I picked up this recent-ish novel partly as research for my book (it’s set in New York in 1938), and although I’m a cranky and overly judgmental reader of contemporary fiction, I enjoyed it beyond its atmospheric charms. The author is a first-time novelist who’s also the head of an investment firm in Manhattan, and for some reason that information is both galling and informative. The book is obsessed with money, as practical fact and glittering illusion, and with the fine-lined social picture of Manhattan society, from its plutocrats to its impoverished artists. It also makes for some uncomfortable turns of plot, in which the renunciation of wealth for hard physical labor is redemptive (for men, at least), and weak men become strong by joining the army. The narrator is (unsurprisingly) a bookish, observant, working-class girl of Russian immigrant stock, improbably named Katey Kontent, who is by turns, often unpredictably, timid and bold, frumpish and vampish. She’s strongest when she’s describing other people – her glamorous, mercurial roommate Eve, and the wealthy lover they share, who is of course not what he seems. Reviews of the book tend to reference Fitzgerald, because the author himself likes to do so, and the novel is laden with often heavy-handed English-major allusions. At one point the narrator, who has vaulted herself into an assistant’s position at a new Condé Nast glossy magazine, is told to take a contributor’s article and make it less Henry James, more Hemingway. It sounds like something the author’s been told, or has told himself, and for the most part he finds a comfortable enough line between the two – perhaps too comfortable. Too much time spent in the company of Towles’s prose, as in the stylized, stifling apartments of his wealthy characters, makes you yearn for a little mess and a little more adventure.
We went to see “The Artist” last night at the Paris Theatre, the beautiful old single-screen cinema on 58th Street at the southeastern corner of Central Park, opposite the Plaza and the glass-cube Apple store, a corner that smells of horse dung and money. As Joe Queenan put it in this 2008 Times article about its 60th anniversary, ‘The Paris also has an understatedly elegant décor and does not cater to Irony Vixens who think that watching Icelandic films makes them morally superior to truck drivers.’ Indeed. Plus, it has a balcony!
For all these reasons it was the perfect venue to watch the film that’s going to get Oscar nominations, tons of press and a backlash, but for now let’s just enjoy. Since words like “whimsical” and “charming” usually make me run a mile, I’ll try to avoid them – and besides, the film is so inventive and elegant and grown-up it deserves more respect. It’s also proof that it’s possible to make a film that you could take your grandmother or your eight-year-old son to see and be pretty sure that they’d both love it. Here’s the trailer. But see the film: