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.