The Disaster Artist (2013)

Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

The Disaster Artist is a book about Tommy Wiseau the lead actor, director, screen writer and producer of the cult hit and ‘worst movie ever made’ The Room.

The Room was self-funded by Wiseau with a mysterious budget of six million dollars and should have been little else other than a vanity piece full of laughable acting, writing and special effects. Instead and, perversely, because Wiseau is such a bad actor, and wrote such awful dialogue and performs with such misplaced intensity The Room gained a mesmerised cult following and has regularly screened on cult cinema nights for over a decade worldwide. In my home city, Melbourne, there are at least monthly screenings.

Written by Wiseau’s friend and co-star Greg Sestero with the help of journalist/writer Tom Bissell The Disaster Artist seeks to explain the origins of Wiseau, his film, and the many missteps towards its accidental success. Sestero first met Tommy Wiseau as a fledgling actor in a San Francisco acting class. Through anecdotes the book details how the two became friends as well as the career paths of their unsuccessful acting careers. This side of the book, the accounts of insider Hollywood at the lowest levels and the subsequent clumsy making of an independent film are endlessly interesting and entertaining and could have been enough to form a great book. It is the attempt to simultaneously intertwine a biography of Wiseau which elevates the book to something better. The result is similar, though not quite as amazing, as Emmanuel Carrère’s excellent I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick. The Disaster Artist, bears similarities to Carrère’s biography in its construction of Wiseau who is, or at least is portrayed as, a mysterious character who is impossible to truly

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The bulk of the marketing for the original run of the film was this billboard in LA. Wiseau is said to have paid $12k a month for the advertising and kept it up for five years!

know. Like Carrère had to with Dick the authors of The Disaster Artist are forced to be resourceful and second guess themselves as they attempt to paint a portrait of a man who has entirely invented the nature of his past and the identity of his present.

The structure chosen by the writers means that the eventual reveals around the theorised mystery of Wiseau’s origins and his riches not to mention his all-consuming passion for acting form the climax of the book. I won’t mention them as I believe it is impossible to explore these reveals without severely altering and hindering a reading of the book.

Ultimately, I finished the book feeling slightly unsure about what I had read. It seemed unclear if the telling of this story was sanctioned by Wiseau or if he had in fact actively promoted it. Since Sestero has, I believe, an ongoing working relationship with Wiseau this lack of clarity seemed intentional and designed. Other questions are also avoided. Is Wiseau happy to be successful and popular for his failure? Does he think audiences laughing with him and the nature of acting and exhibitionism and drama or, rather, is The Room a product of mental illness and the continued cult status, cinema screenings and soon to be released Franco film a continuation of a sort of refusal to examine the underlying issues behind it and its stars faux success?

Some of these issues are covered as Wiseau’s hypothetical origins are unveiled. But it is these conceits and plays with narrative time which simultaneously provide more tension and entertainment while also placing the reader in deliberate ignorance to Wiseau’s motivation and justification as events are transpiring. Because of these tactics the book often inadvertently becomes a work which explores the nature of biography and auto-biography. The authors contend, ultimately, that it is impossible to know Wiseau or the truth of his background whilst presenting their best guesses. As a reader it is impossible to know if they are bending the truth of their ignorance or knowledge and, if so, to what degree? Are they being intentionally disingenuous about their knowledge on Wiseau? Or is this part of the dogged misguided genius of a man who created a success out of failure? As a fan of biography and its form I found myself just as amazed by the continued mystery and possible manipulation of this figure. Is Wiseau one step ahead of us all, one step behind, or does he have one foot in a different dimension altogether?

The Sad Variety (1964)

Nicholas Blake

Daniel Day Lewis’ poet laureate father writing 60’s detective fiction to pay the bills.

 

Nicholas Blake was the penname of C.S. Lewis who was an Anglo-Irish poet laureate and the father of academy award winning actor Daniel Day Lewis. Because, assumedly, the early earnings of a poet wouldn’t pay Daniel’s acting-school bills Lewis also wrote a series of detective novels based around the exploits of ‘gentleman detective’ Nigel Strangways.

Cecil_Day-Lewis
Cecil Day-Lewis Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968 until his death in 1972.

This is one of the later entries in the Strangeways series published in 1964. The book uses the trope of a closed circle of suspects trapped within a location, in this case an English country town which is isolated by heavy snow. The young daughter of a nuclear scientist has been kidnapped, the ransom for her return, is the vital nuclear state secrets known to her father.

