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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The photo above was taken by Doug Kuntz, and accompanies Charles' Arrowsmith's Washington Post review of Are Snakes Necessary?:
Pitched in style somewhere between a film treatment and tabloid true crime, this debut novel is silly and uneven, sure, but it’s also fun, a pastiche of hard-boiled crime fiction that doesn’t scrimp on the lurid pleasures of the genre.

Sen. Lee Rogers, the “Hunk of the Hill,” a man gifted with “Columbia Law School dazzle” but compromised by a “zipper problem,” is running for reelection in Pennsylvania. Fanny Cours, an 18-year-old videographer “in the full flush of carnality” and the daughter of an old flame of Rogers, is determined to join the senator’s campaign. Beefing up the supporting cast are ruthless campaign heavy Barton Brock, who’ll do anything it takes to protect his candidate; Nick Sculley, a photographer always on the lookout for a story; and Elizabeth de Carlo (or is it Diamond? or Black?), a jailbird-turned-agony aunt who’ll play anyone for anything. There are also a $5 million Basquiat, a remake of “Vertigo” and some implausible coincidences in the mix.

Jean-Luc Godard maintains, perhaps waggishly, that film tells the truth 24 times a second. De Palma, though, believes the opposite, and “Are Snakes Necessary?” litigates the competing claims. De Palma has spent a lifetime exploring the metaphysics of recording technology and of scopophilia, showing us how observation can deceive as much as it reveals. He has shown us the gaze, the camera lens, the telescope as mediums not just of looking but of participating, of penetrating. Think of “Body Double,” De Palma’s “Rear Window”/“Vertigo” remix, in which Craig Wasson’s voyeur becomes an accidental stooge in a murder case. Or of “Blow Out,” whose central crime is exposed when John Travolta syncs an audio recording with film footage of an accident. In both cases, the passive observer becomes the active protagonist.

Likewise Fanny, who shoots webisodes for the Rogers campaign aimed at revealing the real senator, turns out to be “the antithesis of the fly on the wall.” Fanny comes straight from the Godard school: Through her video work, she says, “I want to see, really see, the truth behind things. The naked truth.” Her more jaded colleagues are skeptical. “The camera is a come-on,” she’s told. “People instinctively flirt with it.” And sure enough, Fanny’s soon involved with Rogers and the campaign videos are starting to tell the wrong story: “Every time he looks towards the camera he’s batting his eyelashes,” her friend points out. Before long, the sinister Brock decides that something must be done about the problem intern.

Many crime writers, notably Elmore Leonard, have found ways of updating the hard-boiled genre while retaining its vim and demotic panache. De Palma and Lehman, while giving their story a conspicuously contemporary setting (Twitter, iPhones, 9/11, Ferguson), have aimed less at modernizing than simply transplanting its styles and tropes to the 21st century. As pastiche, this partly works, but it may have a distancing effect on readers.

“Her stiff yellow apron barely contains her voluptuous curves,” we’re told when we first meet Elizabeth de Carlo, the most fatale of the book’s femmes — and while she may in fact turn out to be an agent of violent female empowerment, there’s something retrogressive about her presentation. Perhaps a hint of cool irony can be detected here that some readers will enjoy, but it feels more like an opportunity missed.

The book’s chauvinistic dialogue is another sticking point. While it’s obviously an intentional stylistic effect, it feels anachronistic to see women labeled “doll” and “kid,” and it’s hard for characters to breathe when corseted by lines like “Now, be a good girl and get dressed.” Elsewhere, melodramatic overtones threaten to tip some scenes into the absurd: “This is a problem for me, Senator,” says Fanny at one point. “It’s a problem because you are married — to someone else.” It certainly lacks Raymond Chandler’s combative dazzle or the stylish malevolence of a James Ellroy.

Still, the chapters zip by with the pace and economy of scenes in a movie, and there are enough good jokes — notably the Chekhovian use of a bottle of perfume named “Déjà Vu!” — and plot twists to pass the time guiltily enough.

Scott Adlerberg, Criminal Element
We are in prime De Palma territory here; the list of De Palma protagonists who work with film or video—with images—who engage with the world through a lens of some kind, is long. While they may think they fully understand what they are seeing through their lenses, appearances can be deceptive. What the artiste-technician captures in the end, more often than not, is disturbing—even devastating. The quest to discover something, to shed light on a mystery or dig deeper into a situation, almost never, in De Palma, works out as intended.

Are Snakes Necessary? has three plot strands. One follows a beautiful young woman named Elizabeth. She gets recruited by a political operative named Barton Brock to help him conduct a dirty trick against a senatorial candidate. After that, she reinvents herself as the wife of a Las Vegas mogul, and then she reinvents herself again as something entirely different.

A second strand involves the photographer, Nick Sculley, who has dreams of publishing a photo essay book that will chronicle, in a way he imagines masterful, the progression of a couple’s relationship. He crosses paths with Elizabeth and they have an intense fling.

Last we have the videographer, 18-year-old Fanny Cours, who is idealistic and impressionable. Through a connection her mother had to the senator Barton Brock once devised a dirty trick against, she talks herself into becoming the senator’s official video chronicler for his newest reelection campaign. A series of webisodes she shoots will be posted on the senator’s Facebook page and will aim to show the public a side of Senator Lee Rogers that it has never seen before.

Things get complicated when the senator, a long-time philanderer, starts sweet-talking Fanny. She begins to fall in love with him and thinks his proclamations of affection for her are genuine. He happens to have a wife of many years, though, a woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and none of what transpires between Fanny and Rogers sits well with the senator’s fixer, the aforementioned Barton Brock.

Wasn’t Brock working against Senator Rogers earlier? He was, but this is politics, after all. Allegiances are mutable, and loyalty can be bought. Barton is nothing if not professional, and when he decides the senator must be protected if Rogers is to maintain his public reputation and win the election race he’s in, Fanny finds herself in danger.

De Palma and Lehman tell the story in the present tense, keeping the language tight but casual. The book does read something like a cross between a novel and a movie script, complete with short scenes and quick transitions. Backstory on the characters is supplied as needed, tersely, and the novel’s continual forward momentum carries you along.

De Palma’s films, the thrillers in particular, frequently have a dreamlike quality that embraces the absurd and the ludicrous, to most enjoyable effect, and Are Snakes Necessary? is no different. Through a chance meeting, Elizabeth winds up living in a place you’d never expect, doing a somewhat ridiculous job, but that plot development has a wonderful payoff in the end. What starts for Lee Rogers as a mere dalliance with a staffer turns into lurid melodrama at its finest. And when subterfuge is needed by someone, as we’ve seen in more than one De Palma film, what does the trick better than a skin-clinging mask? As explained, it’s “Some sort of rubber thing, the kind you pull over your whole head, like on Halloween. In the half-light it looks almost real.”

And, a brief Twitter post from Michael Pereira:
Finished reading Brian De Palma’s first novel Are Snakes Necessary (co-written by Susan Lehman) & it was a hell of a pulpy page-turner! Pure De Palma. A must-read for fans. Best thing he’s done since Femme Fatale.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, March 25, 2020 8:14 AM CDT
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