Thursday, March 2, 2017

Screen by Barry Malzberg

...when I watch the film I can get so absorbed that it's no longer me the viewer watching the bitch-slut on the screen but instead it's like I'm right inside the screen itself, right up there with her....
Barry N. Malzberg has described himself as a mainstream literary writer who resorted to writing SF for financial reasons, and science fiction wasn't the only category of genre literature he resorted to to make ends meet--the blog Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books lists ten titles he wrote for Olympia Press, the famous publisher of avant garde and erotic literature.  I loved Malzberg's mainstream novel Underlay, and liked his sex novels Horizontal Woman and Everything Happened to Susan, so I was glad to find a copy of 1968's Screen, one of Malzberg's contributions to Olympia's catalog, at Half Price Books.  My copy is a 1970 edition.  Let's see how it compares to the other non-SF books by our pal Barry we've read.

(My fellow Mazlberg fan Joachim Boaz beat me to this one; check out his review here, as well as the link above to Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books, for insight into the genesis of Screen and Malzberg's relationship with Olympia Press.)

Our narrator is Martin Miller, who works for the New York City welfare department, and we follow a critical weekend in his life.  As we might expect of a government employee, on Friday, when Miller is supposed to be "in the field," interviewing public benefits recipients, he's instead home, checking the movie schedules.  You see, Miller's mental life revolves around the cinema, and as our story begins he is planning to sit in a theater and watch Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow three times in a row.  (The kids nowadays call this "binging!")

Comfortably ensconced in his seat at the cinema, as the movie rolls Miller fantasizes about being Mastroianni, preparing for a fancy party with his wife Sophia.  He is bored with Sophia, but she importunes him to have sex, and he eventually succumbs, being careful not to rumple his garments during the act!  At the party he abandons Sophia and brushes aside Richard Burton, portrayed as a wretched and pathetic drunk, to take Burton's wife Elizabeth Taylor, portrayed as an America-hating "madonna," on a "date" to a sort of hotel run by a comic relief old couple, where they have sex.

This is all pretty funny; for example:
"Come, come Elizabeth," I say.  "Free yourself of your clothing, as I am, and it will be beautiful.  In the early gathering of sunset this room takes on the rich and dark hues of an immortal Autumn."
She sighs at this--I know her taste for poetry....
Miller also remarks upon the similarity of the odor of Taylor's secretions to the smell of her Cadillac's axle grease!

At the same time Miller's immersive fantasy is amusing in its absurdity, it is sad.  Why is this self-indulgent daydream full of the ennui of a love affair gone stale, of bitter recriminations and exhausting arguments?  Why is there so much talk of decay and so many complaints about how American influence has homogenized the world: "it occurs to me that in the broken loss of the postwar, all landscapes have become America, a generalized country of the heart...."  On Saturday Miller again slips into a vivid fantasy in a movie theater, and it is much the same; in the role of director Roger Vadim, husband of Brigitte Bardot; he again expresses weariness with his sex symbol wife and tries to escape her, only to be cajoled into coupling with her on the beach. Later in the same theater he finds himself again in a turbulent row with Sophia Loren.

Loren, Taylor, Bardot and Day in 1967-68 productions
These immersive movie house daydreams (and similar daydreams Miller has at home, watching 8mm stag films of British model Sabrina (AKA Norma Sykes) and American burlesque star Honey Bee--the latter a pioneer of plastic surgery as one of the first individuals to have silicone breast implants), full of explicit sex and acrimonious arguments, make up much of Screen's page count, but the novel offers considerably more.  Miller is in trouble at work, very likely to be fired, and receives telephone calls and hand delivered letters from his supervisor that urge him to start behaving or quit. And then there is Barbara, a co-worker with whom Miller has casual sex.  Barbara is attracted to Miller, but she is also a movie-hating nag ("Everyone knows the movies are full of lies....Feature, short, they're all the same") who tries to direct him away from his dreams of working in the film industry and into "straightening out" so he can retain his civil service job.

Miller is unable to deal with women in real life, even uninterested in doing so.  Even though he is obsessed with sex, when he sees a young man and young woman in a row in front of him at the theater embracing he likens her arms to chains.  His feelings for Barbara are very wishy washy; we see him vacillate between calling her and not calling her, desiring her and being annoyed by her; he simply uses her to occupy his time, and after having sex with her can't wait to get rid of her.

