part ten

(This story started here.)

 
I woke up, sandwiched between Will and Sharon on a very narrow bed, the morning sun streaming in the window, with someone knocking on the bedroom door.

Before I could figure out what I was supposed to do, I heard the door open, and Jan Sleet’s voice said, “Oh, gracious.”

“I thought I locked the front door last night,” I said as I squirmed around to face the detective, feeling Sharon and Will wake up on either side of me.

Next to Miss Sleet was a teenage girl, with a crew cut and several tattoos. She shrugged. “You should really get a better lock,” she said. “I barely had to slow down to walk through that one.”

“We can talk about that later,” the detective said. “We’re here to open that door across the hall.”

“Miss Sleet?” I put in.

“Yes?” she asked as Will got out from under the covers and padded toward the door. As his naked form was revealed, the detective’s hand whipped up to cover the eyes of her young associate.

“I discovered something yesterday…”

“Hey!” protested the tattooed girl as Will left the room.

“I don’t know how significant it is–“

“But you’re thinking, or at least hoping, that it is significant indeed. Should we hear it before my young friend here opens that door across the hall? Do you know what we’ll find in there?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. That’s the part I’m less sure about. But I do know–”

The detective held up a hand. “Let’s reconvene in the living room, when everybody is properly dressed, so we can hear your story. Then we’ll deal with the locked room.”

She and the tattooed girl left the room. As Miss Sleet reached behind her to close the door, I heard the girl say, “She’s cute.”

Apparently this was in reference to me, because Miss Sleet responded, “He’s spoken for.”

I glanced at Sharon, who was smiling as I hadn’t seen in the last twenty-four hours. “‘Spoken for,” she said. “I never heard that before.” I was about to say something educational, but she hugged me. “I know what it is,” she said.

 
“Now,” Miss Sleet said as she stood in the center of the living room. Will, Sharon, and I were on the sofa, and the tattooed girl sat cross-legged in one of the armchairs. “Since you are not a professional, Michael, you don’t get to do a big, dramatic revelation. You have to take me through it step by step, from the beginning, so I have a chance to see where, or if, you’re making a mistake.”

She seemed stern, but I could tell, or I thought I could tell, that she was enjoying this.

“Okay,” I said. “Well, it started the night before last, when I was lying in bed. Sharon had fallen asleep, but I was having trouble relaxing for some reason. I was looking at the painting at the foot of the bed. It was obviously by the same painter who did the ones in here.”

I gestured at them, and Miss Sleet looked around. “I can understand your distress,” she said, shaking her head.

The tattooed girl looked at the paintings with what looked like approval, but she didn’t speak.

“I had only met Mr. Bostwick once, but Sharon has told me about him since I met her, and… he didn’t seem like the sort of person who would like art which was so disturbing. Not to have it in every room of his house.”

Jan Sleet nodded. “So far, so good. I’ve known Mr. Bostwick for several years, and that agrees with my assessment of him.”

“So, I thought maybe they were something the Golden enjoyed. That seemed to make sense, and I fell asleep. But then, yesterday, when you were here, and you suggested Will and Sharon take a nap.” She nodded. “I sat here for a minute before I went out to make the phone call, to Mr. Bostwick’s daughter. I looked at the paintings again, and something came to me.” I turned to Sharon. “Do you remember when we looked at the textbook about art?”

She looked up at me sharply.

“No.. Not… when we looked — actually looked — at the book, not when we…”

I knew I was blushing, and I didn’t turn to see Will’s expression, but Miss Sleet and the tattooed girl were certainly amused.

“When we looked… at the book,” I persisted, “at the textbook about the psychology of art, what did we discover?”

Sharon shrugged, apparently not sure where I was going with this. “I couldn’t see a lot of the illustrations, not really. Our eyes — mine and…” She gestured at Will. “We don’t see colors that well, not on flat surfaces. Black text on a white page, that we can see fine, but one color and another…” She shrugged. “These paintings in here mostly look like blank squares to us.”

