Dilettante's Diary

Sept 18/09

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. As new reviews are added, they will appear at the top of the page, while the older reviews will move down the page.

Reviewed here: The Importance of Being Earnest (Play); Cyrano de Bergerac (Play); Three Sisters (Play); Things I Didn't Know (Memoir); Chasing the Dime (Mystery); Clea's Moon (Mystery); Oxygen (Novel); The Soul Thief (Novel)

The Importance of Being Earnest (Play) by Oscar Wilde; directed by Brian Bedford; starring Mike Shara, Ben Carlson, Brian Bedford, Sara Topham, Andrea Runge, Sarah Dodd, Stephen Ouimette, Robert Persichini, Tim MacDonald; Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Not many playwrights can get a laugh on the second line of a play. Oscar Wilde can.

The curtain goes up and you have this butler decorously doing his butler thing in a grand salon. Offstage, somebody is playing the piano – very badly. The playing stops, a young twit enters and asks the butler, "Did you hear what I was playing?" The butler answers impassively, "I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir."

A delicious moment. With those eight short words, cloaked in a veil of irreproachable propriety, the butler manages to convey the subversive scorn on the part of the working classes towards their supposed betters. An entire treatise on the British class system delivered with superb subtlety.

Usually.

In this production, though, you get a butler sneering and rolling his eyes at the piano playing. By the time the young man enters, the butler has primed the audience for what is to come. No surprise; no subtlety. Just a heavy-handed putdown.

It begins to look like this show is more sitcom than Oscar Wilde. As the production evolves, the playing, while immensely skilled, is very broad. On their exit lines, people are wont to toss their heads haughtily. (When have you ever seen that done except on stage?) The artificiality of the acting reaches a pinnacle in the second-act performance of Sara Topham as Gwendolyn. Ms Topham has been directed (apparently) to stand downstage centre and deliver her lines in a stilted way that’s more like a marionette than a real person.

The sense of unreality carries through in the design by Desmond Heeley. Algernon’s salon in the first act is a gloomy monstrosity, more like a cartoon version of a mausoleum than a place where any living people would engage in social intercourse. The second and third act sets aren’t quite as unbelievable but Jack Worthing’s mansion floats over the garden more like a dream castle than an actual abode.

Stylish as this kind of production may be, it runs the risk of distancing the audience. If the characters uttering the quips don’t seem real, then why should the audience care about what’s being said? At the performance I attended, many of the famous lines went flying by like a stream of empty aphorisms, eliciting only titters of the oh-yes-we-know-this-is-supposed-to-be-witty kind. One of the first really big laughs of the play came when Jack asked Algie, after one of Algie’s particularly convoluted exercises in sophistry: "Do you understand what you’re saying?" The audience’s ecstatic reaction seemed to indicate that they totally identified with Jack’s bewilderment.

But you’ve got to give director Brian Bedford credit – he knows his Stratford audiences. They want plot and fast-moving action and that’s what he gave them. But it took a while to catch hold. The audience wasn’t really on board until nearly the end of the second act when, all the plot elements being firmly established, the two young women, at the cessation of a brief animosity, rushed into each other’s arms crying, "Sister!" That brought on a riotous burst of applause.

From that point on, the actors (and by inference the director and the playwright) could do nothing wrong. The antics thrilled the viewers and the plot dazzled them like nothing they had ever seen before. That was especially the case for the people sitting next to us, who thought the play was finished at the end of the second act.

Such amazement may not have been the reaction among those of us who know the play somewhat better, who might – in fact – consider it the best comedy in the English language. Still, there were many pleasures to savour.

Michael Shara’s Algernon struck me as note-perfect, probably the best Algernon I’ve ever seen. Mr. Shara had all the cocky playfulness, the flippancy and the mischievousness that an Algie should have. This was an Algie in the old sense of the word "gay", as befits his "Gay Nineties" context.

Ben Carlson’s Jack, with his retentive, fussy propriety, provided just the right contrast to make for great teamwork with Mr. Shara’s Algernon. At Mr. Carlson’s first appearance, though, he seemed a bit too mature, too paunchy and lacking in the elegance that you expect in a Jack Worthing. To Mr. Carlson’s credit, he eventually made you forget those considerations.

In spite of the previously mentioned stilted acting imposed on Ms. Topham, she and Andrea Runge (as Cecily) made for another great contrast – the one conceited and scheming, the other sweet and beguiling.

As for the third couple, Sarah Dodd (Miss Prism) and Stephen Ouimette (Doctor Chasuble) made their characters human enough that you wished them well, instead of dismissing them as clowns. Miss Dodd achieved this, in part, with an irrepressible giggle that kept breaking through her matronly reserve.

All that can be said about director Brian Bedford’s turn as Lady Bracknell is that here you have a master of comic art producing a spectacle that has some of the grandiosity and self-congratulation of a magician’s show. It’s fascinating to watch the old rascal trotting out his tricks. He can bring down the house with a look or a tilt of the head. When he wants to coax an especially big laugh out of a line, he drops his voice to a baritone whisper. At times, he seems a bit short of breath, his timing isn’t always dead-on, sometimes there seems to be an energy problem. No matter. The audience doesn’t care. They know they’re in the presence of a famed comedian. At a papal audience, who’s going to complain that the pope isn’t religious enough? Who isn’t going to be touched with majesty on meeting the Queen?

No wonder the audience members leap to their feet when Mr. Bedford rises from the settee to take his bow. He has given them exactly what they want – both in his performance and in his direction of the play.

 

Cyrano de Bergerac (Play) by Edmond Rostand; adapted by Anthony Burgess; directed by Donna Feore; starring Colm Feore, Amanda Lisman, Mike Shara, John Vickery, Wayne Best, Steve Ross; with Oliver Becker, Karen Glave, Robert Persichini, Geoffrey Pounsett, Andrew Shaver; Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Sometimes, even the most devoted theatre buff will wonder: do we really need another Cyrano? A person can get quite enough romantic shlock. Not to mention swords clashing, wigs flapping, boots clomping – in short, swashbuckling.

