Friday, October 14, 2005

BOOKS: Watch Your Toes! Truman Capote Is Dropping Names!

If you've been playing along at home for a while now, you know that I love me some short stories. Well, my recent post about great novels and stories set in New Orleans reminded me that I had an as-yet-unread collection of Truman Capote stories buried somewhere in the many book middens in my house. Not only did I actually manage to find it, but right beneath it was an also-unread collection of short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Score!

Music for Chameleons
by Truman Capote (#41)
It is a sad thing but a good thing that I didn't discover Truman Capote until I'd reached the ripe old age of 34. It's also a surprising thing, considering how many times I've watched
Breakfast at Tiffany's. I'd mentally relegated Capote to a cadre of writers with whose names I am, of course, familiar but whom I never expect to read. (Hello, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and John Updike! Sorry. It's nothing personal.)

But then I finally got a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany's (which also contains some of Capote's other short stories, including "A Christmas Memory", which made me cry) and took it with me on a trip to Cuba. And oh my god, I loved it. I loved it so much that when I finished reading it, I immediately pressed it on
Rusty Iron, and even he loved it (and you know how he is). And then, when he was done, I picked it up again and started reading my new-favourite bits. That's how amazingly awesome it was.

When I got home, I spent the next few months scouring used book stores trying to find more of Capote's stuff, and by god, it was hard -- and by "hard" I mean "impossible" -- until I found
Music for Chameleons... and promptly lost it in a stack of books, as already mentioned.

It was worth the wait. Now, I'm not saying it was the best book ever, but it was definitely inspiring. To give you a sense of what Capote was trying to do with this collection, which was published in 1980 when he was arguably at the top of his game, I'll excerpt from his Preface, in which he critiques his earlier style and sets forth his goals for his new approach to writing: can a writer successfully combine within a single form -- say the short story -- all he knows about every other form of writing? For this was why my work was often insufficiently illuminated; the voltage was there, but by restricting myself to the techniques of whatever form I was working in, I was not using everything I knew about writing -- all I'd learned from film scripts, plays, reportage, poetry, the short story, novellas, the novella. A writer ought to have all his colors, all his abilities available on the same palette for mingling (and, in suitable instances, simultaneous application). But how?

...Now, however, I set myself center stage, and reconstructed, in a severe, minimal manner, commonplace conversations with everyday people: the superintendent of my building, a masseur at the gym, an old school friend, my dentist. After writing hundreds of pages of this simple-minded sort of thing, I eventually developed a style. I had found a framework into which I could assimilate everything I knew about writing.
What's so incredible about this collection of true-stories-that-read-as-fiction is that, in many other writers' hands, it could have come off as a series of gimmicky Creative Writing 101 exercises. But whether Capote is transcribing a conversation between himself and his housecleaner or himself and Marilyn Monroe, whether he's telling a story about a friend's "ruinous obsession" with a twelve-year-old girl he's never met or talking about his years-long coverage of a chillingly enigmatic series of murders in Texas, these stories are all pieces of art that make remind you that art and life, as corny as it may sound, are the same.

But oh my... dude loves to drop him some names. Baroness Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen). Colette. Diana Vreeland. E.M. Forster. Yukio Mishima. Capote travelled in glittering circles, and he does not let you forget it. But just when you're ready to write him off as a poseur, he disarms you by turning around and making a breathtakingly, dazzlingly simple, honest, no-BS observation. Sneaky sneaky.*

No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (#42)
If Capote's self-proclaimed goal in Music for Chameleons was to describe everything using the height and breadth of his powers, Marquez's gift is in describing much but leaving even more unsaid. These silences breed his own unique brand of melancholic wit and irony.

As disparate as Capote's collection is, Marquez's forms a more coherent tapestry, as he delicately cherry-picks stories and character studies from among the citizens of the sleepy, strangely empty, quietly pre-apocalyptic town of Macondo, culminating in the final story, "Big Mama's Funeral", which ends with a sort of verbal rapaciousness that reminds me of the ending of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It's not a grand, sweeping epic in the tradition of One Hundred Years, but if you like Marquez, it definitely merits your time.

*Just wondering: has anyone read In Cold Blood? Was it any good? Any other Capote recommendations? I feel a book bender coming on. Speaking of which, check out this collection of Capote's reprinted New York Times articles (and try to ignore the fact that they were sponsored by Sony Pictures in a ploy to pimp their upcoming Capote biopic). Thanks to Rusty for the link!


landismom said...

