The Splendour Of Fear

Last year I read the 3 novels by Sara Gran about the detective Claire DeWitt, and now I have read all her other novels. There is also an audiobook Marigold which I have not heard yet.

The characters in these books are similar to Claire and her friends in their uncertain backgrounds; if they had advantages they lost them along with other opportunities and are now hitting a wall in life either at the end of a frantic 20s, or with quiet resignation later. They all have an awareness of the changes in society around them, as careers their parents had or could aspire to are now disappearing, and more uncertainty and higher costs are what their generation has been given in exchange. The exception is the period novel, Dope, set in New York in the 50s, but even the women in that novel have familiars in the other books.

In all these stories, books and manuscripts play a role in some way, as they do in Claire DeWitt’s life-quest. There are affinities with Paul Auster’s novels, though nearer to his later works when the big networks and conspiracies threading the characters together are rather thin and underpowered. Chance and randomness are not themes, since these characters do not have time to wonder about them. They are being forced along by events and taking what they think are the least worst options, as far as they can understand what is happening. They are not, like most Auster protagonists, college graduates playing a game of going with the flow and behaving like pulp novel characters; they are pulp novel characters who have gained a degree of greater awareness, but not any more volition.

Some of these stories were optioned for screen adaptations, and they would do very well. Sara Gran had some trouble with her early editor, and has now taken control by putting her latest book out on her own imprint first, before it gets foreign publication later.

The Splendour Of Fear was an album by Felt with a sleeve taken the poster for Chelsea Girls. Both the title and that film are appropriate references for many of these characters and their worlds.

Saturn’s Return To New York (2001)

Sara’s first novel has existed in 2 versions. As she explains in the Introduction to the new edition from 2018, her editor Laura decided late in the publication process that the book needed an extra chapter at the end.

We went back and forth. Laura felt very, very strongly about this new chapter. She felt like the book didn’t work without it. The reader’s heart was with the relationship in the story, she said, and we needed another chapter or two on it.

The relationship was the least interesting part of the book to me. But I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t write the extra chapter – that she wouldn’t like the book as much and wouldn’t promote it as much or maybe even wouldn’t publish it at all. I was tough. Laura was tougher.

The later version is back to what Sara originally wanted, without any extras added to meet what the reader was expected to expect.

It’s apt there should be a story around the publication of this story, since it is a story set in the world of publishing, or at least the adjacent world of literary magazines and cultural commentary and academic reviewers.

When I was seven, my father killed himself. He woke up one morning in 1977 and swallowed a bottle of Valium that my mother’s doctor, ironically, had prescribed to help her cope with the stress of my father’s depression. Well, the Valium helped with the stress, all right. You could almost say those pills solved the whole problem.

Mary Forrest is the daughter left behind to care for Evelyn. Evelyn and Michael both went through the literature department at Columbia University in the early 60s and they decided to set up the Greenwich Village Review to print the sort of writing they wanted, the way they wanted it. “[H]e was pissed off at the butcher job the guys at The Cowton Review had done on his article on cancer in the literary imagination.” This is world in which everyone is very familiar with all the right people, and can make jolly wisecracks about the lesser culture surrounding them.

I like the word episode. It turns my mother’s illness into a vague malady from a Jacqueline Susann novel, and I don’t have to think about the specifics.

Of course New York and the wider American literary world is dominated by men, usually from a certain background. Mary’s dad was able to do as much as he could thanks to coming from “WASPy Connecticut”, while other magazines were controlled by “assholes” and none of the women who worked in that world have fond memories of it.

When Evelyn got her master’s degree from Columbia she thought she’d be offered a tenure track position in the English Department. She wasn’t. No women were. She taught freshman comp at Radcliffe for one semester and then left to work at The Hammer, where the male editors, once they saw her, quickly demoted her from editorial assistant to coffee girl. Pretty women just weren’t editors.

But that world is already passing away by 1999.

”Mike was a big deal back then. If you wanted to work with them, publish with them, or just not be on their shit list, you had to get along with Mike. It wasn’t like today, when every kid who works at a copy shop has a little zine. There were very few places anyone interested in really cutting-edge writing could work, back then, and The Hammer was one of them.”

