One of my treasured TV memories of the late ’70s was the six-part BBC series The Glittering Prizes. I was just entering college myself and to watch these oh-so-smart and oh-so-talented and oh-so-vulnerable and oh-so-British young people — particularly the irresistible, irrepressible Tom Conti as the hero Adam Morris — was sheer heaven. They were so golden!
The Glittering Prizes recently became available on DVD and, unlike so many things I treasured in my late teens, holds up amazingly well. We watched the series slowly, savoring it over several months, and it was just as good as I remembered.
Then I found out that Raphael had published a sequel in 2007 called Fame and Fortune. I finally retrieved it a couple of months ago from my Amazon wish list, and, over the last two weeks, read it.
The book is not to be taken at face value, and I didn’t at first get that. Loving the series as I did, I was very unwilling — unable, in fact — to be taken from my original conceptions of the characters, particularly Adam. I had to put the book completely aside and allow Tom Conti’s affable rumbling to cease its pleasant narration in my head before I could realize that I wasn’t meant to like Adam anymore.
Nothing much happens in the book, although much occurs: it kind of meanders around with Adam making connections with pretty much everybody we remember from the series and having a long encounter toward the end with someone NOT from the series, an unsettling and fabulous director who apparently is a stand-in for Stanley Kubrick (Raphael wrote the screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut), and then it just ends. There’s no plot to speak of, no story arc; just incidents. And some of these incidents are quite weird indeed, filled with lurid details, murder, depravity, deviance. But Adam just moves blithely through it all, nattering on about his insecurities, his Jewishness, his distaste for whatever he’s being asked to write. And, adoring Adam as I did, this next seems sacrilege — he soon became quite tedious. His constant punning, his perpetual whining, his mild dissatisfaction, his ego, his ego, his ego! His son Tom tells him he’s dropping out of Cambridge, that he’s joining a Moonie-like cult, that he’s sold all the things Adam and Barbara gave him. The kid is obviously having serious problems, and yet Adam makes jokes, makes threats, makes small talk — but never makes a move. Similarly, his brother tells him that his wife has left him; Adam is bitchy, Adam is clever, Adam is funny. But Adam is not helpful.
Raphael stays firmly in Adam’s voice — not in his head, because there is very little narrative and most of the book is dialogue. And, just like in a Woody Allen film, everybody soon starts to sound like Adam — insufferably clever, dauntingly well read, and damnably glib. Everyone sounds like Oscar Wilde. And in many dense patches of unattributed dialogue, I found the only way I could keep the conversants straight was to literally count off the lines — that’s him, then her, and him, and her…
The book sets up a highly contrived series of plot points, aimed at putting Adam in contact with all our — his — old friends. In a single day, Adam goes to Denis’s restaurant for lunch to meet Mike Clode where, sitting at the next table, is Mike’s ex-wife Jill. Stuff just happens, without rhyme or reason or affect, and the important is set alongside the banal, trivializing all. In a long day’s sequence in chapter IV — which abruptly opens “In October 1987,” for no sensible reason seven years after the end of chapter III — Adam and Barbara learn from the television that the cult leader Tom had left them to follow has been sentenced to four life terms in prison; then Mike’s secretary calls to announce that Mike will call, presumably with an unrefusable offer; then Alan Parks’s show calls with another unrefusable offer; then Alan calls with news that Joyce’s (and his) son has been killed; then Adam calls his agent so this information can be passed along to Joyce; then Mike calls; then Adam books a table at Denis’s for dinner; then his brother calls; then Adam and Barbara go to dinner and, when they arrive home, Tom shows up.
At first, I took this plotting at face value and denounced it: nobody’s life works like that, with old friends coming in just as you last remembered them, finishing the phrases you last heard them utter, with no intervening growth or change in direction. In real life, they wouldn’t be rehashing this stuff we remember from the TV program, but instead would talk about what happened to them yesterday or last year; they would have had some new experience to recast and refocus their lives since we last left them. On the other hand, there was something rather nice about this too, rather reassuring. So often in sequels, a character you particularly cherished from the original has been rendered unrecognizable or in some way sullied or diminished or even overlooked. Not here; everyone was just as they were originally — as if Adam/Raphael had just reread The Glittering Prizes. And so I could easily see all my old friends — Barbara and Denis and Dan and Mike and Alan and Joyce and the rest. All present and accounted for. Just like reading any of the Baum Oz books: nobody was changed, nobody was doing or saying anything they wouldn’t have done or said. Really nice. Consistent. Comforting.
This easy familiarity Raphael evokes is in fact fiendishly clever, and combines seamlessly with the solipsistic focus on Adam: no one has grown or changed because ADAM doesn’t see them as having grown or changed. They are all literally characters in his novel, paper dolls to be picked up and put down at Adam’s whim. Adam bumps into people in the most contrived manner — which he does not ever reflect on, even to say “oh my what a coincidence” — and these people do and say the most horrific things — which he does not ever reflect on, condemn, condone, or even consider, but instead churns into his next book. And, in almost every encounter in the book, Adam is confronted by people who object to how he portrayed them in this or that novel.
Adam’s myopia is really rather comical, its absurd limitation straight out of Monty Python — or Mr. Magoo. His son comes home after seven years’ absence, with tales of a wild ride in Latin America, a rumor of a murder in the heat of passion, a pregnant girlfriend, swashbuckling, danger, exoticism, and Adam never questions him, never attempts to connect the dots, only extracts bits and pieces to paste into yet another book. Similarly, at the book’s end, Adam learns that the man with whom his daughter is living — another Cambridge contemporary, our old friend Bill Bourne — is dying, and that his daughter will, after burying Bill, likely go off with another man she has met. As with so much information that has been funneled to Adam throughout the book, this is not so much digested as casually set aside when Adam picks up his pen again to write. Interestingly, tellingly, the only time in the book where Adam traces through cause and effect is during an almost incomprehensible exchange with the repugnant director — while they both spool off alternative character arcs for a movie protagonist. Adam, who only jokes when friends and family tell him of dark deeds and venal longings, is disgusted by the hypothetical exchange on a fictional character’s supposed fate and leaves, never to return.
I guess what Raphael is saying is what a shitty thing it is to be a writer and not a human being. All Adam has by way of response to the myriad tragedies and desperations surrounding him (and for that matter, to the glittering successes, too) is words: wordplay in person, type on paper. For the writer, all life’s experiences, all one’s friends, are grist for the mill.
If that is the case, and Adam is to be rather despised for puttering along, pouring friends’ deaths and dreams and decadence and duplicity into yet another poorly read novel, then I guess my disappointment with the book at its end was due to the fact that my gallant and clever Adam Morris, friend of my adolescence, was no longer in evidence, reduced to an unfeeling clod.