Monday, October 27, 2014

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Dark Places

Some of you might remember I had some gripes about Gillian Flynn's bestselling chick noir novel Gone Girl (here's my short review, I wrote a more detailed review in Finnish). I liked Flynn's earlier novel, Dark Places, more, and it's out in Finnish in a good translation. It's darker and more believable and the seedy and unpleasant atmosphere is very well realized. The plot unravels slowly, Flynn knows how to make the reader turn pages without reverting to easy gimmicks. 

I ran into a good review of Gone Girl at the Rara-Avis e-mail list, written by Mark Nevins. I asked for Mark's permission to publish the review here and he complied. I think he is pretty spot on on some of the weaknesses of the novel. So, here goes. 

Gillian Flynn, GONE GIRL (2012) 

While I'm probably the last person in American to have finally gotten around to reading GONE GIRL, I'll still try to avoid spoilers in this review--which will be hard to do, so consider stopping reading now if you're planning to pick up this novel any time soon.

Gillian Flynn has written an incredibly clever novel in GONE GIRL, and it's worth reading the book just to see how she creates a complicated and layered narrative puzzle, somewhat along the lines of THE USUAL SUSPECTS or THE SIXTH SENSE. Nothing is what it seems in the "perfect" marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne, and the reader is forced to try to make sense of how the pieces of the story fit together via Nick and Amy's alternating first-person chapters, made more difficult by the fact that each of them has multiple "personas" as well.

Most readers seem to think GONE GIRL gets better after the "reveal" in the middle. While I saw the reveal coming, I nevertheless felt the second part of the novel was weaker than I would have hoped, given the fantastic set-up. When Flynn has to shift from narrative cleverness (and her construction of the narrative and all of its many moving parts is very very clever indeed) to real psychological depth, she comes up a bit short. While the first half of the novel promises something truly new, the resolution feels a little too much like the standard mass market thriller, including stock characters such as the creepy doting rich lover and the powerhouse slick attorney.

One of my biggest problems with the book is that I found neither of the two main characters in any way sympathetic: other writers working in the "doomed noir" space (e.g., the obvious candidate, James M. Cain) somehow make us root for bad people to succeed. My other big problem is that the overall tone of the book's prose is a bit too "chick lit" for me. GONE GIRL flirts with postmodern structure and unreliable narrators in ways reminiscent of Italo Calvino or Vladimir Nabokov, and it dances with dirty, twisted characters similar to those you might find in books by Charles Willeford or Jim Thompson, and yet the result is a book that falls somewhere in the comfortable middle, also known as the top of the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list for fiction. (Which may have been the author's objective after all, and who am I to quibble with that?)

I would in the end genuinely recommend GONE GIRL--if only because it's such a phenomenon, and a clever construction--but I think readers well-versed in the classics of noir are likely to find it a little "lite." (On another note, I will be intrigued to see how the book will be adapted to film, since what makes the book so interesting can really only be achieved on the printed page.)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Richard Moore and Barry Malzberg on Donald Westlake's The Getaway Car

I spotted this nice mini-review of Donald Westlake's non-fiction collection, The Getaway Car, by Richard Moore on the Rara-Avis e-mail list and asked for his permission to republish it here. Richard, ever the gentleman, gave his permission. It was originally posted to the PulpMags e-mail list.

The Getaway Car by Donald E. Westlake and edited by Levi Stahl (University of Chicago 2014) is a fascinating collection of Westlake’s non-fiction. It is a must for Westlake fans but anyone interested in writing will find it worthwhile.

It includes Westlake’s “The Hardboiled Dicks” first delivered in a May 1982 lecture at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC and later published in The Third Degree. I was at that lecture and it is hard to believe it was over 30 years ago. I remember thinking the lecture was toned down in a couple of spots prior to publication but I will need to find what I wrote for a fan publication at the time for any specifics. It remains a great analysis of the work of the private eye.

One short piece that fascinates me is “Light” an unpublished manuscript found in Westlake’s files and apparently written in 1997 or 1998. His 40th novel “The Ax” was a departure that got great reviews, sold surprisingly well, and caught his publisher’s attention. His return to the world of Parker after a hiatus of more than 20 years in “Comeback” also created a stir.