Technology is changing this world, but it still hasn’t swept over everywhere. Mary doesn’t have a mobile phone, the internet and email have limited impact. She now works in the offices of Intelligentsia, an Amazon-like website where she works as “Spotlight Reviewer”. There are ambitious rivals chasing for each other’s jobs, but there’s still a reasonably secure living to be had from a small publication reaching a small audience, sustained by a reputation built over decades. The problems in Mary’s life are the long-term depression and disconnection from her dad’s death, and Mary’s slow decline into dementia. Along the way she learns what simply awful people dad’s family were and the suggestion that some of her problems may be hereditary.

Of course Mary inherited many things, and her life has been a slow parachute descent from privilege.

I dropped out of college after less than a year and then blew through three hundred thousand dollars in four years.

Dropping out of college was one of the easiest decisions I ever made. Starting college was one of the stupidest. In the fall when I was sixteen Mayor Koch’s million-dollar campaign to eradicate graffiti had left the city colorless. I loved that graffiti. I especially loved the numbers 2 and 3 trains, their flat exteriors perfect canvases for epics. Not just Tito Loves Kate thrown up with a paint pen, but a brilliant illumination of Tito and Kate meeting in the Wyckoff Projects, their first kiss in Times Square, and, finally, painting trains together at Coney Island. The city wasn’t the same without it. So I applied, and was accepted, to a college in Rhode Island. The admissions board didn’t have the time to plow through the St. Liz’s purple prose; I just flashed my SAT, ERB, and IQ scores and they let me in.

Too bad for mom:

Evelyn was bitterly disappointed when I left school. It had been a big deal for my mother to go to Brooklyn College and when she transferred to Columbia, her parents had never heard of it – that’s how stratospherically education catapulted her out of her class. Without Columbia she would probably be an English teacher at P.S. 321 today. But the upper-middle class bookish life that college gave to her, I was born into.

Mom isn’t happy about how the city has been changing:

”Manhattan’s got about three neighbourhoods left,” says Evelyn, “downtown, uptown, and up above that. You got Brooklyn, you got Queens, you got the Bronx, and Staten Island, they should secede already. There’s no surprises left in this city. They’ve got every square inch mapped and targeted for corporate doggie boutiques. Now neighbourhoods have names made up by real-estate agents: NoLita. What the fuck is that? It’s like it happened overnight; one day you had a neighbourhood, a place where people knew each other, where they raised their children, where you bought groceries. Now every house in the city has been converted to co-op condominium apartments for NYU graduates. There’s no children in Manhattan anymore. Every square block has a nightclub and one of those Thai restaurants.”

Mary’s life since college has been a long orbit of dead-end jobs and the quest for experience to be the raw material for a writing career that ever quite gets started. Lessons are learnt, mostly about failure and disappointment.

I was too young to see the difference between a teenager and a thirty-two-year-old drinking themselves into oblivion every night. The difference is, at thirty-two, it’s not a phase and it’s not experimentation. It’s being a drunk. I didn’t know this then, and in my mind we were a regular happy couple.

The title is drawn from astrology, as Mary’s new thing is to have consultations with Kyra Desai, whose brochure states that she “leads the Vedic Council, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to the betterment of mankind through astrology”. Saturn’s return occurs in a 29-year cycle, and Mary is now 29, ready to be shocked and changed. The news that an old school friend died of a drug overdose 2 years ago is one of the shocks catching up with her, but the message from the astrologer is for a deep search in her past:

”So this is your challenge, for your Saturn Return. Love your father, and then kill him.”

“It’s a typical autobiographical first novel, except that it’s good.” Mary remarks about the work of an older guy she met at the offices of GV and had her first affair with. This may not be strictly autobiographical but rather a portrait of a privileged New York girl drawn by an outsider on that life. Some of this is like an early draft of Lena Dunham’s Girls. The astrological theme doesn’t play much of a role in the plot, it simply marks a flag in Mary’s mind about the end of her 20s. Putting it less cryptically would make her aware that she was living close to one of the styles of popular mass fiction of the late 90s/early 00s, books that she was reviewing and selling in her job, and she’d have to notice and remark on that Perhaps she would read a new book about her own life; but this is not that sort of novel.

Come Closer (2003)

Amanda is married to Ed, and slowly making a career as an architect.

I had decided to become an architect when I was twenty. I had moved to the city when I was eighteen, top go to college, and I started with a major in art. I was in love – with my school, with the city, with the snow. I had come from a southern suburb where every star was brightly visible at night and the thermometer never dropped below fifty. I had spent eighteen years in continual boredom…. I went through the labyrinthine process of applying for financial aid and as part of the deal, got a job in the Department of Architecture office. One thing I noticed about architects was that they dressed a hell of a lot better than the art professors. And they drove better cars. And they seemed a lot more likely to have spouses and even children, too. So I switched to the architecture program.

