Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Nothing Must Change"

Redbook is another one of today's woman's magazines that began life in a very different form. Like Cosmopolitan, it started out as a fiction magazine and underwent many different incarnations over the years. It was launched in 1903 as The Red Book Illustrated, later switching to The Red Book Magazine before finally becoming just Redbook in 1929. It was aimed at women, however, just as its sister publication Bluebook was aimed at men, and its early stories reflected that. It changed with the times and enjoyed periods of good, then shrinking, then recovered circulation and has managed to remain one of the few surviving periodicals that began life at the beginning of the last century. The list of authors published in Redbook over the years is a Who's Who of American fiction, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Dashiell Hammett's final novel The Thin Man was serialized, not in Black Mask, but in Redbook in 1933, several months before it was published as a novel.

The current issue features articles such as "The Truth About Why Men Cheat," "How To Have Great Sex From A to Z" and "I Posed for (Very) Sexy Photos." Yes, times have changed.

John D MacDonald wrote five short stories that were published in Redbook, as well as two novels that were published before they came out in book form: Murder in the Wind (published as "Hurricane"), and The Deceivers, which was titled "The Faithless." His very first story to appear in the magazine was something called "Nothing Must Change," and it was included in the June 1951 issue. And, yes, its a "woman's" story, told from a woman's point of view and it is a good example of MacDonald's life as a mainstream author. I'm sure that readers of Murder for the Bride, which came out in paperback the same month that this story was published, would not have believed you if you told them the two works were by the same author. It is just another testament to JDM's skill, versatility and growing confidence as a writer of fiction.

In 1951 the MacDonald family had just moved from Clearwater to a beach cottage on a still-fairly-undeveloped Casey Key in Florida. It is just such a setting where "Nothing Must Change" takes place, a little "fantastic shack" on the Gulf Coast, occupied by Max and Carol Cheventza. Max is a twenty-five year old painter, still in the process of finding himself in his art, while Carol is his thirty-three year old wife. Max is Carol's second husband; her first husband Charles died several years ago and Carol remarried quickly thereafter. Carol was left with enough money to support the two of them as Max pursues a hoped-for career as a painter.The back room of the "shack" has been converted into a large studio, and it is here that Max spends weeks as he works in feverish concentration on one of his works.

Max has just come out of one of those three-week zones and is excited to show Carol his painting. Carol, as she always has to do, holds her breath and goes back to witness the grand creation. The problem? Max isn't very good. Carol is afraid to say anything and has to feign appreciation every time Max completes another one. "If she had dared to criticize it aloud, she would say, 'It's too big and bright and harsh and ugly and... I don't understand it.'" Instead, she says what she always says: "It's nice." But Max apparently can't see his own shortcomings.

"She thought it most odd that Max should have such a blind spot. And she knew that she was not wrong. The modern schools were no mystery to her. Subjective art did not appall her, and she could look at formlessness in an unselfconscious attempt to find decorativeness without implication. But Max's work, with the ripened flesh of flowers, or gray stumps in a harsh chrome-yellow sea, with backgrounds like flashlight rays converging on swamp grasses -- it was not representational, nor subjective, nor anything classifiable. It simply made her feel tense and confused and oddly frightened."

Luckily, Max's shortcomings as a painter are the only problem in this marriage. Otherwise Max is a tender, dutiful and attentive husband, full of energy, humor and youthful enthusiasm. But then trouble arrives in the form of a letter. Carol's college roommate, Greta Lasson, has written, announcing that she will be in the area soon and wants to stop by. Carol is frozen with fear, but not Max.

"'Lasson!' he said. 'Greta Lasson. Where have I heard that name? Don't tell me.' He snapped his fingers. 'Articles. She writes about painters and paintings. Criticisms of shows. She's big time.'"

Max quickly deduces that Greta is really coming down to check up on Carol, to make sure she hasn't gotten herself into an impossible situation with a supposedly wild, young, unscrupulous confidence man who is living off of her money. Carol is worried about something else altogether: the terrible blow to Max's youthful confidence once an art critic gets an eyeful of the junk Max had been painting. Perhaps it would be for the best, to have an honest impression deliver a dose of reality to her husband. But she obviously does not want to see Max's spirit crushed. His intensity has made Carol feel years younger, her figure trimmer, her face younger, and she has largely forgotten the difference in their ages. She does not want to lose that.

The letter took its time arriving, and Greta is scheduled to arrive... today! Carol has no time to prepare.

"Nothing Must Change" is an enjoyable and engaging story that works on a lot of different levels. On one hand, it is a straightforward telling of an unequal relationship and how a third party disrupts that relationship. There is the subtext of the age difference, the ghost of a dead husband, secrets kept between lovers, and how a dose of reality might upset the creative process and, ultimately, the marriage. On another level, for those readers of JDM who are familiar with his biography, the story resonates with a lot of interesting and recognizable characteristics. Dorothy MacDonald was herself a painter, not simply the wife of a highly creative husband who sought her own creative outlet, but someone whose artistic inclinations were expressed long before her husband's were. Like Carol, she was older than her husband (by five years, not eight) and had been married previously. And as mentioned above, the location bears a striking resemblance to the place the author was living when the story was written.

Yet perhaps most interesting of all is MacDonald's description of the creative process, and how periods of intense artistic focus are times of loneliness and separation for the "non-creative" partner.The story opens at noon, with Carol awake and hearing the sounds of Max awakening in the bedroom. As she listens she holds the handle of a dish mop "so tight that her fingers hurt." Max, we learn, hadn't come to bed until dawn was already breaking. She looks at the face of her awakening husband and saw "the face of a stranger."

"Three weeks; this time the cool-eyed, quiet withdrawal had lasted longer."

What the reader initially suspects to be the aftermath of an affair turns out to be a three-week rush of creativity as Max began and finished another painting. I wondered when reading the story if this wasn't MacDonald putting himself in the place of his wife during the intense years of early writing when beginning his career. He wrote 800,000 words before selling a single story ("Interlude in India" excepted) and produced over 175 sold pieces of short fiction in the space of three and a half years. Wife Dorothy must have spent a lot of time by herself during those years, painting or no painting. And I suppose that being married to an artist can seem at times like being the witness to an affair, as the passion and the tunnel vision of creativity excludes all outside interference.

Perhaps because his wife was a painter, MacDonald knew a lot about art and wrote about it confidently. Like his character Carol Cheventza, the "modern schools" were no mystery to him. In 1959 he wrote a novel about an artists' colony in Mexico titled Please Write for Details, where he exhibits a deep understanding of art, modern art and the peculiar characteristics of the artists themselves. While JDM could appreciate what was then called "modern art," he had no patience with the poseurs who created such abstractions as a mask for the lack of any real talent. One of MacDonald's favorite scenes, written originally in Please Write for Details and repeated years later in a Travis McGee novel (I think it was Indigo), has one of these "modernists" challenged to draw a simple picture of a horse. Of course, they can't, but when it comes to slopping large amounts of bright paint on a blank canvas, they are considered "great artists."

"Nothing Must Change" appeared in print only once and has never been anthologized.

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