A line running with its own logic from the Biblical wilderness to the theme-park; a link between motel-chains, breakfast cereals, Walt Disney and cryonic freezing: connections of this kind are impossibly eccentric, demonstrable only in the special surroundings of highly-coloured fiction provided by Max Apple’s The Propheteers, which makes them into the threads of a very uncomfortable web indeed, one in which post-war American society is caricatured with remorseless precision, its values inflated into religious terms that seem ludicrous only at first. The book projects the visionary nature of the marketplace, the apotheosis of the entrepreneur, the patriarchal grandeur of the major corporations, and takes this religion seriously enough to understand the raptures of its more mystical reaches, its dream of pure consumerism, pure wealth, pure leisure and, of course, the life eternal. To do all this you need an extraordinary plot, and a canvas so big that the minute gradations of psychological realism are lost in its sweep, an animated cartoon rather than close-up naturalism. And on all the usual plot-and-character counts, The Propheteers is well out of step with more orthodox, and on the face of it more ‘serious’, attempts to get to grips with the candyfloss nightmare of modern America.
Max Apple has several cartoon dynasties jostle for position in the commercial Promised Land of mid-Sixties America: Howard Johnson and his lifelong assistant and companion Mildred, both in their declining years, continue to drive the length and breadth of the land in search of the mysteriously (but potently) right locations for the units of their colossal motel-chain; Margery Post, the world’s richest woman, is still getting richer from the proceeds of her father’s cereal business – her father, C.W. Post, was a failed Nazarite, marked out by God, to whom the corn had spoken one day, and who had built an empire on this foundation. Both Howard Johnson and Margery Post are interested in peace and quiet, Johnson as a business commodity, Margery as a necessity of life. To disturb such interests, the brothers Disney arrive, trying to plant a new Disney world on Miss Post’s door-step and in the backyard of the Johnson motel business. A fight of some kind is clearly on the cards, between the powers of leisure as rest and leisure as animation, the Old Law and the New; Margery Post, caught somewhere in the middle, will finally have to decide the contest.
Of course, the Disneys will win: the future belongs to their ideas of youth and animation, and the novel’s future is our contemporary world. Apple’s humour, sensitivity, even his kindliness towards his characters are in some ways at odds with this sombre progression in which the multiplication of riches brings about a radical impoverishment of the human values it treats as commodities. Apple makes Walt Disney an important figure whose solitary brooding undercuts the fast-operating market-thinking of his brother Will. For Walt, speaking in interviews to the world, animation is the harnessing of ‘constant movement and sound’, a gesture of life: but in private it carries also the marks of the dark background against which it plays.
He didn’t dare tell Will, but on his mind these days was death. He wondered a lot what it would be like to be dead. He could imagine it pretty well. It would be like a change from his own body to that of an animated character, drawn by someone else. Everything would be so much smaller and time would go faster. He always conceived of animation as a way to think about death but he never told anyone. It would put it all in a different light if he said that. People would be sad, they wouldn’t laugh if they thought about dying, though when Walt got in these moods he could think about nothing else.
One day, brooding over the dying moments of the salmon, Walt finds himself doodling the spotted and frail form of a baby deer, Bambi – and yet more millions flow into the Disney machine. Death follows discreetly in the wake of Howard Johnson, too, in the form of a trailer containing the instant-freezing equipment required to carry out the cryonic chilling decided on by Mildred as her passport to the next world – ‘who knew what else might be saved from the void for a small initial investment and $200 a year?’
The Post empire of Grape-Nuts also has its darker side. Margery Post was once the lover of Clarence Birdseye (whose mania for freeze-preservation extended to rushed attempts to freeze his own semen) and later bought his company, thus becoming still richer, but she is without the mental defences against death that boom commercially all around the Johnsons and the Disneys. Instead, Margery has the bleak inheritance of her father, the Nazarite, ‘a Jonah who could arrive at Nineveh and deliver the word of the Lord and be honoured for it and yet not save a single soul, so that men continued to roam as always, hungry, licentious, without grace or understanding, preying upon one another and also upon much cattle’. The late C.W. Post’s vegetarian passions not only gave the world his breakfast cereals, but led him also to commission Dali to repaint the world’s master-pieces without meat or wine on their canvasses. Margery, finally understanding the intensity as well as the futility of her father’s visions, gives in to the Disney Corporation’s demands; The Propheteers ends with her yielding to the inevitable, as represented by a protest rally at her gates of thousands of eager Disney youngsters led by Walt and Will. It is Walt’s, not Margery’s, idea to activate the electric fence that surrounds her house, thus creating for the massed consumers out there the ultimate leisure thrill, ‘like a scene from a concentration camp film’. And they love it:
The youngest ones were on their feet, shaking the bewilderment from their limbs. The older children were now being shocked. She saw the five and six-year-olds writhe, then rise and brush themselves off. Quickly lines began to form at each of the flashing red lights. Parents were taking snapshots of their children as their gums rolled in up shock.
