Monday, October 20, 2014

"The Annex"

In 1966, after having written and published 53 books, all but one of them works of fiction, John D MacDonald decided to take up a different kind of challenge. Intrigued by a suggestion from newspaper reporter John Pete Schmidt, MacDonald decided to try his hand at non-fiction, something he had dabbled in a year earlier with his cat biography The House Guests. A Sarasota physician by the name of Carl Coppolino had been accused by an ex-lover of murdering both her husband and Coppolino’s wife by lethal injection, using an untraceable drug. Coppolino was indicted in both New Jersey (where he supposedly murdered the husband) and in Florida, and the New Jersey trial was to take place first. With a juicy story like this and an A-list celebrity lawyer defending (none other than F Lee Bailey), the Coppolino case was the OJ Trial of its day, breathlessly covered in all the nation’s newspapers and in the newsweeklies.

MacDonald was attracted to the idea of writing a serious non-fiction crime book, and with one of the murders happening right in his own back yard, it seemed natural that it should be him, not some other author or reporter who should write the definitive story of Carl Coppolino. Thus began an intense 17-month period in the life of the author, one that had him travelling back and forth from New Jersey to cover bail hearings, jury selections and the trial itself, and then back to Florida (Venice, where the trial was moved to) to cover the second trial. During this time he wrote little fiction and he was later quoted as saying that this period cost him three McGee books that could have been written but were not. The book that was written was called No Deadly Drug and it was 600-pages long, published in hardcover, and covered the Coppolino story up to the end of the first trial, where the defendant was found not guilty. The book sold poorly and is little remembered today, if it is remembered at all.

But MacDonald did take a day off here and there during his research and coverage of the case to write fiction. One of the short stories he finished was something he called “The Annex,” and he went out of his way at the time to state that writing it was a kind of therapy to relieve him of the stress of writing No Deadly Drug. It appeared in the May 1968 issue of Playboy (No Deadly Drug was published in June of that year) and was MacDonald’s second appearance in this premier men’s magazine. Highly regarded by the author and many of his readers and editors, it is the story of what goes on inside the mind of a dying man. It is typically listed among the author’s science fiction works and has been included in at least three such anthologies. The author himself told an interviewer that it was one of his favorite short stories, and he used it to make the assertion that there were two or three of his short stories that he liked better than any of his novels.

The 5,500-word story is framed by two short sections that take place in a hospital. A young nurse is caught chatting up a handsome intern when she should have been watching a comatose coronary patient whose IV has become dislodged from his arm. “After chewing her out with a cold expertise that welled tears into the blue eyes” of the young nurse, her superior tells her young charge, “An hour before dawn they get restless… as if they had someplace to go, some appointment to keep.”

A paragraph break with three asterisks lets us know we are changing scenes, and the reader enters into a strange, dreamlike world of a deserted city and a man with an appointment to keep. Referred to only as Mr. Davis, the protagonist wakes from a strange bed in “the first gray light of the morning,” and heads to his unrevealed rendezvous.

There were shadows still remaining in the empty streets, so that even though he knew his way and walked swiftly, the city seemed strange to him. They were changing it so quickly these past few years. The eye becomes accustomed to the shape and bulk of structures giving them only a marginal attention: yet when, so abruptly, they were gone, one had the feeling of having made a wrong turn somewhere. Then even the unchanged things began to look half strange.

He arrives at a downtown hotel, a place of onetime grandeur but now reduced to shabbiness. He ponders the fact that his “shabby assignment in an unknown room” could not have taken place in any other kind of locale. Yet he has been here before. The only other person in the hotel lobby is a desk clerk, who walks “toward him out of the lobby shadows,” and who Davis recognizes as someone who used to be a bellhop at this very locale. But the man does not seem to remember Davis. The manager asks for “that thing,” the curious identification that Davis has been given by some unknown others, a “gold miniature of his own dog tag”.

Davis is told the party he is supposed to meet with is in Room 4242, and when he asks for the key he is told that the room is not in the hotel proper, but in “the annex,” which is in the process of being torn down.

“Listen, [said Leo,] they got old foops in there living there since the year one, and lease agreements and all that stuff, so about the only thing they can do is work around them until they get sick of all the noise and mess and get out. There aren’t many left now. I think maybe your party is the only one left on that floor, but I don’t keep close track.”

When Davis asks for the key, he is told there is only one master key, and it is in the possession of one “Mrs. Dorn.” He is to head down some stairs and follow a red pipe until he reaches another set of stairs, which lead up to the annex. While walking there he notices that the red pipe is made of plastic material and he sees it expanding and contracting. Then the pipe disappears into a wall and he has arrived.

These were unexpectedly wide and elegant stairs, marble streaked with gray and green, ascending into a gentle curve. At the top of the stairs he pushed a dark door open and found himself in an enormous lobby. It had the silence of a museum. Dropcloths covered the shapes of furniture. Plaster dust was gritty on the floor. Some huge beams had fallen and were propped at an angle, as in pictures of bombings.

He meets Mrs Dorn, a woman with a “soft and pretty face,” and one who he feels he has known before. She’s walking around marking things with a piece of yellow chalk, writing something like a “D” with a slash through it. As she takes him up to his floor she explains how there are two types of residents in city hotels, the transients and the residents, and the residents all live on the upper floors. They walk for what seems like miles, through oddly lit corridors, past rooms where all the room numbers have been removed from the doors, and past an elderly couple coming out of a room. The man’s voice reminds Davis of his fourteen year old son’s. Eventually they arrive at Room 4242 and Mrs. Dorn unlocks the door. Davis begins to do what he was sent to do…

“The Annex” is a story filled to the brim with dream imagery and symbolism; nearly every paragraph has some sort of universal image of the unconscious. This should come as no surprise to longtime readers of John D MacDonald. Many of his novels contain passages where the protagonist tries to unravel the mystery of some dream, which is described in great, long detail in the text. In The Deceivers, for example, the two main characters discuss a dream one of them had, and the symbolism is obvious to the reader, even if it isn’t to the characters. MacDonald himself was a vivid dreamer and at various times in his life he kept a dream journal at his bedside. (These journals are included among his papers at the University of Florida, but were personal enough to have been kept with his financial and medical records and were sealed until twenty-five years after his death.)

The trouble with MacDonald’s dream references, at least for this reader, is that they are boring, uninteresting and typically stop his narrative dead in its tracks