So much for the first ten minutes of this production.

And then there’s Colm Feore. When he makes his entrance, he seems slight, insubstantial. Certainly not up to the advance hype about the character. More of a mouthy pest than the formidable force of nature that the other characters have been dreading. Why should we pay attention to this guy? When he starts harranguing the actors in the play within the play, you want to say: go away, annoying person, stop with your hectoring already!

But then things settle down, Cyrano finds out that the woman he has secretly loved all his life now loves a dumb cutie. She asks Cyrano to protect this dope for her sake. On top of which, the boy toy asks for Cyrano’s help in wooing her. At the end of this scene, somebody recalls that Cyrano recently fought off 100 men. "Oh," he says, almost as a throw-away line, "I have done far more than that since then."

And that’s where Mr. Feore catches you by the throat and chokes you. This actor excels at showing the man’s inner pain – a pain all the more striking because it’s covered over with so much good-hearted raillery. Other actors may give you more grandeur, more drama, more flair in Cyrano, but Colm Feore gives you the heart breaking.

So yes, there is a point to seeing Cyrano again – at least, as incarnated by Mr. Feore.

Accepting that, you begin to realize that you’re probably never going to see this kind of theatre done any better than at Stratford this year. It’s all there to perfection – the swagger, the fighting, the colour, the flair. And, let’s face it, we all love the theme of a worthy lover (like us) who is unfairly rejected in favour of a far inferior human being. Mind you, by comparison to the playwriting craft as practised today, this piece contains far too much filler, too much scene-setting, but the production moves along with enough verve that you don’t notice the script’s excess baggage unless you’re a very cranky audience member.

Mind you, even an audience member who wasn’t a complete curmudgeon might have preferred background music that tried for a little more of the flavour of the period. What we got instead was Broadway-ish sentimental pap, la Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And yet an attempt at authenticity in another respect didn’t strike me as entirely successful. The rhyming couplets of the translation by Anthony Burgess are presumably meant to convey something of the feel of the original poetry. The Anglicizations, however, often sound contrived. To give the actors credit, they usually manage to keep the rhymes from becoming obtrusive but, now and then, you find yourself waiting to see how the translation will come up with a rhyme for a particularly difficult word. My guess is that the original text wasn’t meant to have that effect.

As in their delivery of the text, the actors all performed splendidly. In supporting roles, two actors who stood out were Wayne Best (Le Bret) and John Vickery (Comte de Guiche). These guys are the type of solid, reliable, classic actors who have made Stratford what it is today. They know how to hold the stage and their voices penetrate effortlessly to the furthest reaches of the Festival Theatre. Every word they say is perfectly clear – which is not always the case with some of the younger members of the company.

In the role of Christian, the young lover, Michael Shara showed the impressive range of his comedic skills, by comparison to his performance as Algernon (see review of The Importance of Being Earnest above on this page). This time out, he does a gormless twit every bit as well as he did the flamboyant man about town.

Amanda Lisman conveyed a beguiling exuberance as Roxanne – through most of the play. In the final scene, unfortunately, she lacked any of the gravitas that Roxanne would presumably have acquired in the past fifteen years of mourning.

By that scene, Mr. Feore had earned our closed attention, but the script drags out his dying far too long. We sit through pages of verbiage wondering: when is it going to come? When it finally does, it’s less moving than it would have been had it taken place with more dispatch and less speechifying.

 

Three Sisters (Play) by Anton Chekhov; directed by Martha Henry; starring Irene Poole, Lucy Peacock, Dalal Badr, Gordon S. Miller, Kelli Fox, Peter Hutt, Joyce Campion, Robert King, Tom McCamus, Sean Arbuckle, James Blendick; version by Susan Coyne; Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Every now and then some know-it-all reminds us that Anton Chekhov wanted us to see the comedy in some of his dreariest plays. In this part of the world, the usual response is something like: guess you gotta have a Russian sense of humour.

But I found myself thinking throughout this production that the play might benefit from a lighter touch. Take the performance of Irene Poole as Olga, the school teacher. She has most of the lines for the first five minutes of the play and they’re all delivered in a penetrating manner that is the hallmark of some Stratford actresses. It seemed to me that the natural rhythms of the speeches were being hammered flat as with an anvil. Surely some of the lines might have allowed for a little more variety of mood, perhaps a slightly more whimsical touch here and there?

For instance, at a point later in the play, Olga expresses her hope that Irina might marry Baron Tuzenbach, "if it is God’s will." The phrase is delivered ponderously, as if of great portent. But, given the religiosity of such people, as I understand it, they were always tossing off that phrase; it was sprinkled liberally through conversations as a kind of reflex action, not as something needing underlining.

And so on, through the play. Although Susan Coyne’s version of the text sounds fresh and contemporary, the prevalent mood is grim and forlorn. If you stop to think about it, though, isn’t it too much so? All the melancholy and the angst – isn’t it rather silly and self-indulgent? That’s the way it might look if you didn’t start out with the preconception (as with most North American productions) that it’s all deadly serious. And all that talk about trying to find the meaning of life in work. Surely that’s satyrical, coming from the mouths of these privileged and pampered folk. So maybe we’re meant to see the ridiculous side of it all.

Not to complain about any of the acting. Without exception, every performance is up to the usual high Stratford standard. If I were to mention a few quibbles, it might be noted that Tom McCamus’ bedraggled charm doesn’t quite measure up to the charisma that Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin is supposed to embody as the dashing officer with an aura of worldly glamour. And I found Kelli Fox’s transformation, in the role of Natasha, from gawky interloper to domineering chatelaine too abrupt and obvious. I’d have appreciated a little more nuance in the transition.

