Sunnyside I: Towards an American Myth

by stuart_evers on May 20, 2011

The Importance of Story in Sunnyside


In a narrative bursting with stories, fictions, verbal sleight-of-hand, deliberate lies and other debateable information, Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside has a very strained relationship with its own truth and reality. There are so many examples, large moments and set plays which explore this – and which I will investigate later – but to me the crux of Sunnyside is expressed in a small running gag: that of Chaplin himself entering a Chaplin lookalike competition, and only coming in fourth.

It’s a familiar joke –an urban legend that has also been attributed to Elvis Presley, amongst others  – and one that perfectly encapsulates the problem that so many of the characters in the novel face: they don’t really know who they are; and more importantly, they don’t know how they portray themselves to others. They are stitched together from uncertain memories, false information and a diet of lies: whether that be from parents, the government or from the cinema. All they have are their stories and, just as in the result of Chaplin’s lookalike contest, nothing is to be taken for granted.

Gold unnerves us with  this lack of certainty as early as the preliminary pages of the book. The quotation that greets us – I was loved, Mary Pickford – is immediately subverted by her being cast in the starring line-up as “an enemy”.  These are clues that point to the myriad delusions that befall America, including the umpteen sightings of Chaplin on the same day, seemingly a whole nation experiencing something impossible, and yet still believing it. As Gold himself puts it: “Such is the nature of the inexplicable that, as long as it does not involve money, it can be ignored.”

Chaplin is the perfect vector for this kind of madness of the crowds. He is the ultimate American story: an immigrant who through hard work, dedication and devotion – and a healthy interest in making a dollar – rises to become the most famous man in the world. Gold’s narrative picks apart that reality, exposing the untruths it hides. This is, of course, the job of any novelist working with characters familiar to readers as real people. However, the choice of Chaplin is inspired, simply because he was a fiction in the eyes of the public anyway. The Chaplin-itis seems possible, because he was a different person for everyone in America: the little tramp, the Englishman abroad, the action-hiding slacker.

The stories that eddy around Charlie create myth, and also help create the first real American celebrity. What Sunnyside does with such panache is remind the reader that celebrity culture is far from a recent invention. In fact most of what we now consider to be the detritus of our age – gossip rags, scandal heavy newspapers, fame obsession – are birthed at this time (a  time, it’s worth noting, when high modernism is gathering pace). Gold’s brisk, energetic prose takes us back to this age, an age where at the news counter there is a wide selection of movie magazines peddling as much tittle-tattle and spurious conjecture as any number of gossip websites. By making us highly aware of the stories – or more specifically lies – that surround everyone in the book, Gold asks us what we choose to believe, and why we choose to believe it.

Perhaps the key scene of Sunnyside takes place in San Francisco,  at the end of the William Gibbs MacAdoo tour to raise money for the war effort. Here, so many stories converge, overtake each other, or otherwise begin. Gold shows that nothing competes with the closed, two dimensions of the cinema. Mary Pickford asks to have a lock of hair cut from her real curls, rather than those synthetically produced. MacAdoo has the option of simply saying San Francisco has gone over the top and has made the necessary amount of money – something especially easy considering his strange accounting involving squirrels – yet this seems not to cross his mind, despite knowing the disastrous consequences of failing in his ambitions. Across town, Rebecca Golod is involved in a daring confidence trick, which eventually culminates in her discovering the truth about the tanks that have so transformed the war.

The disparate strands of the novel colliding here give Gold the opportunity to look at how we as readers and as consumers choose to buy into an accepted narrative arc. When Fairbanks  steps out from the side of the stage to offer up the money to kiss Mary Pickford, there is a sense of groaning expectation about it: this is how the story has to end. The gossip and suggestion needed to be quantified by a crowd, we need to believe.

Stories, however, are not just organic fodder; they remain divisive and potentially destructive. The forlorn figure of Dr Munserburg is simple evidence of this. A few words spoken out of turn and a whole life is turned upside down. Munsterburg is also interesting as the voice of cinema as an artistic endeavour, an intellectual pursuit. His reading of Neptune’s Daughter  is made risible by the real reason for its popularity: its nudity. Similarly, his lack of understanding of the political temperature  of the country only serves to see him cast as spy and villain for his views.

For all its good humour, for all its charm and intelligence, Sunnyside is actually a far darker book than it first suggests. In fact, in many ways it resembles its most memorable character, the child Rebecca Golod. On the face of it she is a hard-working, adorable little girl, but in reality she is possessed of the mentality of a decades older hustler. She knows how to work a situation to her advantage, while those around her marvel at her apple cheeks. Rebecca, almost alone in the novel, understands the power of story, of how to tell tales.

Through Rebecca, Gold reminds us that stories can always be manipulated, that just because something looks one way, it doesn’t mean that it truly is that way. And that is the unseen darkness at the core of this book: everyone thinks that they know the truth, but are, in fact, clueless as to reality. By the conclusion of Sunnyside, one thing is absolutely clear: Charlie Chaplin – nor any of the other characters – can never hope to win their own lookalike competition.

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What’s this all about? See the introduction to the Sunnyside book event here.

Stuart Evers, reviews books for the Guardian, Independent, and others, and has just produced a collection of short stories: Ten Stories About Smoking.

{ 6 comments }

1

ejh 05.21.11 at 6:34 pm

Didn’t Graham Greene once fail to win a New Statesman competition in either writing like, or parodying, Graham Greene?

2

ptl 05.21.11 at 7:31 pm

He won second prize — but I suppose that’s a fail.

3

John Quiggin 05.22.11 at 5:24 am

This got me thinking about the mass sightings of Charlie Chaplin at the beginning of the book. That kind of event really blurs the boundaries between truth and reality. The really striking case is the flying saucer craze just after WWII, which created an instant and enduring mythos, of which everyone is now more or less aware, even though credible sightings ceased decades ago.

4

bad Jim 05.22.11 at 8:17 am

Peer Gynt told of the devil performing an impression of a pig’s life, from birth to death squeal, using a real pig hidden in his cloak. The audience thought it grossly exaggerated.

5

tomslee 05.22.11 at 3:24 pm

I confess that I’m having trouble holding on to story in the face of style. There is a (perhaps distinctively American, perhaps distinctively male) form of something like magic realism that seems self-consciously pyrotechnic and encyclopedic — throwing everything and the kitchen sink into every sentence. Pynchon perhaps? Years ago, I enjoyed Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale as entertainment (despite his politics) but had to wade through his rhapsodic, verbose style to do so. I find the same here – the surfeit of references, real and imaginary, leaves me glancing ahead.

Perhaps ironically, the style seems to me to come from the movies, where explosions and sudden changes in camera angle keep the audience engaged. Not sure it works in literature myself, or in non-fiction (Godel Escher Bach I’m looking at you).

I am only part way through (hey, you only gave us a year), and the enthusiasm of the writers here will keep me going in the hope that the story and the characters can rise above the style.

6

glen_david_gold 05.25.11 at 11:58 am

Mr. bad Jim: There are gaps in my education — I’m unfamiliar with most of Ibsen, so that story is unfamiliar to me. I’m more familiar with the work of the devil, however, and that anecdote fits in his particular oeuvre.

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