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the pathetic caverns - books by author - Susan Orlean

eclectic reviews and opinions


D: Spike Jonze; S: Charlie Kaufman

Susan Orlean

The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup

The Orchid Thief

It's a good thing I didn't accept an advance of fifty thousand, or even fifty, dollars to write a review of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. I'm sure my putative publisher would long since have taken out a contract on my life, to serve as an example to other writers who fail to deliver. My problem was that while I found the book's appeal undeniable, I was thoroughly tongue-tied when I tried to communicate it. The fact is that Orlean made her profiles of sports and fashion-figures just as interesting to me as those of musicians, despite the fact that fashion and sports are not, to put it mildly, passions of mine, while music is. Descriptions of fish-shop store windows or the cantankerous proprietor of a fan shop were somehow often more interesting still. I dog-eared my copy of "Bullfighter" to mark passages to include in the review I never wrote, like this one:

A plastic Godzilla clutching a real boiled lobster reared up on a slab of swordfish that had a face of black-olive eyes and a mushroom nose and was resting on a field of finnan haddie and jumbo shrimp...Others -- purists probably -- prefer Mr. Lara's nonrepresentational displays, which might feature a rosette of gray sole over a cascade of scallops; or concentric circles of brook trout, red snapper, sea squab, and stone-crab claws; or an elaborate mosaic of lobsters and clams and haddock.

One issue was that the quotes I earmarked weren't very representational; they were more flowery than the bulk of Orlean's clear, lean, journalistic style, which is so transparent that it nearly vanishes when examined closely. It wasn't lyrical description that very nearly convinced me to buy a "Tiffany" record (luckily I came to my senses with wallet intact), or that made the Tanya Harding fan club so unexpectedly compelling, nor was it solely the obviously keen intellect behind insights like:

News reports that say Tonya [Harding] is from Portland have missed the geographical and social point. The world that Clackamas County is part of starts somewhere in the Great Plains, skips over cities like Portland and Seattle, and then jumps to Alaska -- a world where people are plunked down on harsh or austere or overgrown landscapes and might depart from them at any moment, leaving behind only a few houses and some gear.

There is indubitably some very incisive, and some very neat, writing in the book, but its real alchemy is just to make things interesting whether or not they were interesting to start with. I was aware of that, but couldn't (still can't, actually) explain or describe it in any way that seemed useful ... or even interesting.

Another possible concern -- which I only consciously confronted recently -- is that it's conceivable I might have contracted a slight crush on Orlean-the-person, or at least Orlean-the-person-as-glimpsed-through-her-writing. She portrays herself as vivacious and adventurous, and she's clearly intelligent and a very fine writer -- all easy things to find attractive. So there was maybe a question or two about the purity of my journalistic integrity that could potentially be raised, and even if I wasn't aware of that consciously, it may have contributed to my blockage.

As a result of being stymied myself, I'm almost entirely sympathetic to the plight that screenwriter Charlie (Being John Malkovich) Kaufman faced when he undertook to adapt Orlean's The Orchid Thief for the screen. As with almost any good book, there's far too much in The Orchid Thief to fit neatly in a feature-length film. "Thief" takes as its keynote the arrest of John Laroche for attempting to steal rare orchids from Federally protected land, but its scope wanders far from Laroche, and even far from the esoteric world of orchid collectors. It's tempting for me to imagine Orlean, doing background research on the Seminole Indians (Laroche's former employers) stumbling across the bizarre saga of Osceola's severed head, or some of the more flamboyant of the Florida land scams, and fighting with her editors to keep them in the book, even though they have nothing to do with its ostensible subject.

I can easily see how very hard it would be to translate the book to the screen and keep its appeal intact, not only because there's too much material, but also because so much of its merit is in the way it's written. (It's worth noting that the language of "Thief" is generally a little showier and more novelistic than that of the profiles that comprise "Bullfighter." I particularly liked the description of Laroche as having the "shape and bulk of a coat hanger"; the book made me laugh aloud repeatedly.) But mostly, as Kaufman bemoans in the film, The Orchid Thief doesn't follow anything remotely like a standard narrative template: there's no story arc, no big finish -- in fact, the book ends in a way that is decidedly, solidly, anticlimactic. I was reminded a bit of Stephen Shalit's splendid McSweeney's piece about the conflict between journalistic integrity and the editorial pressure for writers to deliver "stories," as opposed to "pieces." Finally, I don't think it's unfair to suggest that Kaufman himself might have conceived an interest in Orlean that went beyond the strictly professional.

At some point after Kaufman realized how essentially unfilmable the book is, he arrived at an approach which allows him to have most of his cake and eat it too: instead of delivering a script adapting of the book, he delivered a script about the impossibility of adapting the book. (Supposedly this came as a shock to the studio; well, that makes a nice story, anyway.) Vignettes of some of the book's most dramatic and visual-friendly scenes are interposed with scenes of Kaufman (brilliantly played by Nicholas Cage) fretting about both his writer's block and the general pathos of his existence. Kaufman invents a brother, Donald (also Cage) for himself, a sort of alter ego who represents at some level the temptation to wallow in the lowest common denominator of Hollywood storytelling; he's working on a script about a serial killer, a victim, and a detective who are actually a single individual with multiple personality disorder. In the end -- I think this is only a slight and forgivable spoiler -- Charlie Kaufman turns to his imaginary brother to bail him out of his predicament, with results that are both quite surprising and throughly predictable.

Kaufman never really deals directly with the question of whether he's become infatuated with this attractive, intelligent woman who's not too afraid to wade waist-deep in swamp-muck to get her story, but he nearly swoons over her prose, he's terrified of meeting her, and he's obsessed with questions about her possible romantic entanglements; I think the implication is clear enough.

Despite the wide praise it's drawn, I think it's a mixed bag, ultimately perhaps more interesting than artistically successful, although in my estimation well-worth seeing. The scenes of Kaufman wrestling with writer's block and his life in general are often very funny, and will probably resonate strongly with any writer who's ever faced that demon -- which is probably virtually every writer in the world, but not the majority of most audiences. They'll probably resonate a bit less strongly with the much larger population that's been lovelorn at some point or other. The brief glimpses of the book itself are intriguing enough that they'll surely add to Orlean's sales tally. But, if at a certain point the film's writing becomes deliberately bad, that doesn't necessarily excuse its badness. The conclusion of the film is sludgy, with heavy-handed dialog and pacing that mirrors its muddy setting -- mired in cliché, you might even say.

The movie has also gotten a lot of notice for its edgy approach to narrative, which I'm much less impressed with. This sort of post-modern self-referentiality isn't any news in the literary world, or, really, even in mainstream media -- "Six Characters in Search of an Author" made it into "The Twilight Zone" (sort of). And if my friends and I are any indication, an awful lot of high school and college students have turned in essays that had almost nothing whatsoever to do with the assigned topic. Some of them even got passing grades -- and this one might have gotten an "A" if its turbid finish didn't drag it down to a "B."

Note: latecomers to The Orchid Thief are rewarded in the new paperback edition by two new short pieces, one in which Orlean interviews herself about Adaptation, and an author's afterword in which she addresses some of the concerns that have been raised about the book. Both are chatty, witty and fun.

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