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Dickens, Trollope -- and Anna Nicole?
AS EVERYONE who is not locked in a dungeon knows, the story of Anna Nicole Smith has received overwhelming attention in recent weeks. The mainstream American press, in fact, has taken a good deal of stick from its more highbrow readers for devoting so many inches to the unfolding narrative of this woman, her lovers and her child.
But how could it be otherwise? This story was destined from the outset to take over Page 1 — precisely because it is a classic, a melodrama with exactly the kind of plot that has fascinated people as long as there's been literature and stories to tell. Following its twists and turns, it's impossible not to get the blurry feeling that one is reading a good old-fashioned novel.
Does this, for instance, sound familiar? In 1878, Anthony Trollope (that greatest of Victorian storytellers) offered his loyal readers "Is He Popenjoy?" It's my favorite of the 47 novels he published, and it has an irresistible, hook-in-the-jaw story. A British aristocrat, fabulously wealthy, goes off to Italy and is trapped into marriage by a scheming foreign Delilah. He has a son and heir — thus disowning the thoroughly decent, and somewhat distant, English relative who had expected to inherit. But did the Marquis of Brotherton actually marry his foreign floozy? Is this young son indeed the heir, or is he a bastard? Can the lawyers save the day? A title, a vast fortune, a great country house hang in the balance.
That fundamental plot — the child without clear parentage who ultimately stands (when his identity is finally revealed) to inherit a vast fortune — was a favorite of the Victorian era. Think of Dickens' "Great Expectations" or "Oliver Twist." Earlier this month, on the British reality TV show "Celebrity Big Brother" (which had 9 million viewers glued to their sets), one bimbo-ish celebrity inquired of the other what she was looking for in a husband.
"Oil," replied Bimbo 2, going on to explain, "Old, ill and loaded."
Old, ill and loaded — that's the Anna Nicole Smith story. But it also is another favorite plot of the Victorians; 19th century fiction is as rich in "oil" as Kirkuk. In Trollope's "The Eustace Diamonds," for instance, Lizzie Greystock's problems begin when she marries an old, ill and very loaded aristocrat, Sir Florian Eustace. Can Lizzie, after he's done his marital duty and died on her, hold on to the family diamonds? Or will the Eustace family break the will and disinherit the shameless gold-digger?
You'll strike oil everywhere in Victorian fiction. Trollope used the plot many times. But there also are big oil stains across the plot surface of William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" (Becky Sharp's relationship with the Marquess of Steyne) and even in starchy George Eliot's "Daniel Deronda" (Gwendolen Harleth's cynical marriage to Henleigh Grandcourt).
THE PLOTS and story lines that fascinated us in the past aren't likely to diminish in appeal anytime soon. Even on the USS Enterprise, Kirk and Spock are both antiquarian book lovers. You'll remember (if you don't, shame on you) that at the beginning of "The Wrath of Khan," the half-Vulcan gives his commander a copy of Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" (a plot detail that has driven Trekkies to frenzies of exegesis).
In "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," the two of them have traveled back in time and are sitting in a cable car in 1990s San Francisco, embarked on a mission to save the whales (it would take too long to explain why). When Kirk comes out with some street talk — cunningly camouflaging their identities as denizens of the far future — Spock asks where his commander picked up the lingo. "Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins," Kirk replies. "Ah," sighs Spock, "the giants."
I've always thought that the American lit-crit professions have criminally underrated the genius of Susann and Robbins (and, while we're at it, Judith Krantz and the recently deceased "world's master storyteller," as his website labels him, Sidney Sheldon). Susann and Robbins, time and again, foretell the trials, tribulation and tragedy of Anna Nicole Smith. What is her life and death other than a sequel to "Valley of the Dolls"?
There is a lot of snobbery about our addictive love of all kinds of stories — whether those stories appear in newspapers or trashy potboilers or even in the great Victorian novels. The fact is, we need them as much as we need oxygenated air. By my estimate, at least three-quarters of network prime-time TV is fictional narrative. Bookstores, walk-in and Web-based, sell more fiction than any other kind of book. The vast, vast portion of what is shown in our film theaters and on the cable movie channels is fiction. Stories, that is.
Nonetheless, we persist in being reflexively snooty about storytelling. The best books, according to some critics, are those with the least amount of plot. There are more important issues, we're told, than Anna Nicole Smith, just as there are better writers than Jaqueline Susann. Why waste the space on Smith, they want to know? Answer: because she satisfies our need for a good story.
Why are we so hung up on stories? Not because we're narrative junkies, zombified fiction addicts — but because of the truth their falsehoods tell us. It's the paradox that Aristotle noted, 2,500 years ago, in the Poetics. A fiction like "Oedipus Rex," Aristotle asserted, was "truer" than history. Why? Because fiction can deal with the essence of our human condition, unlike history, which is tied to what actually happened.
What truth, then, does the Anna Nicole Smith story tell us? Take your pick:
"What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?"
"The American dream is just that; a dream."
"Love of money is the root of all evil."
"Diamonds are a girl's best friend."
And, finally, that truth of truths, given classic expression in Anita Loos' title for her perennially readable story — "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."