A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee: After frothiness comes leadenness

Dee has followed his celebrated topical satire The Privileges with a double portrait that's tighter in focus and smaller in scale.

A Thousand Pardons
Jonathan Dee
Corsair, 288pp, £14.99

The American writer Jonathan Dee has followed his celebrated topical satire The Privileges, about a heartless New York couple, with a double portrait that’s tighter in focus and smaller in scale; a swift-moving, incident-rich comedy that opens with an 18-year marriage being demolished by a verbal blow. The scene of the crime is a marriage counsellor’s office – a room that Adam Morey, the husband in the last novel, refused on principle to enter. “In the world of finance,” he told himself, “the most highly evolved people were the ones for whom even yesterday did not exist.” But Ben Armstead is in a more accountable, backwards-looking world – the law – and in a novel more concerned with the collection of regrets and foibles that Adam dismissed as “baggage”.

Written with colloquial fluency, in a third person that leaps between points of view, A Thousand Pardons is about what happens when a husband turns to his wife and says, “I would like to wake up tomorrow next to someone who has no idea who I am,” adding by way of caution, “If anybody uses the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ right now I swear to God I am back here with a gun and shooting this place up like Columbine,” before stating a preference for “existential crisis”. One immediate effect of this outburst – and the lawbreaking, civil-suit-bringing behaviour that follows – is the uncertainty into which it plunges not Ben’s future, the prospect of which he claimed to loathe, but that of his comparably well-adjusted wife Helen, whose days as a popular housewife are “shot to hell” (“less by scandal than the toxicity of pity”).

At this point, the novel, its opening moves apparently influenced by Sidney Lumet’s cold satire Network (a man who’s had enough says so), mutates into the literary counterpart of a film almost opposite in outlook. Helen is 43 years old when, newly single, newly in need of an income, she takes the commuter train to Manhattan in search of employment – she’s a little younger than Jane Fonda in the soft-centred, pop-feminist screwball comedy 9 to 5, but her fate of selfrealisation through professional achievement is much the same. Having been a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond (“She’d even written some stories for the local weekly”), Helen finds herself a fish out of water, her misconceptions about life on dry land receiving “the exaggerated patience usually reserved for dealing with the very old”. But it isn’t long before she finds a job at a shabby but charming company, Harvey Aaron Public Relations, and not much longer before she turns it around. You can almost hear the strings when Helen’s new boss thanks her for bringing “new life” to “the whole enterprise” and Helen replies, “You’ve revitalised my enterprise, too.”

There’s more than a dash of the wish-fulfilment fantasy to Helen’s siege of New York, corresponding to a laziness of invention on the part of her creator. In Barnet Kellman’s comedy Straight Talk, a descendant of 9 to 5, it was plausible that the Southern cornball wisdom spouted by Dolly Parton’s character would make her an ideal host of a radio phone-in show. The idea that troubles with Ben have equipped Helen ideally for PR, that her essential naivety brings something distinctive to a cynical game, though similar in shape, is poorly worked out in its detail.

Helen’s emergence as an innovator in “crisis management” depends on a one-size-fits-all strategy, urging her clients to apologise, on the strength of which a multinational, Malloy Worldwide, hires her when it might just have copied her. Dee anticipates a resistance to these developments but by having Helen reflect that she does not “completely” understand why a particular instance of her “apology wrangling” had worked and having the big shot Teddy Malloy inform her, “Not many people . . . can do what you do. Nor can they be taught to do it,” he is likely to win round only the sort of reader who didn’t smell anything fishy to begin with.

If the novel lacks the technical rigour of pop-feminist screwball, it hopes to complicate its ethical picture by adjusting its lopsided view of gender relations. Raised as a Catholic, Helen is described in terms of holy traces (one character claims to get a “nun hit” off her). But she doesn’t appear interested in whether her husband, after a series of all too human mistakes (telling the truth, harassing an intern, drunkenly crashing his car), deserves a second chance, even though their adopted daughter, Sara, isn’t exactly thriving in a single-parent household and appears unambiguous in her preference for flawed father over “capital-H Humble” mother.

It’s even implied that Helen’s “talent for inducing apology” is a merely “lucrative” one, predicated on the insight, canny rather than pure-hearted, that human beings only condemn when denied the opportunity to forgive. Neither Helen’s conscience nor her success seems to be affected by the sincerity or otherwise of her clients’ confessions. Despite the emphasis on the illusory and stagemanaged, Dee is also concerned with the idea of genuine forgiveness, in particular the forgiveness Helen withholds from Ben.

