SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2018 SHORTLISTED FOR THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2018 WINNER OF THE ROEHAMPTON POETRY PRIZE 2018 A noir narrative written with the intensity and power of poetry, The Long Take is one of the most remarkable - and unclassifiable - books of recent years. Walker is a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder; he can't return home to rural Nova Scotia, and looks instead to the city for freedom, anonymity and repair. As he moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco we witness a crucial period of fracture in American history, one that also allowed film noir to flourish. The Dream had gone sour but - as those dark, classic movies made clear - the country needed outsiders to study and dramatise its new anxieties. While Walker tries to piece his life together, America is beginning to come apart: deeply paranoid, doubting its own certainties, riven by social and racial division, spiralling corruption and the collapse of the inner cities. The Long Take is about a good man, brutalised by war, haunted by violence and apparently doomed to return to it - yet resolved to find kindness again, in the world and in himself.Watching beauty and disintegration through the lens of the film camera and the eye of the poet, Robin Robertson's The Long Take is a work of thrilling originality.
cast myself out: into the wilderness, into this city and its rapids. What enormous
energy it takes, to fling yourself out of the nest."
I really loved this! So very different from anything else I have read - it feels like a sensory immersion, so don't be afraid to jump into it even if the description of a "novel in verse" or a "noir narrative" is off-putting for you. It's actually a combination of poetry and prose, and it works beautifully. The main character is a soldier from Nova Scotia who fought in WWII and has been broken by his experiences there. Suffering from PTSD, he feels he is beyond redemption and cannot go home. Instead, he travels to the US - first to New York and then to Los Angeles. The setting and time period allows film noir history to be interwoven into the storyline, and this is a treat for those of us who love these films. The title of the novel in fact comes from a film technique used in a lot of those films:
"The paper said he could try out on movie reviews,
so he went to see Deadly Is The Female in the Cameo, or the Star,
One of those theaters next to the Arcade.
He thought about it all night. That long take
inside the getaway car: one shot that lasted three minutes easy
and was just real life, right there.
It made sense of some things, how you get caught up in stuff,
like the guns, when he says, 'I feel good when I'm shooting them.
I feel awful good inside, like I'm somebody.'
The McCarthy Era also features, and the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Plan - the book feels like a time capsule of those years, wrapped up and presented to the reader inside of another narrative. Clever. And interesting. Delivering not just a sense of place but a sense of time:
"The news was all about McCarthy, still.
Back in March he'd watched Ed Murrow, taking him down,
right there on television in the Amigos bar,
and then the hearings started
and the army counsel, Joseph Welch, was lifting his sad eyes
to the junior senator of Wisconsin, and repeating,
slow and firm: 'Have you no sense of decency, sir?
At long last, have you no sense of decency?'"
I just cannot say enough about how beautiful and nuanced this novel is. A perfect marriage of structure and narrative that delivers at every level. Just one more quote that illustrates what I was saying about sensory immersion:
"Evening still hot, but a breeze off the sea
And the smell of French fries, candy, girl's perfume.
The lights are so beautiful, and he picks out a rhythym
in the screams and laughter, the rumble
of the rides, the metal's screeling, through the hundred
different fairground tunes, the thousand calls and shouts,
the noise of America at play
with the crush of the Atlantic
breaking under the boardwalk,
steady and slow:
To be young, and in this world. Alive!"
By Robin Robertson
A less audacious modern day, streetwise Odyssey. A Canadian WW II veteran, forsaking his home in Nova Scotia, when discharged stops first in New York City where he finds work on the docks as a longshoreman. Walker, as he is known, then makes his way to Los Angeles where he fast talks himself into a job as a cub reporter at the local Press, and it is not long before he’s writing movie reviews and researches a long human-interest critique of skid row denizens, many of them vets, both in LA and San Francisco.
Along the way he meets hardened city reporters, down and out vets, ladies looking for one night stands, movie directors and actors and other assorted types. Despite this he remains unattached, uncomfortable in his own skin, guilt ridden, battle fatigued and unloving. The closest he has to a friend is a black guy named Billy Idaho whom he meets rooming in the same flop house he resides at.
Reminiscent of Kerouac, this story, written in verse form, sings of be-bop jazz rhythms with a strong dose of Hollywood nourish settings, smoke filled rooms, seedy bars and brutal honesty. Flashbacks of war, tinnitus and wounded pride are all a part of this gripping and creative tale. Visions of war interspersed with reporters chasing down crime scenes like hungry sharks chasing after ambulances to get close to the patient as he is rolled into the ER dropping their business cards on his bloodied torso. Taking place during the late 1940s and mid 1950s, Walker comments on the events of his time, the McCarthy Red-Scare, Emmitt Till, Rosa Parks and Eisenhower running for President.
Near the end the pace picks up as the verse switches quickly from an LA wrecking ball clearing more open lots for new development as it displaces the old and disabled, with horrendous war scenes of first D-Day and then close combat with German SS troops, Walker remembering himself cut off form his comrades, hiding out in the village of Falaise as he is forced to passively witness them being tortured and killed by Nazi monsters.
This juxtaposition of the LA sprawl: “the city expands at pace – to the edges of its territory: the mountains, its neighbors, the ocean’s edge – an infestation, a carcinoma …the city held in balance: always unfinished, always being demolished. If the construction and destruction ever stopped, the city would fail”.
…with scenes of war, a different kind of disease and hell. He waits for night and carefully exits the town crawling with Krauts:
“I’d seen enough, decided to get out of there that night, clear the town and push north-east: try and reach our lines”.
The guilt he’d been living with erupts, “he had to finish telling Billy what he’d done in France. It was eating him up. Eating him alive”.
The tale ends Walker revealing his horrid tale of revenge, his brutality confessed, all that is left is for him to take a long swig from a bottle.
