The Loved One (Evelyn Waugh), Harlan Ellison

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It’s not that I’ve given up reading and watching movies. It’s just that I’ve been on some horrendous editing deadlines, and I find it very difficult to read hard books when I’m working with words all day — the level of patience and appreciation just isn’t there.

Having said that, I HAVE read some stuff in the last couple of weeks, notably Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. Now this really hardly counts as a book. It’s 160-some pages, relatively large print, very accessible, very slight, and why the hell it took me over two weeks to crawl through it is less a reflection on it than on my own waning powers of concentration. The thing is, the book would have been much better for me had I read it as it was intended — in a single session. As it was, I broke free of the book’s mood of trenchant irony and mordant, morbid, humor too many times for its spell to have lasted. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it — well, appreciate it. It is, as the book cover says “wicked”; don’t know though if I could call it “fiendishly entertaining,” as the Times does or “a many-faceted book,” as Newsweek has it. I remember we started watching the movie last summer, and my, it was well cast, even though we couldn’t make it through to the end. Maybe I’ll try again next time it’s on.

There’s nothing really to catch emotional hold of in this book — it’s Waugh’s impression of a Hollywood that is more or less gone in its particulars, although probably still existent in its broad outlines of indifference and greed. And there’s always heartless humor to be gotten out of that, although not so much when you can’t care, really, about any of the characters. Waugh’s vocabulary and wonderful turns of phrase are quite worthwhile; here are a few choice bits I really savored: “I was always the most defatigable of hacks.” And the nice description of a starlet’s rise, fall, and projected re-rise: “She was called Baby Aaronson then… So Leo made her Spanish… And she was really quite good in her way, you know — with a truly horrifying natural scowl… And now there’s been a change of policy at the top. We are only making healthy films this year… So poor Juanita has to start at the beginning again as an Irish Catholic colleen… they’ve pulled all her teeth out. She never had to smile before and her own set was good enough for a snarl. Now she’ll have to laugh roguishly all the time. That means dentures.” That stuff is funny, really cold and biting — makes you gulp and wince even as you laugh. But you have to have — maybe I have to have — something to root for in the face of all this cruelty. And there isn’t, and you don’t, and that’s that.

EllisonBWAt the opposite extreme from this paradoxical bloodless bloodletting of Evelyn Waugh is Harlan Ellison, who I revisited in recent weeks. Ellison wears his heart, lanced, lacerated, leaking, on his sleeve. I love Harlan Ellison. We saw Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a wonderful documentary about him now on a DVD put together by IFC; one night we watched the documentary proper; two nights later we watched the bonus features, which included Harlan (I can’t, just can’t, call him “Ellison,” it’s all too personal — he MUST be “Harlan”) reading excerpts and complete stories, seemingly from memory. Wow. So I went on a little Harlan renaissance, dredging up Ellison Wonderland (his first short story anthology from 1962) and Dangerous Visions (the legendary anthology he compiled and edited). And man can he write. The words the words the words flow and tumble and collide. He loves words. And he pulls off some of the most amazing twists of sentence structure and syntax, and I relish it. We are off on a car trip this afternoon to take Sarah up to SUNY Purchase for her orientation, and Steve, when asked what I should read aloud during his turn to drive, picked Harlan because he was so impressed, dazzled in fact, by what he heard. So I think I shall bring The Deathbird Stories; but I think I shall also bring a quiet tonic for contrast — something sparse and spartan and sweet, because it IS possible to OD on Harlan. I will post more about Harlan post-trip.

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