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:
...how 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?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.
...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.
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!