Her relationship choices are also governed by a sense of taking the best available.

I was twenty-eight when I met Edward. I felt lucky to have found him. He was a man you could trust, a big-boned healthy blond. No skeletons in his closet.

Things start behaving oddly around Amanda. First of all, she submits a piece of work at the office containing an obscene, abusive message about the guy who has to review it. This is all explained away as a prank by someone else, but of course we realise it must be the start of a pattern of behaviour as Amanda is coming under a hostile, unseen influence There are tapping sounds in the flat (which Ed can hear as well). They are of course living in a district colonized by ambitious young couples who can’t quite reach the places they desire.

The noise wasn’t so unusual, really; our building was close to a hundred years old and one expected that kind of noise. It had been built as an aspirin factory when the city still had an industrial base. After the industry moved out, one developer after another had tried to do something with the neighbourhood, full of abandoned factories and warehouses like ours, but the schemes never took off. It was too far from the city, too desolate, too cold at night.

Further mysteries occur, as she seems to be shoplifting unknowingly, and also conveniently ordering books about Demon Possession, from which she can see that she is slowly coming under the influence. She takes up smoking again, and begins hanging out in bars all night. But the big change behind all this are her dreams about a strange beautiful woman she meets on a beach, who wants to be with her all the time. But she can recognise her as a figure from her childhood.

Pansy had been an imaginary friend. I first thought of her when I was five or six. A mother substitute. I imagined her combing my hair, setting up for a tea party with me, tucking me into bed at night. My real mother had passed away when I was three – from a heart attack – and my father remarried very quickly, to a woman who had never wanted children. Noreen. Pansy wasn’t another little girl, she was what I thought of as a grown-up, but she was really a teenager. She was modelled loosely on Tracy Berkowitz, a glamorous eighteen-year-old who lived down the block. But unlike Tracy, Pansy was wise and soothing and cared about me. I was not so lonely as to be deranged, to think that Pansy was real. There was no psychic break, no supernatural mischief. I was absolutely aware that I was real and Pansy was imaginary.

Until, one day, she wasn’t…. I was walking home from school, down a block of neat white houses with patches of green lawn, each one almost identical to the next. I was walking slowly, not in a hurry to be home, or anywhere at all. The street was empty except for a woman at the end of the block, standing at the crossroads as if she was waiting for someone.

Of course, “It was Pansy”, and she asks: “Can you see me, Amanda?”

I was old enough to know that this was impossible, what had just happened, and that only crazy people believed in impossible events. I buried the memory so deeply it didn’t resurface until the dreams began.

Incidentally, my father and Noreen died while I was in my second year at college. They were scuba diving off the coast of Jamaica and got caught in a coral reef and drowned.

The seemingly affectless “Incidentally…” becomes more important later as we learn the reason Amanda needed the hardship fund in college (and the move into architecture) was due to Noreen consuming any inheritance she might have had.

“What we think is impossible happens all the time.” Is the key expression in this story of a descent in to bad behaviour and eventual disaster. There is a supernatural storyline in which the possessor is identified as a figure in demonological lore. But the setting remains the lonely, unfriendly world of modern professional lives passed in offices and streets formed with the same bland repetition as the distant suburbs. The demon was waiting to come in to the space left by an absence of love and filled only with placeholders and compromises instead of commitments. The moments when it seems that she is caught in a wider conspiracy of demonic possession recalls the schizophrenia-memoir Operators And Things.

It’s not too hard to see why the film version of this is stalled: it needs a lot of extra plot to make it palatable. It could be a downbeat modern horror like The Dead Center or a thriller like Unsane, but it needs an heroic second lead to step in and at least attempt to save Amanda. We’re stuck inside her consciousness and there’s no way out or alternative perspective on events, just to lighten the load for viewers.

Dope (2006)

Josephine Flannigan is a recovered heroin addict in New York in 1950. She hangs around in bars and dives filled with gangsters and queers and addicts and other people on the edges of society. She was married and still sees her husband around, as he hasn’t quit the junk yet. She pays her way by pickpocketing and shoplifting, and also admires from a distance the rise of the new media starlet Shelley Dumere, a model now moving on to work as a TV actress, who is in fact her half-sister and still needs Josephine to clean up debts and messes left behind.

The drugs problem in New York is now getting out of hand.

