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But What I Really Want to Do Is Write! | The Year of the Auteur Novel

Hanson O’Haver

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote. She also wrote, with her husband, more than twenty screenplays in order to make money. The couple was hardly alone: from the early days of Hollywood, literary figures like Graham Greene, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Brecht took a swing at the pictures. More recent efforts have come from Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, and Martin Amis. There’s even a whole Coen brothers movie about serious writers slumming it in Tinseltown, replete with a William Faulkner stand-in. It’s an understandable trade-off, using commerce to fund art; sometimes Nobel Prize winners need day jobs too. 

The motivations are less apparent when the situation is reversed. Actors like Ethan Hawke, Steve Martin, and Tom Hanks don’t need the money that materializes with the fiction they write. (Publishers might.) They must be looking for something more like prestige. At this point, the novel is probably placed at the pinnacle of cultural production. What other medium could it be? The visual arts feel too conceptual, too arbitrary, too much like a tool for laundering money; poetry is the same, minus the money; symphonies and ballet are for oligarchs and people who remember the 1940s; pop music is for children; Hollywood has long been the dominating force in American life, but the industry’s focus has always been on attracting the largest audience possible, with quality a distant afterthought. So despite having little cultural and even less economic influence, novelists are viewed in rare standing. The writer enters a room and emerges, months or years later, with a fully formed work of art. A lot of people imagine they have one in them, if they really tried — like a marathon for the mind. 

As with actors, there’s a long history of directors writing fiction. You can read works from Whit Stillman, Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, and Charlie Kaufman, not to mention multi-hyphenates like Miranda July, Sam Shepard, and Nora Ephron. But in the past year, the trickle of directors-turned-novelists has turned into a stream, with Michael Mann, John Waters, Werner Herzog, and Quentin Tarantino all releasing debuts. It’s easy to speculate about the precipitating circumstances that may have led these directors to write a novel instead of making another movie: as rotting film studios have taken an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach to churning out streaming fodder, visionary filmmakers are taking their talents elsewhere. Or, men used to being very busy found themselves with nothing to do for a few months in the spring of 2020, and it takes about two years for a novel to come out. Or, they were courted by publishers; a small percentage of titles makes up the bulk of book sales, and a celebrity author may seem like the closest thing to a sure hit. Still, it’s curious that, at a time when public appetite for literature seems as low as ever, four of Hollywood’s most commercially successful auteurs (or most artistically successful box office draws, depending) have decided to give writing novels a shot. The trend is a funny rejoinder to that old punchline, “But what I really want to do is direct.”

 

In New York, it’s not uncommon to walk by a massive production set only to see that the shoot is for something like a yogurt commercial or a TruTV web short. Movies are a huge ordeal — dozens of actors, hundreds of crew members, tens of millions of dollars. Even if literature really is the highest form of art, writing a book is also a cheaper way to tell a story you can’t get greenlit. This could explain why Michael Mann’s Heat 2 was released as a novel. 

Cowritten with glossy thriller veteran Meg Gardiner, Heat 2 is the follow-up to Mann’s classic 1995 film. The original Heat is a cat-and-mouse chase between LAPD Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and a team of thieves, led by Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and featuring Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) and Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore). McCauley is a disciplined pro, a reader of Albert Camus and Marcus Aurelius. He lives by a code: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Hanna is the quintessential dogged cop who’s earned the admiration of the force and three bitter ex-wives. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Hanna and McCauley go to a diner together. The two men have a clear respect for each other. In another life, they could be friends, or partners. In this one, as McCauley puts it, “I do what I do best. I take scores. You do what you do best: try to stop guys like me.” Ultimately, the police are tipped off about the crew’s big score. Their $12 million bank robbery goes bad, turning downtown L.A. into the site of a sprawling shootout. Hanna kills Cheritto at the scene and McCauley as he tries to catch a plane out of town. Shiherlis is also shot but escapes, leaving behind his wife and son.

