Whenever I’m blocked, or stuck, or just don’t understand, I like to copy-type. It’s a tip I got from the saintly Frank Delaney, who left us last year. Nothing is better, if you write as well as read, for revealing the heft and rhythm of the sentences, where the punctuation goes, the breaths and the pauses, and the underlying pulse. I recommend it.
Not least because it allows me to say that much of The Long Take seems to work just as well when set out as prose. Sure, it’s written in verse lines, albeit without rhyme or assonance, but parts of it are almost discursive in tone. It appears in a poetry imprint, and in an unfamiliar trade format, but it is unmistakably a novel.
We have a long-standing problem with the poetic novel, and the novel in verse. For the second, blame Vikram Seth, whose The Golden Gate was flatly unfinishable, or at best un-rereadable. For the first, blame T. S. Eliot. Both of them have some relevance here. In an infamous introduction to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, Eliot came on like a Soho bookseller who promises there is more specialised material for discerning gentlemen in the back shop. His point was that there are novels that might appeal more to readers of poetry than to those who merely want a yarn with a beginning, middle and end.
Possibly so. The Long Take is that very rare thing in modern publishing, the long poem. It is by a poet, and is poetic, if the word means anything much at all. It is also an extraordinary yarn. It takes its knightly protagonist, whose grail is a fifth of cheap booze, from one waste land to another, and then back to a primal one. It neuters him, or renders him as ambiguous and all-seeing as Tiresias. It is a fire sermon and an ode to the unburied dead. It begins in a cruel month, colder even than a northern April, at the end of a war.
The story is that of Walker – no other name disclosed, but it defines him – a Nova Scotian and a traumatised D-Day veteran, on the loose in New York City in 1946. Walker is that other modernist trope, a camera eye, shuttering the cityscape in a series of vivid monochromes. One of the book’s attractive but disturbing oddities is the juxtaposition of ‘still’ images you wish might quicken into motion and moving images that you very much hope will stop soon. It’s a story not so much influenced by as haunted by the noir movie-making of its period. In a New York bar, Walker meets director Robert Siodmak, who sees or maybe mistakes something in the Canadian’s eyes – ‘what we call deep focus. Long eyes for seeing’ – and invites him out to the West Coast.
There are three landscapes in The Long Take: a California that is just about to surren-der its frontier status to the developers and to uneasy permanence, a Normandy whose Old World identity is as fragile as glass, and an upcountry Nova Scotia, culturally Scottish, physically untouched. Robertson’s text is presented in different fonts, with Italic representing deep memory, whether of war or an idyllic youth, and bold his occasional writings. With his deep focus and long eyes, he gets a job as a newspaperman, jumping out of the frying pan of fighting the SS Hitlerjugend with the North Novas and into the fire of the city beat.
For Walker, and it is banal to put it so literally, the war is not over. Death is as casual on the streets of LA as it was in the fields and allées of northern France. The physical destruction of property – quietly framed in the French scenes by a house full of Murano glass and icons in vitrines, with a dead child spread-eagled in a pool of red outside, possibly a Spielberg steal – is matched by the physical demolition and redevelopment of the old Bunker Hill and the displacement of its population. For this is not just a poetic novel but – even more unfashionably – a political novel, an often savage but certainly unflinching protest against greed and exploitation. It is the California that Robert Frost – normally thought of as a New England poet – thought of as a ‘night of dark intent’, the moment when frontier as a process reached frontier as a physical fact and folded back on itself. But not only a night, as Frost put it in ‘Once By The Pacific’, ‘not only a night, an age. / Someone had better be prepared for rage.’
Walker’s rage grows steadily. Some of it focuses on his fellow newsman Pike, who seems to gather up all the vices of the age in one smug, lanky frame. But Pike is also a poetic device, or a jazzman’s repeated melodic phrase. The Long Take is not so much a film noir as a long improvisation on a handful of themes. The title seems to refer to the virtuosic shooting of a getaway scene in a film by Joseph H. Lewis, another of the real life characters who people the book. Walker (and Robertson) reveal in the technical detail – an opened-up Caddy, the cameraman in a jockey’s saddle on a greased plank, button microphones, ad libbed script – but it’s the rhythm and cadence of the detail that matters more than the detail itself. Likewise the lovingly mapped and recreated geography of downtown LA between 1946 and 1958. Likewise the chorus-character Billy Idaho, who personalises the city’s sharp social decline. Likewise the tiny but perfectly positioned detail of an elderly lady in a rooming house who fusses over a series of ailing rodent pets – hamsters, cavies, rats? – in a shoebox, all of them called Alfredo. This is beautifully done.
Sometimes, though, the detail trips, especially when the research is too obviously flagged. One gets used to the movie sets and the big name directors – Siodmak, Dassin, Aldrich, Zinnemann, Tourneur – and it’s safe to accept that if Robertson names a location and a movie that it was made there as and when he says it was. In other ways, though, the period detail clunks like product placement, as when a guy in a bar proffers a pack of filtered Kents and tells us they’re new, and the whole scene seems to freeze and smile at the camera. Or when Marilyn appears in the very first issue of Playboy – October 1 1953, from memory – or when Charlie Parker, same age as Walker, keels over in a rich woman’s apartment on March 12 1955, a date even more securely remembered if you’re a jazz fan.
All this is incidental, though. The Long Take is put together like a jazz solo, not one of Parker’s proto-hip-hop scorchers, but something by Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, deceptively slow, full of sublimated anger and, yes, poetic. In the middle, as a (no pun intended) bridging section, Walker moves to San Francisco for a time to research homelessness and urban decay. The fogs that swirl round the Golden Gate, the cool in the air, are a reminder of Dunvegan, Inverness County, Cape Breton. The evocation of the city knocks Vikram Seth’s yuppy cleverness into a small cocked hat.
Like Hawkins and Young, Robertson understands that poetry can survive not just discord but also a prosaic plainness. There are passages in The Long Take that might come from Lewis Mumford or Jane Jacobs, but their presence doesn’t diminish but instead enhances the musicality of the whole structure. It is hard to believe that Robertson (born 1955) couldn’t have been in the places he describes and only read about them or watched them on screen. When Sebastian Faulks tried to capture a similar world in On Green Dolphin Street one sensed and shared his desire to be there, without quite believing he ever had been. Robertson has a few generic moments in his description of combat – and here the Faulks analogy would be Birdsong – but the utter rawness of the Normandy scenes are undiminished by them.
For Walker, the war is not over. The flashbacks and symptoms of PTSD – or what would have been called ‘battle fatigue’ – are episodic and Robertson doesn’t dwell on them. What he does instead is build them into a controlled crescendo. The closing choruses of The Long Take are quite remarkable. If The Waste Land is the Ur-text of modernist/postmodernist writing – and it is almost explicitly alluded to in an early, New York image like ‘At night, the river rolls and turns like oil…’ – it reasserts itself at the end, when the San Andreas fault, the Santa Ana wind, encroaching wildfires and the rubble of Bunker Hill are the background chords to Walker’s moment of quiet self-determination. His final line (and Robertson’s) has a whiff of Manifest Destiny but because of that it is almost biblical, too. I won’t quote it here, but you better read it twice, thrice, more, in order to savour its stoical pride and multiple irony. A great novel? A great poem? Only really matters to the prize committees and the shelf-stackers.