Dope came into town through the mob, but by the time it got down to the level of Jerry McFall, probably ten men had bought it, stepped on it, and passed it along. McFall’s connection was probably someone who never sold on the street, probably someone who didn’t use. A businessman, so to speak. But certainly not a real player, and not a mob man himself. The junkies who actually sold it to other users were the bottom of the barrel and they made the smallest profit, because no one higher up the barrel would deal with them.

Josephine finally kicked the habit after a spell in jail, but she still feels the pull:

They say once you’ve been an addict your biology is never the same. All your cells are so used to junk that they’ll never quite get over it. They’ll always crave dope.

But she can hold out.

I tried not to listen to Hank and Cora. I thought, This is why I quit. The never-ending conversation about dope, always the same loop, around and around. There was no aspect of junk that could go unexamined for more than twenty-four hours. I couldn’t stand it anymore. A few minutes ago I had craved a shot like I was dying for one. And now more than anything else I hoped I would never have to speak to another junkie again.

The story begins with Josephine called to an appointment at a fancy lawyer’s office uptown. A well-off out-of-town couple called the Nelsons have got ion touch through contacts who have contacts, because they need someone in the druggy underworld to help find their daughter Nadine, who has gone off the rails and quit her fancy college to go live with her lowlife boyfriend Jerry McFall. Josephine sets out on an odyssey around the flophouses, parks and sleazy bars where people who know people might be able to help. Along the way she notices other guys turning up in the same places and sometimes obviously tailing along after her. She learned how to act from her years turning tricks and innocently loitering in big stores; plenty of junkies also help out as shills in pulling simple cons to get free rides home from Grand Central Station. She isn’t a professional detective, but she isn’t stupid and she can guess that she’s being played in a bigger story.

There is a bigger story she already knows, about how kids from Hell’s Kitchen like her and Shelley don’t start with the same chances as Nadine Nelson and her kind.

This girl was going to college, for Christ’s sake. I’d never known anyone who’d been to college. I wasn’t even sure what they did there. I left school in the ninth grade. I knew why my life had turned out the way it did – I’d never had much to lose to begin with. And I’d never been good at anything that was legal. But this girl, she’d thrown away what ninety percent of the world would kill for. I didn’t care if her parents did spank her or her mother did tip the bottle a little. She’d has no reason to do it. She’d had no right to do it.

There is a fast-moving, twisty plot with a nasty ending, and it’s not surprising it was considered for a film adaptation at a time when The Black Dahlia was getting attention, although that film may have spoiled the pitch, and in any case Dope goes harder on the unglamorous side of the underworld. We have the properly Chandleresque feeling that it all doesn’t quite make sense, and Josephine herself voices the weakest link in the story: why would anyone give 1000 dollars to some rotten little pickpocket in the hope that she’d find a missing person? It doesn’t make any more sense when she admits it doesn’t make sense. In addition to the puzzle of why someone as tough and streetwise as her would fall for it to start with, we might also wonder if she would be so naïve as to go in an “office” that doesn’t have any names on the frosted glass.

The story is sparsely told as we quickly move from one dingy, low-rent location to another, occasionally stopping in a comparatively high-class restaurant. Our narrator is intelligent and does not over-elaborate, there is little description other than of the tired, haunted faces and damaged bodies. The only odd solecism in the text is a reference to a “marquis” at the start of chapter 8, which should be a “marquee”, since it “said: Girls! Girls! Girls! Live Revue Inside!”, although I suppose the alternative works as well. If that is a jokey allusion to De Sade then it stands alone. We should notice at the start that one of the lawyer’s offices Josephine passes on her way to meet the Nelsons bears a list of names that includes “Thompson, Burroughs” which could be a nod to Jim Thompson and William Burroughs. Josephine uses the expression “walk on the wild side” (end of chapter 9), which in her world is not yet the title of a novel (it was published in 1956), nor yet a famous song, but there is no sign of how it comes to her. This book is obviously informed by a lot of research, all presumably from literary sources since none of the names in the Acknowledgements at the end are other than in the publishing world. Any real-life counterparts of Josephine would be dead and never-remembered before Sara could interview them for authentic period detail. The Automat diner in Times Square is part of the city folklore.

The Book Of The Most Precious Substance (2022)

Lily Albrecht had success with her first novel Beauty some years ago, written at the end of her 20s.

The book was about a painting and a bunch of people who wanted it, fought over it, and sacrificed everything they had to get it.

On the tour to promote it she met her current partner Abel.

