dorthenors

Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #538)

This program contains three segments. The main one is with Dorthe Nors, who is most recently the author of Karate Chop. There is also a brief Blake Bailey interview. He is most recently the author of The Splendid Things We Planned. And our introductory segment involves the Save NYPL campaign.

Guests: Dorthe Nors, Blake Bailey, members of the Save NYPL campaign, Matthew Zadrozny, members of Raging Grannies.

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Subjects Discussed: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failure to live up to his July 2013 promise to save the New York Public Library, the greed of rich people, political opportunism, Charles Jackson, The Splendid Things We Planned, the differences between biography and memoir, being the hero of your own story, subjectivity as a great muddler, the Bailey family’s tendency to destroy cars, being self-destructive, contending with a brother who threw his life away, the problems that emerge from being cold, the differences between American and Danish winters, unplanned writing, the swift composition of Beatles lyrics, the courageous existential spirit within Swedish literature, Danish precision, the Højskolesangbogen tradition, the influence of song upon prose, Kerstin Ekman, Nors’s stylistic break from the Swedish masters, Ingmar Bergman, Flaubert’s calm and orderly life, the human-animal connections within Karate Chop, considering the idea that animals may be better revealers of human character than humans, animals as mirrors, emotional connections to dogs, the human need to embrace innocence, judging people by how they treat their pets, “The Heron,” friendship built on grotesque trust, how the gift exchange aspect of friendship can become tainted or turn abusive, writing “The Buddhist” without providing a source for the protagonist’s rage, how much fiction should explain psychological motive, the hidden danger contained within people who think they are good, how Lutherans can be duped, “missionary positions,” Buddhism as a disguise, ideologies within Denmark, when small nations feel big and smug, Scandinavian egotism, Danesplaining, whether Americans or Danes behave worse in foreign nations, buffoonish American presidential candidates, how “The Heron” got to The New Yorker, Nors’s early American advocates, being a tour guide for Rick Moody and Junot Diaz, how Fiona Maazel brought Dorthe Nors’s fiction to America, Copehagen’s Frederiksberg Gardens as a place to find happiness, happiness as a form of prestige, when happy people feel needlessly superior, Denmark’s subtle efforts to win the happiest nation on earth award, setting stories in New York, how different people react to large tomato, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, how measuring objects reveals aspects of humanity, the tomato as the Holy Grail, flour babies, why strategically minded people shouldn’t be trusted, the creepy nature of control freaks, how human interpretation is enslaved by representations, competing representations of reality, whether fiction is a more authentic representation of reality, how disturbing ideas presented in books can calm you down, exploring the Danish idea of a den to eat cookies, working with translator Martin Aitken, what other nations get wrong about Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, superficial knowledge of Denmark, Danish writers who need to be translated, Yahya Hassan, and Danish crime fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the economy of these stories, which is fascinating. I mean, you have to pay very close attention to learn the details and to learn some very interesting twist or some human revelation in these stories. So this leads me to ask — just to start off here — I’m wondering how long it takes for you to write one or to conceive one. Is there a lot of planning that goes into the idea of “Aha! I’ll have the twist at this point!” I mean, what’s the level of intuition vs. the level of just really getting it down and burying all the details like this?

Nors: I don’t plan writing. It happens. Or I get an idea or I see something. Or there’s a line or a passage that I write down. And sometimes it just lies there for a while. Then a couple of days later, I will write another passage, perhaps for another story, and sometimes I put them together. They start doing things. But I write them pretty fast. When the idea and the flow and the voice and the characters are there, I just go into the zone and it kind of feels like I’m singing these. It’s like you find the voice for a story and you just stick to it and write it. It doesn’t take that long. Seven of these stories were actually written in a cottage off the west coast in Denmark. Two weeks.

Correspondent: Two weeks?

Nors: Yes.

Correspondent: For seven of the stories?

Nors: Seven of the stories.

Correspondent: Wow.

Nors: And then I would take long walks and I would go home. Boom. There was this story. So the writing process with this one, it was like that.

Correspondent: That’s like the Beatles writing the lyrics for “A Hard Day’s Night” on the back of a matchbox in ten minutes.

Nors: When it happens, it happens, right?

Correspondent: Well, to what do you attribute these incredible subconscious details? Are these details just coming from your subconscious and they’re naturally springing? Or are they discovered in the revision at all?

Nors: I think they come from training. Because it has something to do with the neck of the woods that I come from. Scandinavia. I was trained in Swedish literature. That was what I studied at university. And the Swedes have this very bold and courageous brave way of looking at existence. I mean, it turns big on them. And they look at the darkness and the pits of distress and everything. Then if you take that richness of existentialism, you might even call it, and pair it up with the Danish tradition — which is precision, accuracy, Danish design, cut to the core, don’t battle on forever. If you combine these two, you get short shorts with huge content that is laying in there like an elephant in a container and moving around all the time. And this style came from training. This came from reading a lot and writing a lot. Suddenly, I think I found my voice in these stories. I think this was a breakthrough for me in Denmark also. That I found out how I can combine the Danish and the Swedish tradition.

Correspondent: So by training, how much writing did you have to do before you could nail this remarkable approach to find the elephant, to tackle existence like this?

Nors: Well, I started writing at eight. And this book was written when I was 36.

Correspondent: But you didn’t have the Danish masters and the Swedish masters staring over you at eight, did you?

Nors: No. But I had the Danish song tradition. We have a book in Denmark called Højskolesangbogen. You’ll never learn how to say that. But it’s a songbook.

Correspondent: (laughs) She says confidently. You never know. I might learn!

Nors: You wanna try? But that songbook — in the real part of Denmark that I come from, all the farmers, they would use that songbook a lot. And there was no literature in my household. It was middle-class. A carpenter and a hairdresser. But this book was there. And what I learned from that was that these songs, they were written by great Danish poets and then put into music. It would be so precise. I love that book. I sang these songs. I read these poems. And then later on, there was my brother’s vinyl covers. It was Leonard Cohen. It was all these guys that he had up in his room and I could read. And a lot of the training came from that. And then later on, university, of course, and the boring part of training.

