Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
rob + = email

2013 April 17 • Wednesday

This 1957 novel was almost like the literary equivalent of that time's Douglas Sirk movies, but the drama is kept at a lower key, on a smaller scale. It has many of the same fascinations, though, particularly in its economical but powerful renderings of interesting characters in crises.

The motivations of the people involved are explored and invariably informed by Freud. Childhood experiences are found at the roots of almost everybody's problems. It is thus somewhat bizarre that the one character in the book who is a child, and whose parents are going through a rough divorce, is one of the only characters whose inner world is never visited. This boy seems more like a prop than a person.

There's also a Shakespeare theme running through the book, reflected in chapter titles like "Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On" and "Not in Our Stars", the latter also being the original title of the book, presumably in its original hardcover edition. Sara, the main character, at one point wonders what Shakespeare would have said about Reno.

Changing times are another focus. Most of the characters in the book meet in Reno, where they're all waiting to be able to get a divorce as new residents of Nevada. While they wait it out, they remark the atomic or hydrogen bomb tests happening in the nearby desert. "This is America," as Belle Rosenblatt recalls her daughter saying to her. "We got television and we got the H-bomb and we got divorce."

Later on, another character has this to say:

"Reno's the boil on the cover-girl face of our decadent western culture," he went on, as though thinking aloud. "The ulcer in the soft underbelly of our shining civilization, produced by our collective tension and greed and fear. Fear of the machines we have created and the knowledge that they will surely destroy us."

"Machines," Louis repeated. "You think it's the machines, eh?"

"Sure," Nick said. "And as we're marking time in our own self-created death house, we're all dying slowly of the same disease."

"Dying?" Louis asked. "Of what?"

"Loneliness," Nick said. "Today, in the atomic age, when we've developed the mechanics of communication to a degree undreamed of in the history of mankind, we are all dying from our inability to communicate with one another. Or God. Or the dumb creatures of the earth. Or nature. We can only communicate with machines. And the machines will surely destroy us, Lou."

It's also worth noting that the book demonstrates an awareness of the 1950s conformist fantasy that was supposed to be your goal.

And she wondered, then, how many millions of men and women in this great land of the privileged sit down each night to dinner across the perfectly appointed table settings prescribed by the women's magazines, eating the deliciously prepared food suggested in their pages and cooked in the immaculate, picturesque kitchens copied from the four-color advertisements; how many of them sit down thus, night after night, to face a stranger?

The book engages sympathetically with divorce, homosexuality and depression. I wasn't sure what to make of this bit, though: "He switched on the radio, twisted the dial till he caught a blaring jazz record, hectic and without melody, the kind he usually hated". This is happening on a Maryland farm in 1957. What jazz record could the radio be playing? It probably wouldn't sound very "out" to our ears.

The first line of the book is "She and Joey stood for quite a long time waiting for a taxi in the driveway outside of Pennsylvania Station".