Abel was not exactly famous, but a highly renowned writer of academic theory and criticism and obscure histories. People said he was a genius. Later, after I read his books, I agreed.

But we never get to see any examples of his “genius” as he declined in to dementia and paralysis and Lily had to give up her writing career to reorganise their lives around his long-term care. She now works as a bookseller of rare editions, and we start at a book fair in New York, where she meets other members of her business.

Like most book people, there was a shadow in his face, a hollow echo in his laugh, that let you know he’d rather be around books than people. Who could blame him? It was why so many of us were in this business. People had let us down. People had broken our hearts. We liked our books and animals and messy rooms full of things that weren’t people.

Characters in this story often have grand qualities ascribed to them (“witty”, “erudite”, etc.) without demonstration, and this may be an imitation of the style of big sellers such as The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades Of Grey. I don’t know, I haven’t read them. But there are plenty of clues that this may be a lampoon or satire: Abel’s specialty was described as “semiotics” (though his name doesn’t seem to have any wider significance), we have the plot of Lily’s only published novel, and we set out on a quest to locate a copy of the titular book once another seller tips off our heroine that a wealthy private buyer will offer any amount of money for it. The arrival of the cops in chapter 16 features some comedy about the tough-acting detective personas.

The Book Of The Most Precious Substance: A Treatise Of The Various Fluids And Their Uses is the full title of the desired text. It

…”is the most precise, and most effective, grimoire of sex magic ever written. It guides the reader through five steps, each corresponding to a different bodily fluid, and along with it, a specific symbol and a word. Occultists are very big on correspondences. It’s one of the many highly unnecessary hobbies they like. They’re very into theater…”

The Most Precious Substance is so-called because female anatomy can only produce it under the right kind of stimulation – this secretion is not exactly a great occult secret, it was mentioned in an episode of Sex And The City. Lily and her fellow-bookdealer Lucas travel from New York to Los Angeles to Paris to somewhere in the south of France to somewhere else in France. Along the way we meet a dominatrix who keeps humans dressed as horses in her stables; an aristocratic English sex-conceptual performance artist (who might be borrowed from The Big Lebowski), a tech billionaire, a French avant-garde novelist, and a Pentagon bureaucrat. There is fine dining and boozing and drugs and sex magic games and a few deaths. Eva Green would be a good choice for several of these roles in a film version.

Lily intimates that she feels the Book is drawing her along in her quest, though she doesn’t consider that Abel’s dementia may have been induced from afar to put her on a long arc leading to this odyssey. The codenames given to the various parties pursuing the Book (“The Fool”, “The Whore”, “The Witch”…) could have marked an involvement of Tarot card mythology in the conspiracy, but that is another unexplored thread. The final ceremony of the Book requires users to obtain blood from a dying, beating heart – a detail echoing the secret Satanic ceremony at the centre of Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg, filmed as Angel Heart, which occurred in the world nearby Dope. In this world we have no demons or Devil, and no sense of any higher powers manipulating and setting up the credulous humans. The magic book is simply a set of tricks, available to be played with and given up by anyone ruthless enough to want it. The ones that want it could not be described as hedonists; they seem to be mostly the joyless super-rich. There will be no judgment or punishment on them regardless.

In amongst the hectic pursuit and hard bargaining and rough and tumble, there is time for some reflection as tired, middle-aged bodies feel that excitement has passed them by. The early description of Lily’s life with Abel is filled with the sadness of the slow death to chronic decline. The most intimate moment of human contact depicted here is not in any sex scene, but in chapter 17 when Lily and Lucas discuss sex scenes in books, and how their expectations were affected by reading pornographic fiction when they were too young to understand what it was really about.

Perhaps this entire book should be taken as Lily’s second novel, trying to make money inspired by some of the trash she sees whilst trawling in second-hand bookshops? It plays along with the game of mystery by having the Special Words redacted as black blocks. “Or was this just one chapter in its long, ugly history, with more to come?” leaves the door open for a sequel, or more likely a second series if this is adapted for TV on-line. There’s not quite enough action here to make a single film, and too much exposition and chatter about books and their histories. One of Lily’s interests is in British pulp fiction, and she might have found a murderous conspiracy amongst bookdealers in Blue Octavo, an uncharacteristic work by the horror hack John Blackburn. But the quest for the missing publication is done best of all across the Claire DeWitt trilogy, where our heroine proves her calibre as a detective before going back in to the mysteries of her own origin story. That needs a screen version.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s