Correspondent: The analytical stuff. Well, that makes total sense. Because there is a definitive metric to these particular stories. You mentioned that they were akin to singing. And I’m wondering how you became more acquainted with this musicality as the stories have continued. And also, how does this work in terms of your novels? Which are not translated. There are five of them. And those are obviously a lot larger than a short story. So how does the musicality and that concise mode work with the novels?

Nors: Well, I think my first novel was extremely influenced by a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman, who I wrote my thesis on. And it was so influenced by her that I kind of shun away from it. Because I don’t want to sound like her anymore. And then on my third book, I started to find that the voice that blooms in Karate Chop — and there’s a breakaway there; it’s like a break in my writing.

Correspondent: A karate chop!

Nors: It really is! Because the first three of my novels were classic structures. They had plots and peaks and this whole Swedish abyss of existentialism and darkness. But then with this one, I broke away. And the next two novels I wrote are short novels. And they’re more experimental in their form and they’re very close to the whole idea of accuracy. And that line, that sentence, has to be so precise. And it has to sing. And it has to have voice. And it has to be just so accurate. That’s the sheer joy for me: to actually be able to write a sentence and to know people will get this.

Correspondent: This is extraordinary. Because if you’re writing a short story so quickly, and it’s not singing, what do you do? I mean, certainly, I presume that you will eventually sing in this mode that you want to. But that’s a remarkable speed there. So how do you keep the voice purring?

Nors: Well, actually, I do a lot of reading out loud while I do it. And the rhythm has to be good when I read it aloud myself. I talk a lot. I walk a lot. And I think literature like this has a lot to do with listening to how the words sound and how they work together. But that’s an intuitive thing. There’s no math in this. Either you can carry a tune or you can’t perhaps, right?

Correspondent: Sure. Absolutely.

Nors: So it’s something instinctive, I think.

Correspondent: I’m curious to know more about the tension between the Swedish existential dread and angst and the Danish identity. You touched upon this a little bit. I saw your little Atlantic soliloquy about Bergman and how you looked to him as a way of living a tranquil life and not living a wild life, which gets in the way of…well, gets in the way of living, frankly.

Nors: Exactly.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. What do you do to live or draw upon experience or to move into uncomfortable areas? Or is your imagination stronger than that? That you don’t really need the life experience. Your imagination in combination with the singing that we’re identifying here is enough to live a tranquil life? Or what? And also, I was hoping you could talk about the tension between the Swedish and Danish feelings and all that.

Nors: First of all, I try to live my life as any other human being. I just try not to really be destructive about it. I’m 43. I’m not afraid to tell you how old I am. So I tried a lot in my life and a lot of it has been dramatic. And it has been filled with emotions and breakups and stuff like that. And, of course, I draw on the experience from that. But these days, I think the discipline is very important. I don’t need more drama in my life. I don’t know why you should seek out drama. Causing pain in your life? That’s an immature thing to do at my age, I think. You can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen anyway. People you love will pass away. Your cat will be hit by a car. Or stuff like that. You don’t have to seek it out. It’s coming to you.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering if that impulse isn’t necessarily a writerly impulse, but just a human impulse. Because when we get closer to forty, we start to say, “Well, do we really want to live this way?” Our choices sometimes become a little more limited. Our responsibilities are greater. We now have a duty to other people. And so is that really a writerly thing? I mean, is the writer doomed in some sense to almost be a child to some degree?

Nors: I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think it’s necessarily a writer thing. I think it’s a time in your life where you think that. Or you go haywire and you go right into the abyss, right? Ingamr Bergman was around 47 when this happened for him. Because he lived a pretty crazy life. Having children all over the place and women. Pretty destructive.

Correspondent: Locking Liv Ullmann up.

Nors: Yeah, exactly. Being very chaotic. An emotionally chaotic life. And then around this age, he took this path also of not living like a monk. Because he certainly didn’t. But he was just very structured and disciplined. And I enjoy that. It sounds boring to people. But I really enjoy it. Don’t need more drama in my life.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, Mooz, 40A, Tim Beets, Tim Beets, Aien, and DANB10.)

The Bat Segundo Show #538: Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (Download MP3)

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Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #530)

Blake Bailey is most recently the author of Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. He is also the author of the forthcoming The Splendid Things We Planned, to be published in March. Both books, along with every Charles Jackson volume ever published, were read and consulted for this comprehensive conversation. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #284.

Author: Blake Bailey

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[PROGRAM NOTE: In Farther & Wilder, Blake Bailey mentioned an extraordinary radio program called The Author Meets the Critics, in which authors confronted their critics live on radio. After a diligent search, I was able to locate 46 episodes of this program and I’ve collected them at the Internet Archive, where they can be downloaded for your enjoyment.]