But my most serious problem with the production is the venue. I’m beginning to find the Tom Patterson theatre very nearly inimical to good drama. One wonders what the festival management was thinking when they decided to convert this sports arena to a theatre every summer. Even if it seemed like a good idea at the time, surely they can see by now that it isn’t working very well? The u-shaped seating arrangement around the long, narrow stage presents a considerable obstacle to one's feeling involved in the production. If you’re sitting at one of the far ends of the "u", you get a crick in your neck from straining to see what’s further downstage. Seating at the bend in the "u" is better but, when there’s action further upstage, you feel like you’re looking through a long tunnel.

Such was my experience with this set. The arrangement proved particularly problematic in the first act when the servants were setting the table upstage in the dining room, while the main action was taking place downstage in the living room. I appreciated the attempt by director Martha Henry and designer John Pennoyer to make good use of the unwieldy venue but the coming and going of the servants proved to be an unwelcome distraction.

Whatever the problems with the production, it serves Anton Chekhov’s genius, in that you inevitably get drawn in. You start asking:  What’s wrong with these people? What mistakes have they made? How could they get their shit together? Then comes the final scene when so many dreams have been dashed, when the military band marches out of town, taking away all hope of escape and fulfilment. The questions stop. The tears flow and you think: silly or not, these people have their sorrows and disappointment. And they’re real, like yours and mine.

 

Things I Didn’t Know (Memoir) by Robert Hughes, 2006

Once again, an interview on Eleanor Wachtel’s "Writers & Company" (CBC Radio) made me think a book might be worthwhile. Having learned from that interview that Robert Hughes served as the art critic for Time magazine from 1977 to 2001, I figured his memoir would have some pretty interesting things to say about our life and times from a very special point of view.

The book begins, though, with an account of a life-altering experience far from the bright lights and the busy city. In May of 1999, on a visit to his native Australia, Mr. Hughes was driving at dusk on a barren, deserted road. The next thing he knew, he found himself in a tangle of metal, the result of a head-on collision. Only one of the three young men in the other car was seriously hurt, but Mr. Hughes’ near-fatal injuries required many elaborate surgeries and months of very painful recovery.

Conflicting evidence made it impossible to say just how or why the accident happened but, because his car ended up on the wrong side of the road, Mr. Hughes was charged with dangerous driving. In the context of the ensuing court proceedings, he made an intemperate remark to a reporter about the men in the other car – they had offered to drop the case if he paid them off – and the affair escalated into an Australia-wide media campaign against this snob who had abandoned his country and was now attacking its honest working folk.

For Mr. Hughes, the episode more or less finished off his sputtering love for his native land. If Australia didn’t want him any more, then what did he want with Australia? He’d done quite well elsewhere, thank you very much. And if the media wanted to caricature him as a sophisticate, let them. Maybe that’s what he was and maybe he was fine with that.

That’s more or less the tone of the memoir. Mr. Hughes makes no apology for being something of an elitist and a conservative, at least in the cultural sense. Having been born in 1938, he was a young man in the "swinging sixties" but he had no patience with what he saw as the "romantic fallacy" of the self-seeing culture. You could sum it up by saying he loathed Easy Rider, the film that caught the ethos of the time for so many. He did agree, though, with the massive resistance to the Vietnam war and with his generation’s disgust over the lies perpetrated by the establishment.

Apart from that, he never saw himself as one of the young radicals. Later, as an art critique, he never bought into the idea that newness was good for its own sake. His book includes many rants against trends in pop culture and especially the dumbing down of the media, most regrettably in the case of his beloved Time. So yes, he could be considered something of a curmudgeon. But he sees himself clearly as such and he’s not without a sense of humour about it. Reminiscing about his work at the BBC in the 1960s, he says it was run "by what Australian editors of Fleet Street tabloids unhesitatingly and dead-accurately pegged as effete pseudo-intellectuals and bloody elitists: my kind of folk, in short."

Among other flashes of wit in this memoir, good one-liners often crop up, like the observation about a guest on a BBC program who "possessed a narrative fluency that would have reduced Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner to silence." In spite of those incidental pleasures, though, this isn’t the most engaging memoir I’ve ever read. Being a journalist primarily, Mr. Hughes doesn’t bring characters and places to life on the page in the way novelists can in their memoirs. At times, the sentences can be long and fussy. The chapters, too, are far too long (averaging 44 pages), given the density of the material.

For the most part, though, the writing is clear and interesting. As an essayist, the author says, his model for good prose is that of George Orwell. It’s always a good sign when a writer cites such an exemplar. Given such a precedent, the young art critic eschewed the flummery that passed for art criticism and strove for clear, writing rooted in evidence.

Most importantly, in terms of this book, he’s an excellent raconteur and can be very good company much of the time. Some of his outstanding stories, to my way of thinking:

- During his boyhood education at a strict Jesuit school in Sydney, he was called late one night to a priest’s office and upbraided for some unspecified perfidy about which the lad was completely clueless. It turned out that the priest had linked him to a scabrous volume that had been found lying around: James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Only when the flummoxed young Hughes was able to explain that the book had been loaned to him by a priest on staff did his accuser back down.

- As a fledgling artist in Australia, Mr. Hughes had the roller coaster experience of being taken up by an eccentric millionaire who not only bought all his paintings but installed him in a bizarre household full of birds that was supposed to become an art gallery with the young Hughes as artist in residence. The sudden death of one of the birds and the consequent hysteria on the part of the millionaire – who blamed the artist for the bird’s demise -- helped bring this madcap episode to a quick end.

- On his first trip to the US, Mr. Hughes let a beautiful stranger persuade him to fly off to Las Vegas on the spur of the moment for a wild night that included his losing the entire stake he had brought with him to finance his new life in America, then winning it back, with a $500 profit.

- As a TV journalist, covering the terrible flood in Florence in the fall of 1966, Mr. Hughes was fishing priceless bronze panels from the flood waters. On the slimy steps of the Uffizi gallery, where hastily salvaged objects were stacked helter-skelter, he nearly fell on top of a famous fifteenth century bust by Donatello.

