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The Boston Phoenix Keyed Up

In a culture addled by fame, the roman clef becomes a radical literary form.

By Matthew DeBord

APRIL 6, 1998: 

"This is not a 'novel with a key,' " Gary Indiana writes in the author's note to last year's wickedly satirical Resentment: A Comedy. "I had something almost opposite in mind . . . a kind of reverse roman à clef in which what had already occurred in life as collective spectacle functions as honorary ballast for an entirely speculative fictional narrative."

By flipping the roman à clef on its head, Indiana made Resentment -- his reimagining of the circus surrounding the trial of the Menendez brothers -- the most interesting guest at 1997's roman à clef cocktail party. The festivities got under way when long-time Architectural Digest editor (and Indiana's fellow Doubleday author) Paige Rense published Manor House, a gossamer whodunit constructed around a decorating magazine that caters to wealthy tastes. "Murder among the rich is almost always about money," muses Rense's amateur sleuth, Pierpont Tree. "Only the poor murder for love." Rense's novel was a trifle at best, but it did deliver a traditionalist's antidote to Indiana's fevered experiment. Dominick Dunne (who would later become the center of 1997's most notorious roman à clef brouhaha) summarized Rense's contribution: "Talk about a book having all the right ingredients for a great Sunday afternoon read! . . . Ms. Rense [is] one of the keenest observers of her era."

As spring faded and 1997 slouched toward summer, the focus shifted from keen observations to good beach reading. The book most often spotted in tote bags headed toward the dunes of East Hampton was Further Lane, by James Brady. Prior to a falling-out, Brady was John Fairchild's heir apparent at Women's Wear Daily, and he translated his waltz among New York's social alpinists into a screwball East Hampton murder mystery (murder mysteries are the preferred roman à clef pretext) featuring the death of a Martha Stewart-Sandy Hill Pittman composite and -- for the Bradyesque hero, Beecher Stowe -- sex with Alix Dunraven, who the author has audaciously conceded is a blend of New Yorker editor Tina Brown and Princess Di.

Brady's novel was marginally heftier, in terms of craft and plot, than Rense's, but also substantially more devoted to the lost art of unapologetic girl-watching. "Even the women seemed more gorgeous than I remembered," Beecher Stowe muses. "You could see them . . . the flat-bellied . . . girls who belonged to the rich men. . . . How could I resist being drawn to such women, smoothly cool yet erotically beckoning, all the while (and realistically) suspecting they were unattainable." Like Rense, Brady has spent a career pressed against the window of enormous wealth. Manor House and Further Lane, as products of this sensibility, resemble dispatches from foreign countries, both filed by reluctant initiates to the local customs who hope to preserve some shred of themselves as a hedge against assaults on their integrity. For Brady, it's journalism -- plus a boyish outsider's gentility -- that does the trick; for Rense, it's Architectural Digest, a forum for opulent publicity that she controls. Neither Brady nor Rense, writing in the standard lightweight prose of the genre, waded anywhere near the deep water that Indiana plumbed -- or the fascinating shallows that Dominick Dunne, a figure with no qualms about compromising himself for the table scraps of celebrity, would soon explore.

Fall brought Dunne's ballyhooed Another City, Not My Own, a "novel in the form of a memoir" about the O.J. Simpson trial. A bizarre fictionalization of Dunne's Vanity Fair columns, in which only the references to Dunne himself are veiled, the book established a fresh standard for name-dropping. As an added attraction, Dunne and Indiana -- the glib yin and caustic yang of the roman à clef revival -- got involved in an entertainingly symmetrical literary duel. In Dunne's novel, his doppelgänger, Gus Bailey, is killed by Andrew Cunanan; Indiana is currently writing a book about Andrew Cunanan. In a controversial stroke of gamesmanship, the Los Angeles Times Book Review tapped Indiana to review Dunne's book; Dunne, who appeared in Resentment as the pompously insecure Fawbus Kennedy, groused that Indiana was a biased choice.

Dunne might have a case. Of the failed-film-producer-cum-scribe's talents, Indiana had this to say: "The Simpson trial . . . provided a large number of mediocrities . . . a two-year shot at national attention; Dunne has located his natural constituency in this bilaterally repulsive affair." Indiana, of all the '97 roman à clef authors, was perhaps best attuned to the dominant subtheme of the genre, the ethically challenged union of money and fame. In Resentment, Fawbus Kennedy is depicted as a rumormongering opportunist whose "dream in life . . . is to become more famous than his brother"; Dominick's real-life brother is John Gregory Dunne, who is married to Joan Didion. They appear in the novel as Sean Kennedy and Cora Winchell:

Can you imagine . . . what a family dinner with the three of them must be like, Fawbus Kennedy imploding with rage that he'll never get notices as serious as Sean's notices, and Sean pretending to himself that his last book was just as good as Cora's, and Cora meanwhile thinking that she's the golden canary of American letters, and of course . . . the joke is that all three of them can't get through a paragraph without telling you which famous people they know. . . . Fawbus is blatant and vulgar about it and Sean tries to give it a little ironic twist, whereas Cora has perfected the art of making her snobbery and name-dropping read like world-weary deprecation.
The antipathy between Indiana and Dunne was magnified by Dunne's publisher, Random House, which began to make noise about the Times' editorial judgment. The cognitive dissonance was palpable: who could sensibly take ethical offense when dealing with a roman à clef, especially one penned by a world-class gossip -- referred to by Alex Ross in Slate as a "ridiculous man" and by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times as a "superlative social gadfly" -- and reviewed by a notoriously opinionated underground writer? Besides, isn't a certain willful denial of ethics what the genre is all about? Appropriately, the '97 publishing season concluded with this contretemps, which seemed a lot like something out of, well, a roman à clef.

