On a recent morning, Seth Greenland sits in his Santa Monica office wearing black jeans and a gray pullover, trying to keep his sense of balance intact. Outwardly calm, soft-spoken even, the 49-year-old is, by his own admission, that rarest of human specimens: a writer on the verge of getting what he wants.
For more than two decades, Greenland has toiled in the trenches of the entertainment industry, doing everything from writing gags for stand-ups to working on sitcoms such as “a.k.a. Pablo,” “Arli$$" and “Silver Spoons.” Although he can be reticent about his history -- “All my art crimes are available on the Internet,” he grumbles, by way of deflection -- a look around his office yields some clues.
On one wall, there’s a poster for the hip-hop comedy “Who’s the Man?,” for which Greenland wrote the screenplay. “I have that up,” he says, “to keep myself humble.”
On another, almost hidden above a large file cabinet, are the awards he’s won for his plays “Jerusalem” and “Jungle Rot,” the latter a black comedy about an attempted CIA assassination of militant American Muslim Patrice Lumumba Ford.
If this all seems somehow incompatible, that, Greenland suggests, is the point precisely, the tension at the heart of his work. Now, he’s gearing up to frame a middle ground of some sort with his first novel, “The Bones,” a scathing comedic take on the lures and degradations of the Hollywood fast track.
“The Bones” is very much a novel about balance, albeit of a peculiar sort. The story of two men -- a sitcom writer named Lloyd Melnick and his onetime hero, Frank Bones, a black-clad, foul-mouthed stand-up with a nearly legendary ability to walk the line between comedy and chaos -- it asks us to consider both the price we pay for success and the cost of staying true to ourselves.
For Lloyd, with a $12-million development deal and a status-obsessed wife who is overseeing construction of a Mediterranean villa in Brentwood, prosperity is a reminder of the integrity he’s lost. For Frank, nearing 50, still playing clubs through a haze of booze and dope smoke, the issue is more elemental: He is desperate.
For both, Hollywood is a place where possibility leads to compromise, a three-dimensional minefield that could detonate at any time. That’s a situation with which Greenland is familiar; it’s one reason he wrote the book. The irony is that this has, somewhat serendipitously, turned out to be a brilliant career move.
Dark and darker
Already, he is adapting “The Bones” for Sony Pictures, with David Mamet slated to direct.
“It’s a funny story,” Greenland says. “I was sending the book out for blurbs. I don’t know a lot of famous writers, but there are a handful of people I really admire, one of whom is David Mamet. So I wrote him a letter, and my publisher sent it with a galley. Then one day, I’m sitting in my office, and my son comes in with the phone. It’s Mamet. He says, ‘I loved your book. What are you doing with the movie rights?’ The book hadn’t gone out, so I say, ‘Nothing yet.’ So Mamet says, ‘I’m sitting here with [producer] John Calley, and he liked it as much as I did.’ He gives the phone to Calley, and Calley says, ‘Can you come in tomorrow? We want to acquire your book.’ ”
Greenland laughs as he recounts the story; it is, he realizes, something a writer like himself would never invent. The very idea, in fact, is antithetical to his novel, which opens bleakly, then quickly spirals off the edge. This is among the book’s most compelling aspects, that just when you think events have hit their darkest, Greenland makes them darker still.
To some extent, that has to do with Frank, who is a walking well of caustic self-expression. Frank is not just angry, he’s bitter, self-destructive, riding a wave of outrage at the world. He’s also very funny, which is his curse and his redemption, since, as Greenland points out, “If you can be funny, people will allow you to be vitriolic in a way they will not tolerate if you’re not. Comedy excuses everything.”
At the same time, comedy offers a source of identification, especially for Lloyd, who sees in Frank the intensity, the outlaw edge, he thinks he’s given up. The truth is that Lloyd’s intensity is wholly vicarious -- until he tries Frank’s lifestyle for himself.
“Lloyd,” Greenland explains, “is the id for so many of us. Most people get married and have families, responsibilities. The impulse to act out may not go away, but the chance to do it becomes infinitesimal. So to write a guy like Lloyd, who thinks he wants to act out, and then in acting out completely [ruins] himself, I thought was a very honest and real thing.” He pauses. “It’s Icarus, really. You get close, and then, if you’re unlucky, you’re burned up by the sun. If not, you wind up back in L.A., writing sitcoms.”