“So, who did want these paintings in here?” I asked. “I decided to find out more about them. A couple of them are signed — ‘Postera’ — so when I went to the city today to call Mr. Bostwick’s daughter, I also talked to my art professor. It took a couple of calls, but I found him, and I asked him about Postera.”

Jan Sleet had sat down in the other armchair and she was leaning forward, her hands crossed on top of her cane. “And?” she asked.

I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket. “‘Postera’ was the signature of an experimental artist named Norman Post. He was somewhat successful during his life — he had a few shows in small, avant-garde galleries — but since his death almost twenty years ago he has become quite… collectable, as my professor put it. I think he — my professor — was trying to convey that the paintings were valuable but that he didn’t like them.”

“Interesting,” the detective said, leaning back in her chair, “but you’ve brought us back to two questions that we are still unable to answer.” She held up a long, bony finger. “If Mr. Bostwick knew the value of the paintings, then why didn’t he sell them so that all three of you could afford to go to college, and– ” a second finger “–why did he have the paintings on his walls if we are correct that they were not to his taste?

“Mr. Post was Mr. Bostwick’s… friend.” Will said.

Sharon nodded. “He always used to say it that way, with the pause before the word ‘friend.'”

“We thought that probably meant something.”
“But we weren’t sure.”
“And it seemed as though he–“
“–didn’t want to talk about it.”
“So we didn’t ask.”

 
More to come…

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mason & dixon — yes/no/maybe

Brian Buckley, over at briandbuckley.com, asked the following apparently innocuous question in a comment to a post about the movie The Imitation Game: “I haven’t read [Mason & Dixon]. Sounds like maybe it should go on my list. How does it compare to, say, The Crying of Lot 49? (The only one of his books I’ve read.)”

Well. I’m glad you asked that question. Here’s probably more of an answer than you really wanted.

Pynchon’s novels fall into two categories: the short (less than 400 pages) ones, and the long (more than 600 pages) ones. The short ones (The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, Inherent Vice, The Bleeding Edge) tend to be easier to read, and are set within the writer’s adult lifetime. The longer ones (V., Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day) are generally more challenging (in terms of prose style), and, since V., set further in the past.

So, The Crying of Lot 49 (by far the shortest book Pynchon has ever written, and possibly — my theory — written quickly to make money) is not much of an indicator.

However.

In my comment on your blog, I referred to Mason & Dixon as a masterpiece, and that is not a term I use very often. It is a wonderful, moving, profound, silly, and often surprising book. It is written in faux-17th century English and never makes a moment’s pretense to strict historical accuracy (the talking dog in the first few pages is a clue, as is the amorous mechanical duck which shows up later on). As it says in American Hustle, “Some of this actually happened.”

Despite the writing style, you never forget that it was written in the very late 20th century.

The entire book is the story of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon as told by a contemporary, Revd Wicks Cherrycoke, who is telling the tale to entertain some young relatives. He is an extremely unreliable narrator, since 1) it’s not clear how much he actually knows to begin with, and 2) his status as a houseguest is based on his ability to keep the children entertained and out of trouble.

Speaking of the writing style, this is the first sentence — just a portion of the first paragraph:

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,— the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,— the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.

This is, in my opinion, a masterful sentence (as is pretty much every sentence in the book — Pynchon never gets enough credit for his sentences) — not the sort of thing that any writing class or “how to write” book is ever going to teach you, but it can take a little getting used to. Every time I’ve read the book (and, thanks to you, I’m probably going to have to read it again now :-) ) it takes some time to relax and get into the rhythm of it. Once I do, it’s clear sailing.

So, absolutely recommended, with the above qualifications. If you read it and stall out at some point, wait a bit and try again. The first time I read it I had to start a few different times before it clicked in for me.

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2015, part 2 (seven sentence sunday)

So, it’s 2015. It occurred to me today that I’ve always said that I started writing seriously in 1970. So, that’s (according to my calculator) 45 years ago.