As a detective Strangeways is almost a bystander. The plot progresses as much through accident and happenstance than detective work. Strangeways’ most constructive action is to direct his relatively more capable wife towards the task of slyly questioning suspects and using her expertise in high speed driving and knowledge of cars (neither of which are explained in this outing) to literally speed him and his police colleagues towards the third act.

The book is like Nicholas Freeling’s What Are the Bugles Blowing For? in some ways. As in Bugles this is a late entry in the Strangeways series and his character traits, background, and capabilities are assumed knowledge. As with Bugles the book also struggles with how to situate itself within the changing society of the sixties though is admirable enough in not landing on the wrong side of history in judging societal standards of sexuality, marriage and class.

I wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to the Strangeways series or the detective writing of Blake/Lewis. Where Bugles was an example of a 60’s detective novel that is very badly written The Sad Variety is consistently well written but feels rushed and cut for length so that none of the characters are ever fleshed out enough to make the stakes seem as important as they should. Unlike Bugles there aren’t as many interesting asides or digressions that help work as a time capsule.

Blake/Lewis identified as a communist for much of his life. He turned against the movement and the villains within this novel are said to representative of what he saw as the by-any-means-necessary doctrine of communism.

A great pulp book cover to this edition and an interesting snapshot of the tipping point of society as it progressed throughout the 60’s but, unfortunately, never compelling enough to be anything but a curiosity.

sadvariety

(The) 25th Hour (2001)

David Benioff

25th Hour, originally published as The 25th Hour, is a rare example of a novel which was adapted into a much better film. Other examples I can think of, off-hand at least, include Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption which as a novella was great but as a film, The Shawshank Redemption, was enriched and perfected by extended narrative space. I would also argue Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a better film as there are fewer digressions about genital surgery and lounge singers.

Both book and film versions of 25th Hour have the same plot, the same narrative beats and, for the most part, almost identical dialogue. The protagonist, Montgomery Brogan, has been convicted of drug trafficking. The story explores his last 24 hours of freedom before he is sent to Otisville penitentiary for seven years. Flashbacks through both his perspective and as focalised through those close to him unveil key events which led to the present. There are elements of a thriller as Montgomery wonders who informed upon him and weighs up his options in the face of his incarceration. Will he will run, commit suicide, or resign himself to the oblivion of prison?

As with Shawshank, the film version of 25th Hour has an unfair advantage over the novel. The setting in New York city forms a large part of the novel but plays an even bigger part in the film. Directed by Spike Lee the film was the first to be shot in New York after the 2001 world trade center attacks. In the aftermath of the attacks and as rubble is still being cleared there is an added element of anger, fear and confusion imbued within the story and the setting. The novel, written and set before the S11 attacks, is about Montgomery as an individual and his own feelings towards others and the city as he travels through it on the last day of his free life. In the film, there is a sense that the whole city is angry, scared and confused and this both reflects and belittles Montgomery’s own feelings.

The greatest accomplishment of the story is the moral ambiguity of Montgomery’s characterisation. Benioff writes Monty as a likeable character and the moral push and pull of reconciling the sources of his riches and reason for his pending incarceration is left to his friends. In this way, the judgment and empathy provided towards Month shifts with the different focalisation and character arcs of his friends and loved ones. The character driven plot provides a natural countdown and Benioff dips in and out of the story time with expert use of segues to provide Monty’s back story.

I really struggle to criticise this book. Though it’s not perfect or great. Um… how about, the structure of a short linear story time interrupted by flashbacks is arguably generic and played-out. That’s some form of criticism but, even that, is a stretch. I am incredible biased because of how much I love the film. That too is the point. This is a prime example of a book that must be read before the film. With Spike Lee as director and David Benioff as screenwriter nearly every page and line of dialogue is perfectly recreated in the film. Perhaps I’m wrong and it is a great book or an amazing book but with such a perfect storm of cast, crew, score, cinematography and use of the city as character this, like Shawshank before it, is an example of a book which becomes redundant once you have seen the film.

the-25th-hour

HHhH (2010)

Laurent Binet

Heralded as one of the greatest works of historical fiction HHhH takes on the simple and yet immensely complicated task of detailing the assassination attempt of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi SS.

The book is many things under the one banner including a biography of the Reinhard Heydrich, a biography of the paratrooper assassins, a historical analysis of the development of the final solution, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and an exploration of the act of writing historical fiction. Amongst all this content Laurent Binet also writes himself into the book as he muses on his role as researcher and author.