Part of the fun of “The Bones” is trying to figure out the characters’ real-life analogues, to decipher the novel as if it were a code. Certainly, Frank, with his dark glasses and scabrous sensibility, is reminiscent of Richard Belzer, for whom Greenland once wrote, and there are various cameos, including the Larry David-like Phil Sheldon.
Still, to label the novel a roman a clef is misleading, for Greenland means to use entertainment as a window on contemporary culture, to satirize it on more universal terms.
He’s hardly the first author to look at Hollywood through such a filter; as far back as 1930, Carroll and Garrett Graham’s “Queer People” introduced satire as an industry lingua franca, a particularly appropriate lens.
“Hollywood is an over-the-top place,” Greenland says, “so you’ve got outsized characters who will say and do ridiculous things in the context of an ordinary day. Also, there isn’t a writer here with an IQ over 85 who doesn’t have a certain amount of hostility. So that’s a deep well on which to draw.”
What sets “The Bones” apart, however, is that it may be the first satirical novel to take on the television industry. Even Terry Southern, whose “Blue Movie” Greenland cites as an influence, wrote about television only in passing, with the vicious game show sendup “What’s My Disease?” in his 1958 novel “Flash and Filigree.” Other than that, the most incisive fictionalized treatment of the subject is Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” screenplay.
“I wanted to write something in the tradition of ‘The Day of the Locust,’ ” Greenland says, “but not about the movies because too many people had gotten there before me. But no one had written a literary novel about television. I thought, ‘I can’t believe nobody’s done this. What an opportunity.’ ”
Of course, the society Greenland seeks to satirize has grown exponentially more bizarre since Chayefsky wrote “Network” in the mid-1970s; the excesses the film imagined have now been institutionalized on cable news and reality TV.
In that sense, it’s much more difficult to be a satirist, a point Frank makes explicit in his act. “I’ll go on Barbara Walters and make her cry,” he riffs late in the novel. “I’ll be in all the tabloids again but I’ll get much bigger play this time. I’ll get billing above the two-headed boy from Mississippi who was abducted by aliens and made to have sex with Monica Lewinsky while the ghost of JFK Jr. watched. I’ll get a show on Nickelodeon because we’re all cartoon characters now.”
For Greenland, this is the challenge, to get inside that landscape and expose it in all its ridiculous intemperance.
“How do you satirize something,” he asks, “that so effectively satirizes itself? It’s tricky because the culture is so fast moving and at the same time increasingly strange.” As an example, he mentions a scene in the book, a benefit for the environmental group Save Our Aching Planet, at which one of the chairs -- a Hollywood wife with her own private jet -- arranges for the guests to be given hybrid cars.
“I started writing the book a few years ago,” Greenland says, “and I thought I was pushing the boundaries. But six months ago, I heard about Green Stars for the Red Carpet, which is the same thing.” He chuckles grimly. “I should have published last year.”
Voice in the crowd
Ultimately, this is the drawback of writing books, that the process is so slow. All the same, Greenland believes the benefits of working on his own offer compensation enough.
“Television,” he says, “is about collaboration. And group writing is antithetical to creativity because it doesn’t allow for a single voice. In the writers room, everybody drinks the Kool-Aid. When I was working on ‘a.k.a. Pablo,’ there was this executive who would come to the readings, and he would guffaw at every joke as if it was Groucho on his best day. I’d think, ‘That’s not funny. Why is he laughing?’ But then you find yourself doing it because it’s a group endeavor, and you’re getting a paycheck and you realize, it’s a cult. All of a sudden, Jim Jones is up there, except he’s telling jokes.”
Even as he speaks, Greenland can’t help but laugh at the notion that “The Bones” has brought him back to a collaborative medium again, as a screenwriter. Still, he says, “I didn’t write the novel thinking it would be a movie. I just wanted to tell the story. I loved these characters; I thought I had two great characters who were mirror opposites yet desperately needed each other, and I thought, ‘Let’s follow them on their ride.’ ”
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