One of my favourite stories comes at the end of the book, concerning his being hired by Time. Still living in London and barely eking out an existence as a freelance art critic, he had written a book about art works that depict heaven and hell. Somehow, out of the thousands of books in the slush pile submitted to Time for review, this one had come to the editors’ attention. Impressed, they wanted to talk to the author about writing for them. But Mr. Hughes, at this point depressed and owing money all over London, wasn’t answering the phone or the door.

After several fruitless attempts to reach him, the US journalists were able to contact an artist who happened to be a next-door neighbour of Mr. Hughes. They set up an appointment for him to receive a call at a certain time. Completely mystified as to what it could be about, Mr. Hughes answered the phone and heard a gruff American voice asking him to come to the US to work for "them". In his stoned state, he quickly surmised that the CIA was trying to recruit him. Whereupon he delivered himself of an impassioned tirade against American imperialism and slammed down the phone.

If the editor at Time hadn’t had the patience and prudence to phone back and introduce himself properly, we probably wouldn’t now be reading Things I Didn’t Know.

The only times when Mr. Hughes doesn’t make such good company are when he expounds too much on historical, geographical and cultural matters. For instance, I think he tells us much more than we need to know about the Hughes family in Australia. We get the point that they were prosperous, leading Catholics in the society of the day, without needing quite as much background as is given. Mind you, every "great man" tends to think that, when it comes to telling the story of his life, no information is too much. But you’d think his editor would curb the inclination.

In a more academic vein, there are times when the attention to detail becomes overwhelming. For instance, Mr. Hughes’ account of his awakening to the beauty of mid-second millenium Italian art when he was tramping around that country as a young man. Pages and pages describe statues and frescoes minutely. You try to appreciate it all in the context of the aesthetic development of an art critic but the twists and turns of description could be followed closely only by the most conscientious student of art history. Not finding myself in any such category, I skipped many paragraphs.

But some striking epiphanies and insights couldn’t help catching my attention. I especially like the author’s claim (admittedly somewhat elitist?) that, while theatrical performances and concerts are communal experiences, art works are best viewed alone, i.e., not while rubbing elbows with gawking tourists. I was struck by the young connoisseur’s realization that Giovanni Pisano’s set of carvings of prophets and sybils, made for the facade of the Siena cathedral in the decade after 1287, constituted an "august, eloquent and grand ancestor" of the modern comic strip. In the same cathedral, Mr. Hughes’ encounter with the enormous, double-sided altarpiece by Duccio di Buoninsegna, painted shortly after 1300, produced this response:

At such moments – and there were not a few of them – tears would roll down my face. It would have seemed like deception to hold them back....Art, I now realized, was the symbolic discourse that truly reached into me....I was beginning, at last, to derive from art, from architecture, and even from the beauty of organized landscape a sense of transcendence that organized religion had offered me – but that I had never received.

On a more mundane level, you expect a book from somebody like Mr. Hughes to deliver at least some tidbits of gossip about major figures in the world of art and culture. While many of the artists mentioned, especially the Australian ones, aren’t familiar to the Average Joe (that’s me), you get some of the feel of the modern art world from references to the likes of Salvador Dal, Antoni Gaud y Cornet, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, et al. Expat Ossies like Clive James and Germaine Greer come in for mention. Other luminaries like Cyril Connolly, Kenneth Tynan and Brendan Gill (the New Yorker’s theatre critic), help to round out the picture. Even Canada’s Mordecai Richler makes a cameo appearance, seated next to Mr. Hughes at a London dinner party.

The book left me wondering about a few things.

First, Mr. Hughes’ attitude to Catholicism. He explains how, in the Jesuit college he attended, his religious faith began to fall away. Fair enough. But later in life, his flippancy towards Catholicism gives the impression that he only ever had a superficial relationship with it. As a young reporter investigating Lourdes, for instance, he focuses mainly on the worst aspects of the phenomenon: the kitschy plastic souvenirs, the marketing of miraculous water and so on. Mind you, regarding his own quick dunking in the sacred waters, he gets off a hilariously blasphemous bilingual pun, the cleverness of which surely earns him some indulgence.

However, he doesn’t seem to consider that anything good might be happening at a place like Lourdes. He touches on it when he quotes an Irish amputee’s reason for attending: "I come here because I like to be with me own class of people." It seems to me that a statement like that would bear some further delving but Mr. Hughes decides not to go there.

On a more serious note, Mr. Hughes says that his research for the book about artwork on heaven and hell finished off whatever was left of his Catholicism. He sees the two notions as nothing but a pernicious means of manipulation on the part of the clergy. Heaven and hell, he says, have been used for centuries as political tools for social control (presumably to uphold the status quo, i.e. the clergy’s prestige and privilege?) Granted, it may look that way from today’s perspective and the system probably did, in effect, work that way, at least to some extent.

But to understand what was happening, I think, you have to accept that the individual members of the clergy – most of them – truly believed in the existence of heaven and hell. They thought that eternal punishment or bliss were inevitable. So you could say that, in hounding people about these outcomes, the clergy were just doing their jobs. You might even say that it had something to do with caring about their flocks. Yes, it ensured that the pastors had comfortable lives, thanks to the obeisance of their charges, but the concepts underlying the system were thought to be genuine.

Or is Mr. Hughes suggesting that the authorities convinced themselves of the reality of those concepts because – perhaps on the subconscious level – they wanted to maintain their stranglehold over people? Hmm... An interesting theory, but if that’s what Mr. Hughes meant, surely he would have said so. Perhaps, that’s too cynical a conclusion even for him.

Another subject that raised some questions for me was the treatment of Mr. Hughes’ first marriage. His partner in that alliance was a sexy blonde bombshell, with whom he had some great times in the early days. She turned out, though, to be a wacko who had no concept of marital fidelity or of maternal care for their child. Mr. Hughes attributes one of his major bouts of the clap to a dalliance that she had in the back seat of a limo with Jimi Hendrix. Her constant flings with celebs – ersatz or otherwise – and her yen for hard drugs pretty much doomed the marriage.

