anything like vegetables. Everybody gets a chicken-and-waffle dinner, or chicken and vegetables, if they want, but all at the same price. And then I’ll have pies to take out, and keep on getting all the wholesale pie business that I can, and — well, it looks like one would help the other. I mean, the pies would help the restaurant and the restaurant would help the pies.

As Cain does with the insurance business in Double Indemnity, Cain renders Mildred’s efforts with a reporter’s touch for fine detail, the ways Mildred has to maneuver property, handle wholesalers, manage her staff, all while making sure that meringue is two inches thick. The giddiness of Mildred’s pleasure when she sees her first showcase installed, brightly lit with reflectors gleaming on her pies. Her glorious pies. Which will be worth the expense, reflectors at seven cents a piece, wire at ten cents, sockets , screws and plugs for about a dollar. A couple bucks investment, “but it ought to sell pies.”

pies (wayne thiebaud/NY Times)

And it does. Moments like these, moments when Mildred’s restaurant door clangs with entering customers, when she realizes she can expand, her pride is lovingly rendered by Cain.

All this pleasure in the book without even getting to its dark center: the sordid weirdness of Mildred’s twisty relationship with her rotten daughter.

It’s a wonder of a novel, and filled with minute domestic details and the stuff of everyday living, including its everyday raptures, guilt and grief. But the HBO trailer, it worries me.

It looks sumptuous in the way that Todd Haynes’s movies are sumptuous–ways I love (I know Far From Heaven is a divisive movie but for me–I love Douglas Sirk, I love Todd Haynes’s love of Sirk, I love the whole autumn plastic wonder of it.)

But this is not a book I associate with sumptuousness, or the ambery 1930s of so many period pieces. This is, after all, a novel that ends with the line, “Yes–let’s get stinko.” It’s a book about chicken grease and aprons and the gas bill and the delivery truck, all the things the ungrateful Veda detests about her mother’s world. And it’s a tale of mothers smacking daughters and the routine unforgivable betrayals within families that break and rebreak the spirit of everybody and turn them hard. It’s about fighting for every little thing and it never being enough. It’s the best part of domestic melodrama–and Cain, the hardboiled master, does melodrama superbly–no surprise if you think about it. (Crime novels and melodrama have so much in common, primal emotion stretched to its wire-tight limits, battering against social constraints, the law itself. Often exploding into violence.)

That said, I remain hopeful. In a recent interview, Todd Haynes said the most wonderful thing.  Asked about why he’s attracted to melodrama, often derided as “women’s pictures,” he said:

Stories about women in houses are the real stories of our lives.