Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2020 May 13 • Wednesday

Make With the Brains, Pierre, by Dana Wilson, was an interesting and unusual book, and hardly the "mystery" that its front cover proclaims it to be, but a curious novel that occupies an authorial space whose borders include Nabokov, Camus, Kafka and, uh, someone who wrote about Hollywood.

I guess you could say that it's a book that lives in the same housing development as Lolita, L'Etranger, The Castle and The Last Tycoon.

Perhaps this is over-selling it, but it is a very well written and intelligent work. Perhaps Dostoevsky was an influence as well.

Pierre Bernet is a Frenchman in Hollywood who has been barely getting by working in the film industry in one way or another and, when we meet him, has more or less bottomed out.

On the first page we're told that there are two men waiting for him outside of his apartment building, to kill him. He intends to leave and allow this to happen, as soon as he receives a certain phone call.

Pierre also alludes to a "thing" in his bathroom.

From here the story flashes back so we can see how Pierre arrived at this point. It involves his neighbors, a woman he loves, a couple of big time movie stars, a powerful producer and ends up being the story of a few crimes, though the crimes themselves are not really what the book is about.

So why is it good? Because of the writing. It's consistently sure-footed, elegant and surprising. It first really got my attention when Pierre first meets the powerful film producer character and we see him through Pierre's eyes at a crowded bar, "guarded like the termite queen by all the other termites".

I watched him. In his ugly face, his eyes were like dirty, frozen water. His expression was cruel. He seemed carefully to avoid getting sober. Drinking like a fish, he did not get drunk like an ordinary human being. His surface was hard, but he had not entirely drowned his conscience.

At one point, Pierre describes his friend Jerry arriving "with the punctuality of an eclipse" and also drawing on a cigarette "like a man breathing salt air".

And later, a note of parody, and an example of the tone throughout, in which a European observes American culture with bemusement and admiration:

You enter the big hall, walk over the copper bas-relief of a ship, and there are dozens of elevators waiting for you A man with a kind of castanet directs them. I envy him his job. To be clad in a uniform, to look very efficient and to be paid for making a noise with a rattle is something to be proud of. You have to be born with the knack for a job like this; and when you finally die, honored and respectable, your funeral paid for by the town, you can truthfully say: "I didn't live a useless life. I rattled!"

In Lolita there's a scene where Humbert is in a children's clothing shop to buy some items for Lolita. Nabokov deploys an extended metaphor:
I realized I was the only shopper in that rather eerie place where I moved about fish-like, in a glaucous aquarium. I sensed strange thoughts form in the mids of the languid ladies that escorted me from counter to counter from rock ledge to seaweed, and the belts and the bracelets I chose seemed to fall from siren hands into transparent water.

When Pierre goes to a fancy club with Marjorie Dean, famous movie star, Dana Wilson shows herself to be capable of the same sort of flourishes:

I kept in the background but the eyes of the guests were focused on me. A fat woman, sailing along like a galleon complete with pennants, arrived in a favoring gust of wind and anchored close to us. She greeted Marjorie with a heavy broadside of compliments, but her round curious eyes stared at me.

(Of course in Lolita it's not isolated but part of an Edgar Allan Poe "Annabel Lee" motif.)

But Make With the Brains, Pierre is a really good back with a bizarre title. It would later be reprinted in paperback with the title Uneasy Virtue, which is astonishingly dull and not at all appropriate to the text. (Make With the Brains, Pierre doesn't resonate much with the content either, but you're not likely to confuse it for any of a hundred other books.)

The first line is "The long shadows of the sinking sun fall over the stop signal at the crossing" (and it's worth noting the different tense used here).