Perhaps this is Margery’s answer to her father’s vision in the field of corn; it’s also a chilling expression of the self-destructive passivity of consumerism upon which the business-religion of The Propheteers feeds.
Max Apple (whose name sounds as though it might have been dreamt up by C.W. Post in a vegetarian clean-up operation on fiction) has written a fascinatingly double-edged book in The Propheteers – the one hand, plugging into the imaginative currents of big-thinking capitalism, What Made America Great, without grinding the satirist’s usual axes and, on the other, portraying the money-cruelty, the depths of consumer appetite, the fear of death at the heart of all the different American dreams. It is an original, amusing, shockingly far-fetched parable of the sad successes of a profit-society in which everyone, even among the winners, ends up losing.
The Czech novelist Ivan Klima’s 1972 novel A Summer Affair has yet to see the light of day in its country of origin. Not that we’re dealing in red-hot political exposé here: the novel is exactly what its title suggests, depicting a brief, intense and bitter affair between a scientist and a young woman in Prague. It is a tightly-constructed and sharply realised work which, like Greene’s The End of the Affair, charts the course of an ultimately destructive relationship, more of an ordeal than an affair, and tries to make some sense of the debris. The protagonist is a worthy, drably highflying scientist, David Krempa, for whom the main function of his wife and family is to offer unquestioning support in his work. As he prepares himself for a year’s exchange visit to London, you soon know that he is the kind of visiting scientist you must make sure to avoid at receptions. Into Krempa’s life and work at this point enters Iva, the girl for whom he will eventually give up everything. The story is familiar enough: what counts is how well the author brings it off, and Klima is adept at conveying the tensions, irrationalities and sudden, sweaty panics of a protracted liaison with Another Woman. The squirming discomfort of all the lying involved is one of the most enduring impressions left by A Summer Affair, and indicates considerable skill on the part of its author.
Krempa’s research, however, is not quite what might be expected; briefly, he’s trying to find the elixir of life, a way to hold off ageing and postpone death. So perhaps a middle-aged affair is actually a part of his work rather than a distraction? The catch is that his involvement with Iva in fact forces a confrontation with death, a lesson in mortality. In a bout of kamikaze driving, Krempa begins to sense what’s going on:
I see the world in between kisses. I see the road between moments of darkness. I’m rushing towards destruction ... I used to be frightened of death and now I’m letting her kiss my eyes and I’m happy. Maybe death itself is riding with me in my car, sitting in the passenger seat by my side – attractive and bewitching-caressing and kissing me.
The moral of the tale, which rushes towards different kinds of ruin for Krempa and his mistress, appears to be that you don’t mess with eternal youth. Nothing new in that, but what Klima makes of it is both arresting and memorable. Some aspects of A Summer Affair are nonetheless problematic – notably, Iva, Krempa’s lover, whose enigmatic character sometimes looks like an excuse for a lack of any character at all. Maybe the ‘affair’ is a profoundly male genre, but it still seems unreasonable to perpetuate the stereotyped femme fatale as a flighty, desperately pleasure-seeking and sexually voracious girl in search of a father/lover, presented as ultimately ‘tragic’ but also in the end as being beyond explanation. A Summer Affair never comes close to understanding Iva as anything other than a stage in its hero’s development.
Don’t be fooled by the broken plate on its front cover: Georgina Hammick’s collection of short stories, People for Lunch, is a very polished and correct affair, in which the writing’s impeccable good manners allow absolutely nothing to go wrong. Fair enough, perhaps, considering how often and how badly things go wrong in the stories themselves; the old favourites are still performing pretty strongly here: love, disillusion, death – especially death, which keeps making an appearance in Ms Hammick’s drawing-rooms. Not that any self-consciousness is involved when these big Themes turn up: in this, and many other respects, People for Lunch is almost a model collection, poised, clear and self-assured.
Even so, being a model of excellence can have its liabilities, and this volume lets itself in for criticisms that go beyond matters of stylistic etiquette. ‘A Few Problems in the Day-Case Unit’, for example, which sets down with wry precision a woman’s experiences while having a coil fitted by a none too considerate doctor, is diverting, clever and doubtless salutary for its male readers. And beyond that? Ought we to be awarding Ms Hammick extra points for daring? (Surely not.) Or perhaps for that catch-all, observation? The cut-off point has been reached decorously enough, but it has been reached too early all the same, as in a number of the stories: men are observed being insensitive, women are observed suffering, coping, replying. In People for Lunch it’s the subtlety of the observation that counts rather than the implications of the situations themselves. This is a loss, and becomes a real limitation when the stories turn their attention to questions of class and society. Here, Ms Hammick can even be rather crude in her observation, as in ‘Tales from the Spare Room’, where we discover that the rich can regard the poor with snobbery; a better story, ‘Noble Rot’, observes with more subtlety, but seems to operate from the patronising vantage-point it attempts to subvert – as ‘observation’, when it’s a literary form of good manners, usually does.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.