Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Henry Baum: North of Sunset

Before I write about Henry Baum's latest novel, North of Sunset, I want to say something about the author himself.

Baum is not a new author. His first novel, Oscar Caliber Gun, was published by Soft Skull Press, a small press which has been publishing for some years and has an intriguing list of both fiction and non-fiction. (It includes, I see, such items as the screenplay of Secretary and a biography of Gene Robinson, 'the world's first openly gay Episcopal bishop.') Oscar Caliber Gun was also published in the UK by Rebel Inc., an imprint of Canongate, under the title The Golden Calf. And Canongate are no mean judges of a book either, having gone with Life of Pi when no one else wanted it. Finally, the book was also published in France, by Hachette. Reviews were positive.

In addition to that, Baum also wrote a successful blog, God's Wife, under the pseudonym Shirley Shave. 'Shirley' was a sex worker; her blog, if I understand the position correctly, was a version of another novel of Baum's, and she attracted a fair number of readers. She also got included in a collection called Best Sex Writing 2005.

And, no doubt, there's more.

The reason why I mention all this is because I want to make the point that Henry Baum knows what he's doing. He's not some total beginner struggling to fight his way through a first book. He's been there and done it, several times before. And so we must make the assumption, I think, that if he chooses to write a novel in a particular way, he has chosen to do it that way because that's the way which best suits his purposes, and not because he doesn't know any better.

That thought should be borne in mind, because the main thing I want to say about North of Sunset is that it's not written the way I would write it. But so, it is not unreasonable to ask, what?

The title gives us a hint of the locale and the plot. It's set in the Hollywood of today, and the principal character is Michael Sennet, a big-time movie star. Michael has money, fame, women, cars, the lot. But he is bored. Meanwhile, Hollywood is being terrorised by a serial killer, who knocks off people with vanity plates on their cars. And his path and Michael's soon cross.

And that's probably all I'm going to say about the plot. From here on, the topic is technique.

Over the years, I have developed certain views about the 'best' way to write a novel. These views are not absolute statements of the abstract, unchanging truth. They are simply conclusions that I have reached, after getting on for fifty years of studying theory and practising the art of writing, about the most likely way of interesting the kind of readers whom I am interested in interesting.

Let's take a couple of these conclusions of mine. One is, write each chapter from the viewpoint of one principal character; and don't have too many different viewpoint characters. Another is, write in scenes; scenes which more or less correspond to what was called a 'scene' in the traditional form of theatre.

For what it is worth, Henry Baum does observe the character-viewpoint 'rule'. Each chapter is headed with the name of the character concerned. But he does not consistently write in what I would call scenes. For instance, we get to the tenth page of the first chapter before we have any real exchange of dialogue.

Prior to that, the author has chosen to tell us stuff: information about Michael Sennet's history, for example: the parts he played in high-school plays; how he got started in commercials. I would not personally do that. In my view, such backstory, if it is needed at all, is best conveyed by bleeding out gradually during the course of the book. And, when it is conveyed to the reader, it should preferably be contained dialogue, which itself is embedded in scenes which are keeping the reader held to the page by virtue of the events of the scene alone.

But, I repeat, if the author decides to do it his way, I am not going to say that he is 'wrong', and that he has in any way 'failed'. It's his book. He can decide how to do it.

And maybe, when you come to think about it, maybe Henry Baum's way has a certain logic to it. Hollywood didn't invent the practice of writing in scenes; if anyone did, it was the Greeks. But it is to Hollywood (and its brother, TV) that we owe the fact the we have all watched tens of thousands of scenes, played out before our eyes. So it is at least arguable that the 'best' way to write a novel about Hollywood today is not to use the tools of that industry, but to approach the matter in a different way.

That would be, I suppose, an irony of sorts. And there are other ironies involved here too, if you read to the end of the book.

Like many a writer, Henry Baum seems to have had difficulty in placing his work with mainstream publishers, even after an initial success, and North of Sunset is a book that he has put out through Lulu.com. He also has a blog, Ash Tree, in which he writes about the difficulties of the writer's life and finding readers.

And what about readers? To whom is this book going to appeal?