Huh.

Of course, it’s not like I started on any one particular day. But it was some time around 1970 that I started writing pretty seriously, almost every day.

I don’t think I ever said, “I want to be a writer” (let alone an “author,” which has always sounded incredibly pompous to me). I just wanted to write. Writing was (and is) more fun than not writing.

So, I thought it would be fun to look back at what I’ve managed to produce over that time span. First I was going to write one big blog post, covering everything, but that seemed like it would be exhausting to write, and probably exhausting to read as well.

Then I read about this thing called “Seven Sentences Sunday,” which I learned about at Tiyana’s blog (hey, Tiyana’s posting again — drop in and say Hi!). So, I’m kind of adopting that idea, though with a twist, since these are not works in progress.

(And obviously I got it wrong to start with, since it’s apparently supposed to be eight sentences, but I remembered it as seven when I was writing this — probably drawn by the alliteration.)

Starting today, every Sunday I will post seven sentences (or eight, I guess) from one of the things I’ve written, with a little commentary. I’m going to start at the beginning and take them in order.

 
1. A Sane Woman

For my first twenty years of writing, I mostly produced junk. All of which is (happily) not locatable by any search engine you can possibly use, because the Web didn’t exist back then.

Heh, heh.

In 1990, I hit on the idea of serial publication, and started to write A Sane Woman, a novel which was published in little monthly chapbooks (yes, paper). There are a couple of things I’d do differently if I was writing it now, but I’m still pretty pleased with it.

It’s available in book form here. It’s available on the web here, or if you want it all in one file (specially formatted for e-readers), you can go here.

Here’s seven sentences. This is the “inciting event,” or whatever they call it in the how-to manuals, and it turned out to be exactly seven sentences long, so it was the obvious choice:

 
Perry found himself thinking how nice it would be to go home. Then he sat bolt upright as a howl of anguish came from Sam’s room. He stumbled to his feet and crashed into Sarah as he ran to Sam’s room.

They opened the door all the way and stood transfixed in the doorway. Sam stood naked, his back against the wall, looking at the bed. The bedclothes were tangled and ripped, and covered in blood. There was no sign of Terry.

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history is not as long ago as you think

I just noticed this article: “Ethel Lang, the last Victorian, has died but Victorianism lives on

Queen Victoria — sounds like a long time ago, right? But one of her subjects was still alive until last Friday.

When I was young, Albert Einstein seemed like somebody out of the 19th century, but he died after I was born.

The shootout at the OK Corral happened in 1881. John Ford made a movie about it in 1946: My Darling Clementine. When people complained (and not without reason) that the movie was not historically accurate, Ford snapped that the movie showed the story the way Wyatt Earp had told it to him. Personally.

And, yes, Earp did live until 1929, and he was in Hollywood in the early days, as Ford was. Did they ever meet? No way to tell about that.

I used to work with a guy whose great-grandmother was alive, and she remembered Reconstruction, the period right after the Civil War. She told him stories about it.

I think about this in relation to my mother. Not only did she remember a world without television and the internet, she remembered a world where movies were rare, especially if you didn’t live in a city.

We used to have dinner together in her apartment every couple of weeks (we ordered out — she didn’t want to waste any of her remaining time cooking), and after we ate we’d watch a DVD while we drank our coffee. We enjoyed most of them (well, I enjoyed all of them, because I always made the selection), but it was a particular kick to watch Hugo with her, because she still remembered when movies were so amazing that an audience would panic if they saw a film clip of a railroad train heading toward them. Pretty much the entire history of “Hollywood movies” was within her lifetime.

And, yes, she was old, but not notably so. Some people live to be ten or even twenty years older than she was when she died.

A “generation” is thought of as twenty or twenty five years, but many generations are alive at the same time. I forget the details, but Orson Welles used to tell a story about when he was a boy, shaking hands with an old man (someone famous, but I forget who), and maybe that old man, when he’d been a boy, had met another old man and shaken his hand, and so on.

