Review of Ethan
Coen’s Gates Of Eden
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/30/08
There are many ways that bad writing makes its way into print. I’ve detailed too many of them over the years, but, what the hell- let’s have another go at it. First, the reading public is stupid….really stupid. But, a good or great artist should always write up, respect the potential reader, even if just one in a million. To write down to a reader is to beg a bad piece of writing out of its element. Second, the publishing industry is lazy….very lazy, and obsessed with profit over art, ever since the big publishing companies were taken over by conglomerates that know nothing of good writing. While no one begrudges publishers from making money, the things they bank on as being bestsellers rarely pan out, and thus the big companies get on a merry-go-round of increasingly bizarre publishing choices which lead to hacks like a James Frey (no, he’s too bad to be a hack), or frauds like the ever-increasing number of claimed plagiarists, getting published. Even worse, though, is the fact that the small independents are no better, pumping out the bilge in less volume, unit-wise, but more in terms of titles, especially in poetry. This is because, big or little, publishing suffers from the old tried but true methods of cronyism and sexual favors as means of getting one’s crap in print, and this is the real reason published writing is so horrible and manifest, even to its promoters, who will only sotto voce admit that they see no future for great writing.
Yet, I’ve forgotten at least one other major reason publishing these days sucks- celebrity writers. And I don’t mean memoirs like that of a vapid bimbo like Paris Hilton, but supposed real literary fiction, by noted authors such as failed actor Ethan Hawke, or even successful film director Ethan Coen, of the famed Coen Brothers filmmaking duo. A while back I stumbled across his 1998 debut book of short stories, published by William Morrow, called Gates Of Eden. It’s bad- really, really, really bad. To the degree that Dave Eggers is bad because he thinks that if he holds his cock in profile to the setting sun he’ll be a hipster, so is Coen bad because his idea of great literature starts with Elmore Leonard and ends with William Burroughs. Yet, that didn’t stop such high profile venues as Playboy and Vanity Fair from publishing such garbage. Simply put, short stories are a far different art form from playwriting, or screenwriting, where more than half the heavy lifting of the storytelling will fall on the shoulders of the cinematography and other filmic devices; most especially a good actor, who can often hide mediocre writing and dialogue with charisma and the smooth or distinct delivery of even banal lines. What may seem funny or deep, depending on the mood and soundtrack, can be simply dull and flat as hell when in naked black print on a white page. Coen apparently never learned this key lesson, for this small book of fourteen tales is utterly larded with bizarre film noirish stereotypes and caricatures.
There is not a real ‘person’ in any of the characters in this book’s 261 padded pages; and I say ‘padded’ because the tales are all in big type, with 1˝ point line spacing, and several of the tales are nothing more than de facto radio plays where every bit of dialogue is double spaced. Yet, these three tales- Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator, Johnnie Ga-Botz, and The Old Boys- if you can call them that, are easily the best in the book, for precisely the reasons stated above. They have some humor, but succeed in their limited ways only because they are not short stories, but plays.
The bulk of the book is loaded with characters so lame that not even the accoutrements of a Coen Brothers film could make them funny. They are losers, crooks, cons, hitmen, and not a one is truly humorous, and certainly none smack of the ‘reality’ Coen cannot even parody well, even though he does his best to make the tales mundane, for they never impart insight, nor have a moment’s worth of poesy.
In the titular tale, Joe Gendreau is a weights-and-measures man, who makes sure gas stations don’t overcharge or cheat on gas, and also makes sure the seven ounce Bun Buster at a burger joint does have seven ounces of beef. If they do, there are ways to deal with them. If you were expecting a ‘bada-boom’ you know where this tale is headed- straight down the toilet, with asinine dialogue like this:
Standards are what make us a society. A community agrees. A gallon is a gallon. A pound is a pound. He who says fifteen ounces is a pound- he must be put down. A pound is a pound, or we go bango.
Perhaps Ernest Hemingway, at his best, might be able to get away with such bad dialogue in a short tale that soars off at the end, but Ethan Coen is no Hemingway, and his lead character ends up entangled in a silly blackmail plot after being seduced by a giggling Japanese woman.
In Cosa Minapolidan, a mobster wants a corpse for odd reasons, yet his bozo goons can do nothing right. The Marx Brothers this story ain’t! Destiny is that tired old saw, a boxing tale, but with nothing new. Adultery, scheming, and stupidity abound, as dim-witted Joe Carmody, boxer and would be private investigator, floats through his anomic life, believing it’s a great idea to sell advertising space on the soles of his boxing boots. In A Fever In The Blood yet another soft-boiled detective type, Victor Strang, loses his hearing in one ear, due to psychological trauma, after having the other one bitten off in a fight, and is harried by bizarre dreams of a weightlifting Pope. Thank Mike Tyson and the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal for this bad tale. Ho-hum. In The Boys, an impotent dad cannot control his hellion kids when they go camping, and a similarly pathetic record executive is the focus of Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland, while The Old Country follows a boy who terrorizes his Hebrew school, and then gets a comeuppance.
Other tales are filled with equally, and worse, caricatures- dumb Mafiosi, a man who decapitates his wife, and so on. Other tales are utterly pointless. For example, A Morty Story attempts to be a character portrait, but it just paints a portrait of dull people doing nothing, literally nothing but sitting around and looking in their refrigerators and lamenting a lack of good food. It does not elicit awe with its sterling prose, nor does it illuminate the interior nor exterior of its characters’ lives, which are simply that of a loser, his girlfriend, and his uncle Morty who mooches off of them. Here is one of Coen’s many limp attempts at humor:
For some reason Uncle Morty had reminded me of Edward G. Robinson. His face didn’t particularly look like Edward G.’s. His lips weren’t quite as big. And of course he didn’t talk in that snarly way. But he had that short square-bellied body and his nipples were big and saggy with dark hair sworled around them. Not that I knew what Edward G. Robinson’s nipples looked like.
The nipples of Edward G. Robinson? I repeat, the nipples of Edwar G. Robinson? This not even gross out humor. This is just dull and puerile, a writer with no genuine tale to tell, desperately scrambling for something to entertain, and being clueless as to what that thing could possibly be.
Equally so, Coen does not know how to end his tales effectively. The best story ends are usually epiphanies, or those tales that screech dead on a moment, and let the mind plow over the edge, wondering where it has been led, then buoying itself in the air. These tales have no depth, so any epiphanies would be contrived, and Coen seems utterly devoid of a sense of timing in his storytelling when not behind a camera. As I said, different media require different approaches, and Coen is WAY out of his element in this form. These short stories are really just so-so treatments for short subject films, at best. See, I can be generous. I really can. But, I’ll waste no more space on this tripe. Let’s just hope Ethan Coen doesn’t pull a Tennessee Williams, and decide to gift us with his ‘poetry’ in the near future. KAPOW!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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