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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 cursied 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.

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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

Hughes In a Lonely Place.jpgSPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

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.

Happy birthday, Don Fitch

Or as we say on LiveJournal, Happy birthday, don_fitch. Hope you're enjoying your new accommodations. Please don't tell me you've been living there for five years already!

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Health News Roundup

A few bits of good news from the past week, mostly having to do with insurance:

1) After receiving three letters from my insurance company saying that coverage of the Optune was being denied after all, I received confirmation from my oncologist that he was still confident they would relent in the end. Then came a fourth letter saying that, yes, they would be covering the Optune after all. The letter does not explain why they changed their tune.

2) After receiving two further forms to submit for SSDI and a third form received by Denys(!), I complained to Allsup, which is the third-party company hired by my long term disability insurance company (the Standard) to help me apply for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance -- a federal program in the US), and they said they'd intervene on my behalf. So this week I received confirmation that I had been approved for SSDI.

3) Yesterday I took the last dose of my eighth round of chemo. Only four rounds to go. I'm two-thirds of the way there and champing at the damn bit.

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Jackson Castle.jpgI read this novel after a discussion on Facebook when I posted a picture of an Aminita muscaria mushroom and Rich Coad quoted the opening of We Have Always Lived in the Castle:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Aminita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom."


This is a very odd, uncategorizable book. A lot of people call it gothic, and it certainly has elements of the gothic: an old, gloomy, isolated house; an atmosphere of the uncanny and the macabre. Others have called it a fairy tale, which also make sense, because it seems to take place in a magical Never Never Land remote from mundane reality. As the books opens, we learn that Merricat (short for Mary Katherine) is living in the old Blackwood mansion with her sweet sister, Constance, and doddering uncle, Julian. We learn that six years earlier, Merricat's parents, brother, and aunt (Julian's wife) were poisoned to death with arsenic. Julian also ate the poison, but while mentally and physically damaged, didn't die. Constance was accused of the murder but acquitted.

The book consists of Merricat's descriptions of their strangely idyllic life and their mutually hostile relationship with the hateful village they live outside of. Merricat is a complete savage, constantly dreaming of the deaths of those she hates, while at the same time living in a sweet adolescent world of the imagination that infuses every aspect of her life with magic. She loves her sister and her cat, Jonas. The novel as a whole is a psychological study of Merricat, and she is one hell of a character: agoraphobic, cunning, childish, loving, hateful, terrified, brash, murderous, and whimsical.

Eventually the isolated world of the three survivors is punctured by a greedy cousin who comes looking for the family fortune, and things start to spiral out of Merricat's tight control. Yet the action of the novel, such as it is, settles in a highly unusual way. The whole thing is highly unusual. I can't think of another book like it, and that's kind of an amazing accomplishment. The setting is gothic and morbid, but Merricat's observations are frequently very funny or absurd, so the only people I could think to compare this to were Charles Addams (The Addams Family) and Edward Gorey. Jackson seems like one of those oddball American writers -- Charles Portis would be another -- who aren't easily categorized and don't fit easily into American literary history.

Joyce Carol Oates has a much more detailed review at The New York Review of Books.

Notes on the Optune

2016-09-28 Optune Sore.jpg
A sore caused by the Optune


I know a lot of my friends are intrigued by the Optune, so, since I just talked to the oncologist about it yesterday, I figured I'd give a little report on how life with the Optune is going and what the future looks like.

Wearing the Optune certainly isn't all fun and games. The new version is much smaller and lighter, and that has made life easier, but I still have to pay attention to the fact that I'm connected to it and need to pick it up if I want to move anywhere. If it's plugged into a wall outlet, I need to make sure I unplug it before I move. If I'm not plugged into a wall outlet, I need to keep an eye on whether the battery is running out of juice. The biggest discomfort is that I have to wear it almost nonstop. The transducer arrays are literally glued to my scalp, so it can feel quite claustrophobic at times. A couple of weeks ago when I peeled the arrays off so I (or rather Denys) could put new ones on, it felt so good I started to cry. They warn you upfront that the most common side effects are headaches or irritation of the scalp. I haven't had any headaches, but the picture above is of a sore caused by the Optune a couple of months ago. It wasn't painful, and they gave me some non-stick gauze to put over it. After that it healed very quickly. Other than that there are occasional irritated spots that Denys makes sure he avoids when he puts the next set of arrays on.

