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Corflu 34

I've purchased a membership to Corflu 34 in LA. I'm curious what kinds of pre-convention plans people have.

The X Factor by Andre Norton

Norton X Factor.jpgI guess I'm done with crime novels about psychologically bizarre characters, so I'm not going to read the last two novels in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the '40s and '50s omnibus. I got one chapter into Margaret Millar's Beast in View and thought, "I can't take any more mental illness!"

So I retreat to some comfort reading: Andre Norton. The X Factor is classic Norton. Like Kilda in Dread Companion, Diskan Fentress is the child of a three-year marriage contract between a Survey scout who was soon reassigned to another planet and a planet-bound mother who was unable to raise him because she died during his birth. So he was raised in a government creche. Unlike Kilda, she had no mentor to look after her, and Diskan became an outcast held in contempt for his mental slowness and physical clumsiness. So a typical orphan/outcast protagonist for Norton, and soon he's jetted off to an unexplored alien planet, where he undergoes a survival ordeal while exploring ancient abandoned ruins and encountering a race of sentient furry aliens (the brothers-in-fur) who see potential in him where his fellow humans saw only disability.

Norton likes nothing better than to have her characters wandering around lost in an underground labyrinth of ruins. Diskan finds allies, both human and alien, to wander through the ruins with him, and eventually he discovers the talent within himself that only the aliens could see before. Once again, a human protagonist in a Norton novel survives either by becoming alien or by learning from aliens. There are archeologists also trying to understand the ruins, and Jacks (basically pirates) looking for buried treasure. It's a survival adventure with some great action and a coming-of-age story, and I found it very satisfying in a comfort-reading kind of way. Norton takes me back to the Golden Age of science fiction, which is the age of twelve.

I know that Norton eventually made contact with fandom even while she was still living in Cleveland, where she lived until 1966 -- the year after this novel was published -- and where she knew Harlan Ellison, for example. If she didn't understand that it was a proud and lonely thing to be a fan, her love of ostracized-alienated protagonists seems ready-made to appeal to the fannish subculture.

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

Blunderer.jpgI've long been interested in Patricia Highsmith, largely because of the number of films based on her books, including the excellent Carol (based on Highsmith's The Price of Salt.) Now that I've read one of her crime thrillers, however, I'm not sure I'm going to like her books. The Blunderer was her third published novel -- a crime novel about three repulsive characters being cruel to each other. I admit the structure is quite interesting, but I found the execution a little repetitious.

The basic set-up is that the story opens with a man murdering his wife at a cross-country bus stop. We then switch to the protagonist, Walter Stackhouse , who is a lapdog to his neurotic harridan of a wife, Clara. I guess I should say the novel is about four repulsive characters being cruel to each other, but Clara really only interacts with Walter, not the other two main characters. One of those two is Melchior Kimmel, an obese, mostly blind dealer in collectible books who is suspected of being the murderer of the wife that we saw in the opening chapter. Walter visits him through some bizarre compulsion after Clara dies under similar circumstances, although apparently by suicide. The fourth protagonist is the police detective, Lawrence Corby, who starts investigating Clara's death and then becomes fascinated by the Kimmel case, too. Like all the other characters, Corby has an ugly and possibly psychotic personality. He hammers at both Walter and Kimmel, including physically torturing the latter, in an attempt to get them to confess to the murders.

And that's pretty much the material of the novel. These four characters go at it over and over, chewing on each other like a dog on a bone. That's the part that I found repetitive after a while. Highsmith repeatedly soaks the reader in these charged episodes of people being psychologically (and sometimes physically) abusive to each other, while Walter blunders from one idiotic misstep to another under Corby and Kimmel's pressure. What's interesting is that who is guilty and who isn't almost becomes moot after a while. Everyone is guilty, at least in their own minds. Desires and paranoia and dominance games abound. Highsmith keeps it interesting enough with the intricate, submerged parallels between the Kimmel and Stackhouse cases, and then by capping it off with a satisfyingly bloody, apocalyptic ending. But I found it a slog to get to the ending.

On the other hand, this does make me more interested in The Price of Salt, since the movie is intricately psychological in its own right and isn't a genre crime novel. This one may have suffered from the demands of genre.

