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.

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 Pinkis 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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