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Wednesday, 18 February 2009 19:08

The age of acting and the rapture of writing

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The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr. Akashic Books, 2008. 320 pages

Every once in a while a novel comes at us out of the blue to capture first our attention, then our minds, and finally our hearts. Such a novel is Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming (Akashic Books, 2008, ISBN 978-1-933354-46-0, $15.95).

Here is the story of Jun Nakayama, narrated by himself, a young Japanese student living in the United States who, on his way back to Japan in 1911, stops in Los Angeles, visits a Japanese theatrical production, tells the struggling producer that he could do a much better job of both writing and acting in such a play, and then proceeds to do just that.

After only a short time, Jun’s stagecraft attracts the attention of William Moran, a director of successful silent films, and of Hanako Minatoya, the beautiful actress who at that time is working for Moran. Because of his sultry face and superb acting skills — he is a quick take in picking up tips from those around him — Jun becomes a silent movie star. He changes directors, leaves Hanako to star in other films, soon earns a fabulous income, and becomes involved with two different actresses, Elizabeth Banks and Nora Niles, and Ashley Bennett Tyler, a British director. This dark combination of lives eventually leads to an unexplained murder, a mental breakdown, alcoholic suicide, and Jun’s own abrupt end as an actor.

What adds to the excitement and insights of The Age of Dreaming is Revoyr’s creation of Nick Bellinger, who tracks Jun down in the 1960s for an interview. He befriends Nick and even convinces him to try out for a movie with a descendent of a producer who was once Jun’s acquaintance. From this modern producer, we learn more about Jun’s muddied past and the secrets from that past which have remained hidden from him all these years.

In addition to a taut story filled with intrigue and sudden revelations, The Age of Dreaming has much else to offer any lover of fiction. First, Revoyr takes us into a Hollywood long vanished, a place of silent movies (on visiting a modern movie set, Jun is shocked by the silence; he remembers all the noises and distractions permitted when making silent movies), of working in an entirely new medium, of making movies in less than a week on budgets that in today’s world wouldn’t provide a picture’s limo fees. Jun Nakayam breathes such excitement into these movies that many readers will, on finishing the book, begin looking for these masterpieces with eyes that might now better appreciate them.

A second delight in this fine book is the studied, polished commentary of Jun Nakayama (A blurb on the front of the book states that ‘the carefully restrained voice of the narrator, once a silent film star, recalls Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day ....’ a comparison that seems slightly silly, as if only another Japanese — Revoyr’s mother is Japanese — could write with restraint). This careful writing, in which we sense a great delicacy at play in the diction and syntax of each sentence, can be found on every page and in every paragraph. Here, for example, Jun finally says goodbye to Hanako, the woman whom he has always secretly loved:

“I kept my silence because words would have diminished what I felt, and the strength of those feelings confused me. And now, when it was many, many years too late, I mourned the inability to speak my own heart, as well as the empty decades that have followed. For it seems to me now that I have been reliving that moment through all the long years of my life. It seems to me that I have always been standing there with joy within my grasp, wanting to reach for it, but forever holding it back.”

•••

Jincy Willett’s The Writing Class (Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN 978-0-312-33066-8, 2008, $24.95) tells the story of Amy Gallup, a writer whose career peaked too early and who now teaches university extension courses in writing. Anyone who has ever attended a writing course will recognize the various characters who appear in this particular class and may even sympathize with their motives for being there. In several scenes that are by turns pathetic or humorous, Gallup deals with the obstacles presented in the classroom while the class of strangers slowly comes together and seriously begins critiquing one another’s stories.

Among the students of this class, however, there lurks a murderer, an unpublished writer driven crazy by resentment, loneliness, and hatred. As the murderer stalks the class members, taunting them at times with bizarre letters or reviews, the tension within the group grows, a mirror reflecting the needs and desires of these people. Willett also shows us how a group of strangers, out of common interest — in this case, writing fiction — or for common preservation, will eventually bond with one another.

Although the author’s portrayal of some of the members of the writing class is sketchy and so makes the character difficult for the reader to see, Willett does give us a fine portrait of a woman who seeks solitude while at the same time fearing loneliness. Amy Gallup represents many people who live alone, people who may have enjoyed a happier past, people to whom social conversation no longer comes easily, people whose chief pleasure now consists of drinking a glass of wine, reading, and petting a cat that doesn’t particularly care whether it is petted or not. We leave The Writing Class feeling as if we know Amy Gallup.

Readers who enjoy a good mystery, or comedy, or who simply like to read books that touch frequently on literature and writing, should take much pleasure from The Writing Class.

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