As I think I mentioned earlier, over time I've learned that there are people who have been wearing the Optune for years. I wasn't sure what that meant, so yesterday I asked Dr Mrugala whether I'd be wearing the Optune after I finish chemo in March. What was interesting about his reply was that he basically said it would be up to me. What would I base my decision on?' I asked. Mostly how well I was tolerating it, he said, for example whether it was causing major scalp problems and whether I was able to wear it for an average of 75% of each day, as they prefer.

The reason I was asking him about the Optune was that I want to go to Yap next May. I asked him whether, if I chose to continue with the Optune, it would be okay to take a three week break while I traveled. No problem, he said. My impression from this part of the conversation was that they simply don't have enough data on the effect of the Optune to be able to give much advice. My pattern of usage (which they download into a database every month) and ultimate fate will be another data point in the research. Eventually I'll want to ask if there's any length of break that they *know* is too long, but my guess is they probably don't know. It's too long if the cancer comes back during the break. For all I know at this point, maybe the cancer comes back eventually whether you take a break or not.

My insurance company denied coverage of the Optune in the beginning, but Mrugala and the manufacturer appealed. While the appeal was being processed, the insurance company allowed me to start using the device. Now I've received three letters from them in the last week saying the appeal has been denied, because there's no proof that the Optune improves treatment outcomes and therefore use of it is merely "investigational," which they won't cover. Mrugala is confident that he and the manufacturer can persuade the insurance company to cover the device in the long run. Meanwhile, this bureaucratic battle makes me feel like a guinea pig on the frontlines of science.

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The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis

eustis1.jpgThis is the second novel in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and '50s. I reviewed Vera Caspary's Laura previously.

I had never heard of Helen Eustis before. She apparently wrote only two novels and enough short stories for a collection. Her second novel, The Fool Killer, which was adapted as a film, also sounds fascinating: a boy’s adventures wandering the Midwest with an amnesiac veteran shortly after the Civil War. The Horizontal Man was published in 1946 and won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1947. It's a very eccentric, ambitious murder mystery that starts out with the brutal murder of a professor of English at a small college near the Berkshires. (Eustis got her bachelors degree at Smith.) We then get a tour through the heads of a number of characters, many of whom are mentally or emotionally imbalanced and one of whom turns out to be the killer.

The novel is called a satire of liberal arts colleges, and certainly it comically mocks the types of people found on such a campus. But what most struck me was the psychological derangement of some of the central characters. In his appreciation of the novel, Charles Finch, calls it a novel of hysteria, and indeed it's almost Lovecraftian in the way that characters seem to be always on the verge of going completely mad and losing all touch with reality. Here's a passage that illustrates the tone I'm trying to describe:

And the snow, the delicate fragile snow, lying crystal on crystal like a thousand thousand lovers in a common bed, and the blue blue sky, blue as a steam whistle or a loud blast on a brass trumpet. He was strung and humming stripped like catgut, over bridge and around key. He shook and vibrated in response to the breath of the universe like the tautest violin string.


There are at least three characters who have basically lost their minds, and I actually got a little impatient with their inability to maintain a grip. Therefore, the most fascinating character by far was the splendidly-named Freda Cramm, who is a forceful ramrod of a woman who is beholden to no one, completely self-assured to the point of arrogance, seductive, fleshy, imperious, and really altogether unlike any other fictional character I can think of. In my review of Laura I said I couldn't detect the free love sexuality that Vera Caspary practiced and apparently felt was embodied in the character of Laura, but sex is all over the place in The Horizontal Man. Freda is a woman of voracious sexual appetite, the murdered professor at least likes to brag of his many sexual conquests, whether they were real or not, and two other characters have (off-stage) sex during the course of the novel.

Between the multiple points of view from multiple unreliable narrators and the raging sexual energy running through the story, it feels very modernistic. Eustis started working on a PhD in English Literature before she turned her hand to writing and translation, and while this is definitely a genre work, it feels very literary in its own peculiar way. Eustis perhaps announces her literary intent with an epigraph from Auden that gave the book its title (although I confess that I don't understand this little poem):

Let us honor if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.

