December 14th, 2014

Enter, Sleeping, also published as The Sleepwalkers, by David Karp (1960)

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entersleepingI picked up a copy of Enter, Sleeping in the £2 box outside a bookstore in London a few weeks back and enjoyed reading most of it on the Eurostar ride back. Karp, whose dystopic novel, One, was reissued a few years ago by Westholme Publishing (but appears to be out of print again), was usually serious, almost moralistic, in his approach, but this is an out-an-out farce. If you’re a fan of 1960s movies, I’d describe it as a blend of “The Producers,” “Lord Love a Duck,” and “The President’s Analyst”: Broadway, young love (er, sex), and Looney Tunes conspiracies. All in all, great fun.

Young Julius Schapiro, a play reader for an erstwhile Broadway producer (more Max Bialystok than David Merrick), meets the lovely, tender Daphne one evening and ends up walking her back to her home. At the door, she nearly lassos him into bed, but Julius is stopped on lift-off by her father, the uber-earnest Ernest Leydecker. Ernest quickly proves a granite stone-faced mind-fucker first class:

“What do you do?” her father asked as he sat opposite him. His manner, his posture were the same. Flat, calm, unassailable, impenetrable.

“I work for a stage producer,” he said.

“But what do you do?” he was asked again.

“I read plays.”

“To what end?”

“To inform the producer which plays are good.”

“Does he take your advice?”

“He reads what I recommend he read.”

“And does he produce what you recommend he produce?”

“Not very often.”

“Then why do you do it at all?”

“Because I need a job. I have to eat, to live.”

“You don’t have to live,” her father said with a voice that was almost kindly. “If you find life burdensome, I know a doctor who will provide you with a poison which is almost painless.”

Later, Ernest gives Julius his reassuring assessment: “I don’t understand what my daughter sees in you. I consider you a total imbecile.”

On his own home front, Julius has the comfort of living with a mother one character describes as, “… a triple-plyed monster of the old school of Jewish monsters. She’s not a monster. She’s a growth.” When he tries to make some connections to get his career as a budding songwriter going, he runs into the hyperbolic, hyperactive agents, Lou Cohen and Al Douglas:

“I got to find this guy Julius Schapiro, I yelled,” Al said, his face contorted with pain. “Lou, Lou, I yelled, we’ve got to find this guy! We’ve got to find him! I called the magazine! I called the Writers Guild! I called the papers! I called the Dramatists Guild! I called the Coast! I called all the networks! I called every agent in New York! I must’ve made a hundred calls. Right, Lou?”

“He spent nearly two days on the telephone,” Lou said, shaking his head in awe.

Poor, sane Julius, who wants only to woo Daphne and make a buck, is like a cork caught in a torrent of obsessions and conspiracies. Nowadays, we would call him clueless, but in the book’s terminology, he’s a sleepwalker.

In pursuit of Daphne, he winds up helping Ernest’s Truth-Seekers, whose primary occupation is writing letters of complaint over the slightest of wrongs. In support of a member who felt ripped off at the price of a lousy movie, they write to “the management of the theater … the producers of the motion picture, the Mayor of the City of New York, the Governor of the State of New York, Governor of the State of California, where the picture was manufactured, the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, the place of manufacture, and, of course, the usual copy to the President of the United States and to the Secretary General of the United Nations for his information.”

In the real world, no one could take such letters seriously, but in Karp’s loony bin, it’s only natural that the Truth-Seekers soon attract the interest of the F. B. I. … or is it the Secret Service … or is it some dark, unacknowledged arm of the government?

Enter, Sleeping might have collapsed under the weight of such cartoonish exaggerations, but Karp’s touch with his broad brush is light and deft. Running under 180 pages, the book is too brief, the momentum too fast, to let anything bog down. Karp wraps up his story with a last-minute happy ending in the tradition of a good Shakespearian comedy, complete with matched pairs of lovers. All in all, a fast, fun farcical frolic with a nice blend of Sixties innocence and Cold War paranoia. Absolute worth the £2.

(Enter, Sleeping as also published as Sleepwalkers in the U. K.)


Enter, Sleeping, by David Karp
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960


 

December 11th, 2014

Extreme Reading: Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf (2014)

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shelfcoverI kick myself for letting the publication of Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf, subtitled, “From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading,” go unremarked, for it’s likely the most prominent celebration of neglected books to come out in many years.

“This book records the history of an experiment,” Rose writes at the opening of her book. “Believing that literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical–that is, writers chosen for us by others—-I wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature.”

