Sunday, September 29, 2013

On the Nightstand

Today, I thought I'd talk a bit about a few books I've read lately that I enjoyed for very different reasons.

The first was a birthday gift that I requested after seeing a review in the New York Times.

James Purdy (1914-2009) spent his life quietly turning out short stories and novels which have generated a small but devoted literary cult while remaining virtually unknown to the public at large.  Purdy, born in Ohio, has been compared with Flannery O'Connor in terms of the odd, lovingly misanthropic nature of his fiction, as well as his penchant for reclusiveness and disinterest in promoting his work or connecting with his fans.  

These stories (so far) are short, very self-contained character sketches and I've been following John Waters' advice (he provides the introduction for the volume) and reading one before bed at night, so this should take a while.  Purdy definitely has a predilection for showing us characters who probably didn't graduate at the top of their high school class attempting to deal with the desperate emotional dilemmas that crop up in everyone's life from time to time.  Unlike other literary authors who like to write about intelligently introspective people who puzzle over their problems before arriving at some sort of personal epiphany, Purdy bring us characters who don't quite understand why they feel the way they do or have any idea what they might do to solve their problems.  Quite often, they're not even sure what those problems are.  Two women, friends for years, have both lost sons in different ways.  Yet they have no idea how to sympathize with or support each other.  Instead of depicting their progress toward understanding one another, Purdy chooses to explore the tension and vague resentment which underlies a typical visit.  And that's it.  Nothing is better at the end of the story.  In another piece, a thirty-something woman has fallen out of love with her husband and has become increasingly sexually frustrated, though she is unworldly enough to not quite realize this.  When an elderly shopkeeper makes inappropriate, almost coercive sexual advances, she is repulsed, flattered, turned on and ashamed.  She pushes him away and stumbles out of the store, even more upset and confused.  The End.  

Purdy manages to depict his characters with equal measures of sympathy and condescension.  You can't help thinking that if these people were just a little bit brighter or more conversant with the ways of the world, they could at least make some sort of peace with their feelings, but Purdy never allows them that.  Each story is a small bubble of lovingly rendered frustration and anxiety which will remain suspended that way forever in time.  Yeah, one at a time every couple of days is plenty. 

And now for something completely different.

I have a huge to-read slushpile of old used paperbacks I've picked up and I decided recently to make an effort to dig deep into the stacks, especially the items that qualify as what I'd call "comfort food reading."  So with no further ado, I offer:

I always liked movie and TV novelizations as a kid.  In the days before home video, they allowed you to take a movie home with you, in a way, and often expanded upon the associated film with a lot of extra detail and explanation.  Many popular television series in the 60s and 70s spawned tie-in novels that provided extra "episodes" for fans to enjoy.  You still see film novelizations, especially with scifi and adventure movies, and a few TV shows with dedicated fanbases still get tie-in books, but the practice is not nearly as widespread as the days when you could find WELCOME BACK, KOTTER and GET SMART novels at your local bookstore.

In the typical procedure for producing the novelization of a feature film, the studio would provide the contracted writer with a script for the film and the writer would flesh it into a novel long before the film was completed.  Novelizations (and comics adaptations) were usually released slightly ahead of the film to drum up interest.  Because of this advance preparation, scenes and dialogue that didn't make into a film's final cut can often be found in the novelization.  It can be interesting to discover "deleted scenes" this way.

Today's featured novelization, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES has been one of my favorite films since I first watched it on television with my babysitter.  So bleak and hopeless.  So violent and nihilistic for a film franchise which would soon be marketed to young children with coloring books and dolls.  Watching movie good guys get machine-gunned to death by relentless hordes of brutal apes struck quite a chord in an 8 year old.  And that ending!...but no more spoilers.

It's probably been decades since I've read a film novelization and while I know I read this one, I remembered nothing about its style and quality.  The author is Michael Avallone, a prolific writer who hammered out almost 300 novels and assorted short stories under 15 or 20 pseudonyms.  In addition to film novelizations, he did a lot of TV show tie-ins, including things like THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., MANNIX and THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.  He also wrote some NICK CARTER novels and plenty of original stuff too.  