Of course, the title refers to the dead professor (reverse-fridging decades before the critical term "fridging" was even coined), and perhaps the poem is meditation on how we value the dead more than the living? Whatever the case, I thought this was a firecracker of a novel, and I recommend it highly. It reminded me of Laura in its multiple contesting points of view, and it reminded me of Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place (next up in the LOA omnibus) in its use of psychotic first person narrators.

A storm, an anniversay, and a funeral

1951-10-28 Mom and Dad Cut the Cake.jpg
Mom and Dad cut the cake in October 1951


So I went to Portland last Friday amidst rumors that the biggest storm since the Columbus Day storm of 1962 was about to hit the Pacific Northwest. I was worried that there might be mudslides on the train tracks, after several days of steady rain, but the train trip ended up being uneventful, and aside from some strong gusts of wind on Saturday and a fair amount of rain all weekend long, the storm ended up being kind of a bust, at least as far inland as Portland.

The reason for the trip was to celebrate my mom and dad's 65th anniversary. On Saturday, my sister-in-law, Terry, made an amazing dinner featuring salmon smothered in crab meat. We dug in, then did a round of toasts to Mom and Dad. Terry got up and put one of Dad's favorite songs on the stereo: Don Williams' "You're My Best Friend," which is a man's testimonial to his love for his wife. I looked over and saw Dad toasting Mom with a grand gesture, and I completely lost it. I can't describe what I was feeling, but I had to leave the table to blow my nose. Terry followed and said she was sorry, and I said, "No, I love the love." That's as close as I can get, I think. I was just overwhelmed by love and a feeling of complete connection with everyone at the table.

The next day was Kate Yule's funeral. Since I was in town anyway, I decided to go. (I had brought appropriate clothes just in case.) I had expected to see a lot of Seattle people there, and in fact I ran into kate_schaefer and Glenn right away, so I sat with them in the pews. I also spotted hal_obrien and akirlu, although I didn't get a chance to talk to them. Needless to say, this was also a very emotional experience for me, since Kate died of the same cancer that I've got. The booklet they handed out before the service included John M. Ford's sonnet "Against Entropy", which I'll just repost in its entirety, since it's such a moving piece of work:

The worm drives helically through the wood
And does not know the dust left in the bore
Once made the table integral and good;
And suddenly the crystal hits the floor.
Electrons find their paths in subtle ways,
A massless eddy in a trail of smoke;
The names of lovers, light of other days
Perhaps you will not miss them. That's the joke.
The universe winds down. That's how it's made.
But memory is everything to lose;
Although some of the colors have to fade,
Do not believe you'll get the chance to choose.
Regret, by definition, comes too late;
Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.


Lots of people got up to tell stories about Kate, attesting to her intelligence, generosity, warmth, wit, and love of lists. Most moving to me were the two nieces who were clearly devastated by the loss of a beloved aunt. However, there was lots of humor too, and one of the men from the Gay and Lesbian Square Dancing group that Kate joined before she met her eventual husband, David Levine, got up and talked about how she hid her true identity at first, "but eventually she came out of the closet as a straight person!" My brother had kindly driven me to the ceremony and waited around until it was done, so I left immediately after it was over.

The next morning Mom and Dad and I had breakfast at the Dockside Saloon and Restaurant, just as we did on my last visit to Portland last month. On that visit, the waitress told us they served crab cake benedicts on the weekend but would be willing to make them for us whenever we wanted. So we settled IN at the same table as before, and the same waitress came up and said, "I remember you guys!" We were of course pleased, and we had crab cake benedicts, which were pretty damn fine. On the train to Seattle later I discovered that my niece was also on board. I knew she was coming to Seattle, and we had made a date to have lunch today, but I didn't know she'd be on the same train. So we sat together for a while talking about her willful, headstrong five-year-old daughter who apparently has already figured out that she needs to behave differently with her teachers than with her parents. Since my diagnosis, the surest way to make myself cry has been to think about how I won't be able to watch her grow up. "Perhaps you will not miss them. That's the joke."

So I'm back in Seattle feeling emotionally drained. Was it Joanna Russ who said that feeling clearly is just as difficult as thinking clearly? Boy, howdy.

2016-10-17 Mom and Dad in the condo.jpg
Mom and Dad in their condo on Sunday

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