15th September 2011 - Benjamin Lovegrove
Whenever I journey 'home-home' to the withering tropicalia of Bournemouth and I'm rescued from its travel interchange by my bonkers father, he is recently, more often than not, playing Steve Martin's bluegrass album, The Crow, on his stereo
Now first I'd like to state that this trade-in is boundlessly superior to Prince's 1989 Batman soundtrack which was his former driving beat (though this does boast the expertly lascivious 'Lemon Crush') but secondly it serves to remind me that these artisans can indeed be multi-gifted and we'd be horse-blinkered to critique them on one medium alone. It may throw us a curveball at first but we're generally cool for Steve to whack out an album of banjo smashes with Dolly Parton on occasional vox. This kind of atypicality we can enjoy!
We get suspicious though when an actor or a musician tries his hand at that most revered of art forms, the novel! It's significant that we are ravenous for their memoirs, surely because they are telling us their story and are not attempting to speak in another's voice - we are comfortable with this but the hallowed novel can still be a stumbling block.
The ubiquitous Mr Martin and another Hollywood A-lister, the younger, prettier and now sadly edgier, James Franco both had successful fiction releases this year, An Object of Beauty and Palo Alto respectively. Interestingly, their differing approaches and the voice they use tell us a lot about the state of actor-as-writer right now. They also pose questions of how far a writer, already established in their own medium can detach themselves from the quintessence of their public perception, or in Franco's case, can serve to rebrand it.
First off, you wouldn't be smacked for believing these efforts could have been ghost-written much like those of the orange Gargantua Katie Price. The rise of the 'celebrity author' (not to be confused with the actor-writer) and the public's acceptance of, or more accurately, their antipathy towards is both a worrying and damaging thing. Happily though, this isn't the case here and both prove to be very capable ink slingers.
An Object of Beauty takes aim at the prestigious yet vulgar New York art scene, its inherent vanity and the secrets held within. Martin paints a cynical yet loving depiction of many of the pitfalls and follies found in this world, with a subject knowledge and attention to detail that is quite profound. With such an intoxicating world constructed we put the comedian Steve Martin out of our minds and instead focus upon his characters, that of the wily and alluring Lacey Yeager and the world of high-art which is so prominent. Also, though light in tone, this is hardly a comedy, the genre that is Martin's usual habitat.
This can be loosely connected to the debut of secret werewolf, David Thewlis whose 2007 debut The Late Hector Kipling focuses on the squalid London art scene, boasting the kind of Amis-ian anti heroes, absurd set pieces and a brand of hyper-realism which is continents apart from the gritty, kitchen sink dramas that made his name. These are fully realised worlds and characters in which we can immerse ourselves in and detach ourselves from the star's personal stigma. Most importantly we forget who's writing - we simply rely upon the construct to inform us.
Contrarily, in Palo Alto James Franco depicts a small Californian town and a cast of high school archetypes not so far away from the starlet's own upbringing. Despite an ever present darkness an admirable lack of sentimentality and also an economy of language similar to the great Kazuo Ishiguro, the author, for that is what he is, sets up camp firmly within his comfort zone. The whole collection of interweaving stories puts me in mind of Smashing Pumpkins' promo clip for their song 1979 - MTV-edgy, blindly freefalling through adolescence and flirting with tragedy but never fully encountering it.
Permit me a little detour here towards Ethan Hawke and David Baddiel. And this isn't a pitch for an ITV2 sitcom set in a slacker camp, trust me. Baddiel's first novel, the carnally charged Time For Bed was a kind of Men Behaving Badly/Portnoy's Complaint mash-up that spoke very frankly of sexual insatiability and the Jewish Condition, hence no surprise departures from the author's public profile. Though he has since evolved into a very astute and respected author, showing in this year's classy tragi-comedy The Death of Eli Gold a deft knack for satire, Time For Bed was his first writing effort and is what sticks with me.
Similarly, to an extent, Ethan Hawke's second novel, 2003's Ash Wednesday is a slice of classic American, a kind of pop conscious grunge road movie of a book - Natural Born Killers or True Romance scorching through the written page. Though fun enough, it kind of reads like Coupland-lite, cloying with its wipe-clean prose and eagerness to please. My problem with these efforts is that we can only see that particular actor playing their protagonist's part. I can't look beyond this.
Franco though, does manage a sweet little trick in adding a new facet to his personality through his stories. Despite this being a fictionalised account of his own upbringing he writes with such a relentlessly authentic tone that he convinces us this was his actual upbringing, opening up a hitherto unforeseen bad-boy intellectual side. In this respect it is closer to the memoir, something we are wholly more agreeable with, and through this he develops his character rather than merely augmenting it. This is sure to appeal to his burgeoning fan base but this could be the quandary here. In writing directly towards an audience has he sacrificed his artistic integrity? As Steve Martin's narrator astutely puts it near the beginning of his book, [he] "started turning objects of beauty into objects of value".
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