To give him credit, Mr. Hughes admits that, through all this, he was "no saint". He too was having affairs. One of them involved a flight to Paris to share a hashish-larded cake with a lovely Sorbonne student. But his infidelities are presented as relative peccadillos, pardonable responses to the aggravation inflicted by his spouse. Sounds reasonable. But I’m wondering how the former Mrs. Hughes would describe the situation if she were alive today. (She isn’t.) It might be that she would depict her lapses as the result of not being understood or appreciated by an insufferable intellectual, snob, aesthete (or whatever) who was regularly boffing the competition.

Not that I’m here to pass judgement or to say who was right or wrong. It’s just that I find Mr. Hughes’ narrative on this score an example of how a human being’s explanation of his or her involvement in one of these catastrophes can tend to be somewhat self-serving. People are that way and they always will be. But this sort of apologia falls dangerously close to truism in a piece of writing where you might hope for better.

It disappointed me that the book ended with Mr. Hughes’ appointment as art critic for Time. I had been looking forward to his take on the developments in art during the last three decades of the twentieth century. Not that I wanted the book to be any longer. At nearly 400 stuffed pages, it’s quite an undertaking. But I would have sacrificed some of the historical and artistic minutiae for some stuff about life as a Manhattan-based art critic.

From the little that he says about it, there’s no question that Mr. Hughes considers himself very lucky to have landed such a good job at the top of his game. It’s clear, though, that, with the spectacular success came terrible losses: two failed marriages before his current happy one and that debacle over the 1999 car accident in Australia. Even more chilling: in just one sentence, Mr. Hughes acknowledges that his son committed suicide as a young adult. One can only imagine the suffering that caused it and the terrible pain for the surviving father. But the author seems to want to leave us with the impression that he considers his life blessed, for the most part, exciting and fun. Good on him.

 

Chasing the Dime (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2002

Henry Pierce, a biochemist, heads up his own company, one that’s leading the race to discover the secrets that will make molecular computers viable. Given that these little marvels, which would be able to fit into a person’s bloodstream, could well be the future of humanity, the competition to make them workable is intense. Among the participants in the quest, the high-stakes game is known as "chasing the dime".

But what preoccupies Pierce at the moment is an apparently trifling problem. He has just moved into a new apartment. People keep calling his new phone number, asking for somebody who, from the sounds of it, must be a prostitute. He tracks down her website and, sure enough, there’s his phone number listed as hers. Meanwhile, he has discovered that she seems to have disappeared. Anybody who knows anything about her warns him off the trail. So he follows it.

As you might expect with a Michael Connelly mystery, the pace is fast and the plotting clever, with plenty of startling twists. Here and there, a really striking bit leaps out at you. Like this response of a prostitute when Pierce expresses concern about her well being: "That phony shit is more disgusting than the men who want to come on my face. At least they’re honest about it."

However, the book is by no means as good as some of Mr. Connelly’s Harry Bosch mysteries. (See review of Echo Park, Dilettante’s Diary, Aug 23/09.) For one thing, the news about the evils of the sex industry isn’t exactly fresh. Besides, there’s too much emphasis on the boogey-man aspect of the guy who’s running this branch of it. We get other tired motifs such as the one about the gifted athlete who’s corrupted by money and fame. On the strictly verbal level of banalities, there are references to a car trip that was "slow but nice" and we’re reminded that "loose lips sink ships."

And I’m getting tired of books and movies in which key elements of the plot depend on some expert hacker’s ability to retrieve unimagined secrets about people’s lives from supposedly inaccessible computer records. (See review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Dilettante’s Diary, Aug 23/09) Not that I think such things can’t occur these days. But it’s beginning to seem like something of a narrative clich. Even if Mr. Connelly does give the device a special spin in this case, you’d have to say that it makes things a bit too easy for mystery writers. Not like the old days when our dear Holmes depended entirely on intuition and ratiocination.

Once again, in this book there are the autonomic responses that begin to look ridiculous when you add them up: collapsing intestines, cold fear in the chest, fear and danger flooding the mind, insides constricting, a dagger of fear in the chest, rising body heat, tightness in the chest and anger stuck in the throat. Within fifteen pages, there are three instances of the hero’s wanting to throw up.

Why do I mention these things? Because it surprises me that as good a writer as Michael Connelly falls back on such corny formulae. Maybe I would buy the references if I thought that people in real life responded this way so often. But I don’t think anybody does. (Or is my autonomic response system unusually phlegmatic?) So these many instances in a piece of fiction look like lazy attempts to create suspense by an author who can’t be bothered trying to come up with more authentic ones.

But the main problem with the book, one that is never quite resolved for me, is the character of Pierce. When he’s condescending and officious towards the young woman who acts as his assistant, it’s not clear that the author appreciates how offensive the behaviour is. In a novel from the 1960s or earlier, you might not expect an author to be sensitive to such issues but surely Michael Connelly can do better regarding inter-gender relations? On the other hand, when it comes to Pierce’s interaction with a male friend, there’s too much cloying buddy ritual.

Most of all, it was Pierce’s motivation for getting involved in the search for the missing woman that bothered me. I appreciated the fact that he approached the mystery as he would any issue in his work, with problem solving and theory building. But why would any high-profile businessman, with so much depending on his good reputation and his savvy, let himself start acting like an amateur sleuth in such a risky situation? A certain amount of back story is provided by way of trying to make his involvement plausible but it never quite convinced me.

