Gates of Paradise

Gates of Paradise

by Ethan Coen

Doubleday, 12.99, 288pp

The Boys

I'm a fan of the Coen brothers' films, and with this burden of expectation approached Ethan Coen's volume of short stories, Gates of Eden, with enthusiasm. What the short story and the film script share is economy - succinct use of voice and narration, specific directions of tableau and mise-en-scene. Of course, you can't entirely read one genre through another, but the desire to create a context is all pervasive. I expected to see Barton Fink staring with incredulous defiance out of every page, to find the finely honed dialogue of Blood Simple keeping the reader riveted to the narrative. And I did, but only up to a point..

Barton's concern for the "common man" is there, and the "ordinary" always manages to become surreal - as indeed it must if we are to survive the horror of reality. Much like the character in the first story "Destiny", who subjects himself in a variety of ways to beatings - as failed boxer, failed sleuth - in order to become "a broader person". As with the films, Coen shows us another America, outside New York and LA - Vermillion, South Dakota, the heat of Texas, or the focus of this crisp passage from "I Killed Phil Shapiro", Minneapolis - "He moved us to Minneapolis. I lived in that strange frozen city where people's breath hovers about them, where fingers tingle and go dead, where spit snaps and freezes before it hits the ground".

The subject matter is also familiar - crime, ethnicity, brooding and ominous threat, betrayal, moral fable, absurdity, fetishism, and obsession. But these stories have their own lives beyond Ethan Coen's rich script-writing talents. There's immense variation in narrative structure - monologues, first and third person narratives, dialogues, and variations on these. And despite the "dramatic" effect and the parallels with scriptwriting in pieces such as "Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator", and "The Old Boys" (the weakest pieces in the volume), you feel there are moments when Coen could only have achieved the effects he is searching for through the medium of the short story.

The publishers would have us believe that Coen is at his best when he's "sending up" genre writers such as Hammett and Chandler, but irony is shallow if not backed up by a voice that arouses sympathy - in a genre of one-dimensional characters some of Coen's are too one-dimensional! Abjection plays a large part in these anti-genre pieces, and does work well on occasions, but most often it's predictable and something we've all read before. The parodic "gum shoe" stories do work as darkly humorous fables, but are really sketches that require a camera to fill in the background, create atmosphere. Something always implicit in Chandler and Hammett's finest moments.

Absurdity, such a useful device when dealing with the grotesque - a chewed-off ear, the state of a corpse - is easily overused. But some of the stories do lift themselves out of the mundane - particularly those dealing with the rites of passage and the childhood-family dichotomies of a Jewish upbringing. The necessity to "kill" the father to move into adulthood, the question of patriarchal identity. Freud is never far away in this Oedipal book.

In the title story the middle-aged and out of shape Weights and Measures Man, Joe, is, underneath his obsessive and pedantic exterior, craving the delicate, the "doll-like" in the form of Miss Ohara, Japanese "princess". This is a book about boys, about becoming "man". It is understated in many ways, but at other times it hits you with a sledgehammer. In "A Morty Story", the younger male narrator mocks his Uncle Morty, to the annoyance of his girlfriend Astrid whom Morty likes. We feel a defensiveness in this, that this is what our narrator might eventually become - "For some reason Uncle Morty had reminded me of Edward G. Robinson... he had that short square bellied body and his nipples were big and saggy with dark hair sworled around them."Admirably, the book struggles with the identity of maleness and the way it manifests itself socially, without erasing women. Sexuality, power, ambition, and their loss are interwoven. After all, Joe ends up with nothing but longing and "pain in his heart" - the gates of Eden are enticing but deceptive.

What it is to be "me", to be part of the drama of living, to move through being child to becoming father. We read in the superb story, "The Boys": "What was it about the boys? His anger swelled at them and at a world he was certain would make losers of both of them, the one a suck-ass, the other a mute. Why should disappointment be propagated through another generation, a cruel snap traveling down an endless rope?" The father projects himself through his sons, fearing his own failings.

Here's a book where weaker individual pieces do actually work together to leave a lasting impression. At their best the stories find ground somewhere between Philip Roth and Chaim Potok - though lacking the emotional intensity of Potok - and at their worst they're like drafts towards something better. And herein lies my criticism of the book - tightly edited, it could have been a great book instead of an ordinary one with fine moments, such as when we read in "The Old Country" of the "darkness, and the silence, and the chaos inside" without which "there would be no horror, no misery, and no childhood."