Heat 2 functions as both a sequel and a prequel to the film. It’s an interesting conceit, the obvious predecessor being another De Niro and Pacino project, The Godfather Part II. The book opens with Shiherlis on the run and Hanna in pursuit, then jumps back to 1988, the setting of foundational events in the lives of McCauley and Hanna, both of which center on Otis Wardell, an Anton Chigurh-style villain who’s less bad guy than evil incarnate. (Chigurh, the bowl-cutted assassin from No Country for Old Men, has the coin flip; Wardell gives his victims a chance to burn themselves with a cigarette.) Of the two time periods, the prequel is better. McCauley the philosophical ex-con is far more compelling than Shiherlis, an unfailingly cool guy who’s given a generic plot about selling military-grade software with his new girlfriend, the London School of Economics-educated daughter of a Taiwanese-Paraguayan dynasty in Ciudad del Este. 

The prose varies between flatly declarative, artfully spare, and schlock. This inconsistency makes sense: Mann has written ten feature films, and Heat 2 feels like a screenplay that’s been retrofitted into a novel. The dialogue is tight, and descriptions read like evocative scene directions. (“Shadows and pink light from the street stripe the grimy walls. Bed, cheap sheets, him in his boxers. His clothes folded on a plastic lawn chair. A darkened T.V. on a card table. Old cigarette butts stubbed out on a chipped saucer; beer cans crushed in a wastebasket. Voices outside.”) Then there are sentences like, “But laying off a stolen cartel shipment, they’d eventually find you and get all Aztec on your ass.” It’s fun to read, but on the entertainment vs. art divide, Heat 2 is firmly on the former side. 

Which is fine for an airport novel, but disappointing for a follow-up to one of the defining films of the 1990s. When Heat was released, big-budget action movies were often dismissed as hypermasculine, profit-driven entertainment. That’s not totally wrong, but the intervening quarter-century, with its comic book franchises and fake-indie streaming originals, has made the genre feel politically subversive; plus, films like Heat are remnants of the last era when movies were made for adults (and were shot on 35mm, so they look good). Pacino and De Niro are the kinds of movie stars who inhabit both their characters and themselves, so the viewer sees Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna, but also every other character they’ve played. This effect, like so many other visual and sonic elements of the film, is lost on the page. The action scenes in Heat 2 are perfectly fine, but they can’t match the punch of, say, the film’s climactic gunfight on the LAX tarmac. There is the classic cliche of books being better than their film adaptations, but a more accurate statement is that great books tend to turn into mediocre movies, while okay books can make great movies: see, again, The Godfather franchise. Barring unimaginable leaps in the de-aging technology seen in The Irishman, the Heat 2 film probably won’t star Pacino or De Niro. But it could be great anyway. 

 

John Waters is a victim of his own success. Five decades of films made him a counterculture institution, and a bibliophilic quote landed him on tote bags at the Strand. It’s not that there aren’t still reactionary forces in American life, people who’d gladly silence his celebrations of sordid freaks. But those people are no longer much involved in the manufacture of culture. In 1973, Variety called Pink Flamingos “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made”; Waters is now a queer punk icon, heralded for pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable. That’s hard to continue doing now that most things are acceptable. Consider Debbie Does Dallas, 2 Live Crew, Marilyn Manson, South Park, internet pornography — the capacity to shock had pretty much died by the time Napster usurped the radio, if not well before. (Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking came out in 1988.) In an interview anticipating the release of his first novel, Liarmouth, this past spring, Waters told The New York Times, “The right used to be my censors. They aren’t anymore. I don’t have any. If I did, it would be young woke liberals.” It’s understandable that Waters, whose early work was banned in places like Switzerland and Australia, is concerned with free speech in a way that those he terms the “trigger-warning crowd,” who grew up a few clicks away from videos showing pretty much anything, are not. The problem isn’t that Liarmouth is politically incorrect, or vulgar, or anything like that. In fact, Liarmouth received positive reviews from the liberals he worries about — Buzzfeed said it “thrills in the most wretched way,” and the Times called it “a good novel.” The issue is that no one is offended anymore, but Waters hasn’t seemed to notice.