 

Clea’s Moon (Mystery) by Edward Wright, 2003

The situation of the main character, i.e. the "detective", attracted me to this winner of the Debut Dagger from Britain’s Crime Writers' Association. We’re in the late 1940s and John Ray Horn is a former cowboy movie star. He and his Indian sidekick once played a shtick that sounds a lot like the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Because of a criminal conviction (for a crime that turns out to be quite honourable, wouldn’t you know) Horn has served jail time and he’s now barred from movies. He lives free-of-charge on a rundown estate, in return for some maintenance and minor repairs. He picks up cash by working as a debt collector for his former sidekick who now runs a casino.

Horn’s best friend, Scotty, has just discovered that his recently deceased dad, a wealthy civic leader, was a member of a ring of child abusers. Scotty has photographic proof. Next thing you know, Scotty’s killed. At his funeral, Horn learns that Clea, Horn's former stepdaughter, i.e. the beautiful sixteen-year old child of his ex-wife, has disappeared. Needless to say, Horn resolves to find her.

Unless you’re the most innocent of mystery readers, you probably sniff a likely connection between these story elements. Apart from a few surprises, the solving of the mystery is straight-forward and plodding. There’s nothing brilliant or inspired about Horn’s detecting – just steady, dogged investigating. Sometimes breakthroughs come too easily: somebody confesses without much elbow-twisting, for example. The pace is slow, for the most part, although some sections are exciting. To my taste, the book’s a bit too long, too rambling.

By way of fringe benefit, though, we get some interesting lore about the waning days of the Westerns, especially regarding the work of cowboy extras and stunt actors. The period and the atmosphere are well created. It’s refreshing to read a mystery that doesn’t depend on the use of computers, cell phones, answering services or call display.

The best thing about the book is the character of Horn. A brooding, taciturn guy, he has no charm: he makes no attempt to make people like him. But he’s decent, honest and determined. One bit that made me like him a lot was when somebody was urging him to find Clea. The person said they didn’t think Horn would be afraid. "Then you were wrong," Horn said. It also appealed to me that, macho as he is, he’s a closet fan of Bette Davis. When required, in the course of the search for Clea, he can show his acting chops with a bit of inspired improv. Among other striking traits are his empathy for a terrified Latina cleaning lady from whom he has to extract vital evidence and his kindness to a disabled boy who worshipped him as a movie star.

For the solving of the current mystery, Horn and his former sidekick start working together, somewhat in the spirit of their movie collaboration. That’s a nice touch. However, I found it not credible that Horn would sometimes find himself wanting in comparison to the movie hero he played. Other people might well make the mistake of conflating the two persona but I hardly think any actor with any brain to speak of would see a scripted role as having any bearing whatever on his or her real self.

 

Oxygen (Novel) by Andrew Miller, 2001

In this entry on the shortlist for the Booker, Alice, a retired English teacher in her late sixties, is dying of cancer in her flower-bedecked home in the English countryside. Her alcoholic husband died in a car accident a few years ago. Given her imminent demise, her two sons have rallied round. Alec, the younger, is a freelance translator, currently working on a play by a noted Hungarian author. The older brother, Larry, a former tennis star, has been playing the part of a British doctor on a US soap opera but, on the cancellation of his role, he’s hoping for other work in showbiz.

The character of Alice comes through beautifully. She’s had her moments of desperation regarding her condition but, for the most part, she faces it with resignation and grace. Mr. Miller seems to have a particular skill working with this kind of material: moody, wistful, elegiac. In the description of her situation, several gems come along. When she staggers out of bed for a smoke, she admits to herself that cigarettes don’t give her any pleasure any more "but they gave her the memory of pleasure, and that was something." Some of her strange thoughts, as she lies in bed, are "moths that flew only at dawn."

Somewhat in the same vein as the melancholy stuff about his mother, there’s gentle, self-effacing Alec working on his translation. Everything about him is touched with disappointment. Meeting his brother at the airport, for instance, he reflects "how there was always at such moments a disconcerting adjustment to be made, as if the person who had come to meet you could never quite be the person you had expected."

Once upon a time, Alec had some sort of mental or emotional breakdown (never fully explained), so I was willing to cut him some slack but his ineffectual muddling does get tiresome. He’s not coping well with his mother’s illness; he can’t face some of the difficult situations it presents. His translation work isn’t going well, either. This job is supposed to be his big break but, as Mom deteriorates, he finds himself less and less able to concentrate on the translating.

By comparison to this quiet, sliding-down-the-drain scenario, brother Larry’s life is a train wreck in the happening. But but he at least injects some vitality into the proceedings. He drinks too much, he doesn’t know whether his marriage to a US woman will last much longer and he’s always scrambling to cover his tracks in the attempt to provide some semblance of good fathering to his little daughter. Still you have to admit some grudging admiration for his pluck when he realizes that the only prospect for him is failure: "And this he decided to call hope."

Given Larry’s disastrous financial situation, he accepts an offer to star in a porno film. Call me prurient, but I found it disappointing that the author dangles this prospect before us but never tells us how it works out. Besides, one detail about the proposal struck me as extremely unlikely. Supposedly, this gig will bring our pal $20,000 US for two weeks’ work. Last time, I heard, a male porno star stood to make about one one-tenth of that. And what’s with all the pharmaceuticals this guy is wolfing down? References abound to drugs like Xanax, Deroxat and Temazepam. Are we supposed to know what these are and what they do?

By way of extension from what we see of Larry, you  begin to get the impression that all things American are flakey. Larry’s little daughter has assorted personality problems, including kleptomania. Her parents are constantly on the phone to her shrink, whom they seem to regard as some kind of god. As further samples of American vapidity, there are the drugs and the porno industry. Yet, none of this seems intended in a satirical way. The author apparently thinks this is a genuine representation of life in the US. Which would seem to indicate that he has only a fleeting acquaintance with the place.

When Larry’s American wife, Kirsty, finally arrives, she strikes an empathetic note with her somewhat qualified love for him and she seems genuinely considerate towards her dying mother-in-law. And yet, before her actual appearance in the novel, most of the references to Kirsty have given the impression of a narcissistic person who is always pursuing some fatuous fad in the self improvement line. Mr. Miller goes so far as to make the suggestion, with regard to Kirsty, that it’s a peculiarly American trait not to accept the inevitability of death.