Well, it isn't what I would call a crime/thriller book, despite the serial killer. Neither, despite certain sensational elements, is it Jackie Collins material. It is, I suppose, a literary novel; or at any rate it's a novel which will appeal to those who often read literary fiction, and who are prepared to make a bit of an effort. It is a book which which has been put together with a great deal of care and thought, and it will not, I suspect, reveal all its virtues unless it is read with care and thought.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating post as I watch you weighing this back and forth. I suspect that artists in all forms follow the "right formulae" until a few hardy souls begin to break the mold. It generally begins with the backwoods writers and painters, not the Tom Clanceys. They go unnoticed and fall dead in their mush until someone following in their steps is noticed--and crowned "genius" and "groundbreaker."

Anonymous said...

Henry doesn't eat mush.

Cantara said...


I just finished North of Sunset last night, and have a few comments before talking about the book itself.

First, how I got this book makes one of those interesting "six degrees" anecdotes. I'd already read your well-considered and thoughtful posting on NoS and made a mental note to find out more about it and its author, hey, maybe even BUY the damn thing retail, when Henry himself emailed me. Seems he found my name on your blog, looked me up, and determined that it was worthwhile to try to work a tenuous connection: My tiny literary press, Cantarabooks, is publishing a first collection of poetry by the film director, Stephen Gyllenhaal--and Stephen happens to be an old acquaintance of Henry's father, Tom Baum, novelist, screenwriter, and co-creator (with Wes Craven) of a great short-lived network series called Nightmare Cafe.

Anyway, Henry and I have started an email conversation in which I've been able to steer him to resources in his own backyard he never even knew about, like the DIY Convention and the Hollywood Book Fair, and novelist Brad Grochowski's AuthorsBookshop.com in Baltimore. (AuthorsBookshop.com, in particular, looks like an idea whose time has come. It's an online retailer that offers very favorable terms to small presses and self-publishers, and is much more personable to deal with than Amazon. Also, something that Amazon can't offer: Brad hits the local literary festivals, which puts your actual physical book right under the nose of prospective buyers. AuthorsBookshop.com has been in business only a month but I was surprised to see how many Soft Skull titles it's carrying--something I'd love to discuss with Richard, the publisher, along with why on earth SS didn't pick up North of Sunset.)

As well, Henry persuaded his father to contact me personally about a couple of manuscripts that so far he's been unsuccessful in placing in the mainstream. This is the most surprising, maddening thing to me: that there is, at this particular moment, no place more favorable for the literary work of these two accomplished authors than this very, very modest level of DIY/POD publishing where Cantarabooks is trying to make a go. Even full disclosure of our rinky-dink terms hasn't daunted Tom, and it evidently didn't daunt Stephen. (Two-year exclusivity, 40 percent royalty on the retail price from third-party sales paid quarterly, and if you get a better offer from another house within the two-year period we let you go, no hard feelings, no buy-out fee.)

Now to the book. North of Sunset is an engrossing novel--and it is a novel, not a souped-up film treatment with literary pretentions. True, there's no strong main protagonist as might be found in a more conventional (read: filmable) narration, but this is, as you've pointed out, a deliberate choice by the author. Every character he does portray is true, deep and vivid, particularly the women (astonishing for a writer Henry's age)--crucial to a book that uses a diversity of character portraits to build suspense. His style is invisible, yet precise and satisfying to the senses and intellect. There is a plot, probably the most over-used one in screendom, the serial killer with the quirky MO--although, in Henry's hands, this plot is dealt with free of sensationalism. Instead, it reveals the zeitgeist of Los Angeles with the understanding, even compassion, of a native son. It is the least cynical book about Hollywood I've ever read.

There are flaws in the book, some physical, some editorial. The cover illustration is simple and correct, but his back copy could use a little juicing up. There are widow lines that look sloppy and lessen the dramatic wallop of several chapter endings. The formatting of titles is incorrect (movie titles are always italicized, here they're in quotes). There are a handful of clumsy phrases that could easily have been smoothed out by a copy editor. But overall it's a handsome enough book, for which Lulu ought to take a little well-earned credit.

I get the feeling that Henry's attempting to stretch beyond Raymond Chandler, that he's going for Flaubert. I think in North of Sunset he succeeds. And he does it in only 270 pages, and one hell of a last line.

Anonymous said...

Baum is an amazing author! I've actually read his first book some time ago and he totally changed my perspective.

He actually inspired me start a blog and keep my writing going.

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