Thursday, 28 May 2015

Starting Out in the Evening by Brian Morton



published 1998



[A graduate student is meeting a writer she admires, Leonard Schiller]

Heather was wearing the wrong dress. It had seemed like a good idea in the morning – it was a tight little black thing; she’d looked fantastic in the mirror – but now she was thinking that she should have worn something demure. This was a foolish dress to meet your intellectual hero in.

Waiting in the coffee shop for the great man to arrive, Heather was squirming with nervousness, and she began to wonder why she was here – why she had gone to such lengths to meet this man, when she knew he couldn’t possibly be as interesting in person as he was in his books….

[Leonard’s daughter, Ariel, meets Heather and takes against her.]

[Ariel] was still annoyed about the way her father had acted around the miniskirted scholar…

Heather. Even her name was idiotic. Every third jerk on the street was named Heather.

Ariel had disliked her one sight: she’d had a sneaky, guilty look in her eyes during that first moment in the kitchens. She must have been stealing cookies.


 
observations: This book could be hard to warm to. It’s about privileged intellectuals in New York and their emotional problems, like Woody Allen (only much better). It covers other well-worn areas too: older man having a friendship with a younger woman, the relationship between student and mentor, ambitious young grad students and what they’ll do to get on. In addition, Morton breaks a lot of the theoretical rules: he tells you all the time what his characters are thinking and why, he doesn’t seem to have heard of ‘show not tell.’

The first time I read it I was knocked out by it, because it so wasn’t what it promised to be: in a blogpost on his later book, A Window Across the River, I said this:
Brian Morton is unknown outside the USA, and almost unknown there, despite having won several prestigious prizes with his 5 novels. I have read two others: The Dylanist, which is highly enjoyable, and Starting out in the Evening, which is exceptional, an extraordinary novel that takes quite routine material and makes something memorable and special from it.
Reading it again was a great joy, although the knock-out unexpectedness of it wasn’t there, because I knew how good it was. But I could admire how he does different POVs, and makes each quite different character real and whole, and convinced you that that is how each would think. I am often sniffy about men writing as women (and no doubt would be about the opposite, but I don’t have the expertise to complain so much) but I find Morton most impressive in that respect. I loved Ariel’s ‘tossed’ hair, and her calling herself Lettuce Head. The clothes are always good – I liked Ariel’s purple jumpsuit:



 
-- and the young man who wears oversized clothes and ‘looked as if he was in training to be a dirigible.’

There is a 2007 film of this book, starring Frank Langella, and it is very good and very faithful to the book. It was a small-scale indie production, and not especially successful, and there is something very interesting about its imdb page: there is a seven-page discussion in the comments on one single incident in the film, taken directly from the book - the pivotal moment where one character slaps another. That means there are more than 60 contributions to the argument. (Even more astonishingly, for anyone who regularly looks at imdb comment boards: although people disagree and have strong views, there are no insults or rudeness or deliberately stupid remarks, no bad feeling, just a genuine attempt to establish the meaning of the incident.) I found the discussion engrossing and helpful. It did seem like the most important moment in both, and when I first read the book it made me feel that this was truly great writing.

And one thing I noticed this time and loved: Morton and his characters make (quietly) a point that seems really obvious but isn’t mentioned much: books mean different things to a person at different ages, or with different things going on in your life – and this can really affect the way you react to them. And surely even the finest literary critics can get caught out like this?

And, related: Starting out in the Evening is the name of Schiller’s first, unpublished novel – and there is some discussion of the phrase and what it might mean, so the reader can make up his/her own mind about the title.


More on the blog about ambitious grad students looking to make their careers: Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, and Robert Plunket’s My Search for Warren Harding. More Morton here.

15 comments:

  1. I'm glad you enjoyed this, Moira. There really is something about the intellectual life that can be fascinating when it's done well. And the New York setting is a really fine for that sort of story. And any incident that sparks that much discussion is a clue in itself that the book is worth reading and pondering.

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    1. Yes you're right Margot - if it works, it works. And, yes, I loved the discussion it provoked.

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  2. Moira, anything Woody Allenesque would put me off but this sounds really good, and I'd like to take a look at the film.

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    1. Yes it would put me off too, but this does transcend that...

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  3. I don't know if I would like this, although I do remember you recommending it. But you really got my attention when you mentioned Frank Langella in the film.. which I had never heard of. I have loved him in everything I have seen him in... which isn't much.

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    1. He's wonderful isn't he, I totally agree. And it is a very good film...

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    2. Glen and I first saw him as Dracula at the Ahmanson Theater in LA, but that is mostly a fond memory because it was one of the first things we did together. As far as films, the first thing I remember was Dave, and he was great in that. I have put Starting out in the Evening on the Netflix queue, although I cannot decide if I should read the book first.

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    3. I just looked at a list of his work, and was amazed it was so long! Yes I love Dave, I think it's a terrific film. He is really excellent in Starting Out in the Evening.

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  4. Not feeling this one either...glad you enjoyed though.

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  5. I only saw the movie and it didn't make my hit parade. I wasn't interested in the characters or what was happening to them.

    However, I loved another movie which focuses on an aging, lonely professor and what happens when he comes home and finds two young immigrants have moved in. It's "The Visitor" with Richard Jenkins. I loved this movie and so did my friends and neighbors who saw it.

    It has great characters, lively plot with political events. It's also about friendship and romance between middle-aged people, which is interrupted by a major life-changing occurrence. I advise everyone to see it.

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    1. I think you're the only person I've heard from who has seen Starting Out, Kathy, and interesting that you didn't like it! I will certainly make a note of the film you recommend, which I hadn't heard of.

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  6. Over here "The Visitor" was a big deal, especially in New York. It says so much about human connections and how an empty life can be filled with other people. And then real life and the government butt in.

    I hope you see it and like it as much I did as did friends and relatives.

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  7. I eagerly await your comments on "The Visitor."

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