Still, the US material has the virtue of being lively and interesting – which is more than can be said for the sections on the current and past life of the Hungarian author Alec is translating. This part of the book never comes to life in any pertinent way. Most of it, especially the historical flashbacks – seems laboured and effortful. Descriptions of Budapest come across as mere travelogue. Two characters in this section of the book – an artist and his wife – are totally superfluous.

One surmises that the author, turned on to Hungarian history and culture for some reason, decided to incorporate it into his novel. But his enthusiasm doesn’t come through. That may be because there is no essential connection to the rest of the novel, The only point, as far as I can see, is that we are meant to contrast the heavy duty tragedy in the Hungarian writer’s life with the commonplace problems in the life of the British family. But I don’t buy that. Everybody’s problems are important enough in the context of their own lives.

In spite of the fine writing, then, the novel cannot be considered a success without some meaningful connection between the story of Alice’s family and the Hungarian’s story. Which is not to diss Mr. Miller, who has a string of important prizes to his credit for earlier books. The relative misfiring of this effort brings to mind something said about Michael Jackson after his death. A producer who had worked with him, commenting on the fact that his enormous early success seemed to have blighted his later life, said something to the effect that, "The problem is that the public always demands that an artist produce at the peak of his or her ability."

Right on. Art is art; its successful production can’t be guaranteed. So what if Mr. Miller didn’t pull it off this time? Give him credit for all he’s achieved and look forward to his next offering.

 

The Soul Thief (Novel) by Charles Baxter, 2008

In this slim volume (just over 200 skimpy pages), much-lauded US writer Charles Baxter takes us back to the 1970s in Buffalo. We’re tagging along in the footsteps of Nathaniel Mason, a sincere and ingenuous grad student. Notable among his free-spirited friends are Theresa, an ironic and teasing beauty, and Jamie, a chummy lesbian who does volunteer work with Nathaniel in a soup kitchen.

Mr. Baxter catches very well that studied, somewhat affected craziness among 1970s youth. In a rainstorm, people take off their shoes to traipse through puddles to a party. Once there, they wander from room to room, enjoying everyone’s appreciation of their drenched state. These are the days when a female friend will phone a guy in the middle of the night and demand, "Take me somewhere. Right now." And he does. One evening, Nat arrives home to find a burglar ransacking his crummy apartment. Instead of an exchange of violence or threats, this being the 1970s, the burglar launches into a tirade about the worthless junk crowding Nat’s apartment, whereupon the two of them sit down to chat over coffee.

The more problematic intrusion into Nat’s life comes in the form of an enigmatic, moderately famous student known as Jerome Coolberg. The trouble with Coolberg, apart from his surrealist and pretentious rants, is that he appears to be appropriating Nat’s personality and life story. He even hires the afore-mentioned burglar to steal some of Nat’s clothes so that Coolberg can wear them.

Is this a case of deranged infatuation, as in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love? Not as far as I can tell. Later in the book, we jump forward to the 21st century, where Nat, now a married man and father, gets some sort of explanation from Coolberg. At this point, Mr. Baxter treats us to a writer-ish trick, one of those spins that are, I think, meant to blur the line between fiction and reality. We may have had a hint as to what coming up in an earlier passage where Coolberg’s speeches lost their quotation marks while other people’s retained theirs. Is that supposed to indicate something spooky about him? Generally, I find those ploys annoying but they can be tolerable if they convey a worthwhile message. In this case, that result is debatable.

But maybe the book is best appreciated not as a narrative that adheres to every convention of realism but as a meditation on identity and being. Certainly, the pages teem with fascinating aperus on those themes. A visit to a museum room constructed of mirrors provides mind-spinning effects: "...the room feels disagreeable and really quite monstrous, meant to undermine the soul by wrapping it in reflections." A guy trying to persuade a reluctant woman to love him tells her: "....you can treat me as hypothetical." We’re even told that the bereaved tend to take on the traits of their beloved deceased.

It all starts to come crashing down on Nat when his stepfather advises him that most people don’t want to become individuals. That makes Nat wonder what use an identity is. He then stumbles on what he considers to be the "fallacy of the unique." Nor is Nat reassurred when Coolberg narrates a passage from a book he’s writing about a young man who "fears that he will meet himself on the sidewalk coming toward himself from the opposite direction." Through all this, the spirit of Gertrude Stein keeps whispering to Nat in her trademark double-speak, gobbledy-gook along the lines of somebody insisting to himself that he is insisting to himself and that he knows he is insisting to himself and that he knows that he knows that it is himself insisting to himself.

If that sort of esoterica doesn’t do it for you, the book offers many other kinds of brilliant writing. There are the Oscar-Wylde-type aphorisms: "It’s never been later than it is now," (Jamie) and "Nothing dates like the past," (Theresa). Coolberg, when advised to speak for himself, quips: "Oh, I never do that." Another riff on talking comes when a loquacious young lover believes "that he can explain himself, as his language veers further out of his control, as if he were behind the wheel and the steering had failed in the car – a dirt road, a tree straight head of him, an accident resulting in the loss of speech."

Many references to ordinary events are shot through with startling insight. And beautifully worded. On a particularly sunny day, we’re told: "In Buffalo, the sun is a member in good standing of the Rotary Club. Things, the sun sings merrily, will get better, better, better....." After Nat performs a certain act, he experiences "a blank, a blackboard of empty space and time suddenly inscribed with a few chalky words of instruction that vanish as soon as they have appeared." When Mat has awakened his wife to say goodbye before an early flight, he notes: "She smiled vaguely at me – at the idea of me..."