Subjects Discussed: Jackson’s need for money, how The Lost Weekend‘s success freaked him out, Jackson’s self-perception as a misfit, becoming an unintentional spokesman for dipsomania, Jackson’s block after The Lost Weekend, Seconal addiction, Jackson’s hospitalization, Mary McCarthy’s fictionalized version of Jackson, McCarthy’s unfinished manuscript The Lost Week, John P. Marquand, vacations in Truro, the friendship between McCarthy and Jackson, why one shouldn’t read all of Charles Jackson, Jackson vs. Cheever and Yates, the perversity of reading A Second-Hand Life, prosaic sexual affairs in Jackson’s later work, Jackson’s obsession with Shakespeare busts, Adam Kirsch’s review of Farther & Wilder, average writers who long to be geniuses, literary failures, the origins of Farther & Wilder, Calvin Kentfield, Nathan Asch, Flannery Lewis, Jackson’s death by overdose at the Chelsea, undiscovered papers at Dartmouth, the impossible-to-find TV adaptation of Waugh’s “The Man Who Liked Dickens” directed by Nicholas Ray and written by Jackson, Jackson’s involvement with radio and television, the nineteen years when Jackson didn’t publish a novel, William Inge, how television affected Jackson’s storytelling abilities, comparisons between “The Outlander” and The Fall of Valor, the way that Jackson wrote about writers, the stories that Jackson wrote sober, Jackson’s writing difficulties when stoned on Seconal, how Jackson’s fiction explored writing ego, Jackson being ahead of postmodernism with “The Sunnier Side,” what literary biography can do, The Author Meets the Critics (in which Jackson appeared three times), Dwight Macdonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” when literary critics had the power to destroy a career, James Agee’s A Death to the Family, the mid-20th century war on midcult, why Jonathan Yardley is a terrible critic, Yardley’s negative review of Norman Rush’s Mating, John P. Marquand’s overlooked novels (The Late George Apley, Sincerely, Willis Wayde, and So Little Time), Roger Straus financing Jackson’s life, Philip Wylie, Wylie’s futile attempts to respond to The Fall of Valor‘s terrible qualities, when critics used to give talented writers a fair pass for sophomore slumps, Daniel Mendelsohn’s attempted takedown of Mad Men, Rhoda Jackson’s tolerance for her husband’s behavior, how the Jacksons managed their money, the many literary people who got their start at Fortune Magazine, Ron Sproat, Rhoda’s acceptance of Charlie’s sexuality, Jackson coming out of the closet, the weirdly limited way in which Jackson’s fictional wives were portrayed, D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Max angling for motive about David Foster Wallace, the importance to double source details and relate it to a writer’s career, Mary Karr’s response to D.T. Max on Twitter, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, Bailey’s work on the Roth biography, how to ensure that people don’t come at you with pitchforks on Twitter while working on a literary biography, Karen Green’s Bough Down, DFW’s saintlike image, Infinite Jest, DFW’s nonfiction, literary biographers addressing issues of posterity, the DFW death porn industry, J.D. Salinger’s legacy held hostage by commercial interests, the collaboration between Roth and Bailey, Bailey’s access to Roth’s papers (sealed through 2050), coaxing Claire Bloom to talk, Philip Roth’s retirement, Bailey’s forthcoming memoir The Splendid Things We Planned, similarities and differences between memoir and literary biography, how hard you need to be on yourself when writing about yourself, Blake Bailey’s appearance diminishing somewhat in the second half of The Splendid Things We Planned, and writing about family.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So I basically surprised you by pointing to the fact that I think you and I may be among the few people in America who have actually read all of Charles Jackson’s work.

Bailey: Living people. You know, Ed, probably the only two. His own daughters, who are alive and well, they have not read the oeuvre of Charles Jackson.

Correspondent: Wow.

Bailey: No. It’s you and me.

Correspondent: That’s it? Wow. So let’s talk. Charles Jackson, best known as the author of The Lost Weekend. Let’s get into what he did. I mean, he was adamantly determined in his early days to write what he knew, as you outline in your biography of him. Don Birnam, the protagonist of The Lost Weekend, many of Jackson’s short stories, and also the hero of this unfinished multivolume book project, What Happened? — this is basically Jackson’s life. This is what Jackson drew heavily on for his fiction. But then you have Jackson’s later fiction — The Outer Edges, A Second-Hand Life, and “The Outlander,” which I’m happy to argue with you about. These are adamantly determined to suggest deviance or behavioral aberration in common everyday fallacies, often out of step with the cultural mores of the time. And then, of course, you have “The Sunnier Side,” this story in which Charles Jackson himself appears and is commenting upon various people in Newark. So just to get started here — and that’s a lot to talk about — why do you think Jackson was so terrified of his own life in fiction? And so willing to castigate himself? Why did he need to pit his real and his fictional selves against each other and against society?

Bailey: Well, it’s interesting. You mention Newark. And I want to clarify for your listeners that is not Newark, New Jersey — the hometown of my current subject, Philip Roth. That is Newark, New York in the township of Arcadia. Up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. It was a little town of about six thousand souls where Charles Jackson led a very tortured childhood and idyllic childhood. It was a little of both. Beautiful region. And people are kind to you in a sort of condescending way there. Charlie and his brother Fred, known always throughout his adult life as Boom, were the town sissies.

Correspondent: There’s also a beefcake shot of Boom in the book as well.

Bailey: A gorgeous beefcake shot of Boom taken by the famous gay photographer George Platt Lynes. There are photos by Man Ray of Boom at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Anyway, Charlie kind of deplored the way that people gossiped maliciously in small towns such as Newark and yet put a good face on things. And when the worst catastrophes happened — for example, Charlie was molested by the choirmaster of his church; a man named Herbert Quance, who appears in Charlie’s first published story, “Palm Sunday,” which was a pioneering work. It appeared in Partisan Review in 1939 and nobody was writing about pedophilia. And it’s quite frank in its treatment of that. It’s a terrific story. And it caused as much of a ripple at Partisan Review as Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”. So he was molested at age 14. The year before, his 16-year-old sister Thelma and 4-year-old brother Richard were killed by a train. And the egregious phony kindness with which he was treated — and meanwhile people knew about this pedophiliac choirmaster, but nice people didn’t talk about that sort of thing. You didn’t talk about touching little boys and what not. So he was tolerated, even though they knew that their own children were in danger of being molested. So long story short: Charlie regarded this as a deplorable state of affairs and he thinks that human beings should face up to their vagaries. And so that’s what he chose to write about. The vagaries in himself, which were considerable, and in humankind very much at large.

Correspondent: But, with “The Sunnier Side,” he’s there to castigate these three real-life women in Newark, which is also quite interesting. And that also is sort of a You Can’t Go Home Again/Thomas Wolfe type of thing too. But at the same time, with The Outer Edges, this book is utterly bizarre. Especially the guilt of the dog. That whole incident. This protagonist. He runs over a dog. And then he’s comparing himself to this true sociopath. So there’s this weird impulse going along in Jackson’s fiction as well. On one hand, he wants to go ahead and out the truth. On the other hand, he wants to hold everybody, including himself, accountable for every conceivable moral failing — even putting it up there and comparing it with a rapist and so forth. He’s a really bizarre guy.