I read it in high school, and it thoroughly creeped me out. I'd say, if you like Truman Capote, give Gore Vidal a shot, but don't start with his historical novels--read The City and the Pillar or Myra Breckenridge. Those are a lot more interesting (to me) because they deal with homosexuality and gender-bending in the middle of the last century.

Anonymous said...

In Cold Blood was the most terrifying book I've ever read.

Anonymous said...

In Cold Blood is very, very good.

John Updike has perhaps written too many books, but I really liked Couples and Rabbit, Run. A lot.

Anonymous said...

Cold Blood is an amazing book. Creepy because he captures the humanity of everyone involved, even the killers, which is the freaky part.

Caro said...

I liked In Cold Blood. For me, it was like True Crime and Art got likkered up one night and had a love child. I would also recommend "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" by García Márquez. It's a novella, not a short story, but an interesting story . . . oooh, it's about murder too! I love themes . . .

Anonymous said...

In Cold Blood is one of those books whose perfect titles are vaguely interesting on the first page and saturated with unforgettable impressions by the last (I'm thinking of somthing like The Name Of The Rose, here). Plus, this book placed the whole creative non-fiction thing on critically legitimate gounds, constructing a whole new section of the university English department ready to be underfunded.

Anonymous said...

Strange. my confirmation word was 'oidst' which has now become my favourite made-up word.

Anyway, I've always loved the idea of Truman Capote in theory (since I did a load of research on To Kill a Mockingbird and found out he may be Dill) but now I'm definitely going to read 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' etc - which I bought months (years?) ago and still haven't picked up. The library keeps diverting me.

Much love to the lady who let me get 13 books out today though!

Tamara said...

I read it in high school too, that one and Helter Skelter are really scary.

Anonymous said...

In Cold Blood is great. If you like Capote, you should give The Grass Harp a try. It's a fantastic story. His first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms is also interesting. If you can find it, The Dogs Bark is similar to Music for Chameleons - stories about Capote's interactions with other famous people (including Marlon Brando).

Anonymous said...

You know where you're supposed to go from here! "Go read some Borges and some Raymond Chandler" is where you're supposed to go from here!

Tammy said...

Thanks for the recommendations, guys!

Hey, when you say that In Cold Blood is "scary", do you mean chilling-scary or gory-scary? Actually, I have an equally low squick threshold on both counts, but I like to be prepared. Will I have to put it out of the bedroom at night so I can sleep?

Thanks for the Updike pruning, Wayne! He's one of those writers, like Oates, who's so scarily prolific that you're left wondering if they're actually good writers or just fast typists.

Er, Croupier, I hate to admit this, but Borges who?

Anonymous said...

Not to make completely innocuous comments but OH MY GOD. Othello is the best game everrrrr.

Tammy said...

Anna, hee! Agreed.

Speaking of non-sequiturs, y'all have to go to Croupier's site and click on the "Best. Headline. Ever." link. It is the awesomest thing I have seen all week.

Oh, and thanks for the tip-offs on both counts, Diablevert.

Tammy said...

Way off-topic to Marie:

Marie! I want to order the knit choker from your site, but it says you only ship within the U.S. Do you ever make exceptions? Particularly from pleading Canadians?

Parker said...

It has been 15 years since I read "In Cold Blood" and I can still remember 'hair on them walls' more clearly than any other book I read in the same time period.

Joshua said...

It's interesting that you lumped Capote in with Mailer and Vidal, since all three writers were contemporaries and engaged in roughly the same project (though Vidal and Mailer were much more on the fiction end of history-as-fiction) -- it's worth noting thoug that Capote and Vidal were two old queens who couldn't stand the sight of each other. I doubt Capote much cared for Mailer either -- and as a great admirer of Capote and a great not-admirer of those two others (Oh, and John Irving too) I have to say you made the right choice in picking Capote.

In Cold Blood is relentless and pitch-perfect and absolutely what you expect it to be. It's a book with "a reputation" -- and it's difficult to live up to twenty comments of "it's so scary", and you might inevitably think the book will turn out to be rather less scary than anticipated, but Capote gift is in limning the subtle, twisted details that make for something very chilling (though not, to my mind, "scary" since I've never been easily scared.) It is a masterpiece of literature and journalism, and unlike other pieces of New Journalism deserves its reputation.


The President of Fagistan