Short Takes: Grace Metalious
I read as much of this as could keep my interest. There’s a recent spark of interest in Metalious again, partly because some (sigh) feminist press recently reissued Peyton Place, partly because Sandra Bullock is apparently going to play her in a biopic.
Peyton Place is not exactly a good book. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing to try and reestablish her reputation, nowadays, but it all sounds kind of fake to me, a lot of protesting too much. There’s a small group of people -- Ed Gorman comes to mind -- who legitimately seem to think this is a great novel. Well, nostalgia is a powerful thing.
It’s not a bad book. It’s rather well written, and has moments of real power: the drunken nightmare in the cellar is a good bit, as is the stepfather coming on to Selena, as is the Principal’s arrival in town. Like a lot of episodic novels (The Young Lions; From Here to Eternity) it’s most powerful in episodes. Metalious wrote with a kind of freshness and frankness that seems perfectly current now, though she surely blew a lot of minds back in her day.
But a novel of episodes is just that, a novel of isolated incidents, and Peyton Place falls on the same rocks that a lot of others do -- James Jones, for instance. There’s just no sense that this trip is ultimately going anywhere, that it has some kind of greater meaning. It clops along, one Revealing Moment after another, until it just sort of kinda stops. This is a fault of not approaching the book as a completed intrinsic work -- one begins to suspect it’s a fault of trying To Report Life In All of it’s Truthfulness. Because let’s be frank, life doesn’t have that kind of neatness we want or need from stories. Life tends to be episodic, moving from bead to bead on a necklace until we just kinda sorta stop. And that’s fine with life, because after all we’re living it. But it sucks for stories.
Stories are not life. Stories are fashioned things, and they provide us with things life cannot.
Peyton Place fails the further it goes, as these kind of things tend to do. For whatever reason, these type of novels tend to shoot their load early, giving us all the effective incidents in the first part. It also gets more shrill as it goes on: these sorts of books That Try To Reproduce Life In All of It’s Truthfulness generally have missionary leanings, and that’s particularly true of Peyton Place, which in the end boils down to that tired “if only we were more frank and open about sex life would be better” bit that apparently sounded so fresh in the Fifties.
But while I can’t recommend it as a piece of fiction, it’s interesting to read if you’re interested in the history of fiction, particular in how American popular fiction has gone in the post WW II period. Metalious’s vision of small town life: a hotbed of repression, a wandering omniscient viewpoint, an episodic style, a reportorial vibe with an implicit point of view -- this has been profoundly influential in American fiction. It’s hard to think of ‘Salem’s Lot, to pick a novel off the top of my head, without Peyton Place. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter for another piece, though.
I also think Metalious’s life is interesting, especially for writers. She embodies a lot of the hopes and nightmares of the American writer: she struggles, suffers setbacks, hits it incredibly big, becomes very rich, blows it all, can’t ever reproduce her original success, and dies regretting it all. There’s something almost parable-like in her life -- hell, this may be one of the few biopics I actually go to.
Worth cautiously dipping into, I’d say.