Friday 19 June 2009

'Over the Top!'


by Glen David Gold

John Self coined a phrase recently: 'widescreen' fiction - referring to “…ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” Glen David Gold's second novel could be said to inhabit that realm, taking things even more literally with Hollywood itself and some of its most famous players at the centre of its vast and sprawling vista. With his début, Carter Beats the Devil, Gold showed with great flair his love for a place (San Francisco), a period (the 1920's), and a profession (magic). That novel, a brilliant, enjoyable, gripping, escapist thriller was published back in 2001, so it has been a long wait for this follow up, and perhaps to compensate for the delay it is a beast at over 550 pages. It is almost inevitably a disappointment, which isn't to say that it doesn't have its moments. It does, and plenty of them. In fact it is a bravura performance, Gold showing the range and versatility of his writing, fictionalising famous faces, creating wonderful new characters and handling set pieces with the confidence of a Hollywood director but he also supplies the phrase which best sums up the book as a whole: 'une fausse idée claire' - 'a beautiful idea that doesn't work'. That sounds far more damning than I mean it to because it is only that it doesn't quite work, but we'll come to why I think that is later; first of all, an attempt to summarise what it's all about.

Gold begins his book with a moment of mass hysteria. On November 12th 1916, as America was poised uncertainly before the war in Europe, people saw or fully expected to see Charlie Chaplin in over 800 separate locations simultaneously - 'an answer to a question no one had even known to ask.' or 'Chaplin-itis' as the newspapers have it. Leland Wheeler is involved in a rescue attempt from the lighthouse where his mother Emily is the keeper, Chaplin's trademark bowler hat disappearing beneath the waves before he is able to reach him. Hugo Black is caught up in a near riot at a train station. Both of these men will later be embroiled in the war in differing ways as too will Chaplin himself, becoming involved in the Liberty Loan Drive after being portrayed as a 'Slacker' in the press. At this early stage of his career, having already made almost 60 films, he has yet to make the film 'as good as' he is, and we follow his conflict with Mary Pickford, friendship with Douglas Fairbanks and his meeting with the young girl Mildred, who will go on to become his first wife.

Isolated on the lighthouse with his mother Leland Wheeler, who has never known who his father is (we will discover in a wonderful section that he is a man so untrustworthy that 'even those who liked him best sought a second opinion after asking him what time it was.'), dreams of using his good looks to become a film star. Encouraged if anything by his mother's insistence that 'people who perform antics for a living are, objectively, immoral.' his attempts take him to the mainland where he is on the verge of becoming a Four Minute Man (who performed enlistment propaganda in the time it took to change reels at the cinema) before being caught up in the enlistment drive himself.

Hugo Black is a privileged and snobbish young man who forgoes his officer potential to volunteer for the infantry with the common man and finds himself dumped in Russia to fight an uncertain and unnecessary war against the Bolsheviks. The commanding officer discovers quickly the paucity of his resources, working his way down the grades of soldier in an attempt to locate what he has at his disposal. None from A1, A2, A3, B1 or B2.
"What grade have I got left?" He was worried he would get C2s - those fit for only sedentary duty overseas.
He hadn't known there was a C3. Men whose ears came off when they coughed.
But the star of the show has to be Chaplin of course and there is so much that Gold has got right in his treatment of one of the great flawed icons. His creativity, his cruelty, his coldness towards and fear of a mother crippled by mental degradation. His naiveté is charming at times, sickening at others and Gold's great achievement is to portray a man not only deserving of our sympathy and censure at the same time but also a man so aware of his unworthiness that 'he wanted the world to love him forever so he could tell them, forever, what idiots they were for doing so.'

The build up to the Third Liberty Loan Drive in San Francisco is perhaps the books strongest section, uniting many of its disparate characters and chugging along with an energy that is infectious, the drive to go 'Over the Top' and raise the $210million needed to finance the war for the next few months. Here, even Chaplin is caught up in the atmosphere, swallowing his hatred of Mary Pickford (in a coat so long 'it looked as if a sable had eaten her') as he enters a bidding war with Fairbanks to kiss her in front of the assembled hordes (the scene's electric frisson provided by the scandalous potential of such a public demonstration of Pickford and Fairbanks' notorious affair).

So far I have only mentioned the principal players but with some of the supporting roles Gold builds the novel up from light entertainment to 'novel of ideas' (he has mentioned his embarrassment when he realised this was what he was doing). The philosophy of film from Hugo Münsterberg and the quantifying of celebrity by financial wizard William McAdoo are just two examples of how Gold attempts to locate the moment at which the words Hollywood and fame came to inhabit the meaning we give them today, the moment when America lost its innocence. McAdoo applies America's burgeoning film industry to the world stage,
..the country was now powerful enough to structure the peace that would surely arise after the war ended. And that, Münsterberg would have said, meant imposing narrative upon what was essentially chaos.
We are able to watch the stumbling attempts at imposing that world view as we follow the exploits of Hugo Black. In these sections we are encouraged to make the link between this little known conflict and the daily televised disasters in democracy of the modern era where it is 'evident that democracy had bloomed, as it always did when forcibly planted, in a kakistocracy of the worst possible men.'

Gold has made an admirable attempt to marshal all that material (and I've only mentioned some of it). The book is structured as an evening's entertainment coming in six sections: Newsreel, Travelogue, Two-Reel Comedy, Serial, Feature Presentation and Sing-Along. It is preceded by a Cast List and finished with Credits and the filmic references continue throughout. 553 pages is never going to be an evening's entertainment and like any bloated film-of-ideas there are problems with pace. Gold often attempts to keep the pages turning by ending chapters with a tease, some of which are particularly unsubtle.
And so, for a while at least, he continued to be lonely, until he pursued the friendship that almost killed him and brought him the love of his life.
The fact remains that the most interesting parts of the book are those which contain Chaplin. Gold has a unique ability to capture the magical in his writing and his descriptions of performance or Chaplin's search for creativity are riveting. On a personal level Chaplin's almost-seduction of Pickford's screenwriter Frances at a Hollywood party is another highlight. But you miss him when he isn't there and the long sections detailing Leland's nurturing and training of two puppies (I told you I'd only mentioned some of the vast narrative) may be great if you're a dog lover like Gold but a bit boring frankly if, like me, you're not that fussed. But I don't want to be too harsh here. As I said at the top, Gold may even be aware of his failings by providing that phrase which describes them. It's important to remember that the idea is beautiful (and brave and interesting and original) it just doesn't quite work. By writing such a brilliant book as his first Gold has made himself a tough act to follow, and with such clear gifts as a writer he may be struggling, like Chaplin, to write the book 'as good as he is'. With that kind of personal discipline the rest of us are going to have a lot of fun reading what comes next. I just hope we don't have to wait another eight years to read it.


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