Robin Robertson has created a masterpiece both in form, structure and depiction of the effects of war on the men who fight to survive. How does one rate such a work, there are not enough stars to recommend this searing tale.
What's great about The Long Take? There are some gorgeous passages that read in their poetic form with pure delight:
The view from the window was west, over to Russian Hill,
and the bay, and the Golden Gate.
He doesn't deserve this city,
its play of height and depth, this
changing sift of color and weather.
The water held in it a shimmy of light
and the days were warming through June and July
and the road that threads through the hem of the Highlands
would now be decked with wild stock, lupins and apple blossom
all the way to Chéticamp and Pleasant Bay.
She will be wearing her sleeveless dress, cornflower blue
and walking away.
He could not call her back to his life: which is a horror,
which is the dead calf in the bank-head field, a black flap
bubbling with maggots,
ugly and wrong.
Her clean eyes could not see this,
what he has become.
And there are passages that when put into verse drag and drag, particularly the lists Robertson likes to utilize throughout this work:
This afternoon there was a film-shoot going –
all the regular stuff, generators, cables, lights on tripod,
camera tracks, grip stands, hangers, wardrobe rails –
and there was Cornel Wilde having a smoke,
talking to this short guy, so they all strolled over, friendly like,
to say hello. Rennert wanted to talk about Leave Her to Heaven
and Gene Tierney, so he did,
and the actor was smiling and nodding,
so Walked turned to the other guy,
who said: 'Hi, I'm Joe.'
'Are you in the picture?' Walker said.
'Nah,' he smiled. 'I'm just making it.'
Then it clicked. He'd seen his face in Photoplay.
This was the man who shot Deadly Is the Female –
Gun Crazy, as it came to be.
This was Joseph H. Lewis.
'How did you shoot that sequence, eh?' he was asking, suddenly,
'Y'know, from the back of that getaway car?'
'Well, son, I'll tell you –
if you tell me a decent bar on Main Street
near the Banner Theater. We're there tonight.'
'Easy. The King Eddy's on the very same block, east of 5th.'
The Long Take vacillates between these two extremes: poems that are not allowed to breathe in the confines of the larger narrative; a narrative that is broken into verse purely for the sake of being verse.
Once I began to treat each brief section as a single poem linked to a larger collection, once I began to read them aloud, or imagine them being read aloud, I started to enjoy this “novel” much more. Still, the lack of narrative and story, paired with the inconsistency of the verses, did not make a very favorable impression on me. The promise of a story about a veteran dealing with PTSD fell flat. There are some good moments in The Long Take, but sometimes it takes far too long to find them.
-Indians, blacks, Mexicans, Communists, Muslims, whatever-
America has to have its monsters,
so we can zone them, segregate them,
if possible, shoot them.”
“The papers say
'Keep dogs and cats inside on the Fourth of July'
but nothing about ex-serviceman.”
“In his room, he worked out where he's been
from the match-books in his pocket,
the drinks, by the gap in his dollars,
the hole is his life by his eyes in the broken mirror. “
In this endlessly quotable, sequence of hard-boiled, poems, we follow Walker, a young Canadian soldier, returning from WWII and trying to make a life in America. The war continues to haunt him, at every turn, especially after seeing many other veterans, broken on the streets. An incredibly, beautiful book. I docked it a half star, for falling off a bit, in the last third. A minor quibble.
The author has chosen a perfect background for his story. After a sojourn in New York City, Walker moves to Los Angeles, a city that seems to be at war with itself. As a resident of Bunker Hill, he witnesses the destruction of the beautiful old neighborhood for the sake of "progress", which seems to mostly mean more parking lots. Walker is drawn to the homeless, many of them ex-soldiers, and after he gets a job for a newspaper, he proposes to write a series about them. This leads to an interlude in San Francisco, where the author provides the same incisive view of that city as of New York and Los Angeles. For Walker, San Francisco with its changeable weather, feels much more like his Nova Scotia home. But he must return to Los Angeles, where the book's final scenes and revelations take place.
Walker is also drawn to films, and he encounters filmmaking constantly wherever he lives and interacts with real people such as Robert Siodmak. References to film noir are scattered throughout the text, and a helpful set of notes at the end details the films they come from. This would certainly make a great noir watchlist.
There isn't a lot of plot here in the normal sense. There is no great mystery at the center of this book. It is, rather, a rumination on the darkness of mankind in general, and it is a book with a decidedly negative view of progress. The book revels in its settings, most of which are no more. You'll be scouring the internet for pictures and more information about the places Walker visits or the movies he watches. There are lots of contemporary references as well. This is a very well-researched book. The only parts that don't ring quite as true are some of the characters' rants against various people and things, which seem to have a more modern sensibility to them in light of what a 21st century reader knows.
Highly, highly recommended.
Nope, not my cup of tea. I recognized the story of the unsettling return of a World War II veteran, incapable of finding his way back to normal life, traumatized by what he saw back in Normandy in 1944. And I recognized the evocation of America at the end of the 40’s and the beginning of the ’50s, with its scores of homeless people, and its tremendous violence between criminal gangs.
But then there’s the connection between the horrible war scenes, the brutal scenes of demolition of neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, and the description of mutilated victims of gang violence. In contrast there are the very intense and intimate nature descriptions. Is Robertson suggesting the violence in all these actions are on the same level? And is he hinting towards a meta-level of criticism on the violence of modernity? It’s positive he doesn’t suggest clear answers, but – as a reader – I’m a bit at a loss.
Robertson poetic prose reminded me of the feverish style of Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz, the modernist disruptive style of William Faulkner and the social focus of John Steinbeck. But – to me – this combination didn’t really work, at least in this first read. Perhaps I ought to try a reread.