An Aging Philip Marlowe Returns In ‘Only To Sleep’

Only to SleepHow odd it is to step into another writer’s shoes. To pull on the suit of his most famous character and dance around in it for a little while. You gotta have a reason to do something like that. You’ve gotta be, for lack of a better word, invested.

Lawrence Osborne has done some amazing things with words. He’s made a hard, sharp name for himself doing his own thing — telling morally gray and existentially terrifying tales about men and women loose in the world’s far places, and merciless, personal nonfiction. But with Only To Sleep he has borrowed the style of Raymond Chandler and the body of Philip Marlowe. “A perilous thing,” he says of such literary necromancy in his author’s note. And he’s right.

You read the first five pages of Only To Sleep, the first ten maybe, and, if you’re a Chandler fan (which I am, though not as obsessive as some), you’ll be pissed. Not hugely, but a little. You can see, in the arrangements of commas, the pauses, the clipped and bittersweet rhythm of the ink on the page, someone doing a pretty good Chandler impersonation.

But you can see the impersonation, and that’s the problem. Again, if you’re annoying like me and pedantic like me, and overly (one might say professionally) critical like me, there are these little barbs of tempo that catch at the skin around your eyes or the back of your throat and jerk you out of the pretty world being assembled.

But then the first chapter closes. Old Marlowe (in his 70’s now, retired, living slow and blankly and alone in a house on a beach in Mexico) has gotten his call to adventure in the shape of two insurance men who want him to look into a mysterious death. And Osborne walks off with a paragraph that might be one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a year. “It came from out in the tempest, even from the lights of the fishing boats a mile out at sea,” he writes.

You can be called to a last effort, a final heroic statement, because I doubt you call  yourself to leave comforts and certainties for an open road. But the call is inside your own head. It’s a sad summons from the depths of your own wasted past. You could call it the imperative to go out with full-tilt trumpets and gunshots instead of the quietly desperate sound of a hospital ventilator. Victory instead of defeat. You know that it will be the last time you ride out of the gates fully armed and that makes you more curious than you have ever been.

Never mind a year. That is up there among the most beautiful paragraphs on record. Doubly so because it is the moment where Only To Sleep stops being “a Philip Marlowe novel” (as it says right on the cover) and starts being a Lawrence Osborne novel that just happens to feature Philip Marlowe.

That paragraph is both Chandleresque to its bones (the odd constructions, the ping-ponging of near-stream-of-consciousness, the mythic, sad framing) and pure Osborne. It is the moment where he stops pretending and just lets it rip.

Osborne gets Chandler’s belief in Marlowe as a knight-errant (again, read the author’s note). He gets the dreaminess that defined the best of Marlowe’s moments — solutions to cases that never solved anything; long, drifty middles where no one (and least of all Marlowe) understood anything that was happening save breathing, bourbon and the weather. He melds his own fascination with rich, white dimwits abroad and Chandler’s championing of Everyman doggedness in a perfect cocktail, neat, no ice. And that page 10 paragraph? It isn’t the last example of wild, extravagant, counterpunching beauty: “I had sat at a window like this in 1971 and watched the sugar trucks go by and wondered why my hands looked so old before their time.”

The story is simple in the way that all gumshoe novels ought to be. A rich white guy dies while swimming in Mexico. His insurance policy pays out a couple million to his too-pretty young wife. Two men in dark suits, suspicious of such costly coincidence, ask Marlowe to take a look. He does. End of book.

It’s the kind of book where, when you read it, it turns the world to black and white for a half-hour afterward. It leaves you with the taste of rum and blood in your mouth. It hangs with you like a scar.

Like all great gumshoe novels, there are cavernous depths there that only look shallow from the surface. It is simple only for those who bring nothing with them when they open the cover. Only To Sleep is a story about age and regret and murder. About the American Dream. The Mexican Dream. About never being able to let go of the past, and how little the present cares for your sad nostalgia. There are, I would wager, not more than a hundred sentences in this thing that mean only what they say. And Osborne’s sentences (like Chandler’s sentences) are often brutally short. It’s the kind of book where, when you read it, it turns the world to black and white for a half-hour afterward. It leaves you with the taste of rum and blood in your mouth. It hangs with you like a scar.

Most important, it gives Philip Marlowe a sunset to walk off into. Or limp off into, leaning on his sword cane, thinking slow, deep thoughts as he goes. And like the best Chandler twists, that is one thing that maybe no one saw coming.

 

By JASON SHEEHAN, July 26, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

Editor’s Note:

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

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Goodbye To Harlan Ellison, ‘America’s Weird Uncle’

Ellison in 1977, with his beloved typewriter.
Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This piece uses some strong language; we think Harlan Ellison would have approved.

