Whose Hollywood Is It Anyway? by Paul Mandelbaum

The most satisfying literary conflicts allow all antagonists to be right, each in his own way.

June 15th, 2011 reset - +

AS STORYTELLING'S LIFEBLOOD IS COMPASSION, satire feeds off rage. Most Hollywood novels get their sustenance from both, though tend to binge on the latter. There's a great deal to mock, obviously. It may in fact be so obvious, feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph. But in case you're new to the genre, the Hollywood novel often fashions itself as a reality check against the illusory world of show business, whose woeful denizens scurry after easy fame and fortune. It calls out these poor souls on their materialism and shallowness, their desperate need to appear successful, and of course their faltering grip on virtue. The worship of youth — as well as beauty of a plastic order — ranks high among the town's false idols in need of a good smashing; though really, what's mockable about Hollywood is an exaggerated version of what's mockable about America, just with nicer weather. That actual human suffering flourishes against such a balmy, not to mention glitzy, backdrop provides a facile irony few authors who have ever set foot here can resist. 

Of all the tempting targets presented by Hollywood, most deserving of satiric rage remains the exploitative nature of the place. How quickly and in what manner will each new protagonist, often just arrived from the East or Midwest, become abused and degraded before abusing and degrading others? To read about all this can be edifying, but the pleasures — rueful chuckles and knowing winces, typically — are dark ones, not to mention kind of elitist, since satire entails a distant, critical perspective. From the anthropological obsessions of Budd Schulberg'sWhat Makes Sammy Run? (1941) to the balls-out insanity of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1968), the Hollywood novel invites our awareness of its author, sniping from the palm trees. 

Mona Simpson's My Hollywood — "at turns satirical and heartbreaking," according to its jacket copy — provides a welcome expansion of the genre, and to some extent even a departure, which its title seeks to emphasize right from the get-go. "My" in this case refers to a narrator outside the Hollywood mainstream, actually two alternating narrators, neither of whom work in the entertainment industry. Nonetheless, they are both supported and victimized by it, situating My Hollywood very much as a novel about the town's heartless exploitation of those who would dare seek their happiness here. 

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The narration opens with Claire, a composer of contemporary classical music, who has forsaken New York to abet her husband Paul's dream of becoming a sitcom writer. Despite the couple's vow to devote themselves equally to the raising of their son William, the demands of Paul's staff-writing job quickly put an end to his side of the bargain.

Denied sufficient time for her music, and racked with bouts of post-partum depression, or "Clairenados" as her husband calls them, Claire feels alien to the Stepford universe of upscale-L.A. motherhood, where everything about her is expected to be subordinated to childrearing, her identity as a composer demoted to possessing a "background" in music. To make matters worse, the music career, in actual fact, is not going so great. 

With a foot in several worlds, Claire feels comfortable in none of them, not to mention her own skin. Since giving birth she's suffered incontinence, and sex with Paul seems anathema to her. The fact that her own nutty mother lives nearby presents more of a liability than a comfort. All of this threatens early in the book to pull Claire under, but Paul has an idea how to stem his wife's weeping. "He knew a way. And we would use it" — so Claire recounts, with ominous coyness, the couple's decision to hire a nanny, as though they'd conspired to buy a contract on someone's life, which is not so far off the mark. 

Nowhere in the contemporary U.S. are the moral quandaries of servitude more pervasive than L.A., headquarters of the nation's shadowy supply of cheap labor. As essayist David Rieff argued in his 1991 book Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, broad swaths of an American middle class that might never aspire to household help back in Wisconsin can't seem to get enough of it after moving out here. They hire gardeners to sweat in their backyards, he was far from the only to point out, in order to have time to jog.

The unfairness of all this has only partly to do with wages. Most fundamentally the question posed by My Hollywood boils down to this: Why must some women face unpalatable choices so that more privileged parents can attempt to have it all? Because unlike the virginal fairy godmothers of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, it turns out actual nannies often have children of their own, kids whose loving care must be shelved while their mothers mind the offspring of strangers. It's a gnarly problem, more than big enough for a novel, and Simpson rolls up her sleeves and wrestles it with vigor.

After a stressful interview process and brief trial run with a whacky starter nanny, Claire has a chance meeting with the person destined to keep her household in order for years to come. A recent immigrant from the Philippines, Lola is here via the initial sponsorship of a cousin, though My Hollywood is not primarily concerned with her legal status so much as the brutal truth that in order to send home enough money to educate her five children into the professional class, Lola has moved an ocean away from them, and that her family's loss is another's gain.

