My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Purgative bouts of condemnation

Leo Robson reviews two new novels about the not-so-golden ages of Hollywood history.

Houses in Hollywood.
Hollywood can be understood, wrote Edmund Wilson, "but only dimly and in flashed". Photograph: Getty Images.

My Face for the World to See
Alfred Hayes
NYRB Classics, 135pp, £7.99

Beautiful Ruins
Jess Walter
Viking, 340pp, £8.99

The best-known single insight about Hollywood in a work of fiction comes on the first or second page – or, if you’re reading the old Penguin edition, with the Edmund Wilson foreword, over the first and second pages – of F Scott Fitzgerald’s very unfinished novel The Last Tycoon. The narrator, identified first as “the producer’s daughter” and only secondly as a Bennington junior in possession of a mind like a “kicking foetus”, says that though you can take Hollywood for granted or dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for things we don’t understand, it can be understood, “but only dimly and in flashes”.

Fitzgerald’s own attempt to balance what the following sentence terms “the whole equation of pictures” ended up dimmer or blurrier, than he had anticipated, because – as Wilson put it, with the grim directness of his other novelist friend Vladimir Nabokov – he “died suddenly of a heart attack (21 December 1940)” at a point when he had not yet brought his material “finally into focus”. But if he didn’t manage that, he still left behind, along with the conclusively damning 70,000-word draft, a heap of notes and ruminations suggesting that he had identified the remaining ingredients necessary to fill out the picture, most importantly that of the “Actress”. “Keep her close,” he urged himself. “Never just use her name. Always begin with a mannerism.

” The figure of the actress – the leading lady with a countdown blasting in her head, the starlet waiting to replace her, the would-be starlet who ends up waiting tables or worse – gives far more depth and solidity to the idea of Hollywood as a field of tragedy than the producer whose early ideals lie shattered on the marble floor or the writer who traded his talent for a regular paycheque. There are various ways of being an actress in Hollywood, and they all involve distortion – and prostration. Rita Hayworth lamented that men went to bed with Gilda (her most celebrated role) but “wakened with me”, and even empowerment of the Sharon Stone variety amounts to the most circumscribed kind of control: objectification on your own terms.

The writer Alfred Hayes went to Hollywood and never quite succeeded. He made uncredited contributions – along with several others – to one masterpiece, Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men, as well as working on some lesser Fritz Lang films, and he is now best known, to the extent that he is known at all, for his novels, including the tiny, pleasingly written My Face for the World to See, which has been reissued by NYRB Classics.

Though narrated by a married writer with a taste for short chapters and a gift for reported speech (“She didn’t want to disturb, I was probably busy”), the novel reserves most of its pity for the suffering of a young divorcee whose introductory mannerism involves moving “carefully and gaily” over a stretch of sand before wading into the ocean with a sense of purpose. The writer saves her and then seduces her, but the sense of walking in someone else’s footsteps – perhaps several pairs – gives him heavy feet.

Hayes’s withholding of names places the affair in the realm of archetype or at least stereotype – not knowing the difference between “protective” and “predatory” being the attribute of Hollywood Male, and allowing yourself to be exploited again and again that of Hollywood Female. Formally unemployed, the girl belongs, naturally, to what her stony-hearted observer calls “that loose category, an actress”.

My Face for the World to See – the title refers to the ambition the actress started out with – was written in the mid-1950s, which suggests that it wasn’t only the combination of rheumy eyeballs and rotting-rose-tinted binoculars that prompted James Ellroy to portray the decade as a sewer in LA Confidential and White Jazz.

In Hayes’s rendering, presumably derived from first-hand mental note-taking, Hollywood instils a feeling of “insatiety”. It’s a place where, the narrator reckons, people lie in bed “thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous if they weren’t already famous, and even more famous if they were”. This picture, which he partly dismisses as a product of “snobbery”, is corroborated by his fragile charge/prey, who believes that her every action is being watched by the bureaucratic wing of the film studios, as a kind of test of her fitness for stardom. We can see that her sanity has been destroyed by anorexia and alcohol. On the other hand, the book ends with the narrator in a bar, being looked at by “reasonably famous” eyes and smiled at by “reasonably famous” teeth, features that did not look “guilty of anything” – or at least that’s how they look to those who are prepared to take surfaces for depths, or who stand to benefit from the illusion.

Jess Walter, in his frothy romantic comedy about roughly the same period – it starts in 1962 – is less interested in what Hollywood does to people than in what it claims people can do for themselves. One character leaves his family after watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s; another is tattooed with some go-for-it rhetoric from a Paul Newman movie.

Nonetheless, Walter has chosen as his heroine an actress-of-sorts, a girl from Seattle who goes by the (made-up) name of Dee Moray and whose big break is a small role in the storm-tossed Burton-Taylor version of Cleopatra. (Introductory mannerism: “She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing.”)

In this Hollywood, people still lie about their age and treat stepping on other people as an effective means of ascent, but the would-be starlet gets away. She is sated by her tiny brush with fame.

And so Walter’s novel, whatever its charm as a period-hopping, continent-clash comedy, fails in the first duty of fiction about Hollywood – to provoke a purgative bout of condemnation so that we can guiltlessly go on enjoying its products.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman

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