Harlan Ellison is dead. He was 375 years old. He died fighting alien space bears.

Harlan is dead. He exploded in his living room, in his favorite chair, apoplectic over the absolute garbage fire this world has become. He’s dead, gone missing under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind many suspects. He went down arguing over the law of gravity with a small plane in which he was flying. Harlan took the contrary position. He won.

Harlan Ellison, science fiction writer and legendarily angry man, died Thursday. He exited peacefully (as far as such things go) at home and in his sleep. He was 84 years old.

Any one of those first lies seems to me more likely than the truth of the last one. Hard enough to believe that Ellison is gone — that something out there finally stilled that great and furious spirit and pried those pecking fingers from the keyboard of his Olympia typewriter (without, apparently, the aid of explosives). But a quiet farewell to this life that he loved so largely and this world that he excoriated so beautifully? If someone had asked me, I would’ve bet on the space bears.

Harlan Ellison was, after all, one of the most interesting humans on Earth. He was one of the greatest and most influential science fiction writers alive (until yesterday), and now is one of the best dead ones. He was a complete jerk, mostly unapologetically, and a purely American creation — short, loud, furious, outnumbered but never outmatched — who came up in Cleveland, went to LA and lived like some kind of darkside Forrest Gump; a man who, however improbably, however weirdly, inserted himself into history simply by dint of being out in it, brass knuckles in his pocket, and always looking for trouble.

In his youth, he claims to have been, among other things, “a tuna fisherman off the coast of Galveston, itinerant crop-picker down in New Orleans, hired gun for a wealthy neurotic, nitroglycerine truck driver in North Carolina, short-order cook, cab driver.” He was the kid who ran off and joined the circus. Bought the circus. Burned the whole circus down one night just to see the pretty lights.Stone fact: He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, lectured to college kids, visited with death row inmates, and once mailed a dead gopher to a publisher. He got into it with Frank Sinatra one night in Beverly Hills. Omar Sharif and Peter Falk were there. Ellison was shooting pool, and in walks Sinatra, who laid into Ellison because he didn’t like the kid’s boots.

And look, this is Sinatra in ’65. Sinatra at the height of his power and glory. A Sinatra who could wreck anyone he felt like. But Ellison simply did not care. He went nose-to-nose with Sinatra, shouting, ready to scrap. Gay Talese was there, working on a story, so Ellison became a tiny part of what, among magazine geeks, stands as the single greatest magazine profile of all time: “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.” “Sinatra probably forgot about it at once,” Talese wrote, “but Ellison will remember it all his life.”

And that was absolutely true.

But that moment? It encapsulated Ellison. His luck, his deviltry, his style and violence. He lived like he had nothing to lose, and he wrote the same way. Twenty hours a day sometimes, hunched over a typewriter, just pounding. He published something like 1,800 stories in his life and some of them (not just one of them or two of them, but a lot of them) are among the best, most important things ever put down on paper.

Ellison brought a literary sensibility to sci-fi at a time when the entire establishment was allergic to any notion of art, won awards for it, and held those who’d doubted him early in a state of perpetual contempt. He wrote “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” But everyone knows that, right? He wrote “A Boy and His Dog,” which became the movie of the same name and still stands as one of the darkest, most disturbing, most gorgeously weird examples of post-apocalyptica on the shelves.

His anthology, Dangerous Visions, gave weight and seriousness to the New Wave movement that revitalized sci-fi in the ’70s. That kicked open the door for everyone who came after and the scene we have today. He wrote a flamethrower essay about hating Christmas and the script for “City on the Edge of Forever,” the Star Trekepisode that most nerds who lean in that direction will tell you was the best of the series. He wrote for comics, for videogames, for Hollywood, got fired from Disney on his first day for making jokes about Disney porn.

He was … science fiction’s Hemingway. Its Picasso. Talented and conflicted, both, and with a fire in him that sometimes came out as genius and sometimes as violence and no one ever knew which one they’d get.

“My work is foursquare for chaos,” he once told Stephen King. “I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell.”

And he followed those stories right out the door. Did he get in fights? He did. And bragged about every one of them. Filed lawsuits like they were greeting cards. He assaulted book people with frightening regularity, went to story meetings with a baseball bat back in the day. He groped the author Connie Willis on stage during a Hugo Award ceremony, for which some people never forgave him.

