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Thursday, 23 July 2009

Personal Velocity

VelocityCover Not that I needed to seek out books to review but I actually asked for this one. I felt sorry for it. You see the author, Rebecca Miller, has just had a film made of her novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and the book is just out and I thought that all the attention would be on these and no one would pay any attention to the fact that Canongate are also putting out her collection of short stories, Personal Velocity; I thought it might get trampled underfoot.

What I didn’t know at the time was that it had already been filmed. Well 3/7th of it. So I felt compelled to locate a copy of the film which I'll also pass comment on later.

The Author

Normally I'd tag this bit on at the end. But before you see what I have to say about the book I think it will help to know a bit about the author. So we'll get this over with first.

Miller Rebecca Miller was born in 1962, the year Marilyn Monroe, her father's second wife, died. Her mother was the photographer Inge Morath, who became the third Mrs Miller after meeting Arthur on the set of The Misfits, Monroe's last film, which he'd written the script for. She's married to the actor Daniel Day-Lewis, son of the British poet laureate.

In time Rebecca tried her hand at acting herself. You may have seen her in Regarding Henry with Harrison Ford and Consenting Adults alongside Kevin Spacey. But she insists she was only using acting to learn about directing.

Before acting, Miller tried painting. Which begs the question, was she avoiding becoming a writer? "It's possible," she admits, "But I wrote a lot when I was younger. It seems odd, given I've always written, that I didn't try to get published until I was married and had started a family."

The Book

Personal Velocity is actually her third book, being preceded by A Woman Who (2003) and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005).

I liked this collection. A lot. Not everyone will. It was better received than the film adaptation although neither was actually panned. Not by a long chalk.

I would suggest the main criteria that one would need to meet to give this book half a chance are that you:

Like stories

  • about women
  • by a woman
  • that mostly don't have neat endings

Don't mind

  • a bit of sex
  • well quite a lot of sex really but nothing gratuitous or graphic
  • the word "pudgy" being used twice in the same story

I am actually not sure I've even used the word "pudgy" in conversation and I've certainly never referred to women's breasts as "pudgy" and God alone knows what pudgy furniture looks like.

These are portraits of seven American women aged between nine and forty-one. They come from different social backgrounds and have not always made the most out of what life's thrown at them. Most have father issues. All are at critical junctures in their lives. The question is, do they go on, go back or stay tight where they are? Let's have a quick look at them all:

  • Greta Greta (28) is a cookbook editor in a small publishing firm who has issues with fidelity and issues with her father who discovers she is rotten with ambition when she unexpectedly gets the opportunity to edit the second novel of the latest hot property on the block, Thavi Matoli, and finally becomes someone her father can boast about at parties. The book's tile comes from this story and her father's excuse for her delay in finding success: "everyone has their own personal velocity.'

  • Delia (29), once the class slut, is a ballsy, working-class woman from a small town who decides one day after twelve years that's she's had enough of her abusive husband and moves back to her home town of Why with her three kids and into the garage of a girl she went to school with but barely knew. Finding a job as a waitress she finally discovers a way back to a kind of self-respect.
  • Louisa (30), a painter who has a complicated relationship with her mother, has come home to lick her wounds after ten years of unsatisfying affairs. The key event in her life happened when she was an infant when her twin brother, Seth, died at the age of two days. The parallels with Miller's life are apparent. Although her younger brother Daniel didn't die, he was born with Down’s syndrome and was placed in an institution by their father.
  • Julianne (41) is a portrait of the wife of a celebrated poet, who is losing her looks – "withering, like a peach left too long in the fridge" – and realising that her own poems are bad. At only 12 pages, this story is the shortest in the collection and a fine example of tight writing and merciless editing, no doubt.
  • Bryna (41) has cameos in two others stories ('Louisa' and 'Julianne'). She's a farmer's wife who does a bit of cleaning for Julianne. Her husband barely speaks and her crazy mother-in-law has hogged the same chair in the kitchen for the past twenty-seven years, ever since her own husband died and she could get to it. To help her cope with the utter tedium Bryna dips periodically into a fantasy world in which she gives interviews to imagined magazines where she expounds upon the minutia that makes up her life.
  • Nancy (9) is a psychologically troubled kid growing up within New York high society. Nancy likes to see how long she can be in a room without her father noticing her; her record to date being one hour, seventeen minutes and thirty-four seconds. Miller has described herself as a "secretive" child and it's hard not to imagine a bit of her in Nancy.
  • Paula Paula (21) ran away from home following the breakup of her parents' marriage and has stumbled into a relationship she's unsure if she wants. When, but for the hand of Fate (which she has more than a healthy respect for), she is nearly knocked down and sets off on a road trip in her battered old car. Everything changes though when she picks up the laconic Kevin, a young runaway.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Miller had this to say:

