Good existentialism isn’t dead, even if it is dressed in unusual clothing like The Player, Michael Tolkin’s story about an amoral Hollywood executive more intrigued by puzzling, anonymous postcards than about why he murdered a screenwriter who he thought authored them.
The protagonist, Griffin Mill, is oddly sympathetic; we can sympathize both Griffin and with the many well-meaning but foolish writers he turns down. The writers are far from heroes, because they scorn the Hollywood machine even as they’re determined to break into it by toadying up to people like Griffin. There’s more than a hint of envy in the desire for the glamour and power of the Big Time, regardless of whether that Big Time is Hollywood, sports, CEOs, or even writers and academics.
I normally don’t like seeing a movie before reading the book it’s based on, but The Player, like Out of Sight, is fabulous in both. The ending of The Player the movie was even more astonishing than the book’s, because both stories are all about someone fighting the Hollywood story machine, yet the movie and book manage to both accommodate and defy the Hollywood story.
You can see the some of the tensions by listening to this worthwhile Bookworm interview, in which Tolkin discusses the many maladies faced by the wealthy and successful as well as the eternal question of the soul.
In the interview Tolkin doesn’t give away The Return of the Player, but reading at least The Player and ideally both makes sense if for no other reason than because the abstract concepts discussed won’t make as much sense without the concrete mooring of the art itself.
You can get away with reading only one—the two books are sequels only nominally. The Return of the Player references events in The Player, but they’re not any more important than background in most standalone books. The Return of the Player is also concerned with very different things than its predecessor; while The Player still plays in the Hollywood and conventional world, The Return of the Player is much more philosophical and metaphysical, to the point where it is concerned with ideas and issues far above and beyond Hollywood. The movie business is just a symptom of a greater decay and malaise, and The Return of the Player is a macro view of the world compared to The Player’s micro view. And yes, a post on The Return of the Player itself is en route.
In The Player, the individual is becoming conscious of himself. As is so often the case, the person with no conscience and little consciousness slowly awakens, maybe just enough to perceive himself—but will this lead to a greater unfolding? Sometimes it seems very unlikely, as in Martin Amis’s Money. In these novels something, some trial, comes along to knock the character out of his emotional stupor. Rising through the sludge takes time, and so does trying out fresh feelings. Griffin’s trial is the mysterious shadow who is uncomfortable because he points out what Griffin is, and he isn’t much.
The writing itself is understated in the way I would imagine a screenplay to be, and I sprinted through the last quarter, wanting to see what would happen; the conclusion was abrupt and somewhat puzzling, and it highlights the undercurrent of the freewill/fate debate that is an undercurrent throughout. Once Griffin commits the act that starts things, how much control does he have over the way they will end? It sounds like description of current American foreign policy problems, and it also applies to murder stories. Or, as Gandalf says, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Griffin is hardly among the wise, and the results of his actions are most unusual. If he is a modern Raskolnikov, then the world of Griffin is indeed a very fallen place. And a funny one, too, but also a sad one (The Return of the Player looks at society in a larger sense). Funny and sad: they are different angles of looking at the same thing, but Griffin is too obtuse to really see either. His inner vision is restricted two areas: money and power, although they might also be different ways of looking at the same thing.
The most fascinating part about Griffin is how much I came to like him in spite of his mortal sins; at times I found myself nodding along with him before remembering what he is and what he’s doing. I suppose that’s part of the point: I do relate to the Hollywood moneyman and mogul, whose job it is to be the slime that greases the wheels of the dream industry. But what does that say about me, the reader? It is an unsettling thought, and one that need not arise if one just rips through the story, which is fun in its own right. The reader can be like Griffin and just go along for the ride. But then you live your life without realizing the shadow that follows you, because you don’t have a rejected writer to remind you of it.
You only have the writer whose book you choose to pick up.