Sunday, September 10, 2006

the novel that shocked the nation

Our entertainment media has gotten too tame lately. People seem offended too easily, or maybe it's just a few people who scream too loudly when they see something they don't like. There’s all this talk about values, and punishment for those who don’t hold them. Certainly on television things have been racier and edgier than ever before, and once they flirt with too racy or too edgy the FCC descends from somewhere and slaps fines based on rules that aren’t published anywhere. And then the taming happens.

The last great medium where there are no rules: the written word. One of the myriad reasons why I like it so much.

Heard of Peyton Place? Yes, it was a movie, and yes, it was a television show.... but first and foremost it was a novel, and it had everyone talking. It was a wildly successful blockbuster, but since its heyday it seems to have disappeared off the radar. The movie version came along a year after its publication, and was nominated for nine oscars, five of those for performances.

I’ve owned the book for years and tried reading it awhile back and put it down. I just picked it up again and blazed though it.... and you know what? I rather like it. It's kind of like a refreshing breath of air if you're searching for some quality shock value, the only problem is that you have to put yourself in a 1956 state of mind to appreciate it.

Peyton Place is probably floating around at the top of the list that inspired or borne the modern genre novel, but because its roots go back so far it kind of falls into the literary canon, I guess. Don't get me wrong, the quality of the writing is nothing special (I emphasize this.... at times it was downright bad) and would have loads of lit snobs putting the book down after the first page.... but this is not a book you read because of its command of language; you read it because it is a master juggler of multiple storylines, a trait that I think the novel has given up on.

The book is all soap opera, and doesn't disappoint. Written by Grace Metalious, apparent young hotblood of the literary scene in the 1950s, we learn about the denizens of the New England hamlet of Peyton Place and all their dirty laundry. Metalious probably got her ideas from the tradition of radio serial and newfound television soap operas, and she pulls out all the stops. Want nudity? Check. Incest? You got it. Campy threats, murder, historical intrigue, and adolescent anguish? You've come to the right place.

Because the book takes place in the 1940s, it's interesting to witness the mindset of characters and how they manipulated people that would never work (or at least not seem as threatening) today. One teenage girl gets herself pregnant by the son of the most powerful man in town, and thinks that she can leverage her pregnancy to be married and set for life.... so the town patriarch bribes her father to keep her mouth shut. She thinks she can tussle, and comes storming into the patriarch's office all pissed about the bribe. He doesn't bat an eye though, and threatens to have her taken to court: "Do you know how many witnesses it takes to testify against a girl and have her declared a prostitute in this state?" he asks her. "Only six." And he reminds her that he employs quite a bit more than six men.

Some other wacky stuff happens.... a grizzled housekeeper hangs herself in her employer's bedroom, a teenage girl has her arm snapped off by a defective carnival ride, and there are a handful of steamy sex scenes that probably got a few people blushing back in 1956. A girl who had been abused by her stepfather beats him to death with a hot poker from the fire. All in a sleepy New Hampshire town.

Metalious tells her story very calmly, and I think this is what I like most about it. She's not out to keep you interested in the arc of one character; she wants you to watch everybody and judge for yourself. At any one time we're learning about five, six, or seven different stories, and we see how they connect to one another and we know that not all of them do. The town is connective tissue enough. (Are you hearing this, TV studio executives? Why not look back to the model of what it means to be a serial program and find your roots back at the soap opera? I think a modern day Peyton Place on television would set a good example.)

Novels don't traditionally try to pull off the multiple storyline feat.... but I'd be happy for someone to prove me wrong. Dual narratives seem to be a perennial favorite, though. Jennifer Egan's Look at Me walked away with a National Book Award nomination a few years ago, and the entire novel is like a tennis match between two completely separate storylines. Zadie Smith took on more than just two with White Teeth (which in its own right could be described as a post-post-modern British Peyton Place, and this is in every way a compliment), and despite torpedoing the last quarter of the book, it launched for her a very successful writing career. Both of these novels juggle their multiple storylines more or less in real time.... i.e. the action of the story moves forward as we learn about each story. Metalious does the same thing, but her stories seem to have been equalized somehow, and this, in part, makes them more interesting to me. Although I rather liked Look at Me and White Teeth, some of the stories that I had to read through were downright uninteresting in the face of the much poppier material they had earlier. Look at Me is about a supermodel who had her face destroyed in a horrific car accident.... so why do I spend half the novel learning about a teenage girl in the midwest falling in love with a terrorist? By keeping the tension high and the same emphasis (more or less) on the events of what happens in the town of Peyton Place, no matter how different they are, the novel of the same name remains equally interetsting throughout.

And, I have to say it, this is exactly what makes some serial television shows more watchable than others. Are you listening, TV executives?

1 comment:

RC said...

interesting thoughts...i've heard of peyton's place but never seen or read it.

but it sounds excellent and fun.

interesting thoughts on the tv experience, thanks for sharing all these great thoughts.

--RC of