These are stories of women who arrive at crossroads in their lives. "They are portraits of a span of a certain portion of each woman's life and you're seeing her at a moment of crisis and you're seeing how she makes a choice and something of her past that makes you understand a little bit more why her choice seems almost inevitable even when it seems like a strange choice. […] What makes us choose? How do we choose? Why do we choose? How much is choice really our choice and how much is it being affected by our parents, our personal histories or even history on a larger scale? That's to me fascinating.

If there was one thing I appreciated about her style of writing is that she gets to the point. The book is full of characters that are all described in less than a couple of lines, often just a few words. The economy of her style, she puts down to necessity:

I had my first son and he was a terrible sleeper. He was about one and a half, we were living in Italy and I had a couple of hours in the morning when I could write. I was so tired my eyelids were always twitching and I think that in a funny sort of way that’s how I found my voice as a writer. That exhaustion sort of helped me cut through any bullshit that I would otherwise have had to navigate my way through. I was just so raw when I wrote and I never lost the ability to find that voice again. – Timesonline

Whatever her reasons I was glad for it. Here are a few examples of her descriptions:

Bruno was a painter. He had straight black hair that hung past his shoulders and the most stunning pelvis, which he always managed to leave bare.

Olive Blackman had an aquiline nose and a bush the size of a hedgehog.

[Sam's] torso was fat and hairy but his limbs were delicate as a girl's. His hair smelled of smoke and musk. His eyes were filled with suffering.

Julianne's poems were overripe, swollen with images of pistils and stamens and pregnant cows.

DeliaAnd here is a longer section, part of the scene where Delia arrives at her school friend's house with her three young children:

      'Where's your fire truck?' asked John.
      'In the firehouse,' said Greg. 'I'll show it to you later if you want.'
      'He's a volunteer,' said Fay. 'His real job is—'
      'I'm a—'
      'A cat!' May called out hoarsely, squatting down on her chubby haunches, her brow furrowed.
      'Her name is Candy,' said Fay, walking toward the kitchen.
      'Hey! Pssst!' May whispered. 'Get over here you fuckin' cat.' Delia shoved her daughter with her shoe. But Fay seemed not to have heard. She was coming back to Delia from the kitchen. 'Greg's father owns the bank in Why. Greg is one of the officers.'
      Big shot, thought Delia, her eyes passing over Greg's skinny legs.
      'Like football?' Greg asked John and Winslow.
      'Yes sir,' said John.
      'No sir,' said Winslow.
      John sat next to Greg on the couch and Winslow clung to his mother's leg. May was pulling the cat toward her, dragging its legs along the ground. Delia peeled Winslow off her and joined Fay in the spotless kitchen. They both sat down.
      'They're adorable children,' said Fay, pouring a glass of iced tea from a glass pitcher. She had shiny pink nails.
      'Thanks,' said Delia. Fay smiled contentedly, drumming her nails on the kitchen table.
      'I felt so bad when my mother told me you were having a difficult time.' Delia looked at the table. 'How's your father?' Fay asked.       'He's all right. The same.'
      'Does he still keep – goats was it?' There was laughter in the back of Fay's throat when she said 'goats.' Like they were supposed to share the joke. Delia looked out of the window. Indignation spread inside her, staining her cheeks red.
      'He's retired,' she said, absurdly. How can you retire if you don't do anything?