Eyewitness to mystery

I'm just back from my second trip to Rockaway Beach on the Oregon Coast with my friend Kristal. Kristal is a breast cancer survivor whom I met at the beginning of the year through my co-worker Abi. Kristal has been a huge support to me while I've undergone treatment, accompanying me on long walks to help me keep my strength up, and sharing her own harrowing treatment stories. The chemo she went through not only took all her hair and eyelashes, but eventually her fingernails too. In the beginning Abi was usually part of the outings, but eventually she found a boyfriend, and Kristal and I started walking and talking on our own. Then one day she invited me to join her on a day trip to Lummi Island, and I felt that something was beginning to happen between us.

Not long after that she invited me to join her on a two-day trip to Rockaway Beach to celebrate her birthday. I wasn't sure what her intent was, but I took it as an opportunity to get to know her better. So I asked her a bunch of nosy questions including why she had invited me. She told me that she just liked me and thought I'd be fun to hang out with in one of her favorite get-away spots. Fair enough. However, my own affection for her was starting to change in response to getting to know her better: her camera-shyness; the way she obsessively listens to the same music over and over (currently Bon Iver); her dysfunctional family background; her love of poetry; her desire to enjoy life to the fullest while she still can; and her mad skills as a photographer.

So I was the one who pushed for another outing to Rockaway this month. Last time we hit the coast on November 8th and then watched with horror as America elected Trump as president. That really ruined everything, including our attempt to escape the world for a little while. This time would be better, we hoped. Unfortunately, despite all the signs that she wasn't interested in me romantically -- the lack of physical affection, the way she immediately deflected any flirtation or expressions of affection on my part -- failed to penetrate my silly heart, and I started feeling frustrated by her unresponsiveness and emotional distance. Eventually I started feeling pretty grumpy and alienated about it. I woke up on Friday in a foul mood, thinking I didn't understand her or what the hell was going on. I walked out into the front room before sunrise in order to stew upon it in the dark and spotted the three-quarters moon hanging over the trail from the cottage to the beach.

2016-12-16 Moon Path.jpg

It was like the beginning of a pirate movie, or a gothic thriller, or an A. Merritt super scientific adventure. I felt that I had suddenly been transported into a much larger, more glorious universe, where my romantic confusion was a piddling bunch of bullshit that had been blown completely out of proportion. I threw on some warm clothes, raced down to the frigid beach, and felt myself in the presence of an archaic power much more ancient than life or love and before which I was completely helpless. Which I think is Kristal's goal in these trips to the ocean: to connect to a deeper sense of mystery and awe than we generally experience in our day-to-day lives, and that is a particularly healing solace to someone with death by cancer looming over their future.

Today she confirmed that she just wants a traveling buddy, not a boyfriend. I've been on the other side of that divide, so who am I to pout? Well, a human being, that's who, but I hope the pouting doesn't last long. It turns out I very much do understand her and what the hell is going on; I was just in denial. Why waste time on minor riddles of the heart, when there are much vaster mysteries at work? Mysteries that can open me like a can opener and swallow my innards whole in an eyeblink. It happened to me last December, in fact. My world and life have been transformed for the worse, but it's still full of beauty that takes my breath away. I yearn for love, but I've always made do with a sense of wonder. Meanwhile, I hope that Kristal and I can continue to console each other for the shitty bad luck we both ran into when we ran head first (or breast first, in her case) into cancer.

2016-12-16 Moon Ocean.jpg

POSTSCRIPT: I know that at least one of you saw a post I put up briefly after the November trip. If you saw that one, I ask you to pretend you didn't and restrict your comments to this one.


Mini health update

Because not everybody reads Facebook or sees all the posts there. By the way, today is the anniversary of my brain surgery. That means I've survived a year already -- longer if you consider the fact that I clearly already had the tumor when I had my first seizure in early August 2015.

My last MRI, which was on November 30th, once again showed that the tumor has not returned, huzzah! I started my ninth round of chemo that night, and finished it the next Sunday. Three more rounds to go.

This has been my worst round of chemo of the nine. Two days after my last dose, I started struggling with nausea, but after getting a break from it on Thursday, it came back with a vengeance yesterday. Usually by this point in the cycle I'd be getting my appetite back and starting to take long walks again. It could be that the chemo in my body has built up to a saturation point. I'll talk to my new oncologist about that when I meet her later this month. The last three rounds have actually been increasingly difficult, nausea-wise, but the first time I thought it was because I didn't take an anti-nausea pill before the first dose and woke up in the middle of the night feeling horribly sick. I thought maybe that primed my body to react to the chemo with nausea. That continued to be my theory when last time the nausea hit me the day after my last dose. Now I'm beginning to think there's something else going on.