To Claire, Paul, and young William, Lola's a godsend. To the book as well, as she provides many of its sharpest moments, for example, her take on the disdain rich American parents have for baby formula: "It is like poison to them here. For us, it was only too expensive." That pithy observation stakes out the chasm between Lola's worldview and her employers' with stunning efficiency, and in general Lola dependably offers a fresh analysis of the hiring class. "Americans," she writes, "enjoy to have done for them what a Filipina would do only for children small small." 

Most of whatever doubts Lola may harbor about coming to the U.S. have been dealt with before the book begins. But when another, wealthier couple offers to hire her away from Claire and Paul at a much better salary, the choice becomes agonizing. Convinced young "Williamo" can't get by without her, she arranges for a colleague to take the better job and hopes she won't have cause to regret her loyalty and sacrifice.

But of course, she will. This is a novel, not a business plan. Before long, administrators at the fancy school William now attends suggest his developmental issues may have something to do with his nanny's inability to project authority. "We see this with a lot of the foreign housekeepers," says the school's director. After some angst on Claire's part, she and Paul opt to let Lola go. Or as Lola puts it, they "chop me," a locution so uncannily satisfying, I've convinced myself it might even have formed the kernel of inspiration for the entire novel.

Lola's firing feels like a stunning betrayal, the blame for which My Hollywood seems to lay largely at Paul's feet. Maybe this is only fair since he's slacked off in his family duties and was surer about the decision to get rid of her. But when Claire at several points regrets having succumbed to his and the school's pressure, faulting others felt like a lapse of character on her part. It's possible, since Claire will eventually evolve toward a place of greater worldliness and empathy, that My Hollywood means to take her to task over this, a reading I prefer. 

But either way, it gave me pause, as did some other moments in her narrative. Early on, she develops a crush on Paul's colleague Jeff. It's pretty much all in her mind and even there a tepid affair. To Claire's credit, she seems mostly aware of that fact. But not always. Oddly, she's taken to carrying a copy of Anna Karenina in her purse should she need duck into the bathroom at a Hollywood party in order to read a few pages. Does she do this because she identifies with the Russian heroine? I wasn't sure.

The party scene, by the way, is the book's longest, a satirical set piece that pokes fun at the grown men in their backward baseball caps, at the self-important documentarian promoting his latest project and the self-important people listening with fake interest, at the show-off hostess in her mega-kitchen who doesn't know olive oil is a fat. Hollywood parties occupy a particular circle of social hell, and Simpson conveys their pretensions with astute delicacy.

But what about Claire in the bathroom with her Tolstoy? That also seems pretentious in its own, outsider way. And since her crush on Jeff never devastates her, never feels remotely Kareninan, again I wondered whether My Hollywood could be having fun at her expense. In a novel like What Makes Sammy Run? we feel pretty sure of the author's attitude toward Sammy Glick — never mind that some readers mistakenly took the book as a how-to manual for success — but puzzling out Simpson's stance toward Claire proves more of a challenge.

One last instance: about a third of the way in, little William nearly drowns in a pond. It's by far the most dramatic thing to happen until then. Claire wasn't there to witness it, so it's related to her by Paul, but his anecdote ends up being less about their son's near death than the unreliable role played by Claire's mom and how right Claire had been to predict Mom's negligence. It's an odd emphasis, and long before Paul feels the need to mention he ruined his boots diving in after his son, I've largely written him off as my nominee for Father of the Year. The book clearly has, too. More mysterious though is Claire's willingness to join him in this miasma of narcissism. Are we still in her Hollywood — that is to say, in the character's bona fide experience of the moment? Or in some more distant, authorial critique of her? 

It's one thing to satirize elements of a story we're not meant to invest in — those partygoers, for instance, or the nanny employment contract Simpson reproduces in its chilling entirety. It's quite another matter, though, to allow paint from the same satirical brush to splash on a central character or important plot point, risking their diminishment. 

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But this hazard, if one is inclined to view it as such, is hardly unique to My Hollywood and may even be endemic to the genre. Two major examples leap to mind: Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939) and Michael Tolkin's The Player (1988). Like My Hollywood — though in its own weirder way — The Day of the Locust also divides its story between two main characters: a sexually repressed, retired bookkeeper from the heartland and a recent East Coast graduate who relocates to work for a movie studio. Tod Hackett, the graduate, is the more grounded of the two, though even he attempts to rape the wannabe starlet with whom he's supposedly smitten, and the cast overall — it's not unreasonable to suggest — is a freak show. 

