Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Taboo, by Elizabeth Gage
December, 1993 Pocket Books
Once again I must give credit to trash guru Martin Boucher for bringing an author to my attention. Elizabeth Gage is the author in question; she rose to a brief fame in the late '80s and early '90s before disappearing from the scene. According to the bio on the back of this book, "Gage" was a psuedonym, and as you can see in the link to Martin's site above, there are rumors that a few different authors might have been behind the name.
At any rate, of the various Gage novels Taboo was the one that struck my fancy, as it takes place in the "golden age" of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood. This is a big tale (560 pages in this mass market paperback edition) about a trio of people in Tinseltown: Kate Hamilton, a pretty young thing who escapes a miserable background to become Hollywood's darling; Joseph Knight, a handsome entrepreneur who moves into the movie business with the aim of taking it over; and finally Eve Sinclair, a child star of the early '30s who, as Taboo opens, is on the verge of turning 18, and is looking to shall we say expand her horizons.
Unfortunately it takes nearly 200 pages to get to the Hollywood stuff; before that we must endure Kate Hamilton's woeful adolescent years, in which she is abused by her stepfather, gets thrown out by her mother, and ends up marrying a crook. All of it seems taken right out of an early '30s melodrama, one of the "women's pictures" that were so popular at the time. And indeed that may be Gage's intent. But regardless it's boring.
Also we have lots of material with Joseph Knight, how he uses his looks and his charm to build up his fortunes, running afoul of gangsters and causing beautiful women to fall into suicidal love with him. The only bearable character in this endless trawl is Eve Sinclair, the villain of the piece; a true scheming hellcat, she outs her secretly-gay costar (Eve's mid-30s popularity is due to a series of movies akin to the ones Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney made together), endures the sexual advances of a mogul, and upon turning 18 has her meddling mother forever cast out of her life.
Finally we get to the Hollywood section, where in an unintentionally hilarious sequence Joseph Knight pitches a lame movie idea to the production manager of Continental Studios (basically MGM). The guy loves the idea, which is about the Russian revolution (Gage seems unaware that several such movies were made in Hollywood in the early '30s), but sees in Knight the makings of a powerful enemy, and so has his lawyer concoct a scheme whereby they can steal his idea but not give him credit. However this was Knight's plan all along; meanwhile he goes to a smaller studio and pitches a more realistic idea, this one about the struggles people endured during the Depression (all of this occurs around 1940). This producer too loves the idea, and rushes the film into production.
As expected, Knight's small film trumps the big budget Russian revolution flick. Now he is a man on the go in Hollywood, producing and directing films. Eve Sinclair, her star ebbing, latches onto him and gets the lead in his next film. But given that she becomes infatuated with him (every single woman who even looks at Knight in this damn book falls in love with him), Eve throws tantrums and acts it up on the set, trying to draw attention to herself. Instead Knight fires her, and hires in her place Kate Hamilton, who up to now has been relegated to extra parts.
This of course invokes Eve's wrath. She plots her revenge, but meanwhile in a completely unrelated sequence Knight serves as a combat pilot in WWII. Honestly I had no idea why this section was even in the novel. Nothing comes to a head until, in 1946, Knight and Kate are about to make another picture together; finally Eve sows her vengeance.
According to that author bio, Gage "is the psuedonym of one of storytelling's brightest stars." This is hard to buy, as her storytelling skills are horrendous. I do not exaggerate when I say that 98% of this novel is written in summary. It's all "He had said," or "She had done," or "And so it had come to pass." Just on and on and on. It renders the novel a limpid bloat of a thing, with no forward momentum. Even when Joseph Knight finally arrives in Hollywood and makes his film, even that is written in summary, Gage telescoping the events of the next several months in huge blocks of paragraphs. There's hardly any action at all. Even of the sexual variety; these scenes too, which one might expect to be lurid or at the very least trashy, are overwritten to the point of banality.
As I read this novel I couldn't help but think that there was a better tale within. Eve Sinclair is the true star here: she's callous and manipulative and fun to read about. Unfortunately she disappears for long sections, and we must endure the boring lives of Kate Hamilton and Joseph Knight. These two are taken from the realm of Romance fiction; as mentioned, Joseph Knight is so perfect as to be laughable. There are innumerable scenes where women -- who have only gotten a glimpse of him -- will find themselves dreaming of him, fantasizing about him. And Kate Hamilton is super boring, incapable of endearing herself to the reader. Had Gage reversed this, made Eve the star of the show and Knight and Hamilton the supporting players (and if she hadn't written the entire thing in summary), she might've had one heck of a novel.
Gage's first novel (and biggest success) was A Glimpse of Stocking, a doorstop of a book which again dealt with Hollywood, only in the modern day. I've got that book too, and thumbing through it, it appears that it doesn't suffer from the summary syndrome as much as Taboo. I'll get to it one of these days.