We'll see what the oncologist has to say. Friends are pointing out that I can quit the chemo if it's making me miserable. It's a good reminder, but I'd rather gut it out if I can. I got there with radiation too, but I stuck it out to the end.

Anyway, that's about it for now.

ETA: I've been reminded that today is the anniversary of surgery to remove my tumor. Not one I'm going to be celebrating, as much as I'm glad that the tumor was removed.

A friend also posted a pointer toward this article about cancer, fragility, and racism, which I have mixed feelings about, but it includes some great bits of quoted poetry.

From Whitman's "Song of Myself":

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

And this from Tracy K. Smith's "Duende":

If I call it pain, and try to touch it
With my hands, my own life,
It lies still and the music thins,
A pulse felt for through garments.
If I lean into the desire it starts from—
If I lean unbuttoned into the blow
Of loss after loss, love tossed
Into the ecstatic void—
It carries me with it farther,
To chords that stretch and bend
Like light through colored glass.
But it races on, toward shadows
Where the world I know
And the world I fear
Threaten to meet.

"Love tossed into the ecstatic void." Story of my life, and it hasn't been a bad one.


End of an Era

1990ish Graduations Office Halloween webres.jpg

I just got a call from my HR rep saying that Friday is my last day as a University of Washington employee. I'm feeling slightly shocked, not only because I was expecting more warning than that, but because it's the official end of a major part of my life. I worked at the UW for 26 (nearly 27) years, starting in February 1989 (not counting a year of temping for what they still called the Steno Pool before that). Not quite half my life, but pretty damn close. I've known it was over for at least a year, but now that it's come, I feel suddenly naked somehow. Not that anybody ever understood when they asked me what I did and I tried to explain.

I did a lot of things over the years: graduations, residence classification (for tuition purposes: are you in-state or not? A job I hated, because people would actually cry if we denied their applications), a brief attempt at supervising (fail!!), implementing the degree audit reporting system (huge success!), and finally various flavors of data management (widespread fame and acclaim!). Anyway, above is a photo from more innocent times (circa 1990, and a Halloween, whichever year it was) with the old Graduation Office, which has gone through a number of name and personnel changes since then. On the left is Fred (who tried to call me just as I was starting this round of chemo, so I haven't gotten back to him yet), Virjean (the supervisor), Barbara, Pat, and me. I haven't missed work one iota, but I'm feeling a pang now.

Since I know she follows this LJ, I just wanted to thank Virjean for hiring me, mentoring me, and putting me to good use over the decades. With apologies to Matt S., you'll always be my favorite boss, not to mention a fine human being.

This probably deserves a deeper dive at some point, but I wanted to spread the news.

P.S. Notice the dumb terminal and the IBM Selectric on the right side of us, both of them mine. To my left, but hidden from the photo, was a PC running DOS 6.0, as I recall.

Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong

Mischief.jpegCharlotte Armstrong's 1950 novel, Mischief, is the fifth in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s omnibus. Although crimes do happen in the story, it's not a story about murder like the first four books, so it comes across as more of a thriller than a crime story. Others refer to it as domestic suspense. I guess all the novels in this omnibus are called domestic suspense or domestic thriller in order to distinguish them from the hard-boiled detective crime stories or international espionage thrillers that were also being written at the time. They are often about the invasion of a household or family, and they often have a romantic element as well, usually seen from an atypical angle for a romance.

One thing all five of the novels I've read so far have in common is an interest in abnormal psychology. It may have been David Bordwell who said they were all psychological thrillers. Mischief is about an emotionally troubled girl named Nell who is called in to babysit for a couple who are in town for a ceremony honoring the husband. They don't know Nell, but her uncle is the hotel elevator operator, and he offers her services when the husband's sister cancels her offer to babysit at the last moment. Meanwhile, Jed and Jen are a couple on the verge of making a deeper commitment, who get into a spat over Jed's careless selfishness and break up. Jed is staying in the same hotel as the couple, and he returns to brood. He spots Nell acting flirtatious across the way, and spontaneously calls her up. Then things start getting weird.

