Peter Selgin, Life Goes to the Movies,
Dzanc Books, 2009

Reviewed by John Madera

[Review Guidelines]


Peter Selgin's debut novel Life Goes to the Movies may be read in several ways: first, as a comic romp, with nods to On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas along the way. And like the colorful cast in Kerouac's novel—Dwaine Fitzgibbon the stand-in for Dean Moriarty, that famed "holy con-man with the shining mind"—the main characters in Life Goes to the Movies, take drop-everything-now cross-country trips, "doing something so frantic and rushing about." Like Kerouac's Sal, Nigel is a tabula rasa waiting to be inscribed. Selgin introduces Nigel drawing in an art class, commanded by his teacher to "blacken the space," referring to the white space of the empty page, "to desecrate it! Rape, plunder, and pillage it with your filthy black charcoal stick!" According to his art teacher, "there was no such thing as the color white," that what they considered to be white was "in fact an invisible broth of caliginous matter, light turned inside-out, darkness illuminated..." In Selgin's novel, we soon discover that, Nigel too, like an empty sheet of paper, is pristine, virginal, ripe for experience, for transgression. Later, Nigel confesses:

I didn't have whatever it took to be a real artist. Something was missing. Passion: that was the missing ingredient, the emotion for lack of which I often felt like a ghost haunting myself. That may be why I preferred the old black-and-white movies. I loved the dramatic intensity evoked by the collision of those two non-colors, along with endless shades of gray existing between them, how through rapidly shifting unequal intensities of light the stories unfolded. But my inner world wasn't black, white, or gray; it was simply colorless, like the bricks that built the hat factories of my hometown—bricks so dull they seemed more gray than red.

     Through a series of hilarious episodes, including lessons in the fine art of b-moviemaking, ill-fated trips to Miami Beach and Hollywood with Dwaine, a megalomaniacal Vietnam veteran, for whom movies are a "divine sacrament," as his guide, svengali, and provocateur, Nigel slowly metamorphoses, if not into a full-fledged, free thinking individual, then at least no longer the self-flagellating fledgling he is when the novel begins. And if his "inauspiciously dim early days" don't quite lead to a "dazzlingly bright future," Nigel still emerges bruised but not beaten, weathered but not worn out.
     Life Goes to the Movies may also be read as an experimental novel in which the language of cinema is used as a technical device for its internal structure, for its scaffolding—the novel, in other words, as a collection of linked shorts. Even without subtitles like "Farce," "Road Movie," "Western," "Adult feature," "Tearjerker," and the like, the reception is clear: Film references are layered on top of each other to create a kind of artificiality or irreality. Nigel's life has been transformed by the movies, thus virtually everything gets filtered through that lens, frame, screen. Here we find him first meeting Dwaine:

The smoking guy reminds me a bit of Brando, not the flabby-assed Marlon of Last Tango or The Godfather, but the young Marlon of Streetcar and On the Waterfront. He's got the same flattened brow and high bulbous forehead, its skin stretched shiny by whatever lurks whale-like under the bone. His lips are thinner, though, more like Jimmy Cagney's, and he's got a Gary Cooper squint to his eyes. His skin is dark, darker than my Italian skin: swarthy, I guess you could call it. There's something altogether dark about him, what exactly I can't say, but it's darker than this sheet of paper I've just finished covering with charcoal. But of all his parts that forehead is most impressive, so big it seems to charge ahead of the rest of him into the world. The eyes may be Gary Cooper's; the wavy dark hair may be John Garfield. But the forehead...the forehead is absolutely Brando.

     Passages like these, overloaded with cinematic glut (hardly a page in the novel is without a filmic parallel) accomplish several things. First, it reveals not only how many films Nigel has absorbed, but also how they have permeated and shaped the very way he looks at things, everything and everyone. "Sometimes the movie of our lives together was in sunny color," Nigel says, reflecting on his adventures with Dwaine, "sometimes in black-and-white. Lately it had been bluish gray: the grainy gray of an old black-and-white movie; the blue of Technicolor past its prime. The blue-gray of a damp November sky. Or of cheap cigar smoke." For Nigel, everything, including his own consciousness, refers back to movies. Through this extended device, Selgin craftily establishes that Nigel, seemingly an authority on film and a critical observer, actually sees through the lens, as it were, darkly. Imagine all the filmic references above excised, falling to the cutting room floor, and we have a very different character. With that in mind, observe how different Nigel becomes without his screens of interpretation.

"The smoking guy's got a flattened brow and high bulbous forehead, its skin stretched shiny by whatever lurks whale-like under the bone. His lips are thin and he's got a squint to his eyes. His skin is dark, darker than my Italian skin: swarthy, I guess you could call it. There's something altogether dark about him, what exactly I can't say, but it's darker than this sheet of paper I've just finished covering with charcoal. But of all his parts, that forehead is most impressive, so big it seems to charge ahead of the rest of him into the world."

