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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era