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.

There isn't an editor alive or dead who could make A Child's Night Dream "worth fighting for," but fighting about or over--well, that's something else entirely. There is no story, really, beyond the usual muddled fumbling of the archetypal young seeker. Young Oliver, searching for nothing less than the meaning of life, undertakes the expected trek to Asia, goes to sea aboard a merchant-marine vessel, takes a tour of duty in Vietnam, and eventually bums his way down to Mexico, miraculously sustaining his breakneck stream-of-consciousness rant through it all. His accomplishment--and this is no small feat--almost certainly represents the absolute nadir of the Beat novel.

When finally our protagonist is alone at last in his "monk's cell" in Guadalajara, concluding that "the villain is life" and contemplating suicide and the destruction of his just completed manuscript, I found myself, against every decent human instinct, rooting hard for the latter option, to be followed immediately by the first. But, alas, young Oliver in a fever dream fucks his mother instead:

I burst the film of water and snored the sunlight as I came in my mother's dark eternal hole. I drank the stars, the million billion trillion stars, and I was gushing all over with warm beautiful white rushing sperm endowed with enormous strength and trembling, at last, at last, let free, let free! the dogs behind their stucco walls in Mexico are barking and out of the mountains, the eagles fly fly fly!

You will understand, then, that the crimes of Gus Van Sant's Pink are, by comparison, relative misdemeanors. It is strange to find in 1997 a novelist whose primary influence appears to be Kurt Vonnegut, yet structurally and stylistically Pink is an unabashed knockoff of Breakfast of Champions, complete with quirky line drawings and a time-traveling science fiction subplot that is straight out of the imagination of Vonnegut's alter ego, Kilgore Trout.

Pink's protagonist is Spunky Davis, a scuffling, gay middle-aged industrial filmmaker in Sasquatch, Oregon. At story's launch, he's grieving the loss of his bread-and-butter teen infomercial star, Felix Arroyo (hint: an arroyo is a brook or a stream, and doesn't Felix sound almost like Phoenix?), who has died of a drug overdose on the sidewalk outside a Las Vegas nightclub. Spunky's world has also been rocked by the suicide of a Northwest rock star, Blake, of the band Speechless (in Seattle, get it?). Poor Blake had been unable to handle the trappings and pressures of success, had marriage problems with his wife, Blackie (also a rock star), and had previous to his death been cruising in a dark underground of black-market heavy-equipment dealers, acquiring a nasty and expensive earth-moving habit. Meanwhile, Spunky is trying to finish his screenplay, $-Great Skull Zero-$, while observing with fascination the arrival on the Sasquatch scene of two mysterious young aspiring filmmakers, Jack and Matt, who we soon learn are travelers from Pink, a multi-leveled dimension of time and space.

Or something like that. "Stacking levels," we are told, "is a way for interval time to be differentiated from connection-oriented time, which is to say that there is no time in the dimension of Pink." Okey-dokey. At any rate, it eventually dawns on Spunky that Jack and Matt bear striking resemblances to Felix and Blake, and the whole thing melts down in a weird Pink orgy where "past and future are connected like a big long solid tree trunk."

In almost everything Van Sant has done there is a stupid, almost innocent, sort of depravity--a grating naïveté that is always embarrassing in a man who is 45 years old. His metaphors are as huge and as artless as freeway billboards, his pretensions and conceits are slight, and yet he shares with Oliver Stone an ongoing fascination with the sort of dim and terrifying ontological revelations that are more likely to trouble the sleep of a sixth grader. All of which is to say that while Pink is mildly appalling and pointless, Van Sant's vision, if you could call it that, is still relatively benign and almost touching in comparison with the vile excesses of A Child's Night Dream.

Truly bad novels--of which these are definitively two--are sad and wasteful things. One thinks of those fine, neglected titles accumulating book dust, stacked high in book repositories; of all those unsung and despairing novelists rolling their rejected manuscript pages around dope-laced cigarettes while a star-struck editor at St. Martin's smokes imports with a self-congratulatory Oliver Stone.

Yet the primary anguish is, first and foremost, a personal one. The time wasted is yours, and no class action suit against the dark powers of New York publishing is going to win back a single day, or a single agonizing hour spent cramped over a terrible book in a brain paroxysm of incredulity and anger.

I gave a divot of calendar, a stretch of fading autumn to A Child's Night Dream and Pink. I hope I just evened the score.

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