Thinking of it that way, rather than in “generations,” it wouldn’t be that many handshakes before you were back in Shakespeare’s time.

Not that long ago, really.

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part nine

(This story started here. We’re getting near the end now — and yes I’m doing the thing where Our Hero now knows something but he’s not telling anybody about it, yet, so we don’t find out either, but it’s only until the next part.)

 
When I got back to the house, having made my phone calls, I knocked at the front door. I didn’t know whether it had locked behind me when I’d left, but I was suddenly aware that I was a guest. I didn’t feel comfortable just walking in.

It was early evening by then. The walk across the bridge to the city had been pleasant, but the walk back had been quite chilly, with a sharp breeze coming off the water. I hadn’t minded the length of the walk; I’d had a lot to think about.

And now I was tired. Physical exertion was one factor, I’m sure — I don’t usually get a lot of exercise (I planned to go through my entire college career without ever setting foot in the gym),

I knocked again. Of course, if Sharon and Will were still upstairs asleep, who was going to let me in?

“Who is it?” boomed a voice from inside.

“It’s Michael?” I called with some trepidation. “Mike?”

The door opened and Ron, Jan Sleet’s daughter, looked at me. After a moment she said, “Come on in. I’m making dinner.”

In the kitchen, I made a gesture to convey that I could help with the food preparation. She made a gesture that pretty clearly said I should sit at the table and not get in her way.

She chopped tomatoes for a moment, then she asked over her shoulder, “So, you’re what, like, a guy?”

I said yes, though not with as much conviction as I’d intended.

“Hm,” she replied.

She shifted to grating cheese.

“Do you know how Mr. Bostwick’s family is going to find out?” she asked after a moment. “About his death?”

“I called them,” I said. “That’s where I was — I walked to a pay phone in the city.” She grunted. “I talked to the daughter — Barbara — and she said she’d call her brother.”

“How’d she take it? Did she act suspicious?”

“Well, at first she seemed pretty calm, that he was dead, but then I explained that he’d been murdered, violently, and she got upset.”

Ron nodded sagely. She opened the oven and took out a small frying pan. “I’m making omelettes,” she said. “That’s what I make.” She turned to face me. “How did you leave it with the suspect?”

I almost asked who she was talking about. “She was pretty upset. I told her I’d call her again on Monday morning. To give her a chance to–“

“She’s gonna want to do her own funeral thing. Well, my mother will figure it out. She’s coming back in the morning, with somebody to open that door upstairs.” She turned on the stove, then she said quickly over her shoulder, “You get to go and wake them up.”

This was not an unreasonable request, particularly since she was doing everything else, but as I went out to the hall, I had a hunch about why Ron didn’t want to do this herself.

And I was right. Sharon and Will were lying on their bed, together, wrapped around each other. The position seemed very familiar, though I had never seen it from the outside before. Climbing the stairs, I’d suddenly wondered if they’d be naked, but they were still dressed, except for their matching sneakers, which were in a neat row at the foot of the bed.

I stood next to the bed for a moment, looking down. Their eyes flickered open and they smiled, smiles which gradually faded as they apparently remembered what had happened.

It was a little awkward, since of course I wanted to console Sharon, my girlfriend, my lover, but Will was just as bereaved and I barely knew him.

We ended up standing and hugging, all three of us.

“Ron is downstairs,” I said after a moment.

“Making omelettes.”
“That’s what she makes.”

I made a face. “I don’t think she likes me.”

We broke our embrace, and Sharon and Will looked like they were agreeing and disagreeing at the same time.

“You make her uncomfortable,”
“as many things do,”
“but also the situation…”
“Her sister was murdered,”
“here in U-town, years ago, and…”
“they didn’t get along –“
“Ron hated her sister, so she never mourned,”
“but she feels conflicted about it…”

I found that their way of speaking was already starting to seem normal to me.