The books strength is in conveying large amounts of information and research in a smooth and continually interesting manner. Binet, in examining a different theatre of war than usual, goes to great lengths to detail the history of the German occupation of Moravia. He writes of the government in exile and the public figures who stayed and collaborated with the Germans. As part of his biography of Heydrich Binet also provides many insights into the inner workings of the upper Nazi echelon and the nature of their interactions.

The weakness of the book is it often feels too worried about itself. Binet constantly signposts what will happen next and why. That Binet as author includes himself in the book should and could serve as some sort of narrative to the reader but even this potential device is not allowed to exist independently or work properly as Binet feels the need to justify including himself. This level of self-awareness could still allow for the narrative of the researcher and the vast amount of time and effort spent gradually letting go of the story in writing but within the short length of the book it is biographical details about Binet himself which are lacking.

In the climax, when the climax is finally allowed to happen Binet is both too self-aware and intent upon sign-posting his intentions, his motivations and the motivations of his intentions. This leads from very early on to a feeling of anti-climax that, as I reader, I kept expecting would somehow be overcome. Instead the anti-climax is underlined and examined in the same clever way Binet examines much of his writing throughout the book and, I found, this led to a feeling of suffocation under the repeated waves of analysis, self-awareness and concern for the direction of the story.

Binet writes in the closing passages of the emotional investment and near trauma that he has taken on in researching and writing the book. I found this glimpse into his psyche promised so much of what seemed to be missing. I wish he had been allowed to write more about himself, even if it was indulgent perhaps even especially if it was indulgent.

I feel too that if Binet had been allowed another hundred pages to fully illustrate who he is and to also indulge in the personal and his own process of parsing and then writing on these atrocities then this book could have been more than a great work of historical research in the form of a novel. It could have shown how encompassing and dark was the cloud of the Nazi regime and how, even still, so many decades on it is so often impossible for us to comprehend this part of history. I would have happily read more of the guilt and trauma of Binet as he struggled to convey all of this.

But, too, perhaps this is my own worry that I’ll never be able to fully complete my comprehension of these events or the guilt I carry, as I think many of us do, that the fascination with the war and Hitler and the atrocities he committed is voyeuristic rather than academic.

And, so, ultimately undecided as I am this is another book that will remain in limbo on a shelf with few others that I want to read again soon and see how time and myself find it different on a second pass.

 

*The featured image above is the edition I have. To date this is the most edition variants I have found of a book online.

 

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Jeanette Winterson

I’m tempted to very clumsily look for a trend in the career of Jeanette Winterson with other writers of the mid-eighties. I feel as if Jeanette Winterson, Ben Elton and Margaret Atwood shared a similar sort of career path from writer to cultural identity and commentator that certain other eras of writers also have, for instance Updike/Mailer/Vidal or Ellis/Tartt/ Janowitz/ McInerney.

The comparison occurred to me because all three authors have always worked as writers, their work has all dealt with leftist social issues, and they have since become cultural icons unto themselves in a way. My idea of this mid-eighties trend is flawed. Winterson has little in common with Atwood and Elton other than sharing the same side of the political spectrum and a chronologically similar publication date of their bigger novels (Oranges…, The Handmaids Tale, and Stark, respectively.

I’m reasonably familiar with a lot of Elton and Atwood’s work. Elton, I think wrote too much too fast and diluted his own style without enough development until it approached a Morrissey-like level of self-importance and over earnestness. Though, of course, he has remained reasonably relevant by continuing to also work in film and television.

Atwood seems to have developed her style more by allowing herself space between books. She is also older and has a much bigger career than the other two authors. Even so it is hard work reading her earlier work which is much better than Elton’s but similarly earnest and altogether far too serious. I don’t have as much comparison for Winterson’s bibliography but certainly this, her first book, sits better with me than the earlier works of her contemporaries.

Perhaps it is because it is more personal than political and semi-autobiographical as well. The material seems to have more room to breathe and the themes of identity, sexuality and repression are allowed to unfold gently with the narrative events rather than being flagged from the start. But still it is a first novel and one written in the early eighties so it tries far too hard to be clever and is sometimes merely lucky in succeeding. Though succeed it does. At this point I’ve read more of Winterson’s non-fiction than fiction and have no idea what the rest of her fiction output is like. Hopefully good. Hopefully as lyrical and interesting and as smart. I hope her work didn’t become too self-absorbed as her star rose and the navel gazing of the late 80’s and 90’s beckoned and her cultural identity rivalled that of her role as a fiction author.

