Magazine August 27, 2018, Issue

Second String

David Mamet (Wikimedia Commons)
Chicago: A Novel, by David Mamet (Custom House, 332 pp., $26.99)

David Mamet is one of America’s greatest living playwrights. He is also an adult convert to an idiosyncratic but recognizably right-of-center political philosophy. This makes him all but unique in the world of theater, a left-wing monoculture in which “dissent” amounts to believing that Donald Trump should merely be impeached and imprisoned instead of being, say, spitted and roasted. Unfortunately, his political conversion has coincided with a steady decline in the quality of his plays. This was predictable enough, since Mamet is a septuagenarian who has already said what he has to say about the harshness of the world in such classic plays of his youth as American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984). But it also helps to explain the gleeful schadenfreude of his enemies, who despise him for disagreeing with them — even in the Seventies and Eighties, he wasn’t their kind of liberal — and are now emboldened to claim that he was never any good.

For all these reasons, it isn’t entirely surprising that Chicago, Mamet’s latest literary venture, is not a play but a novel — his fourth, as it happens, though its ill-fated predecessors all sank without trace and are so thoroughly forgotten that their titles are nowhere to be found in the flap copy for Chicago. A tale of murder and vengeance set in the Roaring Twenties, Chicago is better than The Village, The Old Religion, and Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources (it could scarcely be otherwise) but still not remotely as fine as any of Mamet’s best plays, though it was greeted rather more warmly by the critics than any of his other recent work. Yet scarcely anyone who has written about Mamet’s novels has bothered to take note of the most interesting thing about them, which is that they exist at all.

Playwriting is a specialty act, one whose best practitioners tend to start young and rarely if ever diversify successfully. Any number of distinguished novelists, including James Joyce, Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, and the famously hapless Henry James, have tried their hand at writing for the stage, but they’ve almost always come to grief in doing so. And while the novel is an infinitely baggier and more forgiving form, established playwrights rarely have any more luck grappling with its peculiarities than vice versa, as Arthur Miller, Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, and Tennessee Williams all proved in their futile attempts to do so. I can think of only two major authors, Anton Chekhov and Thornton Wilder, who have been fully ambidextrous, producing plays and prose fiction of like quality (unless you count Samuel Beckett, whose novels are admired but not read).

Why is this so? The underlying problem is that the two forms demand different things of their practitioners: Novels tell, plays show. A novel consists mainly of description and discussion, not dialogue. It tells you about the world in which it is set, usually in detail. Hence it can be largely plotless and still hold the reader’s attention. Not so a play, in which you see that world on stage. The characters who inhabit it normally have interesting things to say — if they don’t, the audience stops listening — but they define themselves through an indissoluble mixture of spoken dialogue and physical action, and the latter is collaboratively determined not only by the playwright but by the actors and director as well. Moreover, a play always takes place in real time (though it may not be set there). For this reason, its plot must be strong enough to propel the characters through time from curtain to curtain. Few plays are truly plotless: They may be discursive, but even in a play of atmosphere such as Chekhov’s The Seagull, you still want to know what happens next.

As a playwright, David Mamet is known mainly for what his characters say. Not only are his plays and screenplays full of rock-hewn sentences (“The only way to teach these people is to kill them”) that are as blunt as a fist in the kidney, but they’re largely devoid of explanatory stage directions as well. You thus would have expected Chicago to be a tale told in the elliptical, dialogue-intensive manner of, say, Ivy Compton-Burnett or George Higgins. But you would have been dead wrong, which is a big part of what’s wrong with Chicago: It’s a talky book, and most of the talk is flabby and aimless. 

Mamet obviously means for Chicago, in which a crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune seeks to find out who killed his girlfriend and why he did it, to suggest a cross between The Front Page and his own 1987 screenplay for Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. But it really is a novel, not a play manqué, and one of a very specific kind. It took me about 50 pages to realize that the model for the prose style in which Chicago is written was not The Front Page, whose dialogue is unfailingly taut and disciplined, but the long-winded newspaper columnists of the Twenties, in particular Ben Hecht, who collaborated with Charles MacArthur on The Front Page but was initially known as a spinner of garrulous tales of Life and Death in the Big City. If you know Mamet’s nonfiction essays and articles, you’ll recognize the same ornate style, though its source didn’t hit me until I read Chicago. Not only do the characters talk that way, but Mamet-the-narrator does, too, and it gets tiresome fast, by which I mean within the first five pages.

Every once in a while, Chicago breaks free from standard-issue school-of-Hecht cynical sentimentality and pops into tight focus, as in this passage describing the sensation of grief: “Now every last thing stunned him into immobility: if it was better to light a cigarette or not, or have a cup of coffee, or go to the office, or leave the office. He remembered being able to decide these things, but not being unconscious of the choice.” Similarly, the characters occasionally snap out bits and pieces of quintessentially Mametian dialogue that sound like a .45 being fired at a big brass bell: “They say that knowledge is power.” “Power is power. People say differently don’t understand power. Or knowledge. Knowledge is what gets you killed.” But this blowsy passage, in which Mamet-the-narrator explains the mind of the average Chicago newspaperman, is far more enervatingly typical:

Further, all realized that the sympathy they were to arouse in their readers was, finally, an effect independent of whatever the actual facts and merits of an action or an incident might be. And to whom could one repair for their verification? To no one, all realized, save to the press, all of whom knew each other to be not only jaded unto death but distrustful of every human utterance and gesture.

Prose like this might be more easily digestible if anything memorable happened in Chicago, but Mamet has come dangerously close to giving us a plotless novel, one whose events turn out to be nothing more than pretexts to allow either the characters or Mamet-the-narrator to tell us stuff, some of it mildly interesting (how to run a whorehouse) and some less so (what happens to the flowers at a mob funeral after the victim gets planted). None of it, however, tells us anything about the characters, most of whom are talking dolls devoid of distinctive personalities. As for the women, they barely exist: I’m not absolutely positive, but I’m pretty sure that the protagonist’s girlfriend never actually says anything at all.

I didn’t expect Chicago to be comparable in quality to Mamet’s major plays, and I would have been perfectly happy had it been nothing more than a rousing entertainment à la The Untouchables. To return to that consummately entertaining film, in which every character is sharply drawn and is at regular intervals given vivid and pithy things to say  (“You just fulfilled the first rule of law enforcement — make sure when your shift is over, you go home alive”), is to be reminded that David Mamet used to understand the art of dialogue as well as anyone in the world. He could put two people on a stage and set them to talking, and within no more than a half minute, you knew who they were, what they wanted, and why it mattered. He does that in Chicago, too — but he doesn’t make you care.

Terry TeachoutMr. Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his 2011 play about Louis Armstrong, has been produced off Broadway and throughout America.

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