Monday, May 10, 2010

Front List / Back List: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham and The Castle Of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino

The tarot card... I look at them with a mixture of scorn, doubt and wonderment. In my personal experiences with the tarot, whether in the hands of a drunken school teacher, a legitimate carny or a real life high priestess, I have universally had dire fortunes foretold.

Upside down major arcana. Death. Impossibly powerful adversaries like the King of Clubs or someone like that. Lots of dreams deferred and strength meeting with failure.

Cue bluesy saxophone.

Every time except once. I was drunk and happy, something that does not necessarily always happen together, and I watched while a woman I loved lay down an Elysian Field of peace and prosperity. Every card sat right-side up and spoke of a welcome future. I was truly amazed, and in the stew of drink I allowed my agnosticism to slip away for a moment and believed that finally the cards had fallen as they should.

I left her apartment sometime later in the night heart-broke, crestfallen and in the rain.

Cut saxophone.

The tarot card is not an augur of the future. It is a vehicle for storytelling and quite possibly the most interesting device of its kind because it makes both players a storyteller and reader all at once.

The person reading the cards must "read" not only the cards laid before them but also the person before them as well. A good tarot reader will know a lot about people and if they know a lot about the particular person then all the better for the story they will render.

In turn the person having their cards "read" has already influenced the story with tell-tale aspects of their personality discerned by the reader but also will "read" the story themselves, translating the reading into a personal rendering that coincides with what the story provokes.

It is more alchemical than magical and in the case of both books offered today the tarot is literally the framework for the story.

From The Front List

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Introduction by Nick Tosches. Fiction. New York Review Of Books. Trade Paperback. 275 pps. ISBN: 9781590173480. $14.95.

Dust when it was dry. Mud whet it was rainy. Swearing, steaming, sweating, scheming, bribing, bellowing, cheating, the carny went its way. It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns - lights and nouse and the chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the Ferris wheel, to see the wild man who fondles those rep-tiles as a mother would fondle her babes. Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice-cream spoons to show where it had been.

-from Nightmare Alley

Terribly wonderful. That's the adjective for this book and whatever it lacks in profundity it more than makes up with style and an eyebrow-raising plot that turns a complex sequence of events into page turning bliss. If Chandler and Hammett are considered masters then so must Gresham be.

Though it must be noted that Gresham's twisted majesty has more in common with that of Jim Thompson or James Cain. It has to do with the psychological differences between hard-boiled and noir crime fiction. There is one. It is an important distinction too. The hard-boiled writer deals in the wares of pyrotechnic jargon, cant and masculine violence, while the noir writer plumbs the psyche to go deep into the cause rather than the effect. Gresham, like the aforementioned Thompson, was something of a lay student of Freudian psychology and this is evident in the depth of his characters.

Also like Thompson, Gresham was a tragically doomed drunk. Gresham's biography reads like a list of the symptoms of alcoholism. He wrestled mightily with the disease, seeking out assistance from Freudian psychology, Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous and Rinzai Buddhism. All were employed and none laid to rest his sodden demons. His supposedly abusive marriage to poet Joy Davidman ended when she left him for C.S. Lewis. It was not long after this occurrence that Gresham committed suicide.

When he was found in his empty apartment he had a suit on and in his pocket he carried business cards that at the four corners read: NO ADDRESS, NO PHONE, NO BUSINESS, NO MONEY and in the center: RETIRED. It was September of 1962. Nightmare Alley, Gresham's biggest critical and monetary success, was utterly out-of-print.

Nightmare Alley is about crime and dilemma, guilt and madness, and pulls you in like the mark that you are. It is a novel about the fast-talking, quick misdirection of carnivals. It is about sexual obsession, murder and above all else, alcoholism.

It has also lived a largely underground existence. When Gresham died, no paper carried the story except the New York Post. The bridge columnist mentioned his passing. It seems the cards at least honored the man they apparently condemned.

The label of cult classic was seemingly the novel's fate. That is until 2010 when New York Review Of Books did what they do and brought it back to life, replete with insightful Foreword by Nick Tosches. This is not a book that should be underground. This is one for the 20th century's "best" lists.

The novel is organized into chapters that are themed and named for what is known as the major arcana of the tarot card deck. These are the most important cards with the weightiest meanings. They are often unchangeable fates and when aligned in a negative manner have dreadful implications. In Gresham's novel the cards are always leading one further down that bad road the title refers to.

