Michael Tolkin is a writer with a gift for making us very uneasy; and he does not have to resort to the special effects of exorcisms, frantic chase scenes, stalkers, or shoot-outs to elicit a sense of dread. His is a study of the depravity of a human nature that has lost its ability to cope with the ordinary of reality, and we get uneasy through the recognition that our own coping skills are no better and it is only by a fluke of circumstance that we have escaped the horrors of his characters. This is most evident in his screenplay for Changing Lanes, but I first became aware of his perspective while I was in Singapore and saw Robert Altman's adaptation of his novel The Player. The sequel to this novel, The Return of the Player, has now been published; and the Telegraph used the occasion to send Stuart Husband to interview Tolkin.
I read what is basically a transcript of Tolkin's comments this morning. I normally shy away from such "background pieces;" but I was drawn to this one in the wake to those comments I had recently heard from Günter Grass and particularly Norman Mailer on Book TV. Tolkin invoked Mailer in talking about his own preference for novels over screenplays:
If you held a gun to my head and forced me to choose between novels and movies, I would choose novels. It's a sentimental choice, because I think the novel is now regarded as an esoteric delivery system at best.
Here's how far it's degraded: in 1969, when we sent a man to the moon, Life magazine hired Norman Mailer to write about it, because they deemed that only a novelist could have the imagination to handle the subject's immensity.
The idea that the novelist has that kind of exemplary moral authority has been irretrievably lost. How many people in the States read first novels? Ten thousand, max. And the last one for most was probably The Corrections.
We don't need Norman Mailer to articulate the myth of Paris Hilton to us when we can watch her in the buff round-the-clock on YouTube. Though I'm sure he would like to.
There are two facets to this argument. One, which I have previously explored, has to do with the deterioration of our capacity for telling stories; and the other has to do with the deterioration of the stories themselves. I would like to explore both of these aspects a bit further.
The question of whether or not we have lost our capacity for telling stories, as my previous remarks emphasized, goes back at least as far as Walter Benjamin; but I doubt if even Benjamin, from his 1936 vantage point, could have anticipated today's cultural context, although it is definitely worth considering the YouTube phenomenon in light of what Benjamin wrote about "mechanical reproduction" that same year. In my earlier comments I suggested that "the Internet is gradually changing us from storytellers to story readers;" but Tolkin seems to suggest that we can not even be credited with a capacity for reading. The world of The Player is a world in which we are all story consumers; and, as is the case with so many other aspects of our consumerism, the product is fed to us, thus reducing us from motivated acting subjects to passive objects subject to the analysis of marketing strategists. With the loss of the capacity for reading comes the loss of the capacity for reflection, which, in turn, brings us back to that problem of mind rot against which Mailer railed in his appearance at the New York Public Library. If this sounds bleak, then Tolkin's assessment of the impact of consumerism is even bleaker:
This is definitely the worst generation of American parents, ever, in terms of those who send their kids to private schools. It's horrendous.
The Boomers raised a generation of drug addicts and compulsive shoppers; their offspring's urge to have children is conflated with their own narcissism. They use their children like pawns to reflect their own status and free-floating dread.
The effect on the children of this parental neurosis is having serious psychosocial knock-on effects. As I say in the book, most of these children are absolutely awful and they graduate from high school with all the strength of a potato chip: fried and fragile.
Nevertheless, even in the context of consumerism, there remains the issue of the degradation of the "product," which is the second aspect of my argument. Tolkin approaches this from the problem of the decline of box-office revenues in the movie business, the extent to which, even with the most calculated marketing strategies, the "product" no longer sells as well as it one did. However, rather than viewing this as a problem with marketing, Tolkin prefers to address the defects of the product itself. People do not put out at the box office because they no longer have an appetite for the stories they are being fed:
This is largely because the classic journey-of-the-hero structure, from Mr Smith Goes to Washington, in 1939, to Star Wars, is over.
You still get it in such movies as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and there's a sardonic echo of it in Will Ferrell comedies such as Talladega Nights.
But as a grown-up national myth, it's finished. It died with the Abu Ghraib pictures and it won't come back. The last great American movie was probably Apocalypse Now.
We're still living in the world of moral abeyance it described.
I'm working on the script for Nine - a musical version of Fellini's 8½ - and I went back to La Dolce Vita, as part of the research, and realised that it was prophetic.
At the end of that movie, the novelist becomes a publicist and everyone is happy to live in a world of decadence, self-promotion and despairing intellectuals, who write themselves out of relevance.
I see this as another aspect of that loss of the capacity for reflection. No matter how many "faces" the hero had, we could always reflect on his journey. This has been known since Homer; and it was still there in George Lucas (even if he needed Joseph Campbell as a consultant). Abu Ghraib could have provoked reflection; but, since such reflection would have undermined the prevailing power structure, mainstream media summoned all their strategies to undermine the Abu Ghraib pictures instead, drowning them in the flood of the preferred "manufactured reality" of American Idol and more news time for Paris Hilton than for the grunts dying in Iraq. Reality has subverted myth, not by opening our eyes to the insights of Enlightenment but by sewing them shut to those lessons that only fiction can teach us.
For all that, Tolkin still wrote his sequel novel; and it appears that his gift for making us uneasy is as potent as ever. The only problem is that not much of a reading public remains, not for this kind of book, at any rate. Robert Altman may still have the stamina to direct a film as good as The Player was; but we have to wonder if, in the context I have just outlined, that stamina will also be up to pushing such a project through "the system." Tolkin summarized his own position with a clever expression of optimism:
Despite it all, I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy. Or make that glass-quarter-full.
Being less of an optimist, I have to wonder if there is even that much in the glass!