Bailey: Okay. Let me explain The Outer Edges. It is based on the Edward Haight murders. Edward Haight, when he was sixteen years old, gave a lift to two kids — two girls, 11 and 9. Not only did he rape them, he tied them up, put them in the street, ran over them repeatedly. I mean, it was horrific. And Charlie was deeply disturbed by that. Now Charlie was disturbed by the viciousness of Edward Haight. Because Charlie was a married father of two girls and a homosexual. These days, people don’t understand the opprobrium in middle-class, mid-century America. Especially gay men, who presumed to get married and lead a normal life and were still seeing men on the side, as Charlie certainly was. So he did feel this kind of horrifying kinship with this child murderer Edward Haight. So how to acceptably portray that in fiction? He comes up with a Charlie-like character who, like him, is married to a long suffering woman and he’s a doting father, as Charlie was. And he feels a kinship with the murder in the book because he’s having an affair. Heterosexual with this tootsie. And because he inadvertently runs over a dog, now that, of course, is the fatal flaw with The Outer Edges. It doesn’t work and everyone told Charlie it doesn’t work.

Correspondent: But also there’s that weird phone call heard through the gas station restroom, which makes absolutely no sense. Like this is the reason why the wife decides to leave. Because she’s speculating upon a phone call. Just as he’s actually more concerned about driving over the dog than this particular affair. He just has a really bizarre moral compass.

Bailey: Yeah. Well, but I don’t want to dismiss The Outer Edges out of hand. Because certainly Charlie wrote worse books than The Outer Edges.

Correspondent: [looking at the stack of Jackson books on the table] He looks at A Second-Hand Life. (laughs)

Bailey: Oh my god. Let’s save that. What does work in The Outer Edges is the portrayal of the murderer himself, which really captures this whole Hannah Arendt notion of the banality of evil in a way that I think is sort of pioneering and very effective. And it’s a very episodic book. The French, Bovary-esque woman whose stuck in the boring marriage and tries for her maids not to see her having nothing to do. All that was very astute. I mean, again, no less than — I’m blanking on his name, which is terrible. A great British novelist. Sort of out of favor now. Anyway, he reviewed the book in The Listener and said, “Charlie Jackson is the man to write the Great American Novel of suburban ennui.” And if he wasn’t such a complete pill freak, he might have pulled it off.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about this. Okay, so he’s an alcoholic. And he uses this to write The Lost Weekend. Then he becomes this big AA spokesperson. But he’s also this go-to guy for Spencer Tracy, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker. He chronicles this problem — alcoholism — and, as you say, at the time this had not been pursued to this depth in fiction. And then this is interesting. He pitches his Uncle Mr. Kinbar to Roger Straus and he writes, “This book has everything. Humor, pathos, real social comment.” There’s the story idea that Jackson conveys to Sandy with the wife as “a shock absorber between him and the world around him.” Given Jackson’s keen interest in Thomas Mann, I’m wondering why he felt the need to mimic or outperform his better. I mean, the Fitzgerald passage in The Lost Weekend, where he just speaks glowingly about Fitzgerald, you would think that Jackson could have figured out that one of Fitzgerald’s fatal flaws was trying to actually reproduce Gatsby. So why was he just not self-aware enough to realize that masterpieces just kind of happen by accident?

Bailey: Well, I think that Charlie had a taste for fine things, which was very much like Scott Fitzgerald. Scott Fitzgerald had a very big nut. He liked to live lavishly and that meant writing trashy stories for the Saturday Evening Post and not writing great novels. So there it is. Charlie, his great surrogate parents in Newark was the Bloomer family in town. And he wrote a story, Charlie did, called “Tenting Tonight.” In the midst of this dreary provincial place, here are people with real tastes, who have culture, who have this opulent house. And this is something that Charlie aspires to. And then later, this man, this gay bachelor, this Wall Street lawyer with a fabulous fortune whose father was Edith Wharton’s best friend, Bronson Winthrop, takes Charlie and his brother Boom under his wing and really gives them a taste for fine things. You know, they both had tuberculosis. Bronson Winthrop sent them to these luxury sanitoria in Davos, Switzerland. So Charlie said, “I want to live like that.” And he managed miraculously — we’re condensing a lot, but he went through this period of horrific alcoholism where he miraculously got sober. He wrote The Lost Weekend, which was not only regarded critically as a masterpiece. That’s the very word that The New York Times used.

Correspondent: I’d call it a masterpiece.

Bailey: I would too. I think that Don Birnam is still the definitive portrait of an alcoholic in American literature. And he goes to Hollywood and suddenly he’s this alcoholism guru, which you pointed out. People like Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Parker and Benchley and so on. And, you know, he wants to keep living like that. He wants to still have the celebrity friends. He wants Judy Garland to remain his pal. And he buys this ridiculous federal mansion in New Hampshire and finds that he can’t keep it up without writing dreck. And pretty soon, he falls into the same trap that poor Fitzgerald did, which was writing terrible short stories for the slicks.

Correspondent: Was it Hollywood that forced him to have this yardstick to measure himself by? Or was it the success of The Lost Weekend? Because that sold like crazy. Like Franzen style at the time.

Bailey: It did sell like Franzen style. But what happened was — he goes to Hollywood. Everything’s going Charlie’s way. He’s the most popular man in town. He was very endearing and very charming. Everyone invited him. He never had to dine alone in Hollywood. All the stars loved him, especially all the alcoholic stars. Which was every one of them. What was the question again?

Correspondent: I’m trying to get from you why he felt the need to be this great social novelist and I gave you a hint with the Thomas Mann thing.

Bailey: Right. Charlie had a terrible need to be loved. And he adored the work of Thomas Mann. And Mann — they had sort of an Eckermann/Goethe-like relationship. Mann met him in Hollywood. And they became correspondents and friends who saw each other maybe three times. It wasn’t misguided for Charlie to aspire to write great books. He’d written one. And to his credit, he terminated his contract at MGM. He didn’t want to stay in Hollywood and be this hack. He wanted to write The Fall of Valor, which was the first mainstream novel about homosexuality in American fiction. 1946. Two years ahead of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. The problem was it wasn’t that great of a novel. Now if you want to talk about what the real reason that Charlie’s fiction never equaled The Lost Weekend, we can do that.

Correspondent: Well, sure. Feel free. We’re getting into some really high-end reading geek things.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, 40a, and bedenney.)