There are at least four female viewpoint characters in the novel, and maybe only one male viewpoint character. The women are Ruth, the mother of the child who needs looking after; Nell, the dangerous babysitter; another woman staying in the hotel who sees something odd going on in the couple's room and dithers about intervening; and Jen, who dumps Jed and then realizes immediately that she's made a mistake and spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out how to make it right. All of these women are neurotic to some extent or another, although I suppose Ruth's self-doubt could be chalked up to normal parental anxieties and uncertainties. She's a lot like the mother in The Blank Wall: Constantly worried about her child and constantly worried that she worries too much. All of these characters question their own motivations, argue themselves out of doing the right thing and then argue themselves back into it. Part of the suspense is what, if any, action they'll eventually take.

Jed is a work of narcissistic art. He's stung to the quick by Jen's accusation that he's cold and cynical and uncaring, but to his credit he actually does achieve some self-awareness over the course of the novel. One of the ways that Armstrong evokes his self-centeredness is in the way his internal dialogue addresses himself by his last name: Towers. At times he reminded me of Dix Steele from In a Lonely Place in the way that he endlessly works to justify himself to himself, and in the swiftly shifting tides of his self-confidence and self-doubt.

Nell is emotionally disturbed, but it wasn't clear to me what kind of mental problem she had, or if Armstrong was even thinking in those categorical terms. She's impulsive, unable to foresee consequences, and a glib liar who is able to concoct explanatory/deflecting stories on the fly. The evidence is that she has murdered somebody in the past, although during a moment of dissociation. She has spent time in a mental institution of some kind because of that, and has only recently been released. Armstrong does a great job of capturing her spasms of serpentine charisma, mixed with dissociative fugues where she loses all emotional affect, not to mention the plot.

There's another interesting character who passes through the story without leaving a trace. This a black woman staying in the hotel, who immediately recognizes that Nell is deranged and tries to bull her way into the room to see whether the child is okay. What's interesting about this character is that Armstrong clearly shows that the main thing blocking her from intervening is racism. Her son keeps pulling on her arm and telling her she can't treat a white woman (Nell) like that. Eventually he pulls her away, and that's the last we hear of her. From a structural point of view, she leaves no impact on the story. So why did Armstrong include her? Was it just an acknowledgement of the Civil Rights movement gearing up even as the novel was published? Armstrong also lavishes quite a bit of physical description on the woman, and none of it seemed demeaning to me. It's a very rich, detailed portrait for such a brief and uneventful appearance.

Mischief is about people wrestling with their inner demons while they try to figure out how they want to react to events. Jed isn't the only one who seems to find himself in the crisis. The mother, Ruth, also finds that her inner demons have their uses when it comes to fighting to protect her family. It's a nervy novel that comes to a complex climax of clashing psychological agendas.

It was made into a film noir called Don't Bother to Knock in 1952. The movie streamlines the book by concentrating all the action in the one hotel and playing the events practically in real time. Jen is a singer in the hotel bar, and Nell's past trauma doesn't involve her parents but a fiance. Nell (played by Marilyn Monroe) is cast more as a sympathetic self-injurer than as the psychotic threat of the novel, although when push comes to shove she does all the threatening things she does in the novel. There's no sign of the extraneous but fascinating black woman,

One Year Later: Brave New World

The two great cliches of action shows, "This isn't over!" and "This ends now!" are flipsides of each other. (My Facebook post from December 2, 2015)

One year ago today, I walked to the University of Washington on my regular work commute. But instead of going directly to my office, I first went to the UW Medical Center Radiology Department to get an MRI of my head. We were trying to figure out why I had had a series of seizures starting the previous August. After the MRI I walked to my office, picking up a cup of coffee at Bean and Bagel along the way. As I sipped the coffee at my desk, I could feel a seizure coming on. Because my working theory for so long had been that the first seizure was caused by stress and anxiety, I wondered if this one had been triggered by the coffee. I tried to warn my officemates, Doug and Bill, about what was happening to me, but by then I had already lost the ability to speak. They soon figured out that something was wrong and called our boss, who called 911. The EMTs who checked me out suggested I go to my clinic and see a doctor about the seizure. So my boss drove me to the UW Medicine clinic at Northgate. My regular doctor wasn't available, although he spotted me in the lobby and came over to ask how I was doing. I suspect he had seen the MRI results by then, but I don't know for sure. In any event, there was another doctor who could see me. It was a longish wait before I was let into an examination room, probably because she was reviewing the MRI and discussing it with more senior physicians and preparing herself for what she had to tell me. As soon Dr Sairenji came in, I could see by her face that it was bad news.

