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London Falling, Hollywood Calling

Illustration by John E. MinerWhat with the terrorist bombings in London, and the growing specter of a multiculturalism experiment beginning to fall apart, Rupert Thomson’s dystopian novel about Great Britain, Divided Kingdom, ought to be perfectly timed. (The cover, a cubistic photo-collage, shows a shattered Big Ben.) Then there’s the fact that in novels such as Air & Fire, The Insult and Soft!, Thomson has proven himself one of the supplest and most imaginative of British novelists under 50. But his new book, a kind of whimsical 1984, never convinces the reader of its plausibility or instills a single note of fear into his heart. Still, there’s no doubt that Thomson can tell a story. Furthermore, Kingdom’s premise is arresting: Due to increasing civil unrest, the result of rampant racism, violence, consumerism and the like, Britain has been divided into four heavily fortified quarters, with little or no contact between each one. Families have been broken up, children taken away in the middle of the night, and every citizen classified according to the ancient theory of the humors. Cholerics are shipped off to the Yellow Quarter, Phlegmatics to the Blue, Sanguine types to the Red and Melancholics to the Green. Britain becomes, in effect, four different countries, each populated (in theory) by a very particular kind of citizen. The Red Quarter, for instance, is where generally peaceable, happy people go; naturally, it’s dull as hell, and the only crime is to be discontent. The Yellow Quarter, brimming with Cholerics who are violent, hot-blooded and mad for technology (it sounds a bit like New York), is ablaze with energy and eroticism but also violence and terrorism. The Blue Quarter, on the other hand, where the Phlegmatics go, is full of canals and fogs and waterways and dreaminess and comes across like a particularly druggy version of Amsterdam. This fantastic landscape is traversed by the novel’s hero, Thomas Parry, who was separated from his family at the age of 12 and placed in the Red Quarter. He’s a Sanguine, in short, a healthy, happy human being — or is he? — who will eventually rise high in the civil service and get to travel around the divided kingdom (a rare privilege) on behalf of the government. He is haunted by the loss of his parents (he has never seen them again), who were judged insufficiently sanguine, and was brought up instead by government-picked foster parents. When the time comes, Parry rebels against his rulers and, during a short visit to the Yellow Quarter, deliberately goes AWOL and traverses all four quarters incognito in a quest to rediscover his lost childhood. Thomson’s most striking talents as a writer are his extraordinarily vivid descriptions and his often hallucinatory imagination. (The flights of fancy in his brilliant earlier novel, The Insult, can make those of David Lynch look pedestrian in comparison.) Divided Kingdom, a futuristic re-envisioning of Britain, would seem to be perfect material then. Sadly, it doesn’t quite work that way. For one thing, Thomson fails to reach the innovative heights of his best earlier work. Furthermore, the entire premise remains frustratingly vague. One wants to know more about why Britain, even a fantasy Britain, would be divided up like this, and how it is all actually made to work. We need more details — the political-cum-totalitarian nuts and bolts, in other words. The central idea, that it is as foolish to separate people according to their predominant character types as it would be to bar any kind of interaction among people of different races and creeds, is well taken but obvious. Rather more interesting and clever is the way Thomson revivifies our concept of genuine foreignness, otherness, strangeness. By his radical, puzzling and ultimately arbitrary reclas-sification of Britain, he has restored to us the notion, common as recently as 100 years ago, that people living in a town 20 miles away might be as strange to us as the Bedouin in the Sahara would have been to a 19th-century English shopkeeper. Divided Kingdom may fall short as a novel, or as political commentary, but there are times when it reads like a compellingly strange travel book about a world we cannot quite recognize. Perhaps that’s acceptable as a consolation prize for this richly talented writer. Historical and sociological interest it has aplenty, but is Daniel Fuchs’ The Golden West quite the contribution to the literature of Southern California and Hollywood its critical champions claim? The author’s biography, certainly, is com-pelling, mainly because it goes against the grain of what we expect of impoverished East Coast novelists