The Bat Segundo Show #530: Blake Bailey II (Download MP3)

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Ignored and Overlooked Books in 2013

(A version of this post originally appeared at Our Man in Boston. This piece was copyedited — with all book titles and author spellings corrected — before being published on Reluctant Habits.)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Prolific literary journalist Robert Birnbaum, whose conversations have adorned The Morning News, Identity Theory, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, decided to combat year-end list fatigue by contacting several esteemed authors. He asked them to remark upon books they felt were ignored or overlooked. Some of the authors named titles published in 2013. Others expanded the possibilities to the entire history of published literature. What follows is the result of Birnbaum’s grand experiment, along with some sentiments from Birnbaum himself.]

* * *

b13aAdult onset solipsism can be distinguished from the youth version of self-centeredness by the admission that, as Van Morrison croons in “The Meaning of Loneliness,” “it takes a lifetime just to know yourself.” Thus, one is beset with constant instances of self-doubt and self-interrogation. One coping mechanism or technique I have employed to gain a foothold on serenity and enlightenment is to regulate or gate-keep my intake of information, allowing my intuition to guide me. For example, I am prepared to make decisions on what to investigate further past a snappy headline or synopsis. As in my immediate disinterest for going any further in the text when I encountered this fatuous mandate at Arts and Letters Daily: “‘Undergraduates should be kept away from theory at all costs,’ says _____ __________. ‘They should read Kael, not Derrida…'” Immediately sensing its syllogistic unsoundness, I saw this bit of grandiloquence as the kind of Tourette’s outburst one might encounter at a faculty meeting or a party. Of course, one of the joys of engaging this form of short form journalism (web journalizing) is the opportunity to engage in such orotund pronouncements.

(Photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Some Ignored Titles (Photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Okay. For the longest time, I had an aversion to lists, viewing them as a lazy journalistic ploy to contribute to the ongoing dumbing down of everything (uh, I still think I am correct about that). On the other hand, I can see some creative usefulness in lists. Umberto Eco creates some that interesting. And then there is Paul Zimmer’s poem, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven,” where in his recording of it introduces it as a “list” and encourages people to make their own lists:

I sit with Joseph Conrad in Monet’s garden,
We are listening to Yeats chant his poems,
A breeze stirs through Thomas Hardy’s moustache,
John Skelton has gone to the house for beer,
Wanda Landowska lightly fingers a clavichord,
Along the spruce tree walk Roberto Clemente and
Thurman Munson whistle a baseball back and forth.
Mozart chats with Ellington in the roses.

Monet smokes and dabs his canvas in the sun,
Brueghel and Turner set easels behind the wisteria.
the band is warming up in the Big Studio:
Bean, Brute, Bird and Serge on saxes,
Kai, Bill Harris, Lawrence Brown, trombones,
Klook plays drums, Mingus bass, Bud the piano.
Later Madam Schumann-Heink will sing Schubert,
The monks of bendictine Abbey will chant.
There will be more poems from Emily Dickinson,
James Wright, John Clare, Walt Whitman.
Shakespeare rehearses players for King Lear.

At dusk Alice Toklas brings out platters
Of Sweetbreads à la Napolitaine, Salad Livonière,
And a tureen of Gaspacho of Malaga.
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.

So, here’s a list (of sorts) that I created. I considered offering reasons for my choices, but I decided to rely on your good opinion of me and your curiosity:

b13c

Additionally, I asked some bookish acquaintances for their recommendations of overlooked books that come to mind. (These are pretty much reprinted as I received them.)

b13dElizabeth Cox, novelist, Night Talk (Random House):

One overlooked novel I would like to add to the list is The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone. My husband (Mike Curtis) edited that novel and it is a good story.

* * *

David Rieff, author, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (Simon & Schuster):

Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution

* * *

b13fRobert Stone, novelist, Death of the Black-Haired Girl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

Off the top of my head, I recall only one, and I’ve forgotten the author’s name. There was a novel about a man in Maine published some years ago, called Harbor Lights. It was reviewed “In Brief” at the New York Times Book Review. A short, excellent novel.

* * *

b13gKatherine Powers, literary personage, author, Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life (FSG):

So, I don’t know about “tragically.” By “overlooked,” I would mean that most people haven’t heard of the following titles. They are all A+:

20,000 Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton
The Armstrong Trilogy by Roy Heath
In Hazard by Richard Hughes
The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin

* * *

Richard Russo, award winning novelist, author of Elsewhere, (Knopf), screenwriter (The Ice Harvest):

But for my bookseller daughter Emily’s recommendation, I doubt I’d have come across A Marker to Measure Drift. You might want to check to see if it did better than I imagine, but my sense is that it slipped into oblivion, and the last scene in the novel is as brutal and breathtaking as anything I’ve read in a long time.

* * *

b13hRon Rash, novelist, The Cove (ECCO):

With by Donald Harington. Harington is America’s Chaucer.

* * *

b13iEdwidge Danticat, novelist, Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf), humanitarian:

I’d say many of Percival Everett‘s novels including Erasure. Everett is as a brilliant at creating narratives as he is at bending genres. He has one of the least classifiable careers, but one of the most brilliant, in American letters. Everett’s 2001 masterpiece, Erasure — a parody of the African-American urban novel — offers a lyrical critique of a publishing establishment which continues to pigeonhole writers, particular African-American writers. Everett is also a respected poet and painter. His previous honors include: The PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and the Dos Passos Prize.

* * *

b13jJoseph O’Connor, overlooked Irish novelist, Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker):

Tragically overlooked novels? Well, all of mine, for a start. But do you mean tragically overlooked novels from 2013 or in general? In my view, Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe is one of the great novels of the late 20th Century. It’s a story of thwarted love set in 1883 in rural County Fermanagh, on the border of Ulster and what is now as the Republic of Ireland. The events of a single day in the life of Elizabeth Winters provide the plot, which is so utterly gripping that you can’t stop reading. But McCabe smuggles in all sorts of darkness and depth. This is a truly brilliant book about racism, gender politics, and political rage, but the subtle (and supple) language weaves you into the story with such fierce and clever grace that you never feel you’re attending a lecture. It’s got touches of Coetzee and Faulkner, but it’s a mesmerizing smolder all on its own. If you’ve ever doubted the novel’s power to express realities that politics can’t reach, you need to read this magnificent thing.

