Sunday, July 26, 2009

Reading group: The Autograph Hound by John Lahr

This meeting was a mauling, and a pretty unfair one at that, since most of us hadn't even really read the book. Published in the early seventies, it is narrated by its 1960s anti-hero Benny Walsh, collector of autographs and busboy at the New York Wild-West-themed Homestead Restaurant, a place frequented by top celebrities and so a source of the choicest autograph pickings. Trevor had suggested it, as he read it when he was in the process of dropping out of university in the seventies, and thought it was absolutely fantastic.

Well, we thought that as a book about an obsession with celebrity it sounded good and, spurred on by Trevor's enthusiasm, we went away looking forward to it. The first obstacle we encountered was that it was out of print, and we all set about ordering it from ABE Books. Mine and John's came back fairly quickly, the original British hardback complete with glossy pink-purple dust cover, but unfortunately I had only just started reading it when I left it in a taxi and we had to order the book all over again. Granted I was coming back from A & E in that taxi, having fallen and sprained my ankle, which may have made me less than competent, but I can't help thinking that the fact that I simply couldn't get into the book may have had something to do with it too. And I know I was also not in the best state for getting into a book, but not many other people in the group could get into it, either, it turned out.

Most of us gave up and failed to read much more than half of it - John giving up very soon after the beginning - and I'm afraid we had a very hazy impression of what we had read. Clare did get to the end but in such a fast, skipping manner that she had missed the dramatic denouement which Trevor revealed to us. We wondered why we had found it so hard to engage with. The critics' comments on the paperback edition I finally got hold of praise the book for its contemporary aphorisms, and we wondered if this was the problem: that Benny's voice, and thus the novel, were so steeped in late-sixties language and mentality that the book was simply dated (much of the lingo, which seems to be authorially relished, now seeming old fashioned or cliched; eg: 'See you later?' 'Not if I see you first.') Anne also said, to general agreement, that the long lists of names of celebrities which mean nothing to us now is de-focussing and distancing.

Trevor groaned in disbelief. But, he said, the book was brilliant! So fantastically written! I said, How could it be well-written if it doesn't draw you in, or give you any sense of what it's all about? What about the character of Gloria, for instance (a young actress Benny meets early on and who eventually tries to get him to sell his autograph collection to save himself from the pickle he ends up in)? It was ages before I got a handle on her, I said, and at the start I pictured a middle-aged woman. I argued that the reason for this was unfocused prose which failed to realize Gloria: I had been left with the impression that Gloria is simply not described early enough. Trevor could hardly believe I was saying this, and argued that one of the great things about the book was its vivid descriptions. After the meeting I set myself the task of starting the novel again and reading it carefully through to the end, and I found that Trevor was right: Gloria is described by narrator Benny the moment we meet her, indeed in list-checking detail, thus: The lady stands out like Mary Martin across a crowded room... She's wearing a long dress down to her ankles, a veil hangs from her hat. So why did I, and others, fail to see her clearly?

The language, along with the atypical clothes, put me off the scent: that word 'lady', and the fact that Benny goes on to refer to her (and characterize her) as 'the well-dressed lady'. But it's not the language in itself. It's not that I simply saw Gloria in the wrong light, but that I had a very strong sense of not really grasping her and, as I say, an impression that she had not been made vivid at all. There are plenty of novels the language of which is now dated but which we can read without trouble, feeling that we are getting a true sense of the world being depicted. It seems to me the problem is deeper and relates to the way we are meant to take Benny. How significant is Benny's use of the word 'lady'? Are we meant to take it as language of the era and not in any way notable, or are we meant to see it as indicative of Benny's singular psychology - his prudishness and sexual repression (he is 35 years old but worries like a child about his own penis - which he calls 'it', he has failed to detach psychologically from his mother, is clearly frightened of any sexual relations with Gloria and refers coyly to horses lifting their tails and doing their 'number twos')? Or is this dichotomy - prudishness and arrested development alongside streetwise lingo and sex dens - meant to be typical of the age (which I think it may have been), and significantly so? There was huge (initial) disagreement in our group about how we are meant to take Benny. Having read the book properly now it's clear to me that Lahr intends Benny as an anti-hero: he reveals himself as viciously racist and worse, if also pathetically lost in a fantasy world. Yet those of us who hadn't read much of the book had come away without any sense that we were meant to see Benny in this light. Hans gave a list of objections to the book which I don't recall specifically but which amounted to the fact that he considered it juvenile, the very thing which characterizes Benny with his stunted personality, his obsession with celebrity, and his totemic belief in the power of autographs of the famous. In other words, Hans had not seen any distinction between the narrator and the author, and neither had I: I had even come away with the impression that we were meant to see Benny as cool. Those who had read properly to the end - Trevor, Jenny and Doug - were quick to put us right, but all three - even Jenny, who was irritated by the style of the novel - said that they felt sorry for Benny, for his emptiness and his pathetic and doomed attempt to fill it with celebrity.

It seems to me that the problem is that by taking too much relish in its anti-hero's mentality and language, the novel fails to distance and satirize them enough - which is interestingly the complaint made by James Wood about Zadie Smith's similarly titled novel (The Autograph Man) on the same subject and theme.

I said that I thought that the book's take on celebrity was dated too: that nowadays people don't hero-worship celebrities so much as identify with them and desire fame for themselves, a phenomenon fed by reality TV. Some people strongly disagreed, citing the huge sales of Heat etc (which, frankly, I didn't see as destroying my argument), and that they definitely feel a bit in awe if they ever meet celebrities. I also said that I didn't really understand this interest in celebrity, which I don't, but I am very interested in the interest in celebrity, and by the time I went home I was in danger of writing my own and yet another novel on the subject...

PS: In a somewhat ironic twist, after I lost our first copy John and I each ordered a copy (so we ended up doubling up) and John's copy turned out to be the original US hardback bearing, of all things, the author's autograph.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Alex Keegan said...

Eliz, you have give me the most brilliant idea.

I am going to start a Book Discussion Cub but the rule is nobody can have read any of the books we discuss!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hah, Alex!!