who wash up in Hollywood. Born in 1907, Fuchs wrote three “quite brilliant novels” (John Updike) while still in his twenties about Jewish life in Brooklyn — Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936) and Low Company (1937) — that won him critical acclaim and paved the way for the likes of Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow but failed appreciably to raise his standard of living. He was still working as a substitute high school teacher for $6 a day when, in the midst of the Depression, MGM came calling with a 13-week contract. Who could resist? Not this particular school teacher. The anti–Barton Fink, Fuchs found he liked “the immense, brilliantly clean sunshine” of Southern California, was impressed by the “large-scale, generous” corporate art of the studio system, and naturally, he liked the paychecks too. What’s more, he seemed immune to the usual New York snobbery about Los Angeles, the movies themselves and writing for hire. Before long he was adapting Eric Ambler’s Background to Danger — a superb espionage novel that’s still in print today — with one of his literary idols, William Faulkner. In “Strictly Movies,” an essay written in 1989 and included in this volume, he recalled how, in his inimitably laconic way, the great Southern novelist put his finger on a problem that plagues thousands of thrillers to this day: “The story, set in Istanbul, was intricately plotted, and the picture . . . was giving us a great deal of trouble and worry. We were packed in Jerry Wald’s office one day, talking fast, each of us pitching ideas, trying to figure out what to do and how to grab hold of the problem. ‘Ah know what’s the matter with the story,’ Faulkner said. We all held up as if a gunshot had gone off, and waited. ‘Too much runnin’ around,’ Faulkner said.”The Golden West, a posthumous (Fuchs died in 1993) selection of the author’s essays and memoirs about the movie business, together with a handful of plus-size short stories and a novella, stakes his claim to be counted among the great literary chroniclers of the Hollywood dream factory. (As a screenwriter, Fuchs earned his reputation on such films as the noir heist movie Criss Cross, remade by Steven Soderbergh as The Underneath in 1995; Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets, which starred Richard Widmark; and Love Me or Leave Me, a Doris Day–Jimmy Cagney vehicle for which he won an Oscar.) The tone, atypically for a chronicler of Hollywood in prose, is resolutely un-apocalyptic. The typical Fuchs characters are neurotic screenwriters, actors, producers or studio factotums, beset by worries and ulcers, but reasonable, polite — not the kind of pill-popping sociopaths familiar from the fiction of Bruce Wagner, or the grotesques of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, or the Highsmithian paranoids and ruthless operatives of Michael Tolkin’s The Player. It’s all quite genteel, in fact, like New Yorker short stories (several were actually published in the magazine)transported to the West Coast.But how much do these stories have to tell us now? “Everyone here is scared silly all the time,” a wife tells her producer-husband in one short story. “The stars, the writers, the producers, even the big bosses — they’re all afraid they’ll wake up in the morning and find they’ve lost their magic touch with the public.” It’s a commonplace enough observation — almost a cliché. Oddly for a trained screenwriter, Fuchs tells much more than he shows, and the level of narrative propulsion in his stories tends to be meager. He is attentive to landscape (“The California sunshine continued to pour down. The streets, the stucco mansions, the lawns and shrubbery sparkled with light”), and he is particularly good at capturing the physical stresses of the star in the withering spotlight (“the flabbiness of thighs, the changes coming on one after the other, the face transforming itself into somebody else’s, the catch at the heart when you suddenly realize how old you are”). Focused on his characters’ individual parts, he is peculiarly unable to transform them into memorable wholes. As a snapshot of Hollywood in the 1950s, when television began to undermine the hold the movies had on the American imagination, Fuchs’ stories will continue to be of considerable documentary interest. But there is a brittle quality to the writing, and a hollowness in the often interchangeable characters, that prevents The Golden West from qualifying as the exciting literary excavation it has been touted as. DIVIDED KINGDOM | By Rupert Thomson | Alfred A. Knopf | 343 pages | $26 hardcover THE GOLDEN WEST: HOLLYWOOD STORIES | By Daniel Fuchs | A Black Sparrow Book/David R. Godine | 256 pages | $25 hardcover