Subtitled “A Feel-Bad Romance,” Liarmouth is the story of Marsha Sprinkle, a thief (and liar) who targets the baggage claim carousels in Baltimore’s airport. Marsha works with “the moronic Daryl Hotchkins, her crime partner, her fake ‘chauffeur,’ her sexual slave, who actually agreed to work for her if he could have sex with her just one day a year.” On that particular day, their scheme goes wrong; as the crowd realizes Marsha has been trying to steal their luggage, she goes on the run — from the police as well as the libidinous Daryl. She decides to rob her daughter, Poppy, who operates an underground trampoline park. (A court ruling led Bouncy-Bouncy to officially shut its doors — “Was that unfortunate children’s birthday party that ended with three injuries, two of them serious, really her fault? Hadn’t those young folks refused to follow the posted rules anyone could see?” — but her devoted customers have become jumping disciples.) Poppy and crew chase after the thief, teaming up with Daryl as well as Marsha’s estranged mother, Adora Sprinkle, who runs an unlicensed pet plastic surgery office on the Upper East Side. They all end up in Provincetown, during an anilingus festival with a parade coincidentally hosted by Marsha’s ex-husband, an inveterate rimmer and the town crier. (Like the title character of Purity, Poppy is the product of an anal encounter; the Jonathan Franzen similarities end here.) The plot is only a vehicle for Waters’s jokes, like the one about Adora’s cocker spaniel, Surprize, transitioning into a cat and taking the pronoun “them.” Daryl’s ever-erect penis starts talking — and turns out to be gay. Marsha tells a child that “The Jonas Brothers were all killed in a terrible tour bus accident last night!” Et cetera. It all reads like Cards Against Humanity for the “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” set, or a child trying to top “The Aristocrats.” In his first novel, Waters proves incapable of being anything but the man we know and love. But half a century after showing moviegoers footage of a drag queen eating fresh dog shit and smiling, merely putting to paper lines about dogs giving each other rimjobs feels a little stale. 

 

Another filmmaker incapable of being anything but himself is Werner Herzog. His debut novel, The Twilight World, opens with an admirable note: ​​“Most details are factually correct; some are not. What was important to the author was something other than accuracy, some essence he thought he glimpsed when he encountered the protagonist of this story.” On a trip to Japan in 1997, we read, the director was invited to a private audience with the emperor. Herzog, who in his films embodies a comic exaggeration of the stereotypical German artist, cannot simply go along with it. “My goodness, I have no idea what I would talk about with the Emperor; it would be nothing but banalities.” He declines and immediately realizes his mistake. “It was a faux pas, so awful, so catastrophic that I wish to this day that the earth had swallowed me up. Around the table, everyone present froze. No one breathed. All eyes were fixed on their plates, no one looked at me, a protracted silence made the room shudder. It felt to me as though the whole of Japan had stopped breathing.” Asked whom he’d like to meet instead, his answer is instant: the Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda, who spent 29 years in hiding, refusing to believe that World War II had ended. 

With the exception of Herzog’s short preamble and postscript, most of the novel mirrors the true events of Onoda’s decades as a holdout. In December 1944, when Japanese troops fighting World War II leave Lubang Island in the Philippines, Lieutenant Onoda is ordered to remain and implement guerilla warfare tactics, to make things difficult for a future American landing. With three soldiers under his command, Onoda stays. Planes drop leaflets announcing the end of the war, but the men refuse to believe Japanese defeat was possible. It must be some kind of trick. American military planes flying overhead — first in the Korean War, then Vietnam — are to them evidence that the war has not ended. In 1971, the men find a newspaper and are convinced it’s fake. As Herzog’s Onoda sees it, “Almost half the print surface consists of advertisements. But newspapers have never assigned more than two or three percent of their space for advertising. No one will ever buy all this stuff, that’s completely impossible. They’ve censored the actual news, and replaced it with advertising.” Over the years, one of the men surrenders and two are killed by Filipino authorities (the holdouts had been periodically ambushing locals and police). 

The island is mysterious; the Onoda character hears voices, potentially ghosts. He constantly wonders if he’s dreaming. Life in the jungle becomes “a shapeless time of noctambulism.… The dream has its own time frame, it races forward and back, it sticks, stops dead, holds its breath, jumps ahead like a frightened deer. A night bird shrieks and a year passes.” Little changes as the novel moves from 1945 to 1954 to 1971. Through it all, Onoda wears and repairs the same tattered uniform.

