The Loved One – 4/5
“All the day the heat had been barely supportable but at evening a breeze arose in the west, blowing from the heart of the setting sun and from the ocean”
I rented the first disc of Six Feet Under from Blockbuster just as soon as the dvds of the first season came out. I remember that one of the first scenes of the show, and the first season of the show was weird, like the ways that the first season of Sex and the City was weird in that there were little fake commercials for funerary products. The Simpsons also did this with things like “anti-stink spray” and the like. A lot of these references come from Jessica Mitford’s great book The American Way of Death, which if you haven’t read, you should. This book might also have a huge influence on that pushback to the funeral industry that has come about in the last half century, basically right at the heels of the various ways in which the funeral industry has popped up to bilk people in their most vulnerable times. I tend to be quite irreverent to very cynical about such things, and this book is right there for me when I want it. This is a reread and I enjoyed it all the more this time around.
This book takes on more than the funeral industry. We are in Los Angeles in the 1940s and a British ex-pat is washed out of the movie writing business and finds work at a pet cemetery. Barlow needs to make arrangements for an upcoming funeral and with an air of professional curiosity, he visits the premier cemetery in the city, modeled after Hollywood Forever, where he finds plot that are proximal to statues honoring famous people, famous books, and famous pieces of art, with prices varying according to distance. No Jews or Blacks need apply.
He also meets a young mortician who does the makesup, Amy Thanatopolous, named after Amy McPherson, who is a kind of proto-New Age, but also proto-fake American evangelist. (Waugh is a real Catholic, and like Flanney O’Connor, that comes with a sneering disregard of American Protestantism — and with good cause). He woos her by implying that well-known classic poetry might be his own writing and her general lack of education does not help her much. Like I said, it’s a dark tale, so be prepared for that, but it’s also hilarious at times.
“A Tragedy of Error”
“A low English phaeton was drawn up before the door of the post office of a French seaport town. In it was seated a lady, with her veil down and her parasol held closely over her face. My story begins with a gentleman coming out of the office and handing her a letter.”
The title hangs heavy over this first published story by Henry James. I recall reading it in the college library and mostly thinking, oh god, why have I signed up for this class?, but also how funny it is for a young person in 1864 to be publishing fiction.
This story begins with a woman in France receiving a letter from her husband that he will be arriving by ship the next day. This news alarms and horrifies her as she seems to be enjoying her time alone, but her exact feelings remain mysterious, and even her friends, who witness her shock, can’t quite figure out what the problem is. As she broods on the question, she goes to the wharf and looks to find someone to row her across the river and visit the graveyard. She knows this is an odd request so she’s looking for someone interested in being paid to do so. She finds her man and in the middle of the river she begins to probe his past as a sailor, if he’s ever killed any one, if questions like these horrify him, that kind of thing. He’s both a little dark and affable at the time and she eventually gets around to asking him to kill a man who will be arriving tomorrow….
Invisible Cities –
“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything that Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the Young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.”
I never quite know how much I like or don’t like this novel. When I first read, I didn’t like it. It comes with an outsized reputation, and a lot of different people have recommended it. It also is one of those books that is hugely famous and masked how very famous and talented the writer is, because of the fame of the single work. It’s like Lolita in that way. I love Italo Calvino’s books, except for the ones I don’t!. I think that’s what I needed to know about him before I revisited this book. I do think the writing is beautiful and there a lot of thoughtfulness here. That said, it’s not at all my favorite of the Calvino books I’ve read, now that this is not the only one I’ve read. It’s also not my least favorite, but it’s in the middle. It’s interesting too because I don’t think Americans can really conceive of an emperor. We can kind of conceive of an empire, but I don’t think we’d do a great job of recognizing the use of that term or allowing for that to be the term we use. I don’t think we have a sense of emperors though. It’s a very non-American (as in the United States) ways of seeing things. The US is built so thoroughly on the idea of a nation state that any other form of being for a municipality to be is anathema for us. So trying to make sense of someone from a dukedom talking to someone from an increasingly fragile empire is a strange one for us. For me, it slightly locks me out of the love her, but for others I imagine it’ quite magical.
Don’t Turn on the Lights –
My older sister had this terrible boyfriend that became this terrible fiance and because bad thing never happened or rather the worst thing never happened, it’s easy to look back at that time in all our lives (I was like 12-14) with a sense of adventure. He used to tell us urban legend stories, before my brother and I knew what an urban legend was. The way you do it of course is to replace the generic moments in the story with local details or details based on people you know. I learned about the stalker in the backseat (you know the one with the headlights from behind?) because it turns out it happened at the local mall! Oh my god! Never mind of course that when I drive at night I most certainly cannot see into the person’s car ahead of me. Turns out that same mall, someone was going to their car at night and someone slashed out from under their car with a razor blade, cutting their Achilles tendon. Someone should really look into that mall!
