As we travel dazed, anxious and weary-eyed in our air-bagged, steel-reinforced luxury cars down the blurry Information Superhighway, authors continue to do their less than fashionable job of measuring what will be lost in the new age of the megabyte and sound bite. Writers remain, thank old outdated God, exasperatingly human. They are going to have their own idiosyncratic emotions about the new age, and they are going to be stubborn and old-fashioned enough to actually write (the fools!) about all this. Some scribes are going to deal with it all head on, like the Cyberpunk gang (see William Gibson or my own favorite, Neal Stevenson), but others, like the two writers we consider here, will see the historical opportunity to write about the lost world of literature and the death of publishing as a moral force in the world . . . in the popular form of the crime novel.
Neither the English writer P.D. James nor the American Zev Chavets is being drawn gently into this particular good night. Though "Original Sin" and "The Bookmakers" couldn't be any more different stylistically, they both show writers doing what they do best: saying "No."
Perhaps not exactly "no" with thunder. The crime novel, for all its promise of mystery and dark secrets and hair-raising fright, is too cozy a form to ever really upset anybody. Neither of these writers is out to offend anyone. They are simple entertainers, looking for an audience, but even so, both of them end up dealing with the moral bilge that comes leaking like a radioactive canister from the glamworld of big-stakes publishing.
Of the two, Chavets is from the laughing-boy school. "The Bookmakers" is clever, filled with farcical Westlakian plot twists, and even features a lovable midget hit man named Afterbirth. It's that kind of book, a cross between literature, "Saturday Night Live," and a Road Runner cartoon.
The setup, however, suggests a darker strain that runs just beneath all the manic activity. Chavets' hero, Mack Green, is a washed-up novelist. Though he has scored both critically and commercially with his first two books, his next two are utter failures and, as our story begins, he's practically suicidal. One night as he staggers home, he's held up by a mugger at gunpoint; it occurs to him that he doesn't care if the kid kills him or not. The mugger too is confused by Mack's attitude and loses his leverage. Seconds later Mack has disarmed him.
As he lets the kid go, an idea is born. He'll salvage his career by writing a novel about a novelist who takes a huge advance for a novel that he'll write in one year, the last year of his life--for once he's finished the book, he'll kill himself. Mack sees his big idea as a way to score, because "everybody wonders what he'd do if he only had a year to live. And suicide books are big these days. It can't miss."
Mack tells the idea to his agent, Tommy Russo, who thinks it's swell too, and together they approach Mack's editor, Stealth Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz loves the idea, gives Mack a healthy advance, and Mack heads back to his old hometown, Oriole, Mich., to gather up the proper You Can't Go Home Again details that will give the book the desired pre-suicide poignancy.
Alas, what Mack doesn't know is that editor Wolfowitz hates his guts, and is the sole reason that Mack's last two novels failed. The editor's fury stems from the fact that long ago, when he and Mack were best friends, Wolfowitz found out that sloppy but lovable Mack was occasionally sleeping with his wife, Louise. To repay him, Wolfowitz deliberately sabotaged Mack's chances by publishing his second book at the same time John Updike's and Norman Mailer's new novels were coming out, thus assuring Mack less shelf space and third-tier reviews.
Now, Wolfowitz sees an even better chance to deliver the real death blow to Mack's career. He'll hire a hit man (the aforementioned midget) and have Mack murdered. Then he'll sell Mack's new "novel" as nonfiction--the last, broken-hearted letter to an uncaring world by a beaten and desperate author. What could be better? Wolfowitz gets his bestseller and gets to off the writer.
The rest of the novel is Mack's comic rescue. What's interesting about the book is that Mack finds strength in the world he left behind. Each of the people Mack meets or rediscovers provides him with part of the answer to his problem, and not only the problem with Wolfowitz. In the end Mack has become a complete man, having found a real community--as opposed to the totally mercantile community of the New York publishing world.
There's no use making too much of "The Bookmakers." Like Chavets' last book, the funny "Inherit The Mob," it's a bonbon of a novel, but it's a tasty one, and though I doubt that going back to the old neighborhood would work in the end (isn't the old neighborhood itself being mentally paved over by the Info Superhighway?), it is a fantasy that most of my Los Angeles contemporaries revisit about once a day.
If Chavets' book is a pleasant snack of a novel, P.D. James' is a full-course meal. Unfortunately, it's the kind I try to avoid due to excessive calories and fat content. Somewhere in this long, dull novel there is a really interesting story trying to get out, but it's lost under tons of superfluous characters, and a plot that has the narrative drive of an elephant on Ativan.
As the novel begins we learn that the venerable publishing house, The Peverell Press, is under siege. Henry Peverell, the gentlemanly publisher, dies of a heart attack, and his position is taken by ruthless and ambitious Gerard Etienne. At the partners' meeting, Etienne announces that the company will have to be sold to a financier named Hector Skolling and that they will be forced for financial reasons to move from the mock Venetian Palace on the Thames that has been the company's home for over 100 years. Etienne is brutal and sarcastic and announces that he's going to clean house. The old reliable but dull accountant Sydney Bartrum will have to go, as will the handyman Fred, George the switchboard operator, and any novelist who isn't making money. One of these, an old fashioned mystery writer named Esme Carling has already been told of her fate and she's furious enough to kill. If that's not enough, Etienne has also offended Frances Peverell, the former publisher's daughter, by bedding, then dumping her. . . .
And so on, and on and on and on. There are many suspects in "Original Sin," any one or combination of whom might have reason to kill the odious Etienne. Eventually one of them does, and with him dies the real interest of the book, for Etienne is the novel's one really juicy character. Etienne is emblematic of all that is wrong with the current publishing scene. He doesn't care a whit about literature, conveniently labels anything that isn't immediately profitable "elitist" and is anxious to move into the corporate Big Time.
When Etienne talks to the other partners in the firm, all of whom long for the finer world in which publishers actually revered and felt a moral duty to publish good books, it's telling that not one of them can muster an argument against him. They don't like his crude thuggish tactics but are too enfeebled physically and mentally to offer any resistance.
It is exactly this failure to offer a debate that explains the entropy in James' novel. If you wish to make a mystery novel more than a puzzle, as it is painfully obvious James wishes to do, then you must create a dramatic tension between the villain's point of view and everyone else's. What if James had given us suspects with their own smart views of how publishing might move ahead, and still retain some of its older virtues? In other words, what if Etienne had run into a real adversary?
Both James and Chavets offer not so much a view of what's happening in the world of publishing as they do an emotional reaction to a very real spiritual crisis. James's tone is elegiac. She knows what is being lost: subtlety, real beauty, clarity. The dominant tone in "Original Sin" is that of an exhausted, barely flickering humanism. Chavets's view of the same spiritual breakdown is schoolboy-nihilism-meets-1930s-populism. In the aptly named "Bookmakers" everything is for sale, including book reviews, agents, editors and publishers. It's all one big fast shuck, and the best way to fight it is to go home again and hook up with some real people who haven't yet been infected with the virus of the age.
Of the two views, James' is closer to my own. Chavets is both too cynical and too sentimental. But art, even popular art such as both these books aspire to be, is a high-maintenance mistress. In the end, your political and social opinions only matter if your book works as a narrative. Chavets' attitudes may be Capra-corny, but his book isn't dull. James is mature, responsible, a finer writer with a first-rate intelligence. But in "Original Sin," she forgets that narrative has to move forward and that even great villains need worthy adversaries. In the end she bores us, and that's one sin that you can't blame on the Brave New World of the flashy, empty publisher.