The Terrible Twos

In a pair of wretched new titles, Oliver Stone and Gus Van Sant show off their bookish sides--and it ain't pretty.

At some point a couple weekends ago my wife erupted from the living-room couch, snatched her car keys from the dining-room table, and threw open the front door, where she paused for a moment to fix me with a look of almost heartbreaking unhappiness.

"Why do you insist on doing this to me?" she cried. "There is no way in hell I am going to sit here another day and listen to that shit."

And then, with a shudder, she was gone, slamming the door behind her. I sat still on the floor and watched her go, tires scattering leaves along the curbside. It was a lovely autumn day. I would have loved to have been outside, trampling neighborhood children in a game of football in the park across the street. I would have been happy to be busy in the yard or painting the garage or cleaning the gutters. I would have been happy, even, to be cleaning a muskrat. Instead I had been reading aloud to my wife from Oliver Stone's debut novel, A Child's Night Dream (St. Martin's Press), with which, according to the promotional materials, "An American anti-hero joins the literary canon."

I don't remember which particular passage it was that finally drove my wife from the house, but perhaps it was this one:

...in the summers in France, naked in the shower, Mommy would ask me sometimes, 'Oliverre, bring me ze soap, darling.' 'Yes, Mommy,' in my nerve-wracking charcoal gray suit and neatly combed black hair, the pith of tiny gentlehood, I would pass the soap, gazing upon her corpus nudus, the sensation as exciting as an airplane first dipping into a lacuna, swooping off with my genitals.

Or it may have been this:

Like a rubber boot traipsing in several layers of mud, sacs of swollen pollen, gurgling cold leeches like cold vichysoisse, sucking and burrowing in her mouth, leeches laying their cold black backs across my penis, shivering juices slopping through her deserted honeycomb, her mouth arched forward like a dragon's cernous snakehead, gulping in gobfuls at my peter, o hideous hump, go on! Milk me more!

Yes, actually, I think it was that last one which drove her away, although there are marriage-wrecking passages on virtually every page of A Child's Night Dream, the reading of which was an unhappy experience indeed. I found myself again and again counting the pages, willing myself to the end, all the while aware that waiting in the wings was the dubious relief of Gus Van Sant's own debut novel, Pink (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday).

Although the preferred means of literary expression for aspiring Hollywood artists has historically been the poem--consider Leonard Nimoy, Ally Sheedy, et al.--it should come as no great surprise that a couple self-styled mavericks and highbrows like Stone and Van Sant would harbor novelistic ambitions. It has long been apparent that Stone in particular fancies himself something of a polymath pain in the ass, and the hubris that arguably serves him well as a filmmaker is plentifully in evidence in A Child's Night Dream. The book was allegedly penned in a cheap hotel room in Guadalajara, Mexico when Stone was a tender 19, and it's now being touted by the publisher as "a bildungsroman of the highest order."

The real villain here may well be a fellow named Robert Weil, the editor at St. Martin's who talked Stone into handing over a shoebox that contained, according to Stone himself, a manuscript that "was mostly out of sequence, a jumble of type fonts, and raw handwriting on various paper stocks, with crucial pages missing. Yet [Weil] persisted, generously excavating from the ruins some essence of its original beauty--a beauty of language and feeling that I had intended but forgotten, but which he insisted was worth fighting for." To publish this wretched tome, Weil must have been equal parts fighter and lover, and his feat is all the more astonishing given that Stone, in his prologue, recalls throwing "several sections of the manuscript into the East River one cold night."

There can be little doubt, however, that the finished manuscript now has the 51-year-old Stone's fat thumbprints all over it, and whatever crucial pages there were are still obviously missing. Why the salvaging of a 30-year-old unfinished manuscript by Oliver Stone represents a worthy project for a major publishing house is the question of the day. The cobbling together of a finished book from a writer's post-adolescent ravings has traditionally been an indignity which only the dead and truly immortal are made to suffer.

Sandwiched between Stone's prologue (In which the author boldly proclaims, "I am not ashamed") and epilogue--and how many first novelists are afforded that luxury?--is a text whose one true achievement may be its appropriation of virtually every irritating and overwrought literary convention, pretension, and stylistic tic of the last 100 years. The book, Stone writes in the prologue, was "born of my seduction by James Joyce"; St. Martin's tosses in a promise of "...linguistic echoes of Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Celine's Journey to the End of the Night." That "seduction by James Joyce" business is a ghastly proposition, with predictably horrifying results (and if it would spare you the pain of the following sample I would eagerly consign every word Joyce ever wrote to the pyre): O the world is sorrow, nothing more, and in its void bosom I shall play the practice of my heart. Heart: art: rt: t. Done, die, death. So cuickly, cuickly done. In the flicker of a tongue.

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