Not that the following insight of Nat’s is integral to the book, but I couldn’t help enjoying it, because it so well articulates a suspicion of mine that has been fermenting for a while:

I hate dreams. I hate them when they appear in literature, and I hate them when I myself have them. I distrust the truth-value that Freud assigned to them. Dreams lie as often as they tell the truth.

How many fiction writers can you think of who have been willing to make such an  admission? Never mind the fact that Nat goes on, reluctantly, to relate a dream. It only takes one paragraph. That’s as much space as any dream should be allowed in a piece of fiction.

And then there’s the treatment of the characters. Their vividness goes a long way to disproving the supposition that there’s no such thing as uniqueness in people. Take that uppity burglar, for instance. More importantly, feisty Jamie turns out to be the kind of person who is by no means summed up by her sexual orientation. We even get an interesting take on how the perception of a deceased person’s character can change. During his lifetime, Nat’s father had been "an astoundingly unremarkable man." After death, a transformation occurred: "Perfection dropped like an alarming protective covering over his memory....No one could remember [his] flaws."

But the surviving members of Nat’s family are blanketed with no such blandness. His stepfather, for example, would seem to be a financier of an extraordinary kind: "an easygoing, charming moneymaker unafflicted by true greed." Of Nat’s two sons, the older one, a teenager, comes across as the more typical, although with some qualities that set him apart from some members of his generation. The younger brother, about twelve years old, would, by any measure, have to be called a true individual. Already an inveterate champion of assorted causes, at the moment he’s insisting that the family treat him as gay. Why, it’s not quite clear; he seems not to exhibit any homosexual inclinations. Maybe he gets a kick out of identifying with a constituency that he feels needs his support. Or maybe it just strikes him as a way of being special.

As for Laura, Nat’s wife and the boys’ mother, this tribute from her husband testifies to her quality as a genuine person:

What I had always loved about Laura had been her kindness and innocence in the face of the world’s sophisticated cruelty. She was almost frighteningly guileless. This meant that about sixty percent of human behavior was simply beyond her comprehension....She just had a permanent immunity to evil. It baffled her.

In a way, it’s somewhat ironic (unintentionally, on his part) that Nat should make this statement about his wife’s incorruptibility, as if it were a rare quality, because the approbation applies equally well, if not more strongly, to him. It’s been a while since I encountered such a genuinely good person in contemporary fiction. As a young man, Nat doesn’t espouse any particular religion or creed and he acknowledges that "he knows nothing about God." Yet, he prays in a way that expresses absolute gratitude for his own life and abundant sympathy for all those who are suffering. In later life, someone tells Nat that his most striking characteristic as a young man was his open, accepting appearance: "...that expression appeared to comprehend everything that anybody could present to it. Your tolerance was positively grotesque in its limitlessness."

As an adult, we’re told, he has lost the ability to pray, but he retains sterling values. He tried working as an insurance adjuster for a while but found that he couldn’t stand "discounting distress." Now, he works in an arts agency, writing up grant proposals. He’s environmentally conscious to the point that he won’t keep the engine of his car running while he’s waiting to pick up his son at the swimming pool on a cold day. When he mentions that he had "carelessly" left a light on in a room at home, he doesn’t seem aware that it's something most people wouldn''t notice.

Not that Nat is some kind of idealist who doesn’t have his feet on the ground. Take this bit on marriage and raising kids:

"...I don’t see what is particularly romantic about a married couple raising their children and getting from day to day....The ordinary business of diapers and fevers and broken bones and drafty rooms and lost socks and schedules on the refrigerator door takes the shine off everything for a while. Women understand this better than men do."

In a similar vein:

"...I don’t believe in miracles, just the force of compassion, which under certain circumstances can bring the dead to life. Nor do I believe that to say so is to be a sentimentalist. Though a prejudice exists in our culture against compassion, there being little profit in it, the emotion itself is ineradicable.

Maybe that’s why, when Nat speaks about witnessing the destruction of the soup kitchen as a result of arson, he says:

I was weeping, first, and then violent sobs overtook me. This fire signaled the end of collective generosity in this our country, America. Bent over with sorrow, I was grieving for all our broken promises, for the loss of charity and loving-kindness.

Given that the cumulative effect of the book is so high-minded, shall we say, I found a scathingly sarcastic section about Los Angeles somewhat disconcerting. All of sudden, Nat seems to have lost his benevolence towards the rest of humanity. LA is seen as virtually a barren anteroom to hell. Especially the airport, which strikes Nat as: "...the set of a low-budget futuristic film, most of whose main characters will die horribly within the first forty minutes...." It’s a desolate place where "an odor of perfumed urine wafts here and there through the bleary air."

Life outside the airport isn’t much better. Everybody in LA "seemed to suffer from a form of permanent distraction anyway, as if, just above the horizon line of their attention, they were all watching a movie in which they played the starring role as they meanwhile meandered about their actual humdrum earthbound lives. Imaginary qualities of actual things predominated here....you were half dead and dazed with it all, the hot petulant loveliness." The negativity is so extreme that you get the feeling that this isn’t Nat speaking but, more likely, an author who happened to have a very bad time in LA.

And since we’re pointing out the faults of a book that is, on the whole, marvellous, we need to mention the business of autonomic responses. Given that we’ve been scolding whodunnit writers about this, it wouldn’t be fair to let Mr. Baxter off the hook, especially considering that his book is clearly aiming much higher. In brief, then, at various times Nat experiences: a flushed sensation; a cold sweat; a heating chest; a stomach seized with a sudden twist of electric current; a metaphysical nausea instantly converted to a physical nausea; something that feels like a heart attack in the gut; a nervous, malodorous sweat; a feeling of being kicked in the stomach; light-headedness, as if succumbing to a general anaesthesia; perspiration appearing as if by magic; shaky knees; unbidden tears; teeth chattering; trembling; more tears and sweat; moths in his stomach; and, finally, a shadow that made him feel as though he was going to throw up.

If this is what it means to be a sensitive, caring guy, you can see why not many of them have survived the evolutionary cull

 

 

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