Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mildred Pierce: "Southern California abominations"

"If there are more vicious quarrels in print than those in which these characters indulge their sadism I have not seen them. (...) That this is a novel that, once begun, will almost surely be read to the end is understandable, for it has in it the deep, slow pull of the ancient ooze where worms and serpents crawled; it reflects no codes, no restrictions, and none but the primordial necessities.  It is a bath in sensation."

That's Robert van Gelder writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1941.  The book in question is James M. Cain's potboiler Mildred Pierce and when van Gelder said the novel was bathed in sensationalism, I think he was politely holding back.  He began that review by saying, "the entire cast of this novel is made up of Southern California abominations."  In anticipation of the HBO mini-series which premieres tonight, I started reading Mildred Pierce yesterday.  I'm only a few dozen pages into it, but I can already tell this is one book that went around kicking the feet out from under stuffy do-gooders of post-Depression America.  It's a wonder it got published at all.

The book opens with a peaceful scene of a man doing yard work on a hot afternoon in Glendale, California.  He goes inside, takes a bath, gets dressed, then walks to the kitchen where his wife is icing a cake.  They talk about the weather and the husband casually mentions he might take a stroll down the street since he has nothing better to do.  Suddenly, the mood turns and the wife snaps at him, blades in her voice:
     "She's waiting for you, so go on."
     "Who's waiting for me?"
     "I think you know."
     "If you're talking about Maggie Biederhof, I haven't seen her for a week, and she never did mean a thing to me except somebody to play rummy with when I had nothing else to do."
     "That's practically all the time, if you ask me."
     "I wasn't asking you."
     "What do you do with her?  Play rummy with her a while, and then unbutton that red dress she's always wearing without any brassieres under it, and flop her on the bed?  And then have yourself a nice sleep, and then get up and see if there's some cold chicken in her icebox, and then play rummy some more, and then flop her on the bed again?  Gee, that must be swell.  I can't imagine anything nicer than that."
Meet Mr. and Mrs. Pierce, Bert and Mildred.  Don't get too cozy with them, however, because they're about to split up.  In fact, in a few minutes Bert will be storming out of the house and their marriage will be kaput.  As they argue about Bert's "flopping" with Maggie B., Cain writes: "They spoke quickly, as though they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit."

It's a helluva gangbusters way to open a novel.  Cain doesn't take the time to stop and give much exposition about the adultery, he just brings you right in when the marital simmer has reached a rapid boil.  From this point forward (at least up through the first 45 pages I've read), Mildred Pierce is a fast-moving, hard-hitting account of divorce, abandonment, unemployment, suffering, and humiliation.  Cain is brutal in what he says as well as how he says it--short, direct sentences that feel like punches clipping the underside of the reader's jaw.  I can imagine there were plenty of readers back in 1941 who didn't even make it as far as page 20 before casting the book aside in horror.  Cain was, in one sense, the Chuck Palahniuk of his day.

The novel is not without its critics, of course.  The Village Voice recently called it "a two-fisted, corn-fed, star-spangled Madame Bovary."  Hey, I happened to like Madame B., so that's pretty much a ringing endorsement as far as I'm concerned.

Though I'm still early in the novel and I generally like to wait until the final page before giving my full assessment, I can tell right from the start that Mildred Pierce is going to be a loop-de-loop ride through a noir-colored sky.  Cain writes like a man full of lust and rage and it's easy to interpret his work as cynical and unkind toward women, even though Mildred Pierce eventually rises above the sexual oppression of the 1940s and does well for herself as a businesswoman in a businessman's world (it's no coincidence that the top choice for Michael Curtiz' movie was one of the most mannish actresses of her era).  There's certainly the pull of the chauvinistic, "ancient ooze" in this description of the novel's main character: "And Mildred's figure got her attention in any crowd and all crowds.  She had a soft, childish neck that perked her head up at a pretty angle; her shoulders drooped, but gracefully; her brassiere ballooned a little, with an extremely seductive burden."  Only a man cut from Mad Men cloth would label breasts "seductive burdens."

I've seen the Joan Crawford version of Mildred Pierce, so I know the real focus of the story is the live-wire relationship between Mildred and her spoiled, scheming daughter Veda.  Cain writes: "Mildred doted on her, for her looks, her promise of talent, and her snobbery, which hinted at things superior to her own commonplace nature."  The relationship is rife with all the ingredients of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy combined; both the book and the 1945 movie are brutal in their portrayal of how Veda bites Mommy Dearest with a sharpened serpent's tooth.

Speaking of that Oscar-winning movie, I found this interesting tidbit in Joseph Blotner's biography of William Faulkner:
James M. Cain's story of a divorcee and her lover, Mildred Pierce, had been undertaken by Jerry Wald and temporarily renamed House on the Sand.  When he had a completed script in hand, he asked for Faulkner to make changes.  By November 18, the end of his first week, Faulkner had reworked much of it.  Then, at a story conference, he met the director, Mike Curtiz, known to some as a "butcher."  After his lengthy comments elicited only silence from Faulkner, he turned on him.  "Why don't you say something?" he said.  Faulkner rose and left the room without answering.  Back in his office, he began drinking.  It took Jo Pagano and another writer, Tom Reed, to get him off the lot safely.
Even though I don't subscribe to HBO (we're a Showtime household), I'm looking forward to the mini-series with Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pearce.  In fact, I'm so anxious to see Todd Haynes' five-and-a-half-hour version, I'll be checking into a hotel to do so.*  I was already interested in the new Mildred based on my fanboy love for Kate Winslet, but this preview shoved me right over the edge of the cliff:

By comparison, here's the trailer for the original 1945 Mildred Pierce:

"Haven't I given you...everything?"

*This is not as slavish as it sounds because I'll be on a business trip and living in a hotel anyway.  Still, I thought I'd throw it in for effect.


  1. Did you ever finish reading the book?

    what did you think of part 5 of the HBO series?

  2. candypants,

    I'm still working my way through Mildred. It's that old "Reading With My Octopus Hands" situation I've gotten myself into again: I'm juggling six books at the same time right now and, while I should have breezed through Cain's novel, I'm lagging behind on it. I can tell you, however, that it's very sharply-written, and probably one of the best portraits of a conflicted working woman during the Depression that I've ever read. Contrary to what you'd normally think of when you hear the words "James M. Cain," it's less of a noir thriller than it is a domestic drama. But, man oh man, can he write the hell out of a sentence!

    I haven't seen the HBO mini-series yet, despite all my best intentions. I'll probably have to wait until it hits DVD.

  3. ahhh yes the octopus hands! I have the same problem. Right now its : Madame Bovary, The Female Brain, My Life in France and tomorrow Im off to pick up Mildred Pierce from the Library.

    I know what you mean about writing the hell out of a sentence. I especially loved what you wrote about, "her brassiere ballooned a little, with an extremely seductive burden." I love sentences that stay with you for days. plus thats enough to turn a hetero woman on! But then again so is Kate Winslet. I adore her, I'd like to be her if at all possible. lol