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A Life Worth Living (2006)

     by Edward Burke

          from Nocturne with Variations, 2005


There are a lot of interesting things going on in this story, but, sadly, not all of them are interesting in the way one hopes quality literature will be.


We start out in post-WWI Paris, which is described thoroughly and interestingly enough to fool me into thinking we might be heading somewhere awesome before the protagonist, "Long" Chaney (no, it's not a surprise porno story... just a tragic, tragic typo) arrives. It was not an auspicious beginning, but I was excited by a novel choice in time period and focus, so I tried to ride it out anyway.


Unfortunately, the use of Lon Chaney as a protagonist was a serious stumbling block for me throughout the story, which is a shame because it’s something I really like the concept of! Historical fiction that takes real characters (like Henry V, for example) and uses them as protagonists can be great, but it's very difficult to do the same thing both satisfyingly and appropriately for someone who is only historical by a few decades. While Burke goes to great lengths to incorporate parts of Chaney's real-life biography, including details on his family and circumstances, these end up being a lot less enriching than they are kind of creepy. It's one thing to discuss the secret passions of Henry V, who nobody in living memory has even an inkling about, but it's quite another to start ascribing thoughts and emotions to a man who died comparatively recently and whose very much alive and actively preserving his legacy family might not appreciate it. It feels disrespectful, in a way, to presume to take over the life and emotional state of a person who hasn't been consigned to the realms of legend and fairy tales.


Mind you, I don't think that you can't effectively use real people in your fiction; sometimes it's done amazingly. But, in most cases, it's a much better idea to allow real people to be characters but not to make them first-person protagonists, because it lets you direct their actions without the hubris of presuming to know what they thought and felt on certain subjects. I have no doubt that Chaney was a wonderful fellow in many regards, but Burke constantly informing me what he thought or felt or what his political opinions were left a bad taste in my mouth. Were I Chaney, I would want rise from the grave and punch him in the mouth.


Burke's clearly got a love of the original 1925 Julian/Chaney silent film; possibly too strong a love of it, since it often manifests in the inclusion of incidental details such as the dimensions of the stage that, while neat and clearly well researched, actually don't do anything for the narrative except bog it down.


Speaking of the narrative, the editing in this monster, which is easily twice as long as both other stories in the volume combined, is frankly painful. While the writing style itself is decently crisp and descriptive, the constant typos, misspellings and suspiciously incorrect word usage make it impossible to enjoy. Extra spaces! Extra commas! Missing commas! Missing articles! Missing question marks! Bold emphasis instead of italics! "Long" Chaney, coming back soon on page 34 for an encore! It gave me a goddamned headache is what it did.


Another pitfall of using a real person as a major character is inflexibility. Burke tries to introduce various plot elements that don't jibe with Chaney's actual recorded history, which makes it difficult to take things seriously. For example, while it's been a long-passed-around story that Carl Laemmle, the producer of the first Phantom film, met Gaston Leroux and got the idea for adapting the story from him (some people disagree with this story, notably Riley - the other one! - in his 1999 book, but it's the official version), Chaney embarking on a highly-publicized tour of the Opéra Garnier with Leroux is very definitely something that never happened.


More specific things about Chaney's childhood and life, including discussion of his deaf-mute parents and second wife Hazel, give way to what I assume are inventions of Burke's, primarily a childhood fascination with carnivals and freak shows. Burke goes to great lengths to describe audiences jeering and spitting on freak show performers, to an almost hyperbolic extent that suggests he might be pulling some inspiration from the depiction of the carnival show in the then-new 2004 Schumacher/Butler film. Unfortunately, much as I have no issue with painting Chaney in a positive light, the continual stream of consciousness ascribing various unsubstantiated political and social beliefs to him is pretty grating. I mean, how hard would it have been to write this story about, say, Chaney's fictional personal assistant, or his guide through the opera house, or anybody else you would have had total and free creative control over?


