(Note: The following essay originally appeared in Newsday, under a different title, and in a more closely edited form.)
Call Me Elton...
In the past, celebrities confined their literary output to autographs, autobiographies, and the occasional hammy potboiler. (Can a paragraph overact? See the novels of Kirk Douglas for convincing proof of this premise.) Today, however, the publishing industry is plagued with too few readers and too many books. Over 1.3 million titles are currently in print, and approximately 50,000 new ones appear each year. Such an environment makes the homely librarian's sop ring more falsely than ever: books do get judged by their covers, so it helps to have a well-known name attached. In the past few months, bibliophiles have thus been blessed with an eclectic trilogy of booklike products: an Oliver Stone travel guide to sixties-era Viet Nam brothels; Elton John's reflections on flowers (he likes them); and a 42-page recovered memory from John Travolta's inner child.
Narrow-minded bookists may deride the free-style innovations of these efforts: Travolta employs only one side of each page, for example, and in Stone's hands, punctuation becomes a torture device that severely tests the reader's loyalty. (A typical sentence. Stopsandstarts. Like. This.) But to focus on these idiosyncracies is to miss the undeniable virtue of these books: they offer the most revealing look at celebrity currently available. When stars forsake the standard celebrity autobiography formula, when they veer from its familiar template of early ambition, the lonely perfection of one's art, success, and subsequent crisis, and attempt different forms--the novel, the coffee table book--the self-portraits that emerge are generally far more interesting, even when revelation isn't exactly the intention. As someone once said--Montaigne? Sammy Davis, Jr.?--all writing is autobiography. When celebrities man the keyboards, that seems especially true.
Indeed, in the case of Oliver Stone's recently published novel, A Child's Night Dream, self-revelation often crosses into the gamier territory of outright exhibitionism. Stone wrote the bulk of this book when he was nineteen; at that age, misguided romanticism often dictates a need for uncensored "honesty" and Stone, straining with arrogance and ambition and all the weighty books he's read, with their grand ideas about Sex and Death and Meaning, falls prey to it: "Do come. With your erection. It may wish to emote. In tune with Truth…" he incants in the novel's first paragraph, setting the tone for the Penthouse Forum-style sex scenes and intellectual flashing that follows.
As a novel, A Child's Night Dream is less than compelling, a wildly uneven, impressionistic mishmash of incidents and ideas in search of a plot and some greater purpose. As a document of early ambition, however, the book is fascinating. You see Stone's vouyerstic eye for the vivid detail, you see the self-absorption that it takes to make a career of creating and recreating one's own version of the world. Most of all, you see the nascent myth-maker's desire to tell big, meaningful stories--even though he doesn't really have one to tell yet. In an effort to scale his material to his grand vision, Stone resorts to gratuitous technique, employing exclamation points at a rate that rivals the National Enquirer's, and overloading his sentences with those unnecessary periods to lend them a sense of urgency they lack at the level of pure content. In a press release blurb for the novel, Norman Mailer declares that Stone, had he continued writing fiction, would now be "a major American writer." But what the A Child's Night Dream mostly shows is that Stone made the right career choice: film, with its limited capacity for interior monologue, forced him out of his own head. And with its emphasis on spectacle, and its relentless 24-frames-per-second pace, it's a much better medium for the sort of gimmicky overkill that Stone tends toward. Endless exclamation points get old fast, but big explosions and acid-trip montages always delight.
Like Stone, Elton John generally keeps whatever impulses he has toward subtlety well-guarded; what's ironic about Elton John's Flower Fantasies, then, is the subtle portrait of the singer that emerges from its superficial focus on the material things with which he accessorizes his museum-quality home. At first, the book, written by Caroline Cass, seems like nothing more than a print version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: a photo of John's Regency candelabra follows a photo of his Italian garden, which follows a photo of his silk vermillion Versace dressing gown and embroidered slippers.
After a chapter or two, however, this close focus on John's possessions begins to seem a little strange. The book's subtitle promises an "intimate tour of [John's] houses and garden," but only on rare occasion does he actually show up in the book's dozens of beautiful photos; ultimately, his absence creates a mood that's more sterile than intimate. No doubt John had the maid straighten up and vacuum before the photographers arrived, but really, the house looks less lived in than a furniture ad.
"If I am on 'Top of the Pops' I don't watch because I can't bear looking at myself," John confesses at one point, and after viewing all those photos of his home in which he has pretty much removed any corporeal trace of himself, it's impossible not to see how that sentiment colors this project as well. His house is his perfect body double, the flawless beauty he can never be. To exist in it, to break its spell with his own frumpy countenance is to spoil the flower fantasy he works so hard to create. For many years, John consumed huge amounts of alcohol and drugs; now, apparently, he uses white cymbidiums, pink camellias—an amazing 1000 flowers a week--to satiate the sad self-loathing his vanity generates.
Vanity also lies at the heart of Propeller One Way Night Coach, John Travolta's slim volume about an eight-year-old boy's first airplane flight. Instead of self-loathing, Travolta's vanity engenders an almost sociopathic unawareness of his own mediocrity. Everything about Propeller One Way Coach insists on its charm--its faux naïve illustrations, its blue type, its genesis as a Christmas gift from Travolta to 75 family members and friends. But despite the warm, fuzzy marketing sentiment, the book is a charm vacuum, a what-I-did-on-my-vacation bore de force where clumsy syntax battles bland description for preeminence, and where only the plane's forward progress and the determined reader's ability to keep turning pages provide narrative momentum.
Travolta calls his story a "fable for all ages." While it doesn't really live up to this denomination--there's no explicit moral in evidence--it is fairly instructive on a subtextual level. The lesson here: if you are very, very famous, the fortunate recipient of constant, often baseless adulation, you will likely lose all perspective on the relative merits of your work. And when you do, no one, not your family and your closest friends, not your agent or your publicist or the editor who speak of your "amazingly versatile talents" on book jackets, will be brave enough to tell you how awful some of that work truly is. Who, one keeps wondering, were the sycophantic "200 readers [who] responded to the book so positively" that Travolta decided to share it with the world? Does everyone want a screenplay deal that badly?
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