In fact, as she goes on to explain, not just the canon is chosen for us, but much of what is generally read. Even if the decision to pick up a particular book is yours, your access to the book is shaped by others in many ways: by booksellers in their choice of they stock and what they display; by reviewers in what they praise or condemn or simply deprecate; by editors in what they select to have reviewed; by librarians by what they choose to purchase, to retain, and to discard; by schools and professors by what they choose to put on their reading lists; and by other readers, whose choices produce best-seller lists and guide booksellers and librarians through feedback mechanisms that reinforce the success of the popular and, as Rose details with examples throughout the book, ensure the neglect of the unlucky.

Rose’s experiment was to read off-piste–that is, to read a selection of books with only an arbitrary criterion, and no received advice, as a guide. In her case, she eliminated a variety of options and settled on one particular shelf in the fiction section of the New York Society Library containing books by authors whose last names ran from LEQ to LES, “running from William Le Queux to John Lescroart, by way of Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James LeRossignol, Margaret Leroy, and Alain-René Le Sage.” As she sums up in her closing chapter, the experiment covered, “Twenty-three books. Eleven authors. Short stories and novels. Realistic and mythic. Literary fiction and detective fiction. American and European. Old and contemporary. Highly wrought and flabby fiction. Inspired fiction and uninspired.”
shelf
Rose found the experiment a bit of a trial at points. Sticking to the well-trod paths does provide a sort of guarantee: if others found a book worthwhile, chances are better that you will, too. There’s risk in going off-piste: sometimes, the experience isn’t worth the time. “I did not want to report on novels I found merely interesting,” she writes. “Yes, my disappointment could be made amusing up to a point, but what was in it for either of us, me or you? I wanted to address the life-enhancing possibilities of literature.” (I’ve tried to follow much the same approach with this site.) Rose goes beyond the call of duty in devoting time and thought even to her disappointments, giving, for example. the works William Le Queux more attention than they deserve even as historical artifacts.

But had there not been a few high points along her way through the shelf, it would have been easy to give up and head back to the plowed runs. For Rose, a high point is a book that passes a certain simple test: “The fiction I esteem is fiction I would reread. The test of time is beyond us as human beings with a limited life span, but the test of times is possible.” In her case, she found three books that passed–“texts to keep me company through life”: God’s Ear, by Rhoda Lerman, The Adventures of Gil Blas by Alain-René Lesage, and Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.

Along the way, however, she also discovers a few titles more than just interesting, if not life-enhancing. These include:

Baron Bagge and Count Luna, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

These two short novels by Lernet-Holenia, an Austrian writer whose early novel, The Glory is Departed, AKA The Standard, I reviewed here about a month ago, are little gems–one a supernatural love story (Bagge), the other a black-as-death comedy of paranoia gone wild (Luna).

The Habitant-Merchant, by James Edward Le Rossignol

A collection of short stories, published in 1939, centered on a habitant-merchant–a Québécois farmer–turned shopkeeper and his family. Rossignol was something of a polymath, having studied philosophy and psychology, taught economics, and researched and written extensively on politics, education, economics, in addition to writing fiction.

Just Like Beauty, by Lisa Lerner

This, Lerner’s one and only novel, a funny, savage, and yet somehow tender tale of a sexual dystopia, fell into neglect on the strength of one bad review in The New York Times, which ensured few other papers or magazines reviewed it, and left its fate to the enthusiasms the few readers who discovered and cherished it.

While extreme reading, might, in the words of The New Yorker’s feature on the book, require “special personal traits,” including “a dash of perversity,” Rose found it had rewards more than worth the effort. In fact, it’s an act of individual empowerment:

More people should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, on their own. That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it’s just a bookshelf. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others.

All of which makes me wonder if I shouldn’t rename this site ExtremeReading.com (well … maybe not).

Unlike Rose, I spend most of my time reading off the beaten path, and so I am sparing in my choices of current books. The Shelf, however, was a thorough delight, not only introducing me to the works of a few writers even I haven’t come across, but also full of thought-provoking observations. (Her comments about the continued challenges faced by woman writers is making me think that I should set aside 2015 as the year of the Neglected Books by Women.)

So if you’re hesitant to break out into uncharted reading territory, I recommend The Shelf for an initial shot of courage.


The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose
New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014


 

December 5th, 2014

“The Unhappy Few,” by Thomas McAfee, from Poems and Stories

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loner

The Unhappy Few

–after reading Weldon Kees

Most of us spend most of our lives
Climbing in and out of wombs,
Bitching about bad coffee and too wet
Martinis. Most of us lust for, more than love,
Our wives, waitresses, and celluloid sirens.

But a few seem to move to the total horror
Of ennui, to wake tired at morning,
To be glad to face another alley, rather
Than to go on for another hour with the sheets,
Fighting the nightmares that gang up.

Those few are real and positive. They know
What misery and terror really are.
They’re usually the very last ones to bitch.
They go off somewhere to drink in a bar
Or cry or quietly to kill themselves.

from Poems and Stories, by Thomas McAfee
Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1960

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link).


