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.

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

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

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State