“Ron is…”
“inflexible”
“not flexible.”

 
Downstairs, we sat around the table in the kitchen as Ron made omelettes and served them, one by one. Will got the first one, then Sharon, then me, and then Ron served herself.

The omelettes were very good, and I made a point of saying so. Ron’s grunt of acknowledgement would have horrified my mother, but I was already learning her ways.

As we ate, we compared notes about funerals. Even by pooling our information, we still had some big gaps. We came up with the forlorn hope that, somewhere in his will, Mr. Bostwick might have left some detailed instructions that we could follow.

Ron left pretty quickly after dinner, and I was aware of the next question, which was whether Sharon would sleep with me that night, or with her brother. I was trying to figure out some suave way of bringing this up when Will said, “I’ll do the dishes. Why don’t you two go up to bed?”

As we climbed the stairs, holding hands, Sharon suddenly turned and looked at me, frowning. I gestured with my head toward our room. When we were inside, she said, “You’ve learned something. When you were in the city…”

I nodded. “It’s not the answer about who killed them, but… well, I don’t want to blow it up into more than it is, so I want to see what Miss Sleet thinks about it.”

She hugged me and rested her head on my shoulder, and I stroked her hair. Either she was saying she trusted my judgement, or she was reading my mind to find out the answer. I’ve never asked which it was.

 
Hours later, I half woke and realized that there were more limbs wrapped around me than usual, and one extra body was pressed against mine. I found I was fine with this, and went back to sleep.

 
More to come…

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you can’t improvise a concerto

I read a pretty good piece on the New Yorker website that clarified some of my misgivings about the movie Inherent Vice: “Paul Thomas Anderson’s Nostalgia Trip

Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of “Inherent Vice” bears the burden of his manifest devotion to Thomas Pynchon, but it’s second to his apparent devotion to Robert Altman.

Yes, exactly.

Anderson was a friend of Altman’s (he was on set for the entire production of Altman’s last movie, because Altman couldn’t be insured otherwise), and it’s long been obvious that he’s a fan (Magnolia was clearly his attempt to do Nashville — it even has two of the same actors, which can’t have been a coincidence).

But there are major problems with both of his devotions, to Pynchon and to Altman.

Many reviewers have talked about Inherent Vice as a book (and movie) where the plot doesn’t tie together, where everything is just seen through a cloud of pot smoke, where the questions aren’t answered and who cares.

Um, well, no.

In the book, the plot is tight. All mysteries are solved, all motivations make sense, and everything ties up. In the movie that’s not the case, and that’s a huge difference. What was solidly based in reality is now free floating, not tethered to anything, and, as I said before, very, very sentimental. Which the book pretty emphatically is not.

On the other hand, the only way to make an Altman movie… well, the only way to do it for real is to be Altman, but if you’re not, you at least have to work the way he did. You have to let the reins be loose, trust your actors, and pay as little attention to the script as possible. This movie was pretty obviously not made that way, and that’s the only way it can be done.

Altman used to say that when he was shooting a movie he never had a copy of the script. Someone on the crew (in Hollywood traditionally referred to as a “script girl,” but I have no idea if they were all women or not) kept track and made sure key plot points were covered in each scene, If not, if there was a great performance from the actors and something was missed, Altman would ask if that point could be placed somewhere else, or if it could be discarded.

This is why he was pretty universally loved by actors, and grudgingly admired, at best, by screenwriters.

You can’t get a stack of staff paper and create a great jazz solo, any more than you can get a bunch of musicians together to improvise a concerto.

To go back to the New Yorker piece, I agree that comparisons to The Long Goodbye do this movie no favors. That movie is based on a book also, but it’s not hampered by excessive reverence for the source material.

And I’m going to have to think about the switch of focus to the women in the story by having a female narrator. That would be an interesting tie back to Nashville, which was also, although not obviously, about the women.

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