Saturday, August 6, 2011

Capote and "In Cold Blood": "It nearly killed me"

Truman Capote, 1965 (photographed by Irving Penn)

Truman Capote's legacy these days seems secure in American letters, and his personal life has become familiar to moviegoers and magazine readers over the years since his death at age 59. Yet it remains difficult to imagine the impact his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood had on the country's imagination when it was published in 1966 after being serialized in The New Yorker. Readers were introduced to an entirely different kind of reporting -- a deepening spiral of darkness and factual revelation that was ultimately true in its shocking particulars.

Capote's novelized form of reality has since become a staple of book lists. It can be argued that the success of Capote's book created the modern horror novel, which uses at its base the shards of real-life crime to imagine possibilities of human degradation. This legacy is a far cry from the short stories and the roman candle success of Breakfast at Tiffany's which had made him a literary celebrity. But as Rupert Thompson points out in a recent column in The Guardian UK, the writing ofIn Cold Blood also exacted a psychological price on the author from which he never fully recovered.

Fully aware that he had erased too well the line between the teller and the tale, Capote later remarked that "no one will ever know what In Cold Blood took out of me ... It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me."

What horrors Capote uncovered on the Kansas plain have since become part of the American subconscious of unlocked doors and noises in the middle of the night. In Cold Blood telegraphed remorseless psychosis: that the murder of the Clutter family was ultimately a senseless act in a botched robbery of a Kansas farmhouse. The novel's complete starkness, Thompson notes, was a function of its reportage: the unbelievable facts developed novelistic force in their telling.

As the real-life drama of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith developed, the author claimed an emotional distance as he wrote. "It really doesn't make any difference to me if the case is ever solved or not," Capote remarked coldly at the time. Tom Wolfe wrote later: "The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset ... Instead, the book's suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.

In the Guardian article, Thomson emphasizes the difference between In Cold Blood and what Capote had written before:

... Capote had exploded on to the literary scene with short fictions that exhibited a retrospective point of view. He was, first and foremost, an exquisite stylist – "the most perfect writer of my generation", as Mailer called him. Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The Grass Harp (1951) were carefully wrought examples of swamp gothic – unashamedly ornate, lush and impressionistic, and for all its metropolitan sass, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), Capote's third novel, in which he gave us the kooky, amoral Holly Golightly, also had its roots in the deep south. Yet, even early on, and despite phenomenal success, Capote seemed conscious of the need to push his writing in new directions.

He wanted, as he said, "to do something else", and In Cold Blood gave him the opportunity, allowing him to ditch his attachment to childhood and nostalgia, the literature of the backward glance, and to immerse himself in something that was both current and universal. At the same time, he largely dispensed with his breathless, gossamer sentences, which often teetered on the brink of preciousness and whimsy, and ushered in a style that was much leaner and more sinewy: "Dick! Smooth. Smart . . . Christ, it was incredible how he could 'con a guy'." This was a new Capote – surprisingly tough, almost hard-boiled.

He had cut his non-fiction teeth on two extended pieces, both written in the mid-1950s. "The Muses Are Heard", published in the New Yorker in 1956, chronicled a trip to the Soviet Union by the Everyman Opera, which was touring with Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," and showcased razor-sharp observation and a tone of voice that ranged from the playful to the acidic. In "The Duke in His Domain", published the following year, and still considered a milestone in the history of celebrity profiles, Capote interviewed Marlon Brando on location in Kyoto. Here, too, Capote displayed uncanny journalistic skills, capturing even the most languid and enigmatic of subjects – Brando in his pomp – and eliciting the kinds of confidences that left the actor reflecting ruefully on his "unutterable foolishness".

Capote saw journalism as a horizontal form, skimming over the surface of things, topical but ultimately throwaway, while fiction could move horizontally and vertically at the same time, the narrative momentum constantly enhanced and enriched by an incisive, in-depth plumbing of context and character. In treating a real-life situation as a novelist might, Capote aimed to combine the best of both literary worlds to devastating effect. ...

The devastating effect was apparently total on both the American public and the writer. After the relentless motion of the novel, Capote appended a fictional resolution in order to bring some peace and emotional balance to the story's end. "I felt I had to return to the town, to bring everything back full circle, to end with peace," Capote offered his critics, but it ended the book on a fictional note that didn't suit the book's tone.

He hoped the novel would win the Pulitzer prize, and when it didn't Capote seemed exhausted and drained. Whether his inability to complete another major fiction was because of what Thompson calls Capote's "Faustian pact" with In Cold Blood, the sum of his career seems unfulfilled and an example of wrecked ambition.

"To the marrow of my bones": Capote might have viewed the murderers as a distorted mirror-image of the author himself. Thompson includes a telling quote from Gerald Clarke, Capote's biographer: "In Perry he recognized his shadow, his dark side, the embodiment of his own accumulated angers and hurts." The murderers and the author, it seems, were all pure products of America each in their own way.

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