"If I put into The Day of the Locust any of the sincere, honest people who work here and are making such a great progressive fight," West once wrote a colleague, "those chapters couldn't be written satirically and the whole fabric of the peculiar half-world which I attempted to create would be badly torn by them." As the quote implies, satire and realism are often unhappy bedfellows. Indeed West, who brilliantly mocked our hollow American obsession with celebrity, didn't always manage to fully vitalize a scene or make us care about the people in it, as, for example, the Waterloo accident. Tod visits a movie set of the legendary battle and notices construction isn't complete. Before you know it, extras go charging up the hill and crash through its insufficiently braced flooring; the irony of senseless destruction incurred during the filming of an infamous military disaster provides the scene's sole pleasure. John Schlesinger's 1975 film adaptation, by contrast, combines that irony with the visual reality of people getting hurt, and thus the disturbing impact this has on Tod, who feels some responsibility for the set's design. In this moment, the film reaches beyond satire and taps into our horror, an emotional level that West's novel never quite achieves, even later, in the key moment preceding the book's climactic riot. 

Set at a movie premiere, this riot sparks immediately after the novel's other main character — that sexually repressed, Midwestern transplant, who's named, incidentally, Homer Simpson (no relation to Mona, though the namesake of the iconic cartoon character on whose show her ex-husband used to write) — stomps an obnoxious child actor to death. One semester, my entire class of a dozen college seniors managed to read right over that stomping. No doubt some of them hadn't finished the assignment. As for the others, their problem seemed traceable to the moment's terseness and lack of sensory detail, a shortcoming the film more than amply corrects by having Donald Sutherland jump ape-like on the little thespian until blood starts pouring out of the kid's mouth.

While I admire the film's courage for attempting to give that terrible moment its due, I wonder if West wasn't on to something about his material's inherent limitations. Because, much as his idea succeeds symbolically, human behavior that seems plausible enough within the broad aesthetic of satire doesn't always hold up when we're meant to visualize its unfolding reality.

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Among the best Hollywood novels of more recent times, Michael Tolkin's The Player commits a related, if rare, misstep (one more successfully mitigated in Robert Altman's film version, which Tolkin himself adapted). Early in the plot, The Player's antihero, studio exec Griffin Mill, murders a screenwriter he believes has been sending threatening postcards. In both novel and screenplay, Mill tracks down the writer one night at a Pasadena movie theater with the aim of making amends for possibly having slighted him in the past. The writer is having none of it. Indeed he begins shouting, in the film at least, how he's going to tell the world what a desperate, pathetic screwup the exec has become, which leads to a tussle, the exec getting overly rough, and then, horrified by his own handiwork, finishing the job. Fair enough. 

In the novel, however, with barely the faintest provocation, the exec sets about murdering the writer in cold blood. Not even sure he's killing the right guy, it doesn't seem to matter, because the exec regards the act as largely symbolic, "a gesture of appeasement" meant somehow to communicate with whoever's really behind those threatening postcards. Mill's mental riffs provide many of the book's biggest delights, yet in this key scene he seems unnecessarily pathological, as though the author's need to comment outweighed the more fundamental mandates to dramatize and inhabit. Other, less-renowned works, including Terry Southern's Blue Movie (1970) and Leslie Epstein's Pandaemonium (1997), demonstrate an even greater willingness to sacrifice psychological realism in order to point out Hollywood's sordidness and other shortcomings. 

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Am I saying Hollywood novels as a rule miss some of the dramatic impact of, say, Anna Karenina because they can't get out of the way of their own satire? Well, never say never — F. Scott Fitzgerald, before he died, seemed to be making an earnest try with The Last Tycoon — and apologies to any exception I may have neglected, but basically yes. The most satisfying literary conflicts allow all antagonists to be right, each in his own way. And so, to the degree that it's willing to designate major portions of its creation a target, the Hollywood novel settles for, as West puts it, a half-world.

Where, according to this metric, does My Hollywood lie? Despite Claire's aforementioned lapses in self-awareness, she's still rounder than most characters of the genre and has considerable insight to share, much of it through her fluency with metaphor. "A dandelion blown" is the poignant way she describes her frazzled self. Language in general stands out as one realm of the novel where Simpson's compassion toward her characters is never in doubt. 

Take the tremendous linguistic creation surrounding Lola; it's an empathic tour de force, communicating in a voice drastically dissimilar to the author's own. In the hands of a lesser writer, Lola's portrayal could easily have devolved into a kind of minstrelsy. Some readers might still have qualms about an author's appropriating a less privileged culture, but underpinning Simpson's choice is her clear determination not to satirize Lola in any way, shape, or form, and to maintain, in consistent good faith and without any pandering, the character's dignity. Throughout Lola's chapters, her perspective seems to emerge from a place within her deepest self. And in the book's heartfelt ending, My Hollywood wisely allows her the last word.

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