This story plays upon another famous urban legend, where someone, usually a woman, usually in a city or in college leaves her apartment or dorm and has a premonition to stay away for awhile. Often she comes home, doesn’t turn on the lights, notices something off and ignores it and goes to bed, and then wakes to find her roommate horribly murdered!
Anyway, this one plays into that and tells a couple different versions of it and think about how some differences in motive changes things up.
Midnight Caller –
Like the above, but rather than retelling an urban legend, this story takes on slasher movie tropes. A final girl finally gets through to local dispatch who finds out that the girl and her friends have been staying at the abandoned camp ground and all the friends are dead. The dispatcher asks the girl a series of questions that seem useless, and the girl definitely thinks they’re useless but the dispatcher insists she has a checklist, a kind of differential for slasher events, and running through the checklist will give her the best way to assist the girl. As she’s going through the list, which includes all sorts of the different slasher tropes, we get to a roadblock when it turns out that the girl and her friends maybe sorta kinda teased and bullied someone apparently leading to their death, and maybe, just maybe this event is retribution for that. That ends up putting a wrench in the plans.
I was born in 1981, and when I first started watching Friday the 13th movies (I was a very mature 7 or 8 — yay latch key kid!), they felt both eternal and epic. Same goes obviously with Nightmare on Elm Street which I also watched about the same time. In the defense of some kind of decency, I DID happen to be seeing them mostly on TBS so they were edited for cable, but still, I know. And so the tropes, which were actually within about 20 years of creation, felt like storytelling for the ages.
The Tumor –
For the scary stories I read in the last couple of days this is by far the scariest. It’s called a “Non-Legal Thriller” which yikes, buddy. John Grisham is usually on board for a little hamfisted advocacy. Here he’s promoting a possible medical breakthrough, a specific tumor treatment using ultrasound. The story then is written more like a Michael Crichton book or just a medical case study with enough story details to keep it nice and scary. It’s about a man in his mid-thirties, married with children who starts experiencing headaches, loss of attention, mood swings, and dizziness, and after an acute seizure episode goes to the hospital and finds he has a brain tumor. Surgery confirms the worst case possibility, and the diagnosis turns into a prognosis of about 10 months to a year, and he dies within that span.
The story gets retold, but five years in the future, with this newer technology, ultrasound, that allows the man to have much less invasive, much cheaper, and more effective treatment that adds years to his life instead of just months. Thanks buddy.
The Tears of the Anaren
If you’ve watched Mythic Quest, you know CW Longbottom. I don’t know why F Murray Abraham left the show, but I hope it’s simply in order to go be on White Lotus and Moon Knight, but people were speculating, not the least in part because of the general skeeviness of the character. But what a character! The episodes that follow him and two other writers working for a trade magazine in the 1970s and leading eventually to a showdown episode in the present with William Hurt (whoo boy, I know) are two of the very best episodes of television I’ve ever seen. This is especially because of the way that the show built up his backstory slowly and most importantly, diagonally for two seasons, so the first real information dump on his was very welcomed. They’re not unlike the episode of Party Down with Dave Allen playing FW Gordon Theodore, a kind of Piers Anthony, George RR Martin, Iain Banks character (or really anyone).
Anyway, this is the “original” short story that is presented in the episode, the one that gets extensive rewrites from Isaac Asimov and leads CW to winning a Nebula, minus being honest about the help. The audio edition is read by Abraham and also given commentary by Ian (Rob McElhenney). Usually the show tie-in books from shows and movies about authors are terrible, but this one works because no one was ever under any illusion that CW Longbottom was a good writer — looking at you “Hank Moody” — whose “book” I saw one time in a used bookstore and laughed, until I thought about the wasted resources used to produce that garbage that could have gone to an actual writer, which is also how I feel whenever I see that they’re publishing some other David Duchovny book.
Village of Islands
American naturalism really hits its peak with the Stephen Crane short story “An Open Boat”. In that story four men have been shipwrecked and find themselves on a lifeboat not that far from shore. The tide though keeps them from easily making it ashore as they trade off rowing and rowing. The least equipped of them survives while the most dies unceremoniously. In this short story, Jim Shepard hits upon that legacy and other weather based stories where a storm doesn’t care about you (and neither does society). It’s the late 1920s and the Bonus Army March has just been put down and a veteran finds himself willing to take on any work he can. This includes working up until a storm surge threatens the town he finds himself in.
The 1930s in the US is often characterized in literature and film through The Grapes of Wrath, and while that limits how much we end up talking about that time period it does carry a lot of weight. In a way this story reminds me as much of Their Eyes were Watching God, which also culminates in an awful hurricane.