The hipster scene…
😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
It’s 1958, and Greenwich Village in New York is the centre of the hipster scene, populated by aspiring poets and writers – some, dilettante rich boys, others more serious in pursuit of their dreams. Here we meet the three characters who take turns to narrate their own stories. Eden is a young woman just arrived from Indiana, determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing. Rich boy Cliff’s father has cut off his allowance, determined to force his son to earn his pleasures. But Cliff thinks he can write and is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big, a break he feels his father could easily give him. Miles is black – a Negro, in the terminology of the time. About to graduate from Columbia, he’s working part-time as a messenger-boy for one of the publishing houses. Miles also aspires to write, but unlike Cliff he has real talent and the industriousness to work quietly towards his goal. When their lives intersect, casually at first but gradually more intricately, a chain of events is started that will change the course of their lives.
Rindell has the gift of creating truthful characters with individual voices, and of putting them into settings that feel totally authentic. The book is ambitious, looking at several different aspects of how life in this outwardly bohemian corner of society reeked of the same kinds of prejudice that were prevalent in the wider world. Her scene-setting is superb – she brings the Village to life in all its seedy vibrancy, a place where dreams arise out of drugs and booze and usually sink under them in the end, but where just occasionally a true talent can emerge. She is brilliant at capturing the speech patterns and slang of the time, never falling into the trap of over-using them.
In my review of her previous book, The Other Typist, I remarked that the book was seriously over-long for its content. I felt this may have been because she was trying to give a fullness and depth to her setting, but said that, in my opinion, she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler. I fear I have to make the same criticism of this one, but with less generosity – here it feels self-indulgent, as if she has fallen in love with her characters and her depiction of the Village, and wants to spend more time with them than is necessary. As a result, after a great start, the first half of the book tends to drag with very little forward momentum and no clear narrative drive. For too long, I had no glimmer of where we were heading.
Looking back on it now, I see that New York in the ’50s made for a unique scene. If you lived in Manhattan during that time you experienced the uniqueness in the colors and flavors of the city that were more defined and more distinct from one another than they were in other cities or other times. If you ask me, I think it was the war that had made things this way. All the energy of the war effort was now poured into the manufacture of neon signs, shiny chrome bumpers, bright plastic things, and that meant all of a sudden there was a violent shade of Formica to match every desire. All of it was for sale and people had lots of dough to spend and to top it off the atom bomb was constantly hovering in the back of all our minds, its bright white flash and the shadow of its mushroom cloud casting a kind of imaginary yet urgent light over everything that surrounded us.
However, from about the halfway point, the various strands begin to come together and the story she tells is more than worth waiting for. This is a hero-less book – each of the characters is flawed, each selfish in pursuit of his or her aims, each weak at points. But they are created so carefully that it’s easy to see why they are as they are and hard not to empathise with each of them, though perhaps not equally. While the voices of all three characters are excellent, Cliff’s is truly outstanding. He narrates his sections in a conversational tone, picking up the rather jazzy language and inflections of youth culture of the time and sustaining it wonderfully throughout. He is perhaps the most complex of the three, selfish and narcissistic, often seeming unaware of his flaws, then just occasionally using a kind of self-deprecating humour that leaves the reader wondering if he understands himself better than he pretends. Rindell handles this with great skill, so that there’s an ambiguity on occasion as to whether he believes his own self-justifications, and it’s unclear whether he knows how much he is revealing to the reader between the lines.
While Cliff’s problems are mostly brought on by his own weakness of character, blaming everything on the father he thinks doesn’t do enough for him, both Eden and Miles have to contend with issues forced on them by the society they live in. Eden has to overcome both sexism and anti-semitism in the workplace, while Miles has the double complication of being both black and gay, at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime. Rindell manages the delicate task of handling all of these liberal concerns without the book ever feeling preachy – she keeps all of the characters living in their own time and doesn’t project modern sensibilities onto them. She leaves that up to the reader and it works much better as a result. And all of these issues feed into a fascinating and credible plot, rather than being the sole focus of the book.
While I struggled a bit with the first half of the book, I raced through the second half. Rindell is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and skilled new writers I’ve come across in recent years, coming up with original stories and great characters, and writing them with an easy assurance many a more experienced author must watch with envy. The Other Typist was a crossover between crime and literary fiction, but this one falls much more clearly into the latter category, which I feel suits her style better and is where her future should lie. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing how she develops.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.