Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Dear Mr Capote

Dear Mr Capote - Gordon Lish

"Of course I contradict myself. I am large."

You need to take a deep breath after reading this novel. It is in the form of a letter from a serial killer/fantasist to Truman Capote, hoping to make a deal for his life story with Capote in the hope of securing a fortune for his son. It consists of an almighty barrage of cliches, flowing in torrents from the all too believable madness of the unnamed letter writer, who refers to himself as "Yours Truly".

Having had some small experience of being approached by aspiring writers it seems to me that this may have started life as an attempt to create a archetypical bad writer, full of utter confidence in their own genius and possessing, as this type does, the ability to completely ignore all evidence to the contrary.

The book is both horrifying and hilarious, as the letter writer discusses the random murders, committed by driving a knife (which he has dubbed "Paki" as it is stamped "Made in Pakistan") through the eye of his victims and the life which led him to it. As well as the disturbing nature of these acts/fantasies there are also an awful life story and graphic disconnected descriptions of his sexual experiences.

I couldn't help reading this as a primer on writing, both moral and stylistic. It echoes Mailer's championing of Jack Abbott, who was released from prison partly because of Mailer's support and the success of his autobiography In the Belly of the Beast, a book which sprung from his letters to Mailer. However, the day before The New York Times ran a glowing review of In the Belly of the Beast, Abbot killed a waiter and ended up being sent down again for manslaughter. After this experience it is unlikely that Mailer wanted to receive any further letters from killers.

The narrator is attracted to Capote because of In Cold Blood (by far the most visited post on this blog). He feels that Capote will know how to optimise the profit from his story. And he has been so much more productive than those two boys were in Kansas, having racked up 23 of his planned 47 murders, one for each year of his life to date. In one of the many starts he made to his letter (he made twelve and quotes from eleven) he opens: "Dear Mr C., You know who this is? Answer: This is the person who can make a certain writer millions!"

He tells us that he has made so many starts: "Here is the reason it's the twelfth start. The reason is to try out voices! I want the right one." Is there any difference between writer and killer? It is in the creation of this voice; confiding, confusing, comical, chilling and cliche ridden that Lish's achievement lies. It is a voice that is sustained throughout the whole book, one minute prudish, one minute disturbingly explicit, one minute declaring everything he says to be gospel, the next admitting he lied. Sorting fact from fantasy is a big part of the reading experience, although much is revealed as the book goes on. We realise that whatever else he is 'Yours Truly' is as grandiose as they come. Indeed the Walt Whitman misquote at the top of this becomes a kind of chorus. The lies and concealments are just further evidence of his "largeness".

Another element of the book is the use of longer words, spoken to his victims before he strikes. These he takes from a "calendar. It has a different word for every day. This is so you get a better vocabulary."  The calendar is an investment in "the boy". "The boy" is the writer's son and it is for his sake that he wishes to make money from the murders. He is worried about what is in store for the boy: "Meanwhile look what is happening to the future. Do I have to tell you what they are saying? The facts are the facts! Meaning, the future which is coming up is going to be the worst future we ever had." He also warns Mr Capote not to try to get smart with him when negotiating on the financial side of their proposed deal, unlike Mr Mailer. "And when I do anything on behalf of the boy, it is a big mistake for someone to get cute with me. Which I do not have to tell you is what a certain Mr You-Know-Who did."

He is also prudish and overprotective of the boy, carrying a walkie talkie through which he communicates with him. The refrain "Red Dog" interrupts the narrative regularly. His prudishness about what the boy watches on TV ("even your PG is going to have parts which are not fit for a certain party. In this day and age, let's not kid ourselves, wherever you turn, something is disgusting.") stands in stark contrast to his own actions and his initial properness about subject matter erodes as the book progresses, as do, regularly, elements of the story he is telling. What is the story with his dead brother Davie? What did he himself do on the radio?

Indeed when he starts to talk about the length of the knife and the distance from the surface of the eye to the brain and asks us to imagine them in "picas" the reader starts to wonder what, if anything, is behind the claims in this letter. Is it all just words? Of course it is a fiction, but I mean within that fiction. This is a book I feel ought to be better known and I will certainly be reading more by Lish, whose reputation is overwhelmingly based on his work as the editor who found Raymond Carver and cut his stories to the bone to create the minimalist style associated with Carver's name. This novel suggests he should be at least as well known as a novelist.

A big thank you to @MrPaulDuane for the recommendation which I came across on his twitter feed.

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