The consummate soldier, Onoda is even able to resist when his brother sets up a loudspeaker on the island and sings a song from their childhood. Maybe it’s not really his brother, or maybe he’s passing along a hidden code. Onoda finally makes contact with the outside world in 1974, when he’s found by Norio Suzuki, a 22-year-old Japanese hippie who is searching for him, the abominable snowman, and a panda, in that order. Suzuki convinces Onoda to set the terms for his surrender: “If one of my superior officers were to come here and give me the order to cease hostilities, then I would surrender. But only then.” He returns a few weeks later, with Onoda’s 88-year-old Major, who tells him the war is over. “Until the very last moment, Onoda is later to confide, he has hoped that the Major will turn to him and tell him that this has all been a bit of theater, they had merely wanted to test his dependability.”

A tragic character living a futile existence, Onoda makes a fitting subject for Herzog. Like the soldier, Herzog comes from a “country that has brought such horrors upon other countries and peoples”; like Onoda, he “worked under difficult conditions in the jungle.” (Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, inspired by the true story of rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald, involved the cast and crew actually moving a 320-ton steamboat over a mountain in the Peruvian jungle.) But Onoda is also similar to many of Herzog’s protagonists, with their lonely fights against nature and the strictures of reality. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is about a conquistador leading a quest for the mythical city of El Dorado. Nosferatu the Vampyre is about Dracula. Were there video footage of Onoda’s time in the jungle, it could have made for a companion piece to Grizzly Man, Herzog’s documentary about Timothy Treadwell, an eccentric environmentalist who filmed himself living among wild brown bears in Alaska. Treadwell’s fate was even more unfortunate than Onoda’s: he never made it back to society, because he was eaten by one of the bears he believed he had won over.

In his documentaries, the genre for which he’s best known, Herzog tends to make heavy use of voice-over narration. He speaks in an unmistakable German accent with dramatic pauses, using language that alternates between dry and sweepingly poetic. In this he’s created a semi-ironic persona; he once appeared as an alien on the cartoon Rick and Morty to make proclamations about the human obsession with penis jokes. Anyone who has heard him speak would not be surprised to learn that once, after losing a bet, he made good on his promise to eat his shoe. Given the literary qualities of his cinematic oeuvre, it’s predictable that Herzog’s book works, especially when paired with a translator like Michael Hofmann (Kafka, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Wim Wenders). The prose achieves an uncanniness — everything is slightly off, in an almost imperceptible way — that complements Onoda’s ordeal: “Days follow nights, but there are no seasons as such, at the most, months with vast amounts of rain and months with slightly less rain.” To call The Twilight World a novel is maybe a stretch; at 132 pages, it’s padded out with huge margins and generous spacing. The deckle edge is doing a lot of heavy lifting for something that takes about as long to read as a New Yorker feature. But that it might technically be a novella or a long story feels like a minor quibble. The important point is that Herzog’s writing is engaging enough to keep the reader from wishing it were a movie instead.

 

The same can be said for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, despite its being a novelization — a form most associated with 1970s Star Wars and Star Trek cash grabs — of a film he released in 2019. Tarantino is, famously, a former video-store clerk with an obsessive knowledge of cinematic history. He doesn’t seem like he’s ever wanted to do anything but make movies. But the director is a master of period detail, and the novelization, sold as a retro mass-market paperback with a movie tie-in cover, is a kitschy nod that successfully differentiates itself from its source material. 

