Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ask the Dust, by John Fante

I was on a plane when I came across Robert Towne's film of Ask the Dust, with Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. I remembered the movie getting bad reviews and was surprised to find that the portion I managed to see -- roughly the middle half -- was actually good. Or at least it exercised a certain fascination. This fascination was mainly born of the fact that something about the relationship between the two main characters -- Arturo Bandini, a struggling Italian writer in Los Angeles, and Camilla Lopez, a local Mexican waitress -- simply didn't make sense. Since most movies make entirely too much sense, this cloud of irrationality that hung over the two of them was weirdly alluring.

Here's what I mean. Arturo is obviously attracted to Camilla, and she essentially offers herself to him on several occasions, but what could have been glorious or at least reasonably satisfying sexual encounters dissolve into fury and abuse and violence, for no reason that I could make out.

Several months later, I picked up the novel -- it is widely acknowledged as a California classic -- and it quickly became clear that there is an explanation for this strangeness. The novel, unlike the movie, is not mainly about writerly ambition or racial self-loathing: it is about Catholic sexual guilt.

The strange thing is that Bandini is a nonbeliever -- a fairly virulent one, at times -- but he simply can't escape the habits of his upbringing. He is constantly thinking about mortal sins in which he does not actually believe. He is desperate for sex but so estranged from his desire that he can only experience arousal when alone. He goes to a prostitute and then runs away in terror, after throwing all of his money at her just so she'll leave him alone.

Bandini is finally only capable of being with a woman when he is pretending that she is Camilla. And this other woman -- his only sexual partner in the book -- is grotesquely scarred around the loins, so can barely bring himself to look at her.

Eventually, despite being unable to touch Camilla except in rage, Bandini declares that he is in love with her, and as far as I can tell he is sincere. He sends Camilla some conventional, mostly plagiarized woman-on-a-pedestal poetry. She is understandably amused and then annoyed by Bandini’s courtship, which alternates between declarations of love and racist insults.

Camilla, in any case, is already in love with someone else at the restaurant, a bartender named Sammy who has no particular respect for her and is occasionally abusive (he gets more and more hateful towards her as the book goes on). There is a telling passage when Arturo finally gets why Camilla wants to be with Sammy:
I understood it. She did not hate Arturo Bandini, not really. She hated the fact that he did not meet her standard. She wanted to love him, but she couldn't. She wanted him like Sammy: quiet, taciturn, grim, a good shot with a rifle, a good bartender who accepted her as a waitress and nothing else. I got out of the car, grinning, because I knew that would hurt her.
"Accepted her as a waitress" -- that's one of the key lines in this book. Arturo cannot honestly be with any woman, because he refuses to accept people as they wish to be accepted. The prostitute, for example, has no interest in talking, but Bandini (before he flees) insists on conversation to assuage his guilt over his own desire. All Camilla wants is a night or two of companionship, but this prospect is intolerable to him, and he ends up hating her for even making the offer.

This warped view of people is, I think, a problem for the book. Since Arturo narrates, there is not a single character besides him that feels real. And the author doesn’t give us enough in the dialogue to see through the cracks in Arturo’s perspective. The crucial relationship in the book is Sammy and Camilla: why does she keep going back to him? Why is her attachment to him so deep? But Camilla is given no chance to explain herself and Sammy is barely present, so we never understand the crisis that drives the last third of the novel.

What we have left, then, is Bandini and his obsessions. The sexual stuff is frankly not that interesting to me. In this particular way I think the world has gotten saner for most people. Bandini’s other focus –- his desperation to make it as a writer –- is a more durable and entertaining set of neuroses. The alternation between messianic arrogance and deep self-loathing that dominates the first part of the book is pretty hilarious. Bandini distributes copies of his single published story all around the motel where he lives, even putting them on chairs so people will have to pick them up to sit down. No one touches them. “It was disheartening,” he writes. “A big woman in one of the deep chairs had even seated herself upon a copy, not bothering to remove it.” And Fante makes (for me) more interesting use of Bandini’s religious preoccupations in relation to his writing:

My plight drove me to the typewriter. I sat before it, overwhelmed with grief for Arturo Bandini. Sometimes an idea floated harmless through the room. It was like a small white bird. It meant no ill-will. It only wanted to help me, dear little bird. But I would strike at it, hammer it out across the keyboard, and it would die on my hands.

What could be the matter with me? When I was a boy I had prayed to St. Teresa for a new fountain pen. My prayer was answered. Anyway, I did get a new fountain pen. Now I prayed to St. Teresa again. Please, sweet and lovely saint, gimme an idea.
The prose throughout the novel is filled with the same nervy energy, which seems easier to write than it actually is. There are several great passages and a lot to admire, but by the end I felt like something had gone badly wrong with the book. Around the middle of Ask the Dust there’s an earthquake, one character disappears from the narrative, and from this point on everything starts to feel increasingly arbitrary. Events happen faster and more chaotically, and there's an apocalyptic conclusion that has a certain power but finally feels artificial to me.

What is it about Los Angeles that seems to demand such endings? The L.A. novels I've read usually contain a small group of isolated characters, all from somewhere else, all without family. There isn’t a society behind them that represents any kind of continuity, so when the slim connections between these characters break, the entire world of the novel falls apart, and the author needs increasingly heightened and histrionic consequences –- deaths, madness, natural disasters -– to give these broken ties a sense of significance (or he needs to be indifferent to the actual idea of significance). It often makes for a great deal of vitality without anything approaching tragedy. I liked this book but it pretty much disappeared from my consciousness the second I finished it. It's definitely worth the day or two it takes to read, though.

1 comment:

Elyse said...

Very intersting point concerning Catholic sex guilt.
I just finnished this book yesterday and really adored it. I noticed you mentioned this: "Eventually, despite being unable to touch Camilla except in rage..."
I think thats a bit of an odd statement. Arturo and Camilla could both be intensely cruel to each other, sometimes playfully and sometimes not, and there was an incident on the beach in which he pushed her face into the sand. But I think it was predominantly Sammy who touched her in rage. There were also several instances in which Arturo held Camilla, sometimes after Sammy had hit her too. Arturo is just a bit of a strange character, one that I would probably compare to Holdon Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye. Holdon Caulfield also once was visited by a prostitute and became terrefied and fled. I think it's a great picture of the raw uncertainty that people face in real life. You're right too, there was definately something very wrong with Arturo and Camilla's relationship, its difficult to say what though. Maybe it was insanity.