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October 12, 2004

DATELINE LOS ANGELES: Hollywood Novels, Take One

by Ron Hogan

In Los Angeles proper now, chez Elegant Variation as it happens--we bloggers like to support each other when we can, and Mark's graciously provided me with a place to crash while I'm in town doing photo research for The Karen Black Project. Before coming here, I dropped in at Dutton's, one of my favorite bookstores in the nation (and not just because I worked there for a year fresh out of grad school). Picked up some things I'd been looking for, a special treat for the Significant Other, and an impulse purchase of the unabridged audio version of The Plot Against America read by Ron Silver. So I'll probably get a chunk of that onto my iPod and listen to it on the flight home Friday...

But maybe you want to hear about the Hollywood novels promised above. Everybody has a guilty pleasure genre--sometimes more than one--and the Hollywood novel is mine, as long as it's not too trashy. Sure, I like the obvious choices, like What Makes Sammy Run? and The Big Laugh: how can you not love a book that ends "He is Hubert Ward the movie star and no son of a bitch can take that away from him. Ha ha ha ha ha"? But my absolute faves are Gavin Lambert's four novels set in Los Angeles, especially Inside Daisy Clover; as I was just telling somebody the other day, I honestly consider Lambert the Dawn Powell of Los Angeles, and it's a shame his fiction isn't easier to find in this country. Anyway, in deference to this trip to Los Angeles, I've been dipping into some more recent Hollywood fiction to see what's going on in the genre...

You might remember last week when I commented on Michiko Kakutani's pan of Elizabeth Frank's Cheat and Charmer, suggesting that her "use of the press kit blurbs as a bludgeon against the author" was a bit lazy. I still hold to that principle, but now that I'm a couple chapters in, I can see why she lost it. If your teeth get set on edge by dialogue like "That must be some marriage--the most beautiful girl in the world and the most talented man of our time," this is not going to be the novel for you. Truth to tell, I'm finding the dialogue more than a little implausible myself, but I'm such a sucker for blacklist-era stories that I'm going on anyway. The main problem I'm finding is something Kakutani mentioned early in her review, when she compares the novel to "an old-fashioned Hollywood sudser, one of those glossy Douglas Sirk melodramas." Cheat and Charmer seems to equate a sweeping grand style with grand significance, and as a result the strokes can be extremely broad. But what actually made Sirk work (in my own opinion) was the accuracy of the smaller gestures--it's first and foremost the realistic portrayal of the characters from the ground up that makes the big things that happen to them matter. So far, the cast of Cheat and Charmer seems comprised of types rather than personalities, and as a result I don't so much care what happens to them yet as I'm simply cruising along out of curiosity about what direction Frank will steer the story in next.

I'm having a better reaction to Cathleen Schine's She Is Me, although "Hollywood novel" might be a bit reductive in this case, even if one of the main characters is an academic who's been lured out to LA to write a screenplay. Schine's characters are much more believable to me precisely because of how she builds them up through their actions in situations we can all recognize. Their reactions seem more natural, more authentic somehow, and I will admit that I personally am a sucker for plots that build up slowly out of discrete events rather than through straight-line narratives where nearly everything that happens leads inevitably to what happens next. That's just how I am. Anyway, She Is Me is a novel I am reading because I'm genuinely interested in how these characters handle these situations.

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