She informed me that the MRI showed that I had a tumor in my brain, and the radiologist who read the MRI was calling the tumor glioblastoma -- which later really pissed off my neurosurgeon, because he felt only pathologists can determine the type of cancer, looking at cells from the tumor itself. In retrospect my guess is that an experienced radiologist can probably recognize glioblastoma from the MRI, even if they can't tell the exact type and grade, which is in fact incredibly important information, because Grade I and II are generally not terminal, whereas III and IV (my grade) are. Dr. Sairenji answered my questions and to reassure me as best she could. I'll never forget the sorrow on her face. She had never met me before, but she was the one who had to tell me I had potentially lethal cancer. When I started crying she gave me a light hug with one arm around my shoulders. The news actually wasn't a complete shock, because as soon as I'd had my second and third seizures, three months after the first, I began to wonder whether I might have a tumor. Still, I had tried to set that thought aside and to hope for better news. So in fact -- to heck with the nuance -- the news shocked me to the marrow.

I had called or texted Denys asking if he could come pick me up and take me home, because I knew I wouldn't be going back to work. As soon as I saw his concerned face and started telling him the news, I started sobbing, as he cursed furiously while welcoming me into a big, comforting hug. It was even worse when I got home and called my mom. I doubt it's difficult to imagine how little she wanted to hear my news. All I could think to say was, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Undoubtedly the hardest, most heart-wrenching conversation I've ever had in my life.

A lot has happened in the year since that day: surgery to remove the tumor, diagnosis of the tumor (confirming that it was glioblastoma, and of the worst kind), a course of simultaneous radiation and chemo, and then a longer (and ongoing) course of chemo and a new electromagnetic treatment technology called the Optune. It's been a long, hard road, but my family and friends swiftly closed ranks around me and have carried me on their backs through all the turmoil and trouble. My mom, sister, brother, sister-in-law, and Denys have all been particular champions, and I cannot possibly thank them enough for all they've done for me, from feeding me, accompanying me to doctor appointments, advising me when I was confused about the options facing me, and helping to pay off our remaining mortgage, to taking on most of the household chores and changing my Optune transducer arrays twice a week. Many, many other friends have corresponded, created single-issue, single-copy fanzines for me, come to visit, cheered me in Facebook and LiveJournal comments, walked with me to keep my strength up, shared their cancer treatment stories, sent me care packages and gifts of food, books, and music. It's been a crappy year of debilitating treatments, but I've learned a lot about love and friendship in the process, such as the fact that it can be completely invisible to you (or at least to me, Captain Oblivious) until you need it in the worst way. I haven't worked a single day since that first MRI, and I'm in the process of taking a medical retirement. I've made new friends who stepped in without hesitation to give me support. I have added many more Facebook Friends, many of whom I don't know personally, who follow me now because they know my Mom or my sister and want to follow my story, because it's part of their story. Old friends who I'd lost contact with are coming out of the woodwork as the news slowly filters into the world. People have been amazing.

It isn't all friends and family either. I've met with, talked to, and been treated by a phalanx of doctors, neurosurgeons, radiation oncologists, neuro-oncologists, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, receptionists, radiation techs, MRI techs, phlebotomists, clinical psychiatrists, nutritionists, Optune reps, pharmacists, long term disability insurance reps, Social Security Disability Insurance bureaucrats, University of Washington HR bureaucrats, and social workers. It takes a village to treat a cancer patient. Not all of them have been equally competent or caring, but in general I've found the people at the Alvord Brain Tumor Center and at the UW Medical Center as a whole to be very kind and helpful. Good people who are committed to quality of life for the terminally ill. Considering all the bureaucracy involved, it's kind of amazing how good the treatment has been.

A lot has happened in the last year and I'm hopeful that there's more amazement to come, but I thought it was worth marking that a year ago I walked through a door into an examination room and exited a stranger in a strange land that had such people in it.