Well, I didn't know what I was expecting, but Avallone's style here is....interesting.  The most positive spin I can put on it is that it frequently reminds me of the overwrought narration found in the more "cosmic" Marvel comics of the early 70s, like Steve Gerber's MAN-THING (that's gotta be a future column) or Jim Starlin's CAPTAIN MARVEL and WARLOCK (ditto).

A couple of samples:

"The search became a trek. A wearying, parching, searing exodus across a land that might have sprung whole from the pages of the Old Testament. Never had Brent known so much desert, so much sun, so much dry, sandy, barren nothingness....Brent could only let the horse plod along in a forward direction and hope for the best.  The girl clinging to his dampened body was like some lovely homunculus growing out of his very back."

Hell, now THAT'S interesting.  In the movie, we get a couple of shots of them galloping along sand dunes while the sun flares the camera lens.

"Brent and Taylor went at each other still more viciously.....Snarling, snapping, biting, digging at one another as if the universe depended on this one, single encounter to give anything of life meaning, sense....The stunning waves of traumatic hypnosis held Brent and Taylor in a dazzling, relentless hold which would not loosen until the Negro opened his eyes."

I suppose it's not good objectively; maybe he was stacking adjectives to improve his word count. But it did keep my interest up throughout a story which has worn a smooth groove in my consciousness.  Since I knew precisely what would happen next in the plot, right down to the dialogue, the pleasure in reading this became a matter of wondering what the hell kind of verbal interstate pile-up the author would come up with next and being delighted each time he managed to surpass himself.  A might have lost me.  If I see another Michael Avallone paperback, I'm going to pick it up.

Now a few comments on something I've just started.

Yes, this is actually a TV show tie-in novel, albeit a brand new tie-in to an old series.  THUNDERBIRDS, of course, was the 60s series about International Rescue, a team of adventurers who rescued people from precarious situations every week with their supercool, near-future scifi vehicles and gadgets.  Oh, and the show was presented using cleverly designed marionettes and exquisitely detailed miniature props and sets. Seriously, imagine a colorful, Mad Men-era office or living room with sharply designed furniture and detailed decor, down to the ashtrays, paintings and potted plants.  Now add a subtle touch of James Bond gadgetry.  Finally, remember that you're building the whole thing from scratch to scale for 18-inch high puppets and you have to design and build several new ones for every episode, every week. That's a big part of the pleasure of this show, for me at least.  There are also the jets, boats, cave-ins, explosions and underwater rescues, all created in convincing miniature detail by masters of a very specialized craft.

Anthony Taylor's ARCTIC ADVENTURE is an official THUNDERBIRDS tie-in, part of a series which includes a few others.  I'm just a couple of chapters in, but already I can recommend it to anyone who's a fan of the show.  The book does what TV tie-ins do best by providing the reader with extra insight into the thoughts and motivations of the characters and plenty of background information to flesh out the plot.  In the first few chapters, Taylor gives us a compelling backstory for the show's tech genius character Brains and practical details about the origins of International Rescue never really addressed on the show.  Also, Taylor knows his aero-tech pretty damn well.  It never occurred to me that writing a THUNDERBIRDS novel would require more than a thorough knowledge of the show plus writing skills.  Part of the show's appeal, however, has always been its plausible, detailed technology.  If you want to write about starships, you can toss around terms like "hyperdrive" and "anti-matter dampeners" all day long.  If you want to write about advanced stealth aircraft, you better know what you're talking about or the readers will realize that you're spinning out nonsense pretty quickly, regardless of how much they know about it themselves.

The novel is off to a fine start, as solid as any episode of the show, and I can't wait to find out what happens next.  I can already recommend it to any THUNDERBIRDS fan.

That's all for now.  I should be back soon with an update about Video Watchdog #175 which features one of my reviews.  More of my peculiar obsessions to come.  Thanks for reading.

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