Wednesday, October 22, 2008

LITERATURE: Ayn Rand and John Dunning

This is the first of comments that I will make from time to time on art. It deals with an example of current fiction that is slightly different from the usual naturalism with which we are today inundated.

The following is a quote from John Dunning's The Bookman's Wake (p.421-422). The speakers are the hero, Cliff Janeway, and Eleanor, a bookscout, he is helping. (A bookscout is one who searches for certain kinds of books.)

-------------BEGIN QUOTE--------------
I had worked my way around the edge of the front room and had reached the door to the back when I heard Eleanor say, "Good grief, look at this." She had dropped to her hands and knees, out of sight from where I stood. I asked what she had and she said, "You'll have to come look, you'll never believe it."

I found her near the door, holding a near-perfect copy of The Fountainhead.

"It's a whole bag of stuff," she said. "All Ayn Rand, all in this condition."

There were two Fountainhead firsts, both binding states, red and green, in these lovely crisp red jackets. There was an Atlas Shrugged, signed Ayn in old ink and inscribed with endearment as if to an old friend. Finally there was the freshest copy of We the Living that I ever hoped to see in this lifetime. A Rand specialist had once told me that there were probably only a few hundred jacketed copies of We the Living in existence.

Six, seven grand retail, I thought. Sitting by the door in an open bag, in an unattended store.

"It doesn't make much sense does it?" Eleanor said.

I shook my head.

"If the door blew open, they'd get screwed by the rain in a minute," she said. "Jesus, Otto must've really lost it."

"Look, you know this guy---do you think he's so far gone that he wouldn't know what he could get for these?"

"I doubt that. Otto might not know about the new guys---the Graftons, Paretskys, Burkes---but he'd sure as hell know about Ayn Rand."

We stood there for a minute and touched them.

--------------END QUOTE-------------

Sylvia Bokor Comments:
FYI on Mr. Dunning's hero, Cliff Janeway: He is an ex-cop turned book dealer, specializing in rare and scarce books, with particular emphases on items interesting to collectors. He is involved with bookscouts, with other book dealers and with good and bad guys of many types.

John Dunning tells an interesting story---primarily if not exclusively through creating interesting characters. In regard to the two novels named above, the stories themselves are not unusual, although the style is arresting. It grips the reader. The stories deal basically with good v. evil. There is little to no moral ambivalence, and the moral premises indicated are not offensively (or consciously) altruist/collectivist.

Upon reading his first novel, it seemed clear that Mr. Dunning, like virtually all fiction writers today, was a naturalist. The most overt evidence of this being name-dropping of those actually living or having lived.

In Mr. Dunning's case, I was initially disappointed to discover that this practice was used to near-suffocation. Every writer that most avid readers had read or heard of was mentioned---except the romantics. However, given his hero's profession I accepted this as part of the hero's interests.

Nonetheless, I was curious whether Mr. Dunning's work contained evidence of the usual relation between the naturalist and the political liberal, which is usually in the same relationship as Siamese twins. I was therefore surprised when I came to the above quoted reference to Miss Rand's works in his second novel.

The surprise evaporated when it occurred to me that Mr. Dunning in the guise of Janeway may not be interested in content at all, or in book design, book publishing or even book manufacturing. The center of his interest apparently seems to be merely the current condition of a book that some people are interested in collecting.

I say 'apparently' because it may be that a publicized center is a diversion to conceal an actual center---as in many individuals unwilling (or presently unable) to disclose their true self. In any case, it's necessary to read all of an author's works in order to make determinations of this kind. And I haven't yet.

So, in the meantime, I will give Mr. Dunning much credit for telling an interesting story. It's hard to do and he does it nicely. Unfortunately, like all naturalists, Mr. Dunning does not dramatize ideas---save those implicit in his style, story line and characterizations.

Dramatizing an idea is extremely difficult. To do it at all is praiseworthy. To do it well deserves high marks. To do it with the panache and revolutionary literary techniques of an Ayn Rand is an achievement of the first magnitude, beyond comparison.

While I would recommend Mr. Dunning's first two novels to those who love books, I must do so with the warning that he is not a romantic in the usual sense. He appears to be a "closet romantic" who, at present, is concealing himself with a number of the techniques of the current day naturalist. Too bad. Maybe his later work is different. I don't know yet. I shall check it out soon.

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At October 22, 2008 at 9:05 AM , Blogger Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for drawing attention to this author and his series of books. I have ordered the first in the series, Booked to Die, from my local "public" library. If I like the book, I will buy it. (The only fiction I have in my own personal collection are works I expect to read again and again.)

Reading fiction is very personal. An author need not be highly skilled or philosophically astute. My test is only this: Would I want to be alive in the value-charged world he creates?

Again, thank you.

At November 20, 2008 at 6:34 PM , Blogger Burgess Laughlin said...

I have now started Booked to Die, the novel in which Dunning introduces the protagonist, Cliff Janeway.

The story is interesting. A major drawback, as you indicated, Sylvia, is its naturalism, especially in dialogue. Yes, police officers and others may really talk that way--the crudity and the profanity--but it only detracts from the story.

I wish that I could buy my favorite popular fiction novels in electronic form so that I could edit them to remove the naturalistic touches. Then I would reread them as streamlined stories.

A classic example is the typical Erle Stanley Gardner story of Perry Mason. (The TV programs are vastly superior to the novels.) I would delete all the descriptions of meals and so forth, but would retain, with hardly a word dropped, the vibrant trial scenes.


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