* * *

b13kStuart Dybek, author, Northwestern University mentor, Paper Lantern: Love Stories (FSG, forthcoming):

I don’t know how “overlooked” Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is, but I saw it on no lists whatsoever when the millennium nonsense was going on and I don’t think there’s been a change since.

* * *

David Thomson, cultural encyclopedia, author Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson):

Troubles by J.G Farrell. If you don’t think it’s overlooked, then try The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

* * *

b13lDarin Strauss, author, Half a Life: A Memoir (McSweeney’s), NYU mentor:

I don’t know what counts as forgotten anymore. The Fixer, which is tough and beautiful and unsentimental in its treatment of something awful? Perhaps Memento Mori, which I just read and which taught me about the consoling half-thoughts and cruelties, the passing cruelties of stupid people. (In other words, most dumbasses will act dumb and assy and never feel bad about it, will come up with reasons, in fact, to feel good about the immoral way they act.) Or maybe The Statement by Brian Moore, which is a perfect thriller, a smart philosophical treatment of evil and racism, a fun read, and about an afternoon’s read?

All of the above?

* * *

b13mBrian Doyle, novelist, Mink River (University of Oregon Press), editor of Portland:

Hmmm. Maybe The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary. Best novel I ever read, period, but not one that many people have on their shelves. Also made into a terrific movie, which is a rare case of a glorious novel being made into a glorious movie. The few others I know: Little Big Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, A River Runs Through It, Lord of the Rings, The Year of Living Dangerously, maybe The English Patient, maybe Master and Commander.

* * *

b13nDaniel Olivas, novelist, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press):

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

I interviewed him for the first print. Enjoy the list-making edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books regarding this novel. It’s quite beautiful, but did not receive the kind of coverage it should have.

* * *

Michael A. Orthofer, editor, éminence grise, editor of The Complete Review:

Way too much gets way too overlooked, but I guess I’d suggest: Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (which seems to have gotten almost no review — and little reader-attention). Runner-up: Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, which got a bit more attention but nowhere what it deserves (it’s a best-of-year contender) —- perhaps overshadowed by Herman Koch’s somewhat similar (and considerably inferior) The Dinner. Still: that’s just the tip of the overlooked iceberg.

* * *

Ben Fountain, award-winning author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco):

Several come to mind:

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. I don’t know if it could be called “tragically overlooked,” given that it was made into a blockbuster movie in the late ’60s, but nobody talks about it much these days. I think it’s one of the Great American Novels. Top ten for sure, maybe top five.

We Agreed to Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood. A lovely, short novel that came out about seven to eight years ago. It won the AWP award, and Scott subsequently got a Whiting Award on the strength of it. It’s just about perfect. His forthcoming novel from Knopf is even better.

The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer. A novel of Texas politics, published 1961 or ’62.

* * *

Robert McCrum, author, Globish: How English Became the World’s Language (W.W. Norton):

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe.

* * *

b13oAllan Gurganus, novella-ist, Local Souls:

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards: This is the single novel by a bureaucrat who spent his life on the Isle of Guernsey. G.B. Edwards imagined a trilogy of such works but he died in a mainland boarding house with this manuscript under his bed. The landlady got it published in 1981. The work is erotic, tumultuous and heroic as a Beethoven symphony. We get the twisted history of incestuous island families. We get the German occupation of the island during World War II. Love stories are offset by men battling the ocean and its creatures. This novel, a rare instance of folk art in narrative, deserves a larger readership, a secure place in our literature.

* * *

b13pGary Fisketjon, veteran editor at Knopf:

Indeed, I could fill a volume in that category with many new additions every fucking year. But given that we’re in 2013, I’d say that Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances has been overlooked most tragically. That’s one reason my only lingering resolution -– to quit smoking -– always fails to get any real traction.

* * *

Billy Giraldi, novelist, Busy Monsters (WW Norton), critic, essayist, long-form journalist editor, Agni:

Indeed. Caleb Williams by William Godwin and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Neglected masterworks of suspense, both of them. Divinely written.

* * *

b13q
Hari Kunzru, novelist, Gods without Men (Knopf):

I’ll nominate Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie fans have seen the movie, but the book is beautiful and poised. As if Richard Yates wrote speculative fiction.

* * *

b13rJoseph Epstein, short fiction writer, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (HMH):

1. Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard.
2. Sándor Márai’s Embers.

I’m not sure if these are tragically overlooked or merely insufficiently well-known, but both are swell novels.

* * *

b13sSven Birkerts, Literary Man for All Seasons, editor, Agni, memoirist, writing program administrator (Bennington):

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch
The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz
The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson

* * *

b13tTom Piazza, novelist, City of Refuge (Ecco), screenwriter (Treme), musical connoisseur:

I’d have to vote for Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, in the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation. Mann is underread in general these days, but Buddenbrooks was a masterpiece. People tend to think it’s just a 19th century family saga, but it’s really a book that combines 19th century techniques and sonorities with startlingly modern technical strategies that get missed because they work wholly in the service of the narrative. It’s almost like a Mahler symphony — one foot in the 19th century and one stepping off the cliff into the unspooling chaos of the 20th. Very important to get the old Lowe-Porter translation. Random House made the mistake of letting somebody “update” the translation and they ruined it, sort of the way Pevear and Volokhonsky ruin the Russians.

Among contemporary books, Lives of the Monster Dogs should have made Kirsten Bakis a big literary star.

* * *

Susan Bergholz, nonpareil and sage literary agent (Eduardo Galeano, et al):

Here you go. Can’t do just one! Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford, simply the best book about marriage ever written in the US by a living treasure. The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage: dead now, extraordinary work. An Imaginary Life by David Malouf: a pitch-perfect novel, except for the Afterword. The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers, our most brilliant and amazing male novelist; makes Franzen and company sound as though they are writing soap operas. Prepare for his novel out in January, Orfeo: stunning!