The story is set in Hollywood circa 1969, as the “Eisenhower actor[s]” are replaced by the hippie-influenced “Dennis Hopper Hollywood,” with the Manson family lurking in the background. This is well-trodden territory, and Tarantino deals with it like a postmodernist, mixing facts with fiction and rumors. Movies like Hellfire, Texas (fake) and Hornets’ Nest (real) get mentioned in the same breath. Rick Dalton tears up when talking about Ride a Wild Bronc, a fictitious Western by the real writer Marvin H. Albert. In Hollywood the movie’s climax, the Manson family’s attack on Sharon Tate is stopped by washed-up star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The novel assumes familiarity both with what really happened and with what happened in the film, and the heroic scene is written off in a few paragraphs in the book’s first third. (“The LAPD theorized the hippie intruders were frying on acid and were out to perform a Satanic ritual. What isn’t a matter of theory is, those fucking hippies sure picked the wrong house.”) In the film, it’s rumored that Cliff Booth “killed his wife and got away with it”; the book version makes the killing explicit. The novel is also dedicated to Tarantino’s wife, child, and a list of real Hollywood “Old Timers” that includes Robert Blake, who was acquitted for murdering his wife.

Tarantino is a divisive figure, and this book won’t change anyone’s mind. A few years ago, Fiona Apple told The New Yorker that she quit cocaine after “one excruciating night” of doing blow and watching movies with Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. I can empathize, but for a lot of people, that sounds like a dream. It is for them that this book exists. Tarantino made his name with a blend of graphic violence and snappy dialogue. In the novel, he wisely scales back on the violence and becomes even more verbose. Cliff Booth is shown to be an unlikely art-house aficionado, providing in-depth analysis of Kurosawa, the Swedish blue movie I Am Curious (Yellow), and Truffaut. (“Cliff didn’t dig Jules and Jim, because he didn’t dig the chick. And it’s the kind of movie, if you don’t dig the chick, you ain’t gonna dig the flick.”) That the opinions of Cliff — stunt man, World War II hero, murderer — seem to obviously mirror those of the director — a once-in-a-generation film buff — isn’t a flaw. Giving Quentin Tarantino 400 pages to talk is the whole point. Again, reading the book, I didn’t find myself wishing it was a movie. If anything, it could have been a podcast. 

 

For the most part, all four of the novels have gotten favorable reviews. Book sales figures are intentionally opaque, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Heat 2 both appeared on New York Times Best-Sellers lists. The general reception to Heat 2 has resembled a meme campaign actualized, beginning with the 2020 release of the graphic design streetwear brand Boot Boyz’s Heat hat and ending with the action movie revisionist vanguard tweeting photos of their books. The fan response to the others, as far as I can tell, has been more muted. The people I’ve spoken with seemed either surprised to learn the directors had written novels, or — in the case of Waters — surprised they hadn’t done so previously. Rather than altering the public’s perception of these virtuosic directors, the books are viewed as curios — and with some justification. Michael Mann and Werner Herzog both have future films in the works. But Tarantino has another book coming out in the fall, a nonfiction blend of film criticism and memoir, and says that his next movie will be his last. And Waters, who hasn’t directed a feature film since the 2004 Johnny Knoxville vehicle A Dirty Shame, likewise seems dedicated to writing books. 

Hollywood is in a crisis, or at least a very rocky transitional period. As theater attendance dwindles, power has shifted to streaming giants. Earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter noted that Netflix plans to make fewer “vanity projects” like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Instead, it seems, the company will double down on giving the people what they want: bingeable T.V. and PG-13 movies starring Ryan Reynolds. Scorsese made headlines when he said that the current class of comic book movies aren’t cinema at all, but something closer to theme parks. If opportunities continue to dwindle for those who aspire to make grown-up films, we may well see greater numbers of directors making the leap to the page. 

This may not be the best news for readers. Novels are not just movies yet to be filmed. To be clear, none of the abovementioned debuts are bad, and if you’re a fan of what the director’s done lately, you’ll probably like his book. But even the best of the lot fail to approach anything near their authors’ cinematic peaks. Lots of people have input into and approval over what goes into a film. Maybe directors need that collaboration and constraint. If Hollywood movies are good for anything, it’s what these auteurs can do with access to ungodly amounts of money, the world’s most famous people, plus composers and choreographers and stylists and all the other Oscar categories that are awarded before the televised broadcast. It must take a lot of confidence to command such a crew — the same kind of confidence that could lead someone to think they can go it alone in a totally different medium. It’s a perilous situation. In other words, if guys like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro will let you tell them what to do, you probably shouldn’t write a novel instead.

Hanson O’Haver is a writer living in New York.

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