In terms of criticisms I did wish that the book was longer, which is of course a sign of enjoyment veiled as criticism, and there are artistic flourishes and decision in the novel that I felt were superfluous and could have been replaced. Again, though it is this artistic style which differentiates the personal as political in this book from the often hard to read speculative and satirical politics of Atwood and Elton.

I’ve also yet to see the BBC adaptation starring Maggie Smith.

 

Many of the early edition covers have post-impressionist art work as do the early editions of The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not sure what, if any, connection there is in this similarity. Perhaps it was just the fashion at the time.

oranges2

 

All the Light we cannot See (2014)

Anthony Doerr

The book was the runner-up to Phil Klay’s Redeployment in the 2014 National Book Awards. Redeployment was one of the best books I read last year. All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr’s second novel is also on that list. As much as I love Redeployment I would hate to have to declare which of the two is a better book.

I was probably interested in this book because it had won the Pulitzer. Looking back, I’m surprised I read it as the plot doesn’t sound like something that would necessarily appeal to me. Doerr ties together the WWII experiences of a French girl and a German boy and their interested in architecture and radio technology and experiences in occupied France and the Hitler youth. The novel shoes the bystanders in each country and describes the seaside French city as the blind protagonist learns to navigate it. There is the moral confusion of the German boy in the Hitler Youth and his complicit guilt as his technological expertise spares him the cruel punishment meted out to his classmates. In some ways, the story shouldn’t work and Doerr does almost seem to come dangerously close to overusing central set pieces but never seems too weighed down by his various themes.

Within storylines that should seem obvious at times and themes which should jar Doerr builds incredibly subtle characters and relationships just as he also slowly creates and establishes the set pieces, city and world of the 1940’s French city. The most complimentary thing I can say is that Doerr’s book and the world within it is almost painfully immersive and as, such, the climax, is as hard to bear not just for the fate of the characters but also the inevitable destruction of the city Doerr has created and the architecture, buildings and secret spots I came to know within it.

Green Hills of Africa (1935)

Ernest Hemingway

It’s difficult, in 2017, to stomach a book about the simple pleasures of big game hunting in Africa written from an only vaguely self-aware post-colonial perspective. Yet that is essentially what this book is. The up’s and downs of one of the Hemingway’s big game trophy hunts in Africa in the early 1930’s. This is considered Hemingway’s second non-fiction book, the first being Death in the Afternoon which is about bullfighting. I haven’t read Death in the Afternoon. I wouldn’t rush to read it above the many other books stacking up on my shelf. I didn’t mind the descriptions of bull fighting in The Sun Also Rises as they added an interesting backdrop to the character drama. But that was a work of fiction whereby the plot necessitated that many other acts of writing had to be committed other than just a dissection of the art and skill Hemingway found in the sport of fighting bulls.

This then forms part of the problem with this novel. It is non-fiction. The writing is plain. Even for Hemingway. Yet the book is also very similar to his fiction work. Just as The Sun also Rises and A Farewell to Arms felt like fictionalised truth this novel feels like reverse situation and another potential novel that has not been allowed to float off into the freedom of fiction and is instead steadfastly moored in real life events and very much based upon description and dissection of stalking, killing and skinning rhinos, kudu, lions and sable.

I was willing to find some sort of macabre appeal in the content or grant some sort of romantic conceit based upon Hemingway’s passion for and connection to hunting. It’s hard though when he again and again describes the crack of bullets against various bones and seems almost removed from the actual hunting and still, as in his fiction, worried more about his interactions with his fellow hunters. As a result, the slaughter of various animals very often seems both joyless and pointless.

The asides are the real value of this book. Hemingway’s views on literature and fellow modernist authors are particularly interesting including his various encounters with James Joyce. Similarly, Hemingway’s struggles with envy, jealousy and his views of his fellow hunters and guides provide a sort of subplot and, ultimately, Hemingway does what Hemingway does best by providing, in the conclusion to the book, a simple little poetic twist doesn’t necessarily redeem the writing but which nonetheless hints at what this book could have been had it been more focused upon acting as a work of fiction. And perhaps this forms part of the books value also. A two-fold insight into who Hemingway was or at least how he sought to portray himself and also in how his writing operated and the indecision and doubt that paradoxically seemed to operate side by side with bravado and ultra-confidence.

This 1990 edition has a throwaway cover but does include some nice woodcutting style illustrations throughout. Grafton seemed to have done the complete Hemingway in this style with similar covers but of the two other Grafton editions I have only Green Hills of Africa has illustrations.

greenhills woodcut