The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Holding The Blank Wall.jpgThe Blank Wall is a 1947 crime novel that's been adapted to film twice: once as a film noir called The Reckless Moment (1950) and the other a contemporary thriller (that is, set in the present day of 2001) called The Deep End. The basic scenario in all three versions of the story is a suburban mother trying to hold the family together while her husband is away at war. Her underage daughter becomes enamored of a sleazy crook who wants to blackmail her, and the mother is sucked into a criminal underworld that is completely outside her mundane experience as a home-maker. (In The Deep End, the gender of the child who is imperiled is changed from female to male, and the son is gay.) I don't believe it's a major spoiler to say that the sleazebag is accidentally murdered, and the mother gets involved in covering up the murder only to have another blackmailer show up with letters her daughter wrote to her exploiter/boyfriend, which he threatens to send to the newspapers unless the mother pays him five thousand dollars.

The novel is very much a melodrama, in the sense that it's about a woman unhappily trapped in a social role that doesn't fit her. Lucia is deeply insecure and very bad at being a housekeeper and mother. She writes letters to her husband that are complete torture to her, because they are so inane and disconnected from the turmoil she's going through, which she feels she must hide from him. Her daughter and son are both spoiled brats who torment her with their back talk and disobedience and contempt, and she is helpless to do anything about it. In fact, she's so helpless in general that I had a hard time maintaining my sympathy for her. The novel was initially serialized in Women's Home Journal, and it seems aimed at women who are bored with their domestic lives and maybe wishing for some excitement or adventure. The woes of the protagonist probably appealed pretty directly to the experience of the women who read the magazine.

As a crime story it's unusual for focusing on domestic issues like motherhood, the limits on women's power to run their own lives, and suburban gentility and pretense. Poor Lucia has to run around town trying to deal with grocery shopping during war time rationing, trying to get her refrigerator fixed when the repair company is already overbooked, trying to borrow money to pay the blackmail when she has no collateral to offer, and generally having no idea how to deal with the problems she's facing without her exposing her whole family to shame and criminal charges. The other unusual thing about The Blank Wall is that the second blackmailer she meets is a gentle man named Donnelly who gradually falls in love with her. In the film noir version, directed by the great Max Ophuls in his brief Hollywood sojourn, it's implied that maybe the feeling is mutual and maybe it goes further than just feelings. The book is very clear that, despite the fact that she does have feelings for him, nothing happens between Lucia and Donnelly, but Lucia agonizes over the appearance that something has happened between them, which is constantly thrown in her face by her horrible children. The 1950 film also implies that the daughter did more than write letters to her sleazy boyfriend, whereas the book again maintains her innocence of sexual involvement.

The unusual setting and stakes is what sets this book apart from most crime novels, although the focus on romance aligns it with the other three novels in the Library of America series of mid-century crime novels by women. The thing that really made the book stand out for me, however, is the character of Sybil, the black woman who helps Lucia run the household. It's interesting to me that Sybil is missing from both film adaptations, because she is absolutely key to the novel. Basically, she's the person who makes sure that the house is run properly, handling everything that Lucia is incompetent to do, and she makes sure Lucia stays out of trouble with both the criminals and the law, interceding whenever Lucia starts losing her grip. Lucia depends on her entirely, and there comes a point when Sybil tells her the story of her husband, who has been in prison for something like twelve years for hitting a white man who hit him first. Through Sybil, who is portrayed very vividly through Lucia's eyes, we get a vivid portrait of the husband, who is an idealist who still believes justice can prevail despite the cruel injustice perpetrated on him by Jim Crow America. It's an utterly fascinating burst of raw social realism in the midst of an oddball romantic crime story. The best part of the story, for me, was the unexpected portrayal of the deepening friendship, even partnership, between Lucia and Sybil. Sybil is Lucia's true better half, not the absent husband. It's not clear to me whether Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was expecting us to see these two women as the real domestic partners of the story, but that's how it came across to me. It makes The Blank Wall feel at least obliquely radical for its time.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes


This is the second time I've read In a Lonely Place. The first time was because I loved the famous film noir adaptation so much and was curious about its source, and I was astonished at how different the movie was from the book -- starting with the fact that in the book the protagonist, Dixon "Dix" Steele, is a serial killer of women, whereas in the movie he's just a tormented guy with a violent streak who is a suspect in the murder of one girl. The novel struck me as a tour de force in its first-person depiction of a psychotic personality. This second reading was because I'm working my way through the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the '40s and '50s omnibus, and this time I was able to identify some of the strands that the film-makers took hold of as they transformed the crime novel into a personal story about how the Hollywood Dream Factory crushes dreams. In the book Dix claims to be a writer, and in the movie he really is one -- a bona fide artiste, in fact, who detests Hollywood's focus on selling popcorn. The novel also does have a love affair between Dix and his neighbor, Laurel Gray, who has dabbled in acting in both the book and the movie, but who primarily seems to be looking for a man she can love. In the movie, Laurel leaves Dix because she's afraid of his violent temper, although she still loves him.