Posters for films specifically named in the novel.  Malzberg doesn't name the Bardot picture, just provides
us a clue: "it had something to do with Brigitte's romance with some kind of a guitar player"
His inability to deal with women is only a facet of his more general problem, an inability to deal with the entirety of real life, to commit to creating a life for himself in society.  He has no friends, mentions no family.  On Saturday, before seeing the Bardot movie, Miller goes into a store which sells pornographic books, and he realizes he has no idea why he is really there; he is just trying to fill up his time, as with Barbara.  Later, after the Bardot film, he goes to the race track, and again wonders why he is there; he looks at his fellow bettors and thinks "Most of them looked as if they had no other place to go."

The race track scene is probably my favorite in the novel.  At first Miller explains that the track is an attractive place to be because it enforces order on a chaotic universe by expressing everything as a number, by assigning everybody a rank, a position and a place:
There was a magic in the tote board, and I could understand its purpose at last; when you looked at it, you knew where you stood if not where you were going; you knew exactly where you existed in relation to everything else that was going on within the contained sphere of the one race. 
But then comes the admission that the track is a heartbreaker--a visit to the track is an allegory of life: "everyone was an adolescent when he came in and an old, old man when he came out."  The house always wins in the end, one enters the track with youthful hopes and leaves disappointed, broken.  Miller witnesses a horse which has broken its leg being euthanized, and the crowd's callous reaction to this tragedy.  (This scene is marred by the fact that Malzberg seems to think a shotgun and a rifle are the same thing and uses the terms interchangeably.)

The race track scene makes explicit what is already implicit in all the book's characters, that our lives are out of our control and we are doomed to dissatisfaction and disappointment.  The bookseller complains that business is down, Barbara also hates working for the welfare agency and dreams of being a school teacher, their supervisor can't handle his job, etc.

In the climax of the novel Barbara has the first orgasm of her life while having sex with Miller--while on top of her Miller is thinking of all the actresses and models whom he has thought of over the years while masturbating!  Barbara acts like he and she will be embarking on a long serious relationship, and so Miller has to choose between Barbara and his fantasies.  Of course Miller chooses his fantasies, even telling Barbara, whom he has dragged to see Pillow Talk starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day (Barbara says Day is "awful looking") that the movies are better than real life and that is why she professes to hate them:
"You're just afraid to be in the movies.  You're afraid because you might find out that they're better than the life you're leading and then you'd have to take a good, long look at this life you're leading and you wouldn't be able to stand it."  
Barbara threatens to leave the theater, but Miller doesn't care, he doesn't even know whether or not she has left when he slips into one of his fantasies as Pillow Talk begins.  This trip into the screen has him having sex with Doris Day, who, to him, after his hallucinatory bouts with Italian Sophia, English Elizabeth and French Brigitte, represents America, her uncharacteristic use of profanity and advanced age (as MPorcius is in 2017, Doris Day in 1968 was a staggering 45 years old!) representing the decay Malzberg sees in the post war, post JFK America.  The last line of the novel likens Miller's orgasm as he fucks Day/America to the rifle fire that ended the life of JFK (no, I'm not kidding.)

The people at Kinesis simply must be joking!
Can I recommend to people this crazy novel, with its misogynist narrator who has rejected reality in favor of a shallow appreciation of film, its probably unfair cruelty to well-liked celebrities, and its graphic sex?  I, of course, besides being a Malzberg fan, am a sucker for a novel about a guy living in a New York City apartment who has a crummy government job and can't deal with women, so I found Screen amusing and interesting.   I like Malzberg's sense of humor ("Vidi Vici Veni" is one of the funniest things I have ever read), and Screen includes lots of funny phrases and lines--I laughed out loud when Miller as Vadim related that "her hand comes all the way down to enfold my directorial scrotum," and at Malzberg's sarcastic talk of Honey Bee getting her boobjob "to further the cause of science," presumably a commentary on the artificiality of Americans and the use of science and technology to serve human vanity.

(Maybe I should note here that I don't take Malzberg's doom and gloom here or elsewhere very seriously; I take it in the same spirit I do my favorite Peter Hammill or Robert Smith songs, often finding it amusing for its overwrought nature and the way it projects the writer's own disappointments onto the wider world.  And I don't take Malzberg's criticism of the United States or any of the real people named in the novel seriously, either.)

Perhaps other Malzberg fans will be interested to see, in a different context, all the standard Malzberg furnishings (protagonist who is more or less insane, the NYC welfare department, the JFK assassination, the race track.)  Some people might even find the sex scenes titillating, though, beyond suggesting Miller and/or Malzberg have some kind of breast fetish, they are pretty conventional vanilla stuff.

It's not as good as Underlay, and not as crazy as Horizontal Woman or Everything Happened to Susan, but I liked Screen.  I'd certainly read other of Malzberg's Olympia titles should I stumble across them.

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