After an unrealistically evil carnival master starts beating a dwarf worker on page 44, Chaney completes his transformation into the Batman and knocks the guy over in a heroic rescue before half-strangling him to death and stealing his wallet. I could have been annoyed by the ridiculousness; I could have been annoyed by the randomness and the thinly-disguised attempt to relate Chaney's story to the Phantom's backstory in the 2004 film (and Forsyth novel); but mostly I was just busy looking despairing after Chaney, upon being asked who he was, said in the most exquisitely poignant fashion that he was "someone who can whup your ass when it needs to be whupped." It was at this point that I mostly gave up.


If I weren't annoyed enough already, Burke does a lot of what I assume is unintentional belittling of Michael, the dwarf, by using diminutive and childlike (and in some cases, vaguely insulting) imagery and descriptors for him. You can see that he was at some pains to use proper terminology, but infantilizing the character kind of undercuts the whole attempt to be sensitive toward physical disability.


Burke's making an obvious attempt to parallel the defeated carnival ringmaster and Laemmle, under whose reign Chaney is chafing, but it's a pretty graceless and obvious parallel, and the cloying moral of seeing past differences to the human heart within is presented with all the subtlety of a shot to the face. It's not an inappropriate moral for a Phantom-related story (though it is a simplistic one), but it's so clumsy that it makes itself look bad. And Chaney, who is by now not only Batman but Jesus, too, is boring and annoying the everliving snot out of me with his "and then I took the poor disenfranchised dwarf home and let him stay in my house and gave him a huge sum of money and found him a job so he could live free" adventure, which mostly just exists to sympathize the actor into the bedrock of our brains (apparently with a jackhammer) and to use a person of short stature as a sacrificial lamb to make someone of average height look better.


Burke is now indulging in the new and exciting practice of overusing words like they might run out of them tomorrow. Particularly lovely is this gem from page 60:


"The French taxi slid sinuously through the fog like a shark, sharply cutting the enveloping moisture in front, making an open path for the body to slide through, then allowing the fog to heal behind it, closing off any trace of a path through the fog. The taxi drive maneuvered the taxi slowly through the fog..."


And then on page 62:


"'The fog slows us down, monsieur," said the driver. 'Without the fog, it would have been only a twenty minute drive, but with the fog, it may be up to thirty more minutes. I am very sorry.'"




Burke tries very hard to cultivate an aura of realism, but when Chaney and Leroux are striding around the Garnier sub-basements together talking about how they can't visit the "lair" because the water level is too high (incidentally, betraying influence from later versions - Leroux's Phantom lived in a rather nice house, and it was only in much later versions that the term "lair" became popular, particularly in Lloyd Webber's musical's progeny), the realistic aura he's trying to perpetuate is suffering somewhat. This is unfortunate, because his several limping attempts to create mysterious suspense (WHAT COULD IT MEAN that there's something disturbing the water and Chaney sees a shadow following from the corner of his eye?) could really have used some help. By the time Leroux reveals that the Phantom was real (and his buddy!) all along, ha ha, to an astonished Chaney, I was nodding off.


By wading through all the typos and outright spelling errors, you can enjoy the spellbinding conclusion in which Leroux explains that he's the only friend Erik has ever had (why did Erik decide to make friends with him? Nobody elaborates) and he wrote down his story so the world would sympathize with him, though naturally he's still living in a basement sewer anyway. In case you wanted to have some further things to be confused and/or pissed about, he also explains on page 79 that he had to change the story substantially "for political considerations", and that he regrettably had to end up "making the deChagny family the heroes instead of the black villains they truly were." Oh, goodie. And here I was worried that nobody was going to take a swing at Raoul in this story. Why were they villains? What did they do? WHO KNOWS. IT IS A MYSTERY. THEY WERE, OKAY?


Oh, and Erik is very emo on page 80 because he has to continue living in the basement on account of being a wanted murderer, and those nasty policemen want to "make me pay for the crimes they think I committed, never listening to my cries of true innocence." One assumes those dastardly de Chagnys must have done... you know, whatever it is he didn't do.


The story finally closes with Chaney heading back off to Hollywood, now armed and ready to totally act exactly like the real Phantom, who is totally factual and stuff. This could have been charming in a more adventurous style or with more tongue-in-cheek tone, but as it is, it falls short of all its goals.

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