Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Capote's relentless look straight into the sun

I'm a little over one-quarter of the way through In Cold Blood. Capote takes until this point to show us the bodies, and yet refers obliquely to the murder which we all know is the subject of the book from the beginning, which creates incredible tension. I found myself almost wanting it to happen so I could get it over with.

When we finally get to the crime scene, his camera's eye is unflinching. He makes us look right into the sun. I first thought to myself, those poor, 1950s Kansans, they had never seen such devastation and now we're almost inured to it. You can turn on the television any day of the week and watch "real crime" shows, three different flavors of Law and Order, or Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect - all full of grizzly detail. Of course, the readers of the literary New Yorker were probably pretty innocent to this kind of mayhem themselves. And yet, were there never murders with multiple victims? Of course there were. Were there never acts of senseless violence? These happened as well. And those living in the 1950s were much closer to the recent devastation of two World Wars than we are now. Yet, there is something about having an act of senseless violence happen in your midst that no amount of television of reading prepares you for, because these events still send us reeling. He places us right in the center of the community, the shocked voices of the postmistress and the next door neighbor swirling around us. We walk through the house, first with the narrator and later with three friends of the victims who volunteer to clean up (I had to ask myself, would I do it? I honestly don't know the answer).
The men worked from noon to dusk. When the time came to burn what they had collected, they piled it on a pickup truck and, with Stoecklein at the wheel, drove keep into the farm's north field, a flat place full of color though a single color - the shimmering tawny yellow of November wheat stubble. There they unloaded the truck and made a pyramid of Nancy's pillow, the bed clothes, the mattresses, the playroom couch; Stoecklein sprinkled it with kerosene and struck a match.

Of those present, none had been closer to the Clutter family than Andy Erhart. Gentle, genially dignified, a scholar with work-calloused hands and sunburned neck, he'd been a classmate of Herb's at Kansas State University. "We were friends for thirty years," he said some time afterward, and during those decades Erhart had seen his friend evolve from a poorly paid County Agricultural Agent into one of the region's most widely known and respected farm ranchers: "Everything Herb had, he earned - with the help of God. He was a modest man but a proud man, as he had a right to be. He raised a fine family. He made something of his life." But that life, and what he'd made of it - how could it happen, Erhart wondered as he watched the bonfire catch. How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this - smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big, annihilating sky?

Capote accomplishes two narrative effects that I really admire. The first is a shift in time and the second in point of view. We first get a narrative view of the men - we read that "they worked from noon to dusk." A wide angle shot - we see the act from a distance, without experiencing much detail at the moment. Then we see them building a fire, and then the camera pulls in as we see it is Nancy's pillows that are being loaded onto the pyramid. Then the match is lit but as the fire starts (which is not mentioned) he pulls the lens even closer - a 'close-up' right on Erhart, with a voice-over - letting the reader travel in memory with Erhart in a different relationship to time, succeeding in placing this reader in precisely the contemplative mood that Erhart experiences, and finally pulling out for a wider shot and returning to real time, encompassing the narrator's view at the end of the paragraph. This creates not just "identification" with the character - it accomplishes a transformation of sorts.

This transformation is beautifully done, but I did not expect Capote, to shift the scene to the rooms where the murderers slept after the crime, so that we continue from their point of view with the same elegance of phrasing and the same detailed depiction of state of mind - that's when things get creepy.
Far off, in the town of Olathe, in a hotel room where window shades darkened the midday sun, Perry lay sleeping, with a portable radio murmuring beside him. Except for taking off his boots, he had not troubled to undress. He had merely fallen face down across the bed, as though sleep were a weapon that had struck him from behind. The boots, black and silver-buckled, were soaking in a washbasin filled with warm, vaguely pink-tinted water.

It was a brilliant choice to depict the murderer as victim. This whole sequence surrounding the murder evoked Medea or The Orestia. Bloody devastation is all around us as the chorus beautifully comments on the action allowing us to connect it to our own lives.

And for more things Capote, check out Sheila's place for her post today on his last book, Music for Chameleons.


Anonymous said...

Great breakdown of a fine passage. I too found In Cold Blood mesmerizing in its detail.

Anonymous said...

The bit about the silver dollars under the bed- have you gotten to that part? To me, that is the most haunting and scary passage in the book - because it shows self-awareness on the part of the killer. Yes, it's a self-awareness informed by self-pity (he's all Oh boo hoo hoo my life has been so hard, I've had it so hard, a boo hoo...) but it's that flash with the silver dollars - that momentary flash of: what the HELL am I doing? - that I find so terrifying.

Eva said...

you're making me appreciate it more than when I read it last year; I think my expectations were just too high. I remember that I loved the first half of the book, but the second just didn't live up to its promise. It'll be interesting to see if you feel the same way. :)

Anonymous said...

I second eva's remark that I enjoyed the second half less than the first. I think Capote ventured too far into the head of Percy, to the point that it seemed presumptuous. The first half was based upon Capote's observations of the town and the aftermath, while the second is Percy to-the-max.

Ted, what are your thoughts on the movie Capote? I simply adored it.

Ted said...

Eva & Ted - I don't know yet about the second half - although it is moving more slowly than the first.

Ted - I always do a double-take when I see your comments, because I think they're mine! Very confusing. I thought Capote was a superb film as well. Really well written, as well as acted and directed.