There is a tone to all the stories and we're never in doubt that they were produced by the same person. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. Likewise they are all written in the third person. If anything these things unify the book. There isn't a story that doesn't go and if I was asked to cut one I'd be hard pushed to decide which one. If someone held a gun to my head I'd have to pick but no one has a gun to my head so I'm not going to.

As I said at the start this is a book about women written by a woman. That will be enough to put a lot of men off. It shouldn't. If there is one thing in this life that has intrigued me for all of that life it has been women. I don't think I've met a single one that has not captured my imagination in some way. And this wee group is fascinating. You might argue that as a cross-section of women this collection is skewed towards the lost and lonely and I wouldn't argue against that. But we call things as we see them and maybe that's just how Miller sees women. If that's a poor reflection on women in America at the start of the 21st century then so be it.

The Film

I liked this film. It's not Gone With the Wind or anything but it worked for me. It only deals with three of the seven stories and by the time I got round to seeing it I'd already finished two of the stories. I thought it would be interesting to see how the last story compared having seeing its film first.

The film presents the stories of Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), Greta (Parker Posey) and Paula (Fairuza Balk).in that order. I can see why it was excluded but if I'd had a choice I would still have liked to have seen Bryna's tale filmed.

It's not a perfect film but I prefer to think of its flaws as quirks. I didn't mind the voice-over, for example, but considering women are the focus of the film, why have a man (John Ventimiglia) do it? Her answer:

Partly it's because when I experimented with female voice-overs, they tended to embed themselves in the rest of the story. I wanted you to be listening to a separate voice whilst you're involved in the emotional story of these three women. The fact that it's male embraces the men in the audience. It reaffirms the fact that it's about female protagonists and the men in their lives. – BBC Home

There are sections of each story where the action is represented as a sequence of stills. I imagine this saved a few bucks and maybe it does speed up the action a bit but I could have lived without it. It's clearly a low budget film (shot on MiniDV) and this definitely colours the film in more than one way. (You can read an interview with the cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, here.) The soundtrack could have excited me more. The same tune keeps cropping up, no doubt to provide an element of commonality between the tales of these three very different women. Some reviewers complained about the unsteady camerawork. I can't say I noticed it. In that regard it's certainly no Blair Witch Project.

What I did like was how faithful each segment was to the original material. The dialogue is only barely expanded on and the voice-over simply reads chunks of the book, so the film has a very literary feel which I also liked. There were subtleties in the writing that the film missed but then there were things that having visuals added. I actually preferred reading Paula's story after having seen the film as opposed to the other segments where I'd read the story first.

Hoursposter Unlike The Hours – an obvious comparison – there is no real link between most of these women other than the fact they live in New York State. It's the movie equivalent of a triptych though and it's impossible not to try and make connections between these three who seem to have little in common apart from their gender.

Greta is a selfish cow who thought she could be something else but all it takes is a sniff of success and she reverts to type. In her favour all I could say is that she now feels guilty about it but it's not enough to stop her. Delia is a hard woman and although she doesn’t always bite she certainly snaps at every hand that tries to help her. She also reverts to type once she escapes her marriage. Paula just gets scared. Her running away is a simple fight or flight reaction triggered by almost getting run over.

Of the three I preferred Paula's story although not every reviewer agrees; 'Greta' gets the most votes. I didn't care much for either of the other two characters but there was a sweetness and vulnerability to Paula that got to me. The fact that one waif would be drawn to protect another waif was pretty obvious but it's fascinating to watch the awkward relationship between the two develop. It's also is the most rounded of the three films despite leaving you with a lot of questions especially about what happened to Kevin and what's going to happen to him. But then it's not really Kevin's story.

