Monday, 1 April 2013

But Enough About Me #5

Astonishingly, the national treasure formerly known as Dennis Etchison turned seventy years old this past Saturday. We had a party for him at the great Glendale bookstore Mystery & Imagination and a whole bunch of people came and ate cake and drank wine and a whole other bunch of people who'd have liked to have been there but couldn't (on account of being in the UK) sent greetings-from-abroad and Dennis pretended that he wished we hadn't made such a fuss and we pretended to believe him and it was all very lovely.

Seven years ago, I wrote an introduction to Fine Cuts, a collection of Dennis's Hollywood-themed short stories, published by the wonderful UK press PS Publishing and now sadly out of print. It's been a while since I did one of these "Enough About Me" posts, and I figure the Great Man's birthday is reason enough to jump back in. So happy birthday Dennis and, as they used to say on Blue Peter, here's something I prepared earlier:



I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house
-- F Scott Fitzgerald

True story: I was staying in an apartment hotel in Westwood Village working on a script assignment, late summer 1989, and was hanging with a kid from the east coast who'd just landed his first low-level job in the industry. We had mutual friends and were becoming friends ourselves. There was a break in the conversation and the kid asked me a question out of the blue.

"So what was it like growing up in Europe," he said, "with all those Nazis running about?"

I blanched. How old did he think I was? When I asked him exactly that, the shrugged and ventured a guess.


I nodded. I was actually about three months shy of my thirty-fourth birthday but I let it stand -- perhaps I was already learning the ways of the town -- and asked him another question.

"And when do you think the Nazis were 'running about'?"

"Dunno," he said. "Sixties?"

So okay, he was ignorant. Big deal. I still -- call me old-fashioned -- find it rather alarming that a college graduate, particularly a Jewish one, could be that hazy on the dates of the Holocaust, but making him feel small and stupid as I proceeded gleefully to do seems to me now to be the bigger sin. Anyway, that's not the punchline.

The kid is now second-in-command at one of the largest studios in Hollywood.

Actually, that's not the punchline, either -- though it's certainly a snappy payoff and tells me just exactly where I can shove my self-satisfied grasp of world history. No, the punchline is this: Couple of years later I'm reading a newspaper interview with a Famous Friend of mine and he tells the story as his own -- not as reportage but as direct experience, as if it had happened to him not me. That's Hollywood in miniature, dear reader -- not the educational shortcomings of the soon-to-be-powerful, but the cavalier appropriation of someone else's story.

Dennis Etchison -- not, lest you think otherwise, the Famous Friend of the above anecdote -- seems to know this truth about the town in which he lives and works on an almost cellular level. His Hollywood stories, collected together here for the first time, are populated by characters who in one way or another have all had their stories appropriated -- sometimes in a literal sense, like the poor neophyte writer in "The Blood Kiss", but more often and more chillingly in the metaphoric. 

Etchison's people live on shifting ground -- not inappropriate for the denizens of a city built on fault-lines. Time, place, and memory betray them at all turns, as if they themselves are trapped inside a screenplay that is constantly being rewritten. Like survivors from an earlier draft, ghosts of discarded speculation, they walk the mean streets of a world in which the focus is never quite tight enough, seeking solutions to mysteries that are no longer even part of the plot. In a recurring and particularly poignant motif, some of Etchison's protagonists chase lost loved-ones -- sometimes a child, sometimes a parent -- through clouds of unknowing, attempting to grasp the past even as it retreats before them, and achieving at best a front-row seat from which they may watch the final acts of the disappearing trick.

Other things are lost to these people too -- possessions, professions, passion, promise -- but the main theme underlying every variation, the haunting minor-key melody that plays constantly in Etchison's dark country and imbues all of its stories with a profound metaphysical despair that is as much melancholia as it is terror, is the loss of self. A genuine loss of self -- not a disappearance but a dissolution, an effacement. Everything that these characters were or would be is in the process of an ineluctable erasure. Sometimes they are strapped to a surgical table, hallucinating alternate histories from a smorgasbord of half-forgotten popular culture. Sometimes their very physical beings are transmutated into unthinking (and inexpensive) slaves of the capitalist system. Sometimes they find themselves remembering lives that no longer seem to be their own or dwindling into a smaller sadder life from which perhaps only their illusions had previously protected them or kept them from acknowledging.

Well, that all sounds like a barrel of fucking laughs, doesn't it? In fact, though, the experience of actually reading Dennis's fiction (as opposed to listening to me babble on about it like I'm still trying to bullshit my way through an Eng. Lit. seminar) is very different. The stories are wonderfully written, of course -- achieving a clean and almost-invisible style that, while rendering other writers green with envy, sweeps readers effortlessly into the world it helps create -- but they are also, despite the darkness of their author's vision, paradoxically amusing. Enormously entertaining, in fact. You might be being given a tour of the terminal ward but your Guide is good company and his voice -- wryly skeptical but warmly sympathetic -- is somehow the saving grace that alchemically turns the dross of depression into the gold of art. A Dennis Etchison story is like a fine cigarette -- a comfort that kills, a killer that comforts.

Hollywood is a town where things disappear easily -- buildings, neighborhoods, careers -- and a community where memory is apparently a disability and the voicing of it something shameful. Dennis Etchison, though, is a man and a writer who marks the passing of things forgotten and mourns the loss of things despised. He's frankly a terrible fit for the film business. But, boy, he loves the movies. He has survived the humiliations and disappointments of an industry where -- as he once remarked to me in aphoristic perfection -- your mortal enemies have the sweetest smiles, and has pulled, as fragments from the ruins, these valentines to an ungrateful mistress. Writing well is the best revenge.   

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