[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.