I forgot one very important novel: Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
And another one: In the Palm of Darkness by Mayra Montero
And: Their Dogs Came with Them by Helena Maria Viramontes.
Okay. I’ll stop now!

* * *

b13u
Blake Bailey, literary biographer, Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf):

The Lost Weekend, of course. And Anthony Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men.

* * *

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The Bat Segundo Show: Blake Bailey

Blake Bailey appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #284.

Blake Bailey is most recently the author of Cheever and the editor of the two-volume John Cheever set recently issued by Library of America.

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Subjects Discussed: Eponymous titles, Cheever as a brand name, whether literary biographies are needed, contending with Updike’s review, the hard things that Cheever said about Updike, the literary biography as a history of the 20th century, interview subjects who use pseudonyms, telephone prank calls, writing a biography while considering the Cheever family, establishing total independence, corralling incidents in Cheever’s journal with real-life incidents, whether or not Cheever’s accounts could even be trusted, explicit connections between the stories and Cheever’s life, similarities between Richard Yates and John Cheever, shyness and courtliness, living in squalor, Cheever’s phony aristocratic voice, getting naked, Robert Gottlieb’s late-career intervention, whether or not Cheever was washed up after Falconer, financial unease, Dwight MacDonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” the power of literary critics in the 1960s, narcissism, status and quids pro quo, Cheever pushing the envelope in his fiction, Cheever’s strange obsession with television commercials, Cheever and postmodernism, Donald Barthelmie, and Cheever and postmodernism.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

blakebaileyCorrespondent: John Updike. He wrote a piece called “On Literary Biography” — I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with it — in which he asked whether we needed literary biographies at all. He concluded that “[t]he vocabularies of psychoanalysis and of literary analysis become increasingly entwined; though we must not forget that these invalids receive our attention because of the truth and poetry and entertainment to be found in their creations.” Now, of course, in the last piece he wrote for the New Yorker, after his death, he reviewed your book. And he wrote that “all this biographer’s zeal makes a heavy, dispiriting read,” where he wanted your narrative “pursued in methodical chapters that tick past year after year, to hurry through the menacing miasma of a life which, for all the sparkle of its creative moments, brought so little happiness to its possessor and to those around him.” So I put forth to you, Mr. Bigshot Literary Biographer, why do we need literary biographies? Are you perhaps more of a literary historian? Because there is a considerable amount of detail in this. Would you call your book more of a history? Is it really gossip-peddling? What’s the deal here? Defend yourself from Mr. Updike’s charges!

Bailey: That’s a pretty involved question, Ed. Can I take it one at a time? You mention Updike first of all. And I’m sure that Updike would be tempted to do without literary biography. Particularly a literary biography of himself. And I think that that was somewhere in his agenda when he reviewed my book. Which he was kind enough to call and which will be used as a pull quote in one of the advertisements “a triumph of thorough research and unblinkered appraisal.” Now I would venture to suggest a couple of things. First of all, that Updike was a dying man when he reviewed my book. And it was very depressing to read — and not the first time that Updike has been exposed to this — to read about some of the many hard, hard things that Cheever had to say about him in private. Because as Updike has noted on many occasions, Cheever was always witty and debonair and charming in person. And really tirelessly promoted Updike’s career. He seconded his nomination in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was the primary nominator of Updike to the Academy of Arts and Letters. And so on. And blurbed hiim, and congratulated him. On and on and on. In private, in his journals, Cheever was, to put it charitably, very ambivalent on the subject of Updike. And so that can’t be very pleasant to read. And also the chapters dealing with Cheever’s own death from cancer must have been grindingly lugubrious for Updike to read.

I would also — and this is a very self-serving theory, but not without merit, I think. I have now written a very thorough biography of Richard Yates. I have now written a very thorough biography of John Cheever. The three great chroniclers of the American postwar middle-class are generally perceived to be Richard Yates, John Cheever, and John Updike. I have been named on more than a few occasions as a prospective biographer of John Updike. He is vary chary of biographers. And I think that he did not like the prospect of my bringing my thorough research and unblinkered appraisal to bear on an account of his own life. So this was a very shrewd way of steering me off at the pass. Because I could hardly seem disinterested after a biting review of my book. One of the very few biting reviews I have received, I might add.

Correspondent: I’ll jump back to that point momentarily. But going back to the idea.

Bailey: Do we need…?

Correspondent: Why do we need literary biographies?

Bailey: Well, I mean, I think that that’s a silly rumination on Updike’s part. Unless he’s — I would have to see the entire context. Is he calling it a question of validity of biographies in general? Because I think biographies are one of the most fascinating genres. Certainly I am more attracted to exploring the universe of a single individual and can imply so much thereby. I think that, and indeed, it’s been noted that my biographer of Cheever has also something of a history of the 20th century of literary life in America. So, well, of course we need literary biographies. Who’s more interesting than Cheever? I mean, he had the most exhaustively documented inner life of any major American writer. A 4,300 page single-spaced typed journal, which one can constantly counterpoint with his rather absurd and certainly disparate public personae. So I think literary biography is fascinating. And I think well-done literary biography is doubly fascinating.

Correspondent: But would you say that this history of the 20th century would be your way of essentially deflating or countering the Updike charge that really it should be just about the writer’s work?

Bailey: Oh absolutely not. What nonsense. Uh, no. I think that again — Joyce Carol Oates, of course, is famous or infamous for coining the term “pathography.”

Correspondent: Yeah.

Bailey: In her review of the Jean Stafford biography. That is any biography which places an unseemly emphasis on the subject’s tortured inner life. I think if you tell the whole truth about your subject that everything will work out. You just show the man in the round. And ultimately, you will deplore certain aspects of him or her. And you will sympathize with certain aspects. I was confronted with some pretty nasty stuff about Cheever. But in the end, I the biographer felt compassion for him.