One important point to stress is that there is no moralising here. The narrator doesn't pass judgement or even pass comment on the decisions these women make. The same goes for the rest of the women, those unlucky enough not to make it to video.

Personal Velocity won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film and the Cinematography Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

Book or film?

Personal_velocity_poster Would I say ditch the book and watch the film? As far as movie adaptations goes I'd be hard pushed to think of one better despite its flaws. But, and I noticed this most in the final segment, the book did answer one or two nagging questions that the narration couldn't catch. I'd have to say, given a choice, read the book and hope the film comes on TV some time soon.


Art Durkee said...

It's my photographer's bias, of course, but I found the interview with the cinematographer very (ahem) illuminating. How they distinguished between the three short films by lighting, color temperatures, and look, I think is very interesting. It's rare for a triptych of short films such as this to be so thoughtful about the photographic aspects—another contrast with "The Hours," in which I'd most likely pick "Personal Velocity" as the more visually interesting film, even just based on the trailer.

To me what ties cinema choice to the book is that, as you point out, the whole project is about choices. Where our old choices took us, how they got us here, and where our present choices might take us. I've spent a lot of time thinking about choice in life, and I no longer believe that past choices bind us unless we choose to let them do so; we can always start over again, afresh, with a new choice. We can always choose to do it differently, starting now. Which is why Paula's story intrigues me, in particular, although all the stories seem to be about choices.

It's nice to be able to look at how writing and film can and do work well as parallel versions of the same story. That's something I think about a lot, in terms of my own writing, which tends to be cinematic or so some have called it, and my forays into film, which have been called poetic. Maybe there's a place where all of this meets.

Rachel Fenton said...

I think NOW is a very interesting time to be a writer, whether it's the economic freefall that is behind this I don't know, but it seems writing is expected to work its butt off; it's not enough for a piece of short fiction, say, to be just that, it has to be poetic too, or something else and something else. Works of fiction are having to defy the moulds, to clamber up to the top of the pile and shout, hey, I'm worth your money. And that's not a bad thing. It's what pushes writers to create their very best. And that filters through into film, too.

Jim Murdoch said...

You're right, Art, and I think a great deal of thought went into this piece across the board. I've seen this kind of thing done before – the film Bagdad Café jumps to mind but probably a better example would be the colour tones in the three CSI television series – but the nice thing was that it didn't feel intrusive or artificial, more like mood lighting.

You are also right – and Miller says as much – all the stories are about choices but then I thing pretty much all literature deals with that issue because life is all about choices, small ones and large. Paula's story wears its heart on its sleeve in this regard. There is a scene in the film where Paula wants the boy to get out of the car but it's not clear why she's suddenly decided on that. The book makes it abundantly clear. Like a child – and there is a childlike quality to her – she's arbitrarily decided that he will stay or go depending on the colour of the next car to pass her at the T-junction. She abdicates choice to pure chance. And the fact is that so many of our choices are influenced by chance; we choose from the options that are available to us. And that is where the other two women show their true colours because when their options broaden they no longer choose to be the women they have been for the past x number of years.

And, Rachel, I don't think that is anything new. Radical writers have always grabbed the imagination of the public. Good authors don't always strangely enough. I actually wouldn't say that Miller is particularly radical or innovative. It's getting harder to make those claims these days because so many have gone before, been radical innovators and then become a part of the establishment. You can make comparisons all over the place, holding her up against this writer or that and not doing her any favours in the process, but what I like about her are the personal touches that set her work apart, not grand flourishes, but just the right accessories to set off her pieces. That's class.

Glad to see you've discovered McGuire's blog by the way. He can be a bit rough and ready at times (and he would admit as much himself) but there are real gems to be found in his writing. I'm always pleased to see something new by him in my feedreader.

Mariana Soffer said...