     Nigel without the screens and filters actually comes across as more authoritative, more secure in himself, in other words, opposite to the character that Selgin has artfully created him to have. In his novel, Selgin is willing to risk losing some of the power of his scenes, in this case, the contrast between the virginal Nigel and the shadowy Dwaine, in order to emphasize that Nigel, with all of his clever film references, does not see things the way they are, is in fact someone who always sees things mediated by something else.
     In Life Goes to the Movies, Selgin, like Scorcese, a filmmaker beloved by Dwaine, uses long tracking shots, and plays with close-ups and medium shots to create a mise-en-scène articulating the emotions of the main characters. While Selgin often ironically uses camera and editing directions like high-angle crane shot, montage, dissolves, wipes, cross-fades, etc. in the novel—a signal of filmmaking's and novel writing's artifice—his most evocative scenes have no such intrusive direction. Take for instance the following settings:

Gulls wheel under a dome of powder blue sky. Dwaine hacks city smog and cigarette smoke from his lungs. Strands of seaweed cling to our tuxedoes. The morning sun invests everything with a lemony, prehistoric glow, the kind of light that I picture dinosaurs tromping through. With its bare dunes and mausoleum-like hotels the landscape feels oddly menacing, like walking into a De Chirico or a Dali." (75-76)

A lovely day, the sky a blue bowl dolloped with whipped clouds. It's spring, but with a wintry nip to the air. A chilled breeze stirs the buds of a copper beech tree. The beech trees are everywhere, with asphalt sidewalks winding around them and benches parked in their shade, one bench per tree. The grounds are pristine, no bottle caps, gum wrappers or cigarette butts anywhere to be seen. Except for the walls and fences, they could easily be the grounds of a typical second-tier northeastern college campus. (187-188)

     While certainly flawed, Dwaine also comes across as a kind of inspired visionary who "believed that it was every artist's duty to sharpen his senses and keep them look, look, look, and keep looking." In a strange turn, he posits that the artist must "drill through the third eye...shoot the sleeping Cyclops in the brain." Indeed, in Life Goes to the Movies, Selgin's unwavering eyes look, look, look, and keep looking, providing the reader with glistening comparisons like a "smoke ring that swims jelly-fish-like up to the ceiling" and rain clouds that are "pig-shaped with dark bellies," and detailed views of scenes like this one with

patterns made by torn bill postings on the sides of garbage dumpsters and plywood construction fences, the strip shadows hurled against a brick wall by the railing of a fire escape, the...moodiness of streetlamp's reflections in a puddle after a rain shower...the man in the raincoat dozing on the subway, the way his arm fell next to his side as he slept, the shiny smudge of saliva next to his mouth; the lady walking her mutt schnauzer in Gramercy Park; the guy selling chestnuts on the corner of Fifth and 49th, the way he shook the cold like a clinging cat from his legs.

     But there's another way to read Life Goes to the Movies that is, as a meditation on male-male friendship and desire, romance and lust. The novel is, as Selgin's epigraph reveals, a love story. In what has become kind of a cliché recently namely, a romance between seemingly heterosexual men (Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain and Junot Diaz's Drown come to mind), Nigel and Dwayne, too, fall in love. In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis and Jack, after their first sexual encounter,

never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, "I'm not no queer," and Jack jumped in with "Me neither. A one shot thing. Nobody's business but ours."

     Similarly, here is Dwaine and Nigel speaking after a botched attempt at intimacy:

"I'm not a homo," he said.
"Neither am I."
"But I am fucked-up."
"No, you're not."
"Yes I am, babe. You bet your ass I am. I'm fucked up and so are you. Only I'm too fucked up and you're not fucked up enough."

At a recent reading and talk with Samuel Delany at the Lannan Foundation, Junot Díaz, after reflecting on how most reviewers ignored the title-story of his collection Drown, and speculating that it may have had something to do with its homoerotic content, discussed how that story and the collection as a whole was a rumination on how masculinity was constructed in the Dominican immigrant community where he was raised. He talked about how entrenched homophobia was in his neighborhood and considered that "that homophobia was masking an enormous amount of homoeroticism, an enormous amount of give-and take in these sexual identities, that's what I was trying to get at in the story in some way..."
     Throughout Life Goes to the Movies, Selgin subtly and artfully reveals the homoerotic undercurrent of Dwaine and Nigel's friendship. It is this tension, this attraction that has Nigel doing everything he can to help Dwaine realize his cinematic vision. It is what drives his concern for Dwaine's mental health and well-being. This reader speculates that Nigel's ultimate failure to live within a continuum of intimacy is based on his failure to trust his feelings, to surrender to love. After their missed opportunity to consummate their love, Nigel reflects:

There are times in our lives that change us forever, or could have. Had I not been a square, insecure small-town kid from Connecticut this might have been one of them. Instead I had to switch on the light. Why? I should have let Dwaine get into bed with me; I should have let him do whatever it is that he wanted to do. Again why? Because it would have done no harm. Because we were both lonely animals burrowing in the dark, seeking warmth, comfort. Because life is short and that night especially was going to be long, very long. And because when you get down to it, aside from changing my life completely, it would have made no difference.

     And then, after Dwaine tearfully confesses: "You're my only friend...My only friend in the whole goddamn world," Nigel reflects that if Dwaine were a woman he "would have kissed him then, oh yes, I would have.' But instead of surrendering himself to love, of freeing himself from his square, insecure, small-town thinking, he "silently, secretly prayed to the eagle electric manufacturing company sign across the way, wishing it would swoop down and protect us, shield us with its tin wings."
     In his talk with Díaz, Samuel Delany, an authority on how sexual identity is constructed (his book of essays Shorter Views: Queer thoughts & The Politics of the Paraliterary, among many other works, confirms this claim), posited that "Many of the characters throughout the entire book (Drown) are drowning in the landscape in which they live... [T]he homosexuality ...has offered one of them a way out, and the other one doesn't want to take that way out at all. It was very powerful." In Life Goes to the Movies, Nigel, in his own way, is also drowning, drowning in his fears, hang-ups, insecurities, ambivalence, etc. Sadly, Nigel didn't take the way out when it came to him. But if he had, then perhaps we would not have Life Goes to the Movies: a tragicomic experimental novel saturated in Technicolor.