Thursday, August 18, 2011
Book Review - The Hollywood Dodo by Geoff Nicholson
The dodo, a large, flightless bird that vanished from the earth about 1662, is the centerpiece around which Geoff Nicholson’s fourteenth novel, The Hollywood Dodo, revolves. The dodo, which is actually derived from the Portuguese word “duodo,” meaning “stupid,” or “simpleton,” lived on the otherwise then uninhabited island of Mauritius. When the Portuguese arrived, bringing with them an assortment of animals, the poor dodo really stood no chance.
The Hollywood Dodo consists of three overlapping and intertwining stories, told during two time periods—the 20th century and the late 17th century.
Nicholson begins the story in the 20th century with a young, wannabe screenwriter named Rick McCartney. Rick, whose business card proclaims him to be the “Auteur of the Future,” has a dream. He wants to make a rather artsy, period film revolving around an eccentric 17th century Englishman, an Englishman who also has a dream—a dream of finding a dodo to mate with his own, thus saving the species from extinction. As Rick tells one skeptical film executive after another, in a vain attempt to pitch his story:
It’s the story of a man who owns what he fears may be the last dodo on earth, and he’s trying desperately to find a mate for it before the whole species dies out.
Hollywood, as you can probably guess, isn’t interested.
When everything seems against him and all doors seemed to be closed, Rick visits Carla Mendez, a one-legged, Hispanic, past life therapist, a woman with:
...olive skin and festoons of black hair, and dark eyes and lips.
From her Venice Beach apartment, Carla regresses Rick into late 17th century England, where it seems he lived life as one William Draper, a medical student at Oxford whose training is cruelly halted when he, himself, becomes ill. Afflicted with a rare skin disorder that makes it impossible for him to be exposed to sunlight, Draper is told by his superiors:
...a would-be physician who cannot cure himself, nor be cured by the best physicians....
...is nothing but an embarrassment.
Cast out of Oxford, Draper takes up residence in a seedy, seamy part of London known as Alsatia and becomes a spy for the Royal College of Physicians, reporting back to them regarding anyone whose medical practices seem in any way irregular.
Draper also sets about fulfilling a personal quest. The owner of an aging dodo, Draper wants nothing more than to find another dodo with whom his can mate, thus saving the species from extinction. Sound familiar? As Draper puts it:
The dodo needs a friend and a champion. I have selected myself for the task, though there are times when certainly I feel I have had little choice in the matter.
After his regression, Rick feels compelled to travel to England where he just happens to meet an English writer, and just happens to steal a manuscript from his study that just happens to be about…William Draper. Titled “The Restoration of the Dodo,” Rick is sure this manuscript is the key to getting his own film produced.
While traveling back to L.A., stolen manuscript in hand, Rick has a major panic attack on the plane and fears he’s dying. Enter fiftyish Dr. Henry Cadwallader, a recent widow (I had to wonder if he’d been married to Mrs. Cadwallader, from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Cadwallader not being the most common of names), who is accompanying his daughter, Dorothy, to Hollywood where she hopes to become “a star.” The trouble is, while Dorothy is pretty, she’s also totally vapid. It’s clear to everyone but her that her brush with fame isn’t going to be either long or lasting. However, this won’t be the end of Rick’s interaction with Henry and Dorothy...not by a long shot. Nor will it mark the end of the Cadwalladers’ love affair with Hollywood.
Nicholson is known as a satirist, but he writes with a surprisingly light touch, and The Hollywood Dodo is truly enormous fun. However, it’s heavily contrived and filled to the brim with coincidence. Surprisingly, I really didn’t mind this. The disparate story strands are extremely vivid and Nicholson does a superb job of weaving them together.
Nicholson is also particularly good at manipulating the third person subjective, so we really get to enter the minds of his characters and come to know them extremely well. He’s also excellent at building connections, even though many of these connections do rest heavily on the already-mentioned coincidence, as well as on doubling. The chapter titles have been taken from film titles, e.g., “25. Back to the Future” and “26. Mask.” This is clever, but in the long run, it might just be a little too clever for some readers. I wasn’t bothered by it, though.
It’s also rather difficult to discern a clear theme in the narrative of The Hollywood Dodo. Or, perhaps, there are too many themes. With the dodo as the book’s centerpiece, one gets the idea that The Hollywood Dodo is about extinction, or the sheer fragility of existence. And so it might be, for at one point in the book, Dr. Cadwallader says:
...you don’t make a movie about death and extinction simply by having someone spouting about death and extinction.
But The Hollywood Dodo is definitely about deception as well. Just about everyone in the book is set on deceiving everyone else. William Draper falls in love with a medical fake, and Rick McCartney almost falls in love with his past life therapist, Carla. Both of these plot points highlight the theme of deception and also show how Nicholson employs doubling.
Nicholson, as always, does a great job of playing one character off another, but another of this book’s problems is the fact that there’s not much at stake for anyone. No one’s world is going to end if Rick fails to make his dodo film or if Dorothy fails to find the yellow brick road to stardom. The characters do change by the book’s end, however, some of them dramatically. Hollywood has to have an influence on people, whether for good or ill:
We all know what Hollywood does to people. It changes them, and very seldom for the better. It makes them glib, fake, embittered. And this seems to have nothing much to do with actual achievement, with how well or badly they’re doing. Hollywood success and Hollywood failure can be equally corrupting, though presumably in different ways.
And, so it is in this book.
The thing that keeps the reader turning the pages of this book is Nicholson’s magnificent prose, which is dark and delicious, along with his vivid characterizations. Although this book is, at times, as dark as it is funny, it really isn’t cynical or biting enough for me to term it genuine satire. Black comedy, then? Well, yes, but only at times. There are other times when the book is decidedly unfunny. A running gag and a mispronunciation elicited more groans than laughter from me.
Despite this book’s obvious faults, I still think it’s far above average. For the most part, the humor is quite subtle and Nicholson layers his narratives wonderfully. If you’re a reader who can get past coincidence and plot contrivance and just enjoy the ride, you’re going to find The Hollywood Dodo a lot of fun. If you can’t stand the above, however, you’re going to feel a lot like Nicholson’s characters:
You’re glad you made it, but it’s not quite as you imagined…There was less than you expected, less of everything, fewer explosions and car chases and sex scenes. The exposition was clumsy. The dialogue was flat, the performances wooden. You got restless and thought of walking out before the end.
Some people, I think, a little sadly, are going to feel just that way about The Hollywood Dodo. I didn’t, and if you read this book, I hope you won’t, either.
Recommended: Yes, to those who like satire or black comedy. Although heavily contrived, with not much at stake for the characters, the book is tremendous fun, and it’s worth reading for Nicholson’s dark and delicious prose.