I actually liked the picture a lot, I got kind of hipnotized by it, I watched it arround 5 times, and enjoyed every story each time I saw it. I think my favourite storie is the favourite one, well she is also a marvelous actress, hard to beat hear acting in that part. And rebeca is great, she does it all, writes, films solve all the problems that appear. She is married to one of my faviourite actors also daniel day lewis, what a movie, I could not belive it when I discovered, it excelent, and has so much passion, I haven t seen such involvment in an art project, movie in this case, in a long time

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to admit I could quite happily watch the film again, Mariana, especially Paula's story because I watched that section before I read the story and I think I really ought to have gone back to the film again afterwards. All three actresses were excellent I have to say. Maybe one day she'll get round to filming the rest. With a bit of creative scriptwriting she could since there's a bit of overlap.

Rachel Fenton said...

This post is very interesting to me as I am currently writing a triptych, and I'm gobbling up information about multiple narratives by the gob full - one thing that has me stumped though is how to fit it all into one synopsis...ideas? On a postacard...

Rachel Fenton said...

Jim, I'm slowly broadening my blog exploration, and your blog is a great place to start!

Dave King said...

I struggled a bit at first to see why you were feeling sorry for an author whose book had been made into a film, but then I caught up with you and realised that it was the book you were feeling sorry for, not the author. You make the book sound good enough to stand up for itself, whatever the circumstances, but of course we know that things do not always work out that way. I doubt the book could be better than you make it sound, so I have to think you have done it proud. I often think after reading one of your reviews that I'll probably buy the thing. This time I'm sure I will.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, yes, I too am delighted that we've run across each other. If you're looking for other quality blogs then do check out my blogroll. There are a couple of blogs there with not very high readerships and I would hate for them to give up the ghost due to lack of interest. As for synopses, you're on your own there. I hate doing them and I don't think I'm especially good at them. Sorry.

And, Dave, the reason I asked to do this review was because it was being released at the same time as The Private Lives of Pippa Lee was coming out and I thought it might get overlooked so I was feeling sorry for the book. Maybe I could have made that clearer. I was completely unaware at the time that it also had been adapted for the screen. I'm glad you liked the review. I put a lot into it. I did think to compare her style to her father's (his prose is also quite concise) but I'm long-winded enough without that.

It was nice reading a book that revolves around women that isn't trying to be chick lit. Undoubtedly women will like this book and I have little doubt that more women will buy it than men and I think that's so sad. I've just finished a book by a young Italian writer where all the protagonists are male and I expect that more men will buy his book than women if only because of the title. How many women can you imagine buying a book called Fists?

Art Durkee said...

"It was nice reading a book that revolves around women that isn't trying to be chick lit."

That is so very true . . . . I wish there was more of this.

It opens the question: I find many books that are TRYING to be something to be unconvincing, because they're working too hard. It feels like getting beat about the head with a bunch of pillows: it may not actually hurt, but it's very annoying. Things that try too hard to convince you of something, or try to be something, usually fall short.

I'm probably going to seek out this book and read it with pleasure, now, whereas before this review I might have overlooked it. Ditto the movie. So, thanks for that, and job well done.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think the problem there might be that the author has in mind a specific readership before they put pen to paper, Art. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. When I wrote my children's story I knew that I was writing for a specific demographic. I didn't really know that the upper and lower age limits of that demographic might be but I knew they would be children. Actually that's not true. My book had a target audience of one, my daughter, and I had no idea how old she was going to be when I might be able to read it to her. As things go my daughter was eighteen. Somehow it just got forgotten about.

I can't imagine writing for an abstract audience, just for women or just for men. I just write. Then again I'm not writing for a living so I'm allowed ideals.

I do hope you appreciate the book as much as I did. I always panic a bit when I enthuse about something because I worry that someone will for out hard cash and be disappointed. But I think I'm on firm ground with this one.

Unknown said...

Hi there. Great review!

Just dropping by as the host of the Aug 2nd edition of the Book Reviews Blog Carnival, to let you know I've added you to the post.

Thanks for submitting your review. :o)

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Darren. Glad you liked the review.

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