 

November 30th, 2014

Imperial City, by Elmer Rice (1937)

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imperialcityFull of cardboard characters, stereotypes, cariacatures, clichés, and hackneyed situations Elmer Rice’s 1937 novel, Imperial City is the most enjoyable read I’ve encountered in months. It’s got something for nearly everyone: a murder in a crowded night-club; a race riot; a raid on a high-class whore house; adultery (both hetero- and homosexual); a solo flight across the Atlantic that ends tragically; a protest by undergraduates at Columbia; an unsuccessful hold-up and high-speed getaway; a black-out that cripples Manhattan just as a sickly child is undergoing an emergency surgery. Something’s happening on nearly every page, and with close to 700 pages, that’s a lot of action.

I’ve had a copy of Imperial City for a few years but always shied away from reading it. I’m a sucker for city novels, particularly ones set in New York, but the few reviews of the book I’d been able to find were pretty lukewarm in their praise. The fact that its one reissue was as an abridged Avon paperback with a cheesy cover didn’t say much for its long-term literary merit, either.

But when I finally picked it up, I was 50 pages in before looking up again, and found myself reaching for it in every spare moment after that.

Not for Rice’s style, mind you. Probably the closest comparisons I could find to Imperial City would be The Bonfire of the Vanities or one of James Michener’s geographic doorstops like Hawaii or Centennial, and compared to Rice, Wolfe and Michener are poets. Here, for example, is how he handles a stressful period in his leading man’s romance:

These activities, together with his constant attendance at the trial, had left him almost no time for Judy. For more than a week he had hardly seen her, except for two or three brief visits to the hospital to which her father had again been removed. They talked listlessly and almost impersonally. Judy was preoccupied with her father’s illness, and Gay with his brother’s critical situation and his efforts to avert the strike. Emotionally neither was capable of sharing the other’s anxiety, and for no good reason, each was hurt by the other’s apparent lack of sympathy; so that an indefinable coolness sprang up between them and their parting had none of its accustomed warmth.

This is reporting, not writing.

And yet, it’s easy to look past such clunkiness and just keep stuffing oneself with pages like handfuls of potato chips or popcorn. Imperial City is the fictional equivalent of empty, addictive calories.

Although centered on the Colemans–one of the wealthiest families in Manhattan–the novel is a veritable solar system of characters, ranging from a couple dozen planets whose names gradually grow familiar to minor moons and satellites to asteroids that go screaming past in a few pages, never to appear again. I suspect Rice’s cast list would put Tolstoy’s biggest to shame, and given how superficial many of his characterizations are, even harder to keep straight. Names disappear for hundreds of pages only to pop up again with no re-introduction (“Arnold Rayford … is he the lawyer or the power company executive? Oh, no that’s Charles Albertin … or is it Livingston Ward?”). More than a few times, I just gave up and hoped to figure things out as I went along.

What redeems the book, however, is its tremendous momentum and enough telling details to make the stage sets convincing. An early highlight is a visit to Coney Island on a hot summer day:

Everyone’s jaws were moving; those who were not munching ice-cream cones and hot dogs or licking lolly-pops were industriously chewing gum. The air was thick with the smells of brine, pickles, sauerkraut, spiced sausage-meat, sizzling lard, and human exhalations. People shoved and trod on each other’s toes to reach the booths where stentorian vendors extolled the merits of pop-corn and pink spun sugar and Eskimo pies. Spectators stood five-deep behind the players of skee-ball, Japanese ping-pong, and coney races. There were long queues waiting to buy tickets for the Old Mill, the Love Ride, the jolting little electric auto-racers, the barrel in which the motor-cyclist risked death, the crèche where the pre-maturely born babies were displayed in incubators. In the swimming-pools of the large bathing establishments, the divers shouted and splashed.

coneyisland
The prose may be trite or awkward (particularly that last sentence), but despite Rice’s clumsiness with the brush, a lively and colorful picture emerges. As a portrait of Manhattan in the 1930s–one of the city’s most vibrant decades–Imperial City isn’t the most deftly painted, but it may be one of the richest and most fascinating. Great art it ain’t, but it is great entertainment. Summer is a long way off, but if you’re looking for a neglected beach book next year, remember this.

Best known as a playwright (“The Adding Machine” and “Street Scene”, among many others), Elmer Rice only published three novels. His first, A Voyage to Purilia (1930), was a satire of Hollywood set on a distant planet (Penguin reissued it in the 1950s as a science-fiction novel). His last, The Show Must Go On (1949), was epic-sized, like Imperial City, about the ups and downs of a young playwright’s career. His last book was an autobiography, Minority Report, published a few years before his death.


Imperial City, by Elmer Rice
New York City: Coward and McCann, 1937


 

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