And there’s nothing to say to normalize that. He wasn’t just some curmudgeon or crank to wave off. I once called him “America’s weird uncle,” but that almost seems too gentle because he was more than that. He was an all-American a**hole, born and bred. Science fiction’s Hemingway. Its Picasso. Talented and conflicted, both, and with a fire in him that sometimes came out as genius and sometimes as violence and no one ever knew which one they’d get.

But all of this? None of it really matters today. Because the man is dead and these are the Legends of Ol’ Harlan now. The tales he left behind — on paper and in the heads of those fortunate enough to read him when he was at his acetylene brightest — and the stories that followed in his stories’ wake. To say he was one-of-a-kind would be trite, and he would likely hate that. What he was, was a legend. Singular. Absolutely deserving of all the love and all the anger he earned in his time. With his work, he has purchased immortality at bulk rates. With his life, he stayed on till dawn and cursed the sun for rising. If ever there was a man who lived more than he was due, it was Harlan Ellison.

He’s earned his rest.

And the respect of the space bears.

By Jason Sheehan, June 29, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

Muggles Rejoice: ‘Harry Potter And The Cursed Child’ Is Now On Broadway

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is an original play by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling.
Matthew Murphy/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

by Jeff Lunden, April 23, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

The most expensive play in Broadway history opened Sunday, April 22. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child cost $33.5 million, runs five and a half hours long (in two parts), and has gotten rave reviews. But while it has plenty of special effects, it’s actually designed for audiences to use their imagination.

“You don’t need millions of dollars to stage a CGI-fest,” says actor Jamie Parker. He plays a grown-up Harry Potter in a story that picks up where the last novel left off, with Harry sending his son off to Hogwarts.

Producers aimed to seduce the audience into seeing what the director wanted them to see, so suitcases become seats on the Hogwarts Express, and a young actor becomes an adult with the help of Polyjuice Potion and a big cloak. Many of the tricks are simple stage illusions, or “rough magic,” as director John Tiffany calls them.

Harry’s son, Albus (Sam Clemmett, left), befriends Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle) on the Hogwarts Express
Matthew Murphy/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

“I could just smell the fact that cloaks and suitcases were going to tell our story beautifully,” Tiffany says. “And I loved the idea that we were doing things that kids could also do at home when they do their version of the story.”

Jack Thorne, who wrote the play, is thrilled by this approach.

He says, “My favorite moment in the play has no dialogue in it, sadly. And it’s a staircase dance, and you just see two boys and two staircases, and the staircases are openly being pushed around by members of the company. Everyone can see what’s happening onstage, there’s no pretense about it. And you see the staircases and the boys interact in an emotionally significant way that tells the story of what’s happening to these kids.”

Cursed Child is an original play, not a stage adaptation. (Author J.K. Rowling consistently rejected overtures to adapt her novels.) “She decided that this should be called the eighth ‘story,’ ” Tiffany says, “and that it should be classed as canon and in some ways this would be her last word on Harry Potter as a character.”

Jamie Parker plays Harry Potter, and Poppy Miller plays his wife, Ginny, in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Manuel Harlan/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Tiffany, Thorne and Rowling collaborated on the story, which the producers have gone to great lengths to protect. They won’t release any scenes to the media, and audiences are given buttons that say #KeeptheSecrets. (Actor Jamie Parker had to sign a nondisclosure agreement when he got hired to do a reading.) But the script is available in bookstores and, at this point, pretty much anyone who cares knows what the play is about.

Tiffany says it’s as epic as the books, and insists he never worried it couldn’t be staged. “I absolutely believe and know that theater can do anything. If you harness the audience, and if you ask just enough of them, and if they’re willing to come with you, then they will make believe that anything is happening.”

As for the producers, they believed Harry Potter’s immense popularity would bring in new theater audiences. Producer Sonia Friedman says, “In our first couple of years in London, over 60 percent of our audience [were] first-time theatergoers.”

That sounds a lot like 9-year-old Domenic Simionetti, who attended a recent matinee (his first play) with his mom. He wore a cloak, just like Harry Potter.

“I saw the special effects and I thought they looked really cool,” he said, “because I’ve never seen special effects like that, only in movies.”

Tom Cole edited this story for broadcast. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Everyone can use a bit more wisdom.

Becoming Wise

We can’t guarantee you’ll find any extra wisdom here, but the library certainly seems like a good place to start looking.

British Writer Kazuo Ishiguro Wins Nobel Prize In Literature

Kazuo Ishiguro

by Lynn Neary, October 5, 2017, first appearing on npr: Books Blog

The Swedish Academy chose Kazuo Ishiguro as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, October 5. Ishiguro’s most well-known work is likely The Remains of the Day, a 1989 novel.

Click here for a transcript of the awards ceremony.