The book’s title draws on the double meaning of “pardon”, as something granted as well as proffered, and there’s a tautness both to the book’s vocabulary and its whole thematic arrangement, which gives a crisp clarity to the early pages but which becomes naggy and claustrophic once connections – between PR and Catholicism, say – begin to pile up. After frothiness comes leadenness. If A Thousand Pardons still manages to be engaging and even winning, it is a testament to a set of comic gifts – mordant wit, control of tone – that are powerful enough to defeat its author’s self-destructive urges and his habit of drawing on established forms (featherweight comedy, moral parable) without adequately warding off their dangers.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic 

Aspirations: a shop window in Manhattan, 2008. Photograph: Erin Toland "Longing".

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

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Why is Disney producing so many live-action remakes of its most popular animated movies?

The Jungle Book, The BFG, Pete’s Dragon and Beauty and the Beast are just one small part of the studio’s extensive strategy of live-action remakes.

When Disney’s 101 Dalmatians appeared in cinemas back in 1996, it surprised audiences. With a screenplay and production by John Hughes, and a brilliantly deranged Glenn Close as Cruella, it was in many ways more cartoonish than the stylish Sixties animation it was based on. The film was a peculiar choice from a studio in the midst of an animated renaissance: in the first half of the decade alone the releases of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Toy Story and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, reasserted Disney’s status as the ultimate home of animated family movies.

But it also paid off: 101 Dalmatians broke box office records on the Thanksgiving weekend of release, and was the top grossing family movie of that year.

Fast forward to 2010, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland tells a similar tale. The only live-action remake of one of the studio’s own animated classics since 101 Dalmatians, it was critically panned, but a huge financial success, bringing in over a billion dollars at the box office.

Since then, Disney has woken up to the commercial potential of this formula. Following Alice were The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (a 2010 release based on a segment of 1940’s Fantasia), Maleficent’s unusual take on Sleeping Beauty, 2015’s Cinderella, and, this year, The Jungle Book (and an Alice sequel ).

Next month, a live-action remake of The BFG will hit US theatres, to be followed by Pete’s Dragon and Beauty and the Beast later this year. Also in the works are new live-action versions of Dumbo, Mulan, Winnie the Pooh, Pinocchio, The Sword and The Stone, Peter Pan (two, in fact: Peter Pan and Tink), and Chip 'n Dale – as well as a version of The Nutcracker which will be the second live action film modelled on a Fantasia segment.

Like the animated movies of the Nineties and earlier, many of these movies all based on tales as old as time: but the studio is very specifically remaking its own films, rather than working on new retellings of ancient stories. Disney is undertaking a deliberate and extensive strategy of live-action remakes of nostalgic animated successes.

The Disney brand depends on nostalgia to reel in children and adults alike. It’s earliest animated successes, from the Thirties through to 1960, were variations of stories everyone had been told in childhood: Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty.

Their latest formula works in a similar way: take an old story which will appeal to children, their parents, and a generation of adults with a specific, nostalgic connection to one version (in these cases, Nineties babies). Bring a smattering of famous faces on board, plus an extra helping of action, some vaguely cheeky references, and the promise of 3D visuals. Then you have a Disney film that can extend beyond what can be fairly limiting Disney audience.

It will certainly be profitable for the studio in the short term, but by investing more and more into live-action remakes, Disney is moving further and further away from its USP. Arguably, the animated renaissance of the Nineties demonstrates that Disney generates is most iconic (and, in the long-term, it’s most commercial) movies by sticking to its most traditional skillset: hand-drawn animation, original songs, and a childlike earnestness unsullied by considering what might draw in an older audience. Who remembers the live action Disney movies of generations past? We might just about recall 1997’s George of the Jungle, but Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall in Popeye, anyone? 1994’s The Jungle Book?

It will certainly bring in big numbers at the box office – temporarily at least. But Disney’s latest strategy won’t result in the production of films that will continue to generate big bucks for the studio via its infamous moratorium strategy, or generations of merchandise. The animations that are already modern classics, from Frozen to Tangled, will be doing that work in the next decades. Disney would be wise to look for its next original movie in order to capture hearts – and wallets – for years to come.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.