Having now watched the movie again since re-reading the book, it's interesting how the book is changing my view of the movie. I've always loved the tragic romanticism of the movie: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." The novel is if anything anti-romantic. Compare Hughes' description of the end of Laurel's love for Dix: "He knew but he did not admit. It might have been a week. It might have been a day or two, or perhaps there was no time. But the restlessness was coming into her. She could not be content too long to be bound within the confines of his dream. It might have been the way her shoulders moved to a dance orchestra over the radio. It might have been the small frown as they sat again for dinner in the living room. It could have been her evasion to his questions about her hours of that particular day. Or the way in which she stood in the doorway, looking out into the night." The transition is more dramatic in the film, more dreamlike in the novel.

But perhaps more importantly the two main female characters, Laurel and Sylvia (the wife of Dix's best friend, Brub, who is also the detective investigating the murders, in a clever touch from the novel) are both stronger characters in the book. This is debatable when it comes to Laurel, who, as Curtis Hanson points out in a featurette on the DVD I have, basically becomes the point-of-view character in the second part of the film. We go from sympathizing with the tormented Dix to fearing for Laurel, as his paranoid anger transfers to her. That's a very powerful switch, but the novel never portrays Laurel as a woman-in-peril. Instead she's ahead of the game, knows Dix is trouble, and teams up with Brub and Sylvia, who also recognizes immediately that Dix is a psycho. Laurel is an ambivalent character in the book -- she clearly has gold-digger tendencies -- but she's been around the block enough to know that Dix can't be trusted. Sylvia is a severely reduced character in the film, although I'll give the film-makers credit for beefing up the role of the housemaid, Effie, and creating an interesting masseuse/confidante for Laurel who may be a lesbian and who recognizes Dix as a disaster in the making.

Like the other two books in the LOA omnibus, this one has a pretty blunt take on sex and sexuality. Dix is a rapist as well as a murderer, whereas the film explicitly says that the murder of Mildred Atkinson is not a sex crime. Dix and Laurel have a torrid sexual affair. This is hinted at in the movie, with some suggestive shots of Gloria Grahame in the shower, naked in bed under the covers, and getting a massage, but the novel makes no bones about it. Dix relishes the physical intimacy and yearns for it when he loses it. As in the film, there's a suggestion that the sexual fling reduces the tensions inside of him, and he stops his predation on women while he's with Laurel. It's also interesting that in the novel Dix is shown to be very fashion conscious. ("He dressed in the suit he liked best; he didn't wear it often. It was distinctive, a British wool, gray with a faint overplaid of lighter gray, a touch of dim red.") He's always very precise about what clothes he's wearing, and he frequently notes what other people are wearing and judges them for it. I'm not sure whether that's just Hughes indulging her own interests, or whether we're supposed to read anything into it.

The main thing about the novel is the way Hughes captures Dix's psychosis, the ebb and flow of his frantic emotions, the tides of his self-confidence, his constant scanning of the people around him to try to read their thoughts and reactions. Dix is constantly pretending, constantly preening about his awareness of what's happening and his ability to control how other people perceive him. (Is *that* part of the fashion consciousness?) When he's feeling good, the world is his oyster and there's a kind of romanticism akin to the movie, but when he's feeling out of control, his paranoia turns the world into a giant closet full of monsters. Hughes' great triumph is her ability to capture the way his mood swings and flows, unhinged from everything but his own deranged caprice. Dix is almost a textbook case of hysteria, and that may be Hughes' secret joke/irony: the murderous misogynist with the classic feminine dis-ease. He's so nervous and twitchy he reminded me of an AE van Vogt character: "He felt Sylvia cringe at Laurel's use of the word dick for detective. He didn't see it; he saw nothing. His mind was knotted too tightly, so tightly the room was a blur. He steadied himself against the table."

Hughes is perhaps a little too obvious at times in pointing out the variety of lonely places in her story, but it's still a potent metaphor for psychological isolation, post-war social alienation, romantic abandonment, and even the kind of dark coastal gully or suburban cul-de-sac where someone might get away with murder. It's a remarkable novel that was turned into a remarkable movie that's about something completely different.

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