BSS #284: Blake Bailey (Download MP3)

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Review: Revolutionary Road

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In Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty, an excellent Richard Yates biography, Bailey depicts Yates’s efforts to adapt William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness for director John Frankenheimer. The film, as we all know, was never made. And although Yates took this lucrative gig to whirl away with the money, this didn’t stop the troubled and cash-strapped literary master from writing to the requirements of the cinematic medium. Yates included careful music cues (“light, tinny, inexpert” xylophone music to be played during a moment of rage), specific camera angles, and even facial expressions, but, above all, he remained faithful to Styron’s text, condensing and tweaking the narrative without sacrificing its visceral dynamic. To tamper with Styron too much or to water it down would involve a conventional and pointless facsimile, a flaccid adaptation dishonest to Styron and the possibilities of cinema itself.

Bailey concludes that Yates’s screenplay “may have amounted to a great movie adapted from a great novel.” And he quotes Frankenheimer forty years after Yates’s labor: “God, it’s good. I’d still like to make that movie.”

It’s doubtful that the team behind Revolutionary Road had any solicitude like this in mind. Justin Haythe’s unpardonably distilled screenplay “adaptation” manages to whittle away all that was interesting within Yates’s book. It is, like the 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, a dull and literal winnowing of a literary masterpiece. You know you’re in trouble from the get-go when Yates’s opening chapter in a community theater, which masterfully sets up the artifices of the Wheelers, is replaced with aloof flashbacks.

Clumping their heavy galoshes around the stage, blotting at their noses with Kleenex and frowning at the unsteady print of their scripts, they would disarm each other at last with peals of forgiving laughter, and they would agree, over and over, that there was plenty of time to smooth the thing out. But there wasn’t plenty of time, and they all knew it, and a doubling and redoubling of their rehearsal schedule seemed only to make matters worse.

Granted, it takes a screenwriter of exceptional talent to process those precise interior sentences into the visual exigencies of the film form. But Haythe is incapable of introducing anything that might permit us to see the wheels spinning in Frank’s head. Nor is director Sam Mendes up to the task of reinventing the Wheelers by establishing behavior that is as specifically rendered as Yates’s prose.

road3Instead of the backstories associated with this disastrous local theater run, we see Leo and Kate (certainly not anything close to Yates’s Frank and April, and considerably removed from Cameron’s Jack and Rose) looking across at each other at a party. But we have no real sense in the film of why these two would be attracted to each other, and, because of this, there’s no real reason to care. It doesn’t help that the Wheeler household looks more like a Pottery Barn catalog than a middle-class dwelling in 1955. And it doesn’t help that Mendes cannot even depict two pivotal acts of carnality with accuracy. (In the Mendes universe, couples have passionless sex and finish each other off in twenty seconds without even the tiniest whimper of pleasure. This is as preposterous and implausible as Sharon Stone’s over-the-top masturbation scene in Sliver. In a narrative that demands close verisimilitude, this is an inexcusable artistic decision.)

There’s a better effort to account for the Wheelers’s emotional deadness later on in the film, when the Wheelers sit down for breakfast after a fight. Leo and Kate deliver their lines in a husky and stilted manner, and the stale atmosphere in this scene is perhaps the closest this film comes to making something stick on the screen.

Nevertheless, I wondered if director Sam Mendes had really wanted to make this movie. Did he even understand the book? Had he even read it? In book form, Revolutionary Road is, among other things, a harrowing portrayal of potential castrated in the comforting traps of suburbia. And if you’re going to make a movie from this, you need an actor in Frank Wheeler’s role who is not only capable of selling us the masculinity muted beneath the cube worker, but you need someone who can intuitively grasp the emotional complexities carefully embedded inside the novel.

road2Leonardo DiCaprio is not that man. He demonstrates little thespic understanding of what it means to be stifled. He gives us nothing in the way of sorrow, save the cartoonish wails and the exaggerated throwing of physical objects from surfaces. DiCaprio has been relying on this ever since a few people convinced him that he was a serious actor. But he is unable to present us with some of the reasons why Frank would be tempted by an extramarital affair. He can access the territory of knowing he’s not good enough to be someone special. But when we learn how Frank Wheeler’s cavalier act gets him ahead, it is not because of DiCaprio. It is because Haythe and Mendes spoon-feed it to us ad nauseum. A scene at a beach, a scene with his co-workers at a diner, a scene with April. This is an inefficient and an insulting waste of minutes. We need not be told twice, let alone three times, that Frank Wheeler has what it takes to get ahead at Knox Business Machines. It should be self-evident in the way that Frank Wheeler acts on screen. But DiCaprio here cannot merge into the tempo established by his environment.

Some of this may be bad casting and bad direction. But it’s clear watching this film that DiCaprio’s mind, emotions, and personal experience — as portrayed here — remain unsuited to a man in his midthirties who knows nothing more than a shitty job.

As April, Kate Winslet is better. She did, after all, play Sarah Pierce, the bored thirtysomething housewife who feels entitled to something better in Little Children, nailing the opportunity to fuse hauteur with vulnerability. (Perhaps Todd Field should have been the guy to write and direct Revolutionary Road.)

But her husband is not suited to direct her. Instead of crafting a performance out of Winslet, Mendes constantly places Winslet in the center of the frame, as if this visual juxtaposition will somehow atone for the bad material.

road4Instead, Mendes and Haythe, who appear to be a writer-director working team about as competent as Akiva Goldsman and Joel Schumacher, see Yates’s endlessly nuanced novel as an opportunity to remake American Beauty for the 1950s, with a number of sexist nods to Mad Men thrown in for commercial appeal. “I must scoot. Toodle-ooo,” says one bubbly neighbor. And this cornball emphasis suggests that Mendes and Haythe don’t see the 1950s as a time in which real people lived and wrestled with serious decision. It is a decade to be played merely for cheap laughs.

And this contempt for audiences makes Revolutionary Road a movie designed for illiterates who will likely give this dreadful film a pass because they refuse to demand better.

Perhaps Mendes and Haythe’s incompetence can be summed up in the film’s final scene, which takes a good two minutes to execute. But Yates got to the point in two sentences. It’s a pity that this film never dares to trust its audience and speed up its pace through natural beats and a meticulous attention to human behavior. If it had, it might have come close to understanding the welcome, thunderous sea of silence at the heart of Yates’s novel.