Category Archives: Prose Francine

L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories (Rockstar Games)

One of the features I really like about the Kindle (apart from the free classics) is the way stories, novellas, and novels not published anywhere else find their way onto this device. Example: I came across L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories for the princely sum of 99 cents. How could I not buy this?

Ok, so what do you get for your 99 cents?

That Girl by Megan Abbott

See the Woman by Lawrence Block

Naked Angel by Joe R. Lansdale

Black Dahlia and White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates

School for Murder by Francine Prose

What’s in a Name by Jonathan Santlofer

Hell of an Affair by Duane Swierczynski

Postwar Room by Andrew Vachss

Charles Ardai, the founder of Hard Case Crime, wrote the introduction which explains that Rockstar Games set out to create a classic noir experience,” and that LA Noire puts the player “into the shoes of Cole Phelps” former Marine now a member of LAPD. In addition to creating the game, Rockstar Games also “invite[d] some of the most acclaimed living practitioners of the noir storytelling art … to each write a new short story inspired by the world of LA Noire.” Some of the stories, apparently, are inspired by cases in the game.

I’m a Megan Abbott fan, so I was happy to see her included, and her story, The Girl is a female-centric tale that focuses on the tawdry side of Hollywood. I’ve read all of Abbott’s novels, btw, and The Song is You is my favourite. The Song is You was inspired by the real-life, unsolved disappearance of actress Jean Spangler. It’s a bitterly haunting novel, and I found myself thinking about it as I read The Girl. The Girl is set in a “famous” LA house, and I know which house inspired Abbott here. It’s a “Mayan fortress made of ferroconcrete blocks stacked like teeth.”

The protagonist of the story is an actress called June. She doesn’t have much of a career, but she’s married to a gangster named Guy, and this career move has removed some of the desperation from June’s life. June’s agent tells her that she’ll meet Huston at the party:

“Key Largo. The part’s perfect for you.”

“Claire Trevor’s got it sewn up between her thighs,” June said softly, looking up at the house from the open door of the agent’s middling car. “Ten years, every bed I land in is still warm from her.”

“She’s not married to Guy,” the agent pointed out.

“You see how far that’s got me,” June said.

Ok, this is a Hollywood party of the movers and shakers, the power people of Tinseltown. June has already admitted that she’s slept around to get parts. What else is she willing to do?

The first few years in Hollywood, times were hard and June shared apartments, rooms, even, with a hundred girls, their shared pillowcases flossy with their peroxided hair.

Working counter girl, working  as an extra, working as a department-store model, a girl to look pretty at parties, she got by, barely. She even filled her teeth with white candle wax when they turned brown and died.

She said she would do things, and she wouldn’t suffer for them. She’s seen where suffering could get you, and it wasn’t her bag.

So she hustled and hustled and finally found the ways to get all those small roles at Republic, B-unit jobs at Fox. She never could be sure, though, is she was making headway or running on her last bit of garter-flashing luck.

I am a fan of Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series, so it wasn’t too surprising that another favourite story came from this author. Lansdale’s story, Naked Angel, is about patrolman Adam Coats who finds a dead body frozen inside a huge block of ice.

Downtown at the morgue the night attendant, Bowen, greeted him with a little wave from behind his desk. Bowen was wearing a white smock covered in red splotches that looked like blood but weren’t. There was a messy meatball sandwich on a brown paper wrapper in front of him, half-eaten. He had a pulp-Western magazine in his hands. He laid it on the desk and showed Coats some teeth.

I wasn’t sure which was worse–thinking that the morgue attendant’s smock was covered in blood or realising that he was eating a messy meatball sandwich a few feet away from the stiffs.

Another favourite I’m going to mention is Hell of an Affair by Duane Swierczynski. This is the story of Bill Shelton, an underpaid Los Angeles surveyor who thinks he gets lucky when he picks up a waitress named Bonnie. Wait. I’ll revise that. She picks him up. Bad sign. A few dates and a little tongue hockey later, Bill’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Bonnie out of trouble.

These are classic noir tales: the easy pick-up femme fatale, affairs torched by lust, greed and ambition, and our characters lured by opportunity only to be tricked by fate. Some of these short stories have the feel that they could be fleshed out into novellas, but hey for 99 cents, I’m not bitching.  And if you want the low-down on the other stories, knock yourself out and spring for a copy.

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Filed under Abbott Megan, Block Lawrence, Fiction, Lansdale Joe R, Oates Joyce Carol, Prose Francine, Santlofer Jonathan, Swierczynski Duane, Vachss Andrew

Blue Angel by Francine Prose

“What is this sick Dostoyevskian craving for punishment and expiation?”

There’s a bit of a back story to Blue Angel by Francine Prose. A professor friend of mine recommended the book to me in 2000, and so I bought a copy, read it and loved it. That year I sent copies of the book for Xmas to friends. I was a bit mystified that it subsequently received mixed reviews–especially since I was sure that this was the sort of book they’d enjoy.

