Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On Being "Joan", 1983

Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.
Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
and dad's Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes.
What do these three novels have in common? They are all examples of what the french literary types call Roman A Clef ( "Novel With a Key").
Most novels are based, at least in some parts, on an author's experiences.
The difference here is that, while all characters are fictitious, with "a key" the reader could match each characters to someone real.
I'm not about to reveal this so called key to Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes except for one. The sullen teenage daughter Joan is a composite of my sister, Lansing, and me. And it's not brotherly love but honesty which compels me to admit Joan is a lot more me than she.
In this passage the narrator is driving his daughter to her first day of boarding school. She has left her raincoat somewhere and just called her friend's house.

"Did she have your raincoat?"
"Unk!" Joan said and her face flushed. "I forgot to ask her."
"Call Annie again, " I said. "Now watch my lips: ask about your raincoat".

The raincoat was not there; it never has been found. Nor have the countless sweaters, gloves, scarves, her bicycle lock, my bicycle lock, her bicycle itself, two Timex watches, library books. If I did not know that I had been mindless at her age, too, I would have savaged her. Instead, I sat quietly in the car next to her as we drove up to St Matthew's and kept my worries to myself. She was so young. At thirteen could I have been as immature? She is still such an unformed cloud of astral gases that I have never satisfactorily resolved for myself how much of it is my fault

The Roman a Clef format allows the author to play God with the people he knows. He can change what people say and what people do. He can settle scores. He can make fun. He can even manufacture a happy ending. I don't think this is what Dad set out to do. In a confessional tone, I think he set out honestly explain his relationships with the women in his life.

For so many reasons this book is a difficult read for me personally. I wasn't much of a prize at thirteen ( through eighteen), but the years Dad describes in this book are among the most painful of my life. I don't need to revisit them again.

Some critics thought better of the book.

The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called it "unwieldy,opaque, but (as a) portrait of a man and his collapsing marriage also powerful and disturbing".

Tom Wolfe said Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes is "the most exquisitely detailed picture of the psychological water polo that passes for modern marriage that I've ever read. A brilliant piece of work".

People Magazine said it was "so vivid it almost gives off sparks"

But they weren't all kind

The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley called the book "silly" and added "Every page aches with confession and throbs with sincerity; there's more caring, loving, openness and warmth here than could be found in a convention of Southern California interpersonal-relationship counselors."

The nail in the coffin came in the New York Times Book Review where novelist Alice Adams wrote how Dad seemed obsessed with breasts and added ''this is a very confused long book.''

Beautiful Women Ugly Scenes failed to take off. Dad gave up writing novels and moved on to non-fiction exclusively, beginning with The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery.

Thank God Hollywood didn't come calling again!

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