Besides these four representative contributions (three, tellingly, LA novels), one other notable roman à clef RSVPed 1997's party. Edmund White's The Farewell Symphony is a melancholy conclusion to the trilogy that includes A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty. One marveled at the scope of White's social and sexual experiences, at his ability to depict everyone from James Merrill to Michel Foucault, and at how casually he wove all into a shroud of tender meditation. There was no murder, just the murderously slow progress of AIDS. His was the year's exception, a personal roman à clef -- a gift to his memories rather than a comment on the boil of public insanity.

To be sure, the roman à clef party was not confined to 1997; Kim Benabib's art-world mystery, Obscene Bodies, appeared in 1996, and Jay McInerney lampooned the late Harold Brodkey's reputation in 1992's Brightness Falls. The McDaddy of all recent romans à clef was 1996's Primary Colors, the unmasking of whose author generated more discussion than did Joe Klein's fictional portrait of a serially philandering president. But the phenomenon crested last year, amid rampant media commentary on the social tumult and proliferating celebrity that have come to characterize the century's ultimate decade.

Is there a concealed critique, a kind of meta-clef, that can be culled from this revival of the "novel with a key"? Does the Dunne-Indiana affair indicate a raising of the traditionally amoral genre's ethical stakes? Or is it just that prosperity breeds an idle desire for this type of chatty fiction? There is a third possibility: that the roman à clef, always a rather insubstantial form, has found in Indiana and Dunne writers who are willing take a more experimental approach to gossip and innuendo. By turning the Menendez trial into the stuff of corrosive satire, Indiana found one tactic; by eliminating the traditional roman-à-clef parlor game of figuring out who's who, Dunne found another. Both writers, as it turns out, managed to comment decisively on a culture addled by fame. Neither of their books bears much resemblance to the roman à clef as authored by Brady or Rense.

Scholars have traced the origins of the roman à clef to 17th-century France, where Madeleine de Scudéry studded her aristocratic romances with references to Louis XIV's court. These were far from the satirical confections that 20th-century readers are accustomed to -- de Scudéry's two best-known romances, Artmène ou le Grand Cyrus (1649-53) and Clélie, histoire roman (1654-60), each consume 10 volumes -- but they do share with the '97 trend an appetite for skewering profit and pretense. The genre has tempted plenty of respected novelists, from Dryden (Absalom and Achitophel) to Swift (A Tale of a Tub) to Simone de Beauvoir -- whose Les Mandarins typifies the modern roman à clef, in which a minor universe and its bickerings are described for the titillation of its inhabitants.

For at least three centuries, the roman à clef has exhibited transparent motives: to flirt, to tease, to satirize. Unlike the "serious" novel, however, it has never gone through an obvious experimental period. Even during modernism's ascendancy, when writers began to value hermetic ironies and internal discourse over the outwardness of 19th-century traditions, the rules of the roman à clef stuck to the 17th-century model; a place was reserved for an older form whose charms lay in its resistance to the new.

Motives have changed, however, in the past 20 years, when writers have developed an appetite for reinvigorating antiquated forms. With Indiana's Resentment, the roman à clef's intellectual pyrotechnics have become as compelling as anything in Barth, Gaddis, or Bruce Wagner. Another City, Not My Own, by contrast, signals the merger of a venerable literary conceit with the enticing vacuum of the celebrity profile. Both Indiana and Dunne have raised the formerly inconsequential roman à clef to a higher level: Indiana, by forcing the satirical form to satirize itself; Dunne, by leaving almost nothing to the imagination. Always a quietly hostile exercise, in the '90s the roman à clef has grown up and turned on itself, recasting its own history -- to borrow Indiana's phrase -- as "honorary ballast," finding in the contexts of wealth and fame a ready-made instrument both for social commentary and untrammeled star-fucking.

The great 19th-century novel -- the loose, baggy monster that Henry James adored -- was a crucial way for a society to take stock of its popular anxieties. Novels no longer seem to have the oomph, or the readership, to perform that task, but the experimental roman à clef can perpetuate this function, by commenting on itself at the same time as it comments on events. Because novelists have discovered the key to this experimental variation on a theme, the roman à clef has become one of the millennium's most radical literary tools for satire and social critique. Gary Indiana is the movement's Diogenes, seeking an honest reality at the end of a century whose devotion to fame has imprisoned everyone behind doors of surreal perception. "Each person has an astral double whose actions are unseen, metaphorical, the true text of his life," a character in Resentment argues. Dunne is Indiana's scourge, taking the low road to shameless insiderism. As he writes of his alter ego: "From the beginning, you have to understand this about Gus Bailey: He knew what was going to happen before it happened." This language summarizes the contemporary roman à clef's twin lessons: everyone is someone else; and the future belongs to the prophet of fame. From Indiana's healthy paranoia, a savvy alienation flows; from Dunne's carnival, a sense that the uncelebrated life isn't worth living. Unappealing options, perhaps, but nothing if not contemporary.


Matthew DeBord is a contributing editor at the online magazine Feed.


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