Stan Carlisle is our hero, if you will, and we are privileged to watch him grow up "in the carny," that is as a worker in a traveling carnival. Published in 1946 and set around that time, the novel is rich with "old-timey" dialog and the particularly colorful language of the carnival worker. You learn about marks, palming, dabbing cards and above all about the frailties of human perception. Carnies are realists and skeptics, having dissected every magic trick and hustled poor men out of their last few red cents.

Being a work of crime fiction it is always polite to avoid revealing too much of the book. It has its twists and turns and they are very much worth experiencing first hand. This is a tale of fate and the constraints the author placed upon it using the tarot card as a framework lend it a somewhat occult feeling. Also know that there is an almost Chekhovian implication involved in the plot's twists and turns.

Chekhov observed that a gun mentioned in the first chapter must be used at some point in the story. It must fire.

In the case of Gresham's Nightmare Alley the gun is replaced with a bottle of booze.

From The Back List

The Castle Of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver. Fiction. Harcourt Brace & Company. Trade Paperback. 129 pps. ISBN: 0156154552. $14.

Personally I find it somewhat humorous that it has been over a year that I've been running this blog and only now have I posted a book by Italo Calvino. Calvino is one of my favorite writers and for me to take this long to post about one of his books is comical.

Calvino was in the cards this week. In the tarot cards to be exact (and slightly cheesy).

Italo Calvino has been called a postmodern, fabulist and probably a combination of the two is not inaccurate. Postmodern is a term that has always bothered me though, because it contains within it a sense of art for art's sake and a form over function approach. Calvino was a brilliant innovator and wrote some of the most unique books of the last century (ever might be more accurate) but he was also a devoted practitioner of storytelling in its oldest, most simple forms. So the nervous and self-conscious tendencies of the postmodern writer don't exactly align with this greatest of Italian raconteurs.

He was however a member of a very elite and rigid group of conceptual writers, at least for a time. The Oulipo (literally meaning "workshop of potential literature") group that I refer to here was mainly populated by French writers, poets and mathematicians. Calvino, Jacques Roubaud and Georges Perec were among the most famous of this group. Of the group it has been the Italian, Calvino, that has had the most lasting effect on literature. I believe this has to do with his story-oriented approach. It's a lot easier to deal with than a novel without the letter "e."

One of the chief techniques implimented by the Oulipo group to further innovate was to set proscribed limitations at the outset of the writing process. Perec's A Void is a classic example of this technique at it's most extreme. By choosing to write an entire novel without the use of the letter "e" is certainly a limitation and by doing so Perec forced himself to spend more time on word choice and planning of the plot.

Calvino took the idea in a different, more accessible direction. Instead of forcing the story in a certain direction due to limitation of assets (terribly economic word) he would frame it within a framework. Whether the starting and stopping of several different books forming a larger work in his most famous novel, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler or via structured digressions within his masterpiece, Invisible Cities, Calvino told plain tales in an extremely regimented manner.

The novel I mention today is The Castle Of Crossed Destinies and it is one of Calvino's most clever offerings. This is saying something as I believe every book the man wrote was extremely clever.

In The Castle Of Crossed Destinies a collection of medieval travelers find themselves in a strange but hospitable castle after journeying through a dense wood. They also find themselves unable to speak. After a sumptuous meal and many a half-pint of wine the diverse company grow frustrated at the inexplicable loss of voice. They each want to tell the tale of how they arrived in this place.

Enter the tarot. The King of the castle produces a large deck of tarot cards and after some explanatory gesticulating the company realizes that with the cards they will have to converse with each other and render their often tragic stories.

Borrowing heavily from his rich repoitoire of folk tales as well as from the Italian epic, Orlando Furioso, Calvino weaves a series of exotic and often magical tales of tragic adventure. There is obviously something of the Canterbury Tales here as well in the structure of the story.

Like Gresham's Nightmare Alley, the use of the tarot cards adds a visual element to the story. Through interpretation of the images on the tarot cards the reader is clued in on what twists and turns the story will take. In Gresham's case it is a clue in the classic whodunnit sort of way.

In the case of Calvino it is a statement on possible ambiguities that exist between storyteller and listener.

Give them both a read if you haven't already. If nothing else it is not a bad thing to aware of the subtleties of that most ancient of weather predictions. Let alone the mischief you can wreak with a working knowledge of people's hopes and dreams.

Next time you get a scary tarot reading you can take the deck and deal one back for the reader, ready to weave for them a tale of their most feared eventualities.

About The Players

Nightmare Alley

Nick Tosches (Introduction) should be read by everyone and his biography can be read about here.

William Lindsay Gresham's tragic life can be read about here.

The Castle Of Crossed Destinies

The Oulipo group can be read about here.

Italo Calvino should be read by everyone alive at least once and his biographical material can be found here.

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