Fast forward to 2010. I was in the mood for a character-driven novel–nothing too esoteric. Then I saw Blue Angel sitting on the shelf and decided it was the perfect time to re-read this book.  I have a weakness for stories in academic settings, and I also tend to enjoy the fictional foibles of the rogue male. Blue Angel contains both of those aspects. Add the Marlene Dietrich classic film into the mix, and the result is the story of a middle-aged professor who’s stagnating in a dull job in a third-rate university.

When the book begins, the new academic year has just started at New England’s small Euston College. Euston isn’t a first-rate institution by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have its selling points. One of the selling points is its size, along with the idea that students will not get lost in the anonymous mob. There’s also an unspoken notion that the campus offers safety that is absent in larger, prominent or city universities. These are benefits that students, parents and even faculty can assuage themselves with whenever they have the nagging feeling that Euston is a third-rate dump stuck in the backwater.  Euston even boasts Dean Bentham, imported from Britain to spruce up the university’s flagging image and to provide a veneer of confidence in both the rigour of instruction and in the ethics of  its staff.

This year, however, there’s a new atmosphere on the Euston campus. A neighbouring campus is alight with “grotesqueries”  —accusations of sexual harassment, and Euston’s Dean Bentham calls a meeting to discuss the university’s sexual harassment policy. The policy’s major point, of course, is that “No Euston College faculty member shall have sexual relations with a currently enrolled or former student, nor offer to trade sexual favours for academic achievement.” This is all fairly straightforward, but creative writing professor Swenson ruminates during the staff meeting:

“All right. They can agree to that, so long as it’s not retroactive. In the old days, undergraduate paramours were a perk that went with the job. But already Bentham has moved from these clear prohibitions–as simple and as hard to obey as the ten commandments–into the fuzzy area of the hostile workplace, the atmosphere of intimidation.” 

Swenson is bored and occasionally amused by the new tension and talk of sexual harassment at Euston. He refuses to take it seriously, and this is partially due to the fact that he doesn’t really think the policy applies to him. While he sees “teacher-student attraction as an occupational hazard” he’s never had a sexual relationship with a student–although the same cannot be said of most of his colleagues, some of whom were notorious predators.

Before taking the job at Euston, Swenson wrote two novels, and the job appeared to offer the security and the free time to work on his next novel. But things haven’t worked out that way, and Swenson’s work-in-progress, The Black and the Black is two years over deadline. The novel, which sounds horribly pretentious, “recasts Stendhal’s Julian Sorel as a young sculptor, the son of a martyred Black Panther dad and a Social register mom” Swenson no longer wants to discuss his book with anyone–including his publisher–and instead he hides in his office at home and thinks about writing.

This is a particularly difficult semester for Swenson, and it doesn’t help that his students seem determined to write stories that push the envelope when it comes to descriptions of sex. A creative writing class (for those who’ve ever taken one or taught one) is a very peculiar environment. Students tend to reveal more than they would in other classes, and this is, of course, done mainly through their writing. What is not autobiographical is often assumed to be so by other students in the class. Friendships and alliances are formed between students, and the microcosm of teacher-student politics becomes a veritable minefield of ego, sensitivity, and carefully couched criticism. Student writing, which is sometimes crap, is subject to the tortures of peer review. The professors are in the awkward position of encouraging talentless students to improve their writing while also trying to spare them the honesty of cutting comments from the more outspoken students. Several excellent scenes in the book depict Swenson in the classroom as he tries to juggle constructive criticism with horribly clichéd and poorly written stories. The class peer review system seems to have little to do with the material at hand, and appears to be much more influenced by classroom politics. Here’s Swenson struggling to conduct one class:

“He’d dragged in Chekhov to tell the class that the writer need not paint a picture of an ideal world, but only describe the actual world, without sermons, without judgement. As if his students give a shit about some dead Russian that Swenson ritually exhumes to support his loser opinions. And yet just mentioning Chekov made Swenson feel less alone, as if he were being watched over by a saint who wouldn’t judge him for the criminal fraud of pretending that these kids could be taught what Swenson’s pretending to teach them. Chekhov would see into his heart and know that he sincerely wished he could give his students what they wanted: talent fame, money, a job.”

One of Blue Angel‘s many ironies is that Swenson is employed to teach writing, but he can no longer put an adequate sentence together. Does that make him a fraud? Well yes in a way, but then again he’s a fraud about quite a few things. Swenson’s life comes grinding to a halt when he begins to read sections of a novel written by Angela Argo, a pierced “leather-jacketed toothpick” in his creative writing class.

Blue Angel isn’t perfect, but for those who enjoy novels in academic settings, it’s really an excellent read.  None of the characters are at all likeable, a horrible lot really, and this is an issue that bothers some readers. Not me obviously.  Author Francine Prose shows considerable skill when it comes to skewering academia, English departments and their inhabitants. Here the ego of the professor/writer is under the microscope, and there’s a certain nasty streak, a cruelty at play within this tale that somehow complements its main characters.

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Filed under Prose Francine