Suddenly, expectations were raised. He had another novel finished but it was no longer deemed suitable as a follow-up to “The Ax.” He told his agent “It’s a little late for me to have second novel problems, but that is what this is.”

I noticed that the Wall Street Journal has just published an appreciation of Westlake and a nice review of Stahl’s fine collection by William Kristol, editor of the National Review. I rarely agree with Mr. Kristol on anything but I share his enthusiasm for Westlake. I would not go quite as far as Krystol, who said Westlake was “the greatest modern American novelist.”

Here's also writer Barry Malzberg's comment to Richard Moore, published here with Mr. Malzberg's permission: 

As I wrote Lawrence Block off-list a week or two ago, "I am being escorted however reluctantly to belief in Donald E. Westlake as the greatest 20th Century USA writer." A refugee for half a century now from the precincts of quality lit and its bias, I am perhaps unthrilled but also embraced by this inference. No writer alive or dead has given me more pleasure per capita than Donald Westlake. I wish he had not been such a nasty son of a bitch (at least to me) but as Murch's mother would point out, the best route does not usually parallel the most scenic route.

GET REAL shows a 75 year old writer going out at the top, his gifts not only undiminished but soaring. The two posth, the last novel, and the last published in Westlake's lifetime shows his gift not only intact but still growing. The posthumously published novels are sensational, in fact THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, dealing with the same essential national dilemma as AMERICAN PASTORAL outdoes Roth's great novel as social and literary document.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Errors circulating about Gil Brewer's career

I just spotted this blog post via the Facebook group for Gil Brewer fans. It's a review of The Vengeful Virgin, Brewer's novel that was reprinted by Hard Case Crime some years ago. (Mind you, I've never read it, maybe it's about time!) There are some glaring errors I want to point out.

First of all, Gil Brewer didn't start writing at the age of seven. He was born in 1922, so he couldn't have started out in pulp magazines in 1929! It was his father. I know where this originates from: the St. James to The 20th Century Crime and Mystery Writers, but I believe it's been corrected in later editions. Anyone should see it's plain wrong, but apparently not.

Second, Gil Brewer didn't hit the pages of Black Mask, but then again, his first novel was published in 1950, and Black Mask ceased publication in 1951! And as for someone not publishing in Black Mask, let me point out that Fredric Brown - whom we all consider a genius, right? - published only one story in Black Mask. And Manhunt that has been one of the most influential crime short story magazines in history was Brewer's mainstay for years.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: The Shining

Well, most certainly Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, based on one of Stephen King's best-known books, is not an overlooked movie. It is to me, though, since I have never seen it on big screen, and it's been years since I saw it on TV. The screening of the Finnish Film Archive last night remedied this, and I can say the film blew my mind. I've had some problems with Kubrick's films - maybe even all of them -, but they are very cinematic to the edge of maniacal perfection.

Almost everything in The Shining is honed to perfection: the camera drives (remember that Francois Truffaut said Kubrick started out copying Aldrich's camera drives!), weird shooting angles, Jack Nicholson's acting (I wouldn't blame him on overacting on this, as many have done, he's masterly at timing his bursts), the use of music... There are some problems in the film, though: the use of Scatman Crothers's character is mechanic and doesn't bring much to the thematics of the film, and the ending is a bit abrupt.

However, the biggest problem is this: who cares what happens to these people? As the French critic Jacques Rivette once said, Kubrick makes films about machines to other machines. Shelley Duvall's wife is irritating, always almost bursting out in tears, Danny Lloyd's little boy is fascinating, but I think Kubrick could understand his kind of autistic kids. And you never really know what makes Nicholson's Jack Torrance tick. It's of course the basic idea in the film: you never really know... but one would hope for some clues. The film and its story and people exist in a fictional maze that's closed from the other society. It fascinates only as a game, even though it's a really suspenseful game.

This is my first foray into this theme in months. Here's a link to Todd Mason's blog where all the things happen, and here's a link to the previous gathering.