Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.
Marathon Man - William Goldman
"In order to find anything good, I must always know what sort of a thing the object ought to be, i.e., I must have a concept of it. But there is no need of this, to find a thing beautiful." - Kant, Critique of Judgment
Indeed. William Goldman's novel Marathon Manwould never show up on anyone's list of beautiful novels (if such a list were ever to be compiled). However, it is beautiful in its execution of the investigation of its central theme: the limits of human endurance, both physical and psychological. Goldman writes in a kind of hypermodern style, to borrow a term from chess. For the first two thirds of its length the novel is a little hard to follow. A bewildering roster of characters is presented and their relationships to each other remain unclear for some time. In one case Goldman uses a technique that he would later use in a novel called Control with much more devastating effect - the technique of giving a character a double identity. In another case, in the prologue entitled "Before The Beginning", he employs the typically postmodern technique of having a character who is entirely peripheral to the main action serve as the focal point for, and as a witness to, an event that eventually turns out to be central to the plot. It's important to come back to this prologue with a little more care, and we'll do that shortly. Firstly though, a synopsis of the whole story is perhaps a good place to begin.
Thomas Babington Levy (called "Babe") is both a marathon runner and a history scholar, a candidate for the PhD at Columbia. His whole adult life he has believed his older brother Doc to be in the oil business in Europe. Chapters about Babe are alternated with chapters about someone named Scylla, who seems to be some sort of international hit man. Biesenthal is an eminent professor who knew Babe's father (also a historian) and who hints at something dark and untoward about the elder Levy's past. Doc unexpectedly shows up in New York - in Babe's apartment as a matter of fact, surprising his brother by entering the apartment unannounced, hiding, and waiting for Babe to arrive. Meantime Babe has met the woman of his dreams, Elsa, in the Columbia University library. The three of them go to dinner; Doc humiliates Elsa by asking her about certain places in Europe that she agrees she is quite familiar with, and he then reveals that there are no such places - he made them up, apparently to prove a negative point about her to Babe. Babe is both hurt and furious, and Elsa leaves. There is a seemingly out of the blue chapter about a man in Paraguay called The White Angel and his flight to, and arrival in, New York. (In this chapter the description "bull-shouldered" is applied to a woman. I'm going to go all Derrida here and point out that it occurs again a little later in the book as the principal description of a certain gentleman. Deliberate on Goldman's part, or a Freudian error?) Cut to Scylla again - he is meeting some mysterious characters in Riverside Park, and they try to kill him by stabbing. Cut to Babe's apartment - Doc appears, wounded, bleeding, dying. He dies, and our eyes are opened a little bit - Doc and Scylla are the same person. Goldman has been writing as though they were two different characters, but they're not.
As Babe grieves someone named Janeway enters story - the "Janey" whom Doc had previously interacted with - to shatter some illusions and reveal to Babe that Doc was, in reality, a top international spy with some very big secrets and some very vicious enemies. Babe is dubious and confused, but when thugs break into his apartment and kidnap him there can no longer be any doubt. He regains consciousness in the presence of the bull-shouldered man (aka The White Angel) who keeps asking him the question, "Is it safe? Is it safe?" Babe is clueless, and the bull-shouldered man, evidently a dentist, tortures him by drilling his teeth without anesthetic while continually asking the question "Is it safe?" After this excruciating torture goes on and on and on The White Angel finally ends it, saying in disgust, "...if he had known, he would have told me, we've wasted time, get rid of him." Known what? Maybe to say any more is giving too much away. Two hundred pages in, we're finally able to piece together some parts of the puzzle. In particular we at last come to understand the prologue. Since Goldman throws curveball after curveball up to this point, it's a relief to finally 'get' the true significance of "Before The Beginning."
This prologue is treated pretty faithfully in the film of the story by John Schlesinger; most of the rest of the story is as well, although the ending is changed a bit and there is a seminal chapter in the book introducing Scylla/Doc that is wholly removed from the movie. (Apparently it was in the original script, and shot, but was omitted in the cutting. I read this on Wikipedia and don't know if it has been confirmed, but in any case the scene is definitely not in the picture.) Still, there are some differences that likely have to be attributed to the unique needs of the cinematic medium.
The old man Szell (driving a Volkswagen in the novel but a Mercedes in the film) is first seen in the bank, with his safe deposit box, a bit of exposition totally absent in the written version, but this is not the first scene we actually encounter. That is a shot of a marathon runner from a long ago Olympiad, followed quickly by a shot of Babe training for a marathon, running by the riverside in Manhattan, as the credits roll. In the book the prologue is mostly seen from the point of view of the guy who gets into the argument with old Szell, Rosenbaum. Interestingly, though not particularly significant, is the fact that the film presents the confrontation between Szell and Rosenbaum as happening simultaneously with Babe's run. Indeed, he runs right by the exploding gas truck that culminates Szell's and Rosenbaum's encounter. This suggestion is, again, wholly missing in the written version.
Also missing is the fact that it's Yom Kippur, and the visual cue of numerous Jews in yarmulkes in the Manhattan streets. In the novel the Nazi-Jewish tensions are mostly transmitted to us through Rosenbaum's interior rants/monologue, but Schlesinger makes sure it is visually shown (and a TV commentator reporting on the accident that kills the two old men outright mentions the holiday as well). Finally Rosenbaum is first introduced to us while arguing with his mechanic in the shop, something which again is not in the pages.
"Before The Beginning" introduces the themes of nervous agitation, physical discomfort, Nazism, ignorance of danger, chance, and deceased family, all with a vengenance and with swiftness. Of course, we only recognize these as emergent themes after we finish the book and go back and reflect with the new perspective of the entire yarn played out before us - watching how Goldman does this is very instructive. Phrases such as "streets peopled with Teutonic mentalities" and "Everything set his teeth on edge" breathe their own unease into our faces. Of Rosenbaum, Goldman writes that he only has three living cronies with whom he plays cards in Jersey, and that he's outlived his children; Of Szell, "This widower was a refugee who had outlived all his friends..." Goldman even floats off into the consciousness and POV of people even further back from the action - Hunsicker, the driver of the oil truck, and Bibby, a photographer who happens to be in the neighborhood and captures the deadly crash on film. The prologue should be studied carefully because it forms a nice microcosm of Goldman's style and the novel as a whole. It is a macguffin in the truest Hitchcockian sense.
"Part 1 - Babe" lasts 116 pages and the chapters proceed like this: we meet Babe; we meet Scylla; we see Babe in Biesenthal's class; Scylla kills Chen; Babe talks with Biesenthal; Scylla encounters more international intrigue in London; Babe meets Elsa in the library; Babe writes Doc a letter about falling in love with Elsa; Scylla has a meeting with Janeway; Babe and Elsa get mugged in Central Park; Babe writes Doc another letter; Doc shows up at Babe's apartment in New York. I consider these chapters as an introduction to the study of the novel as a whole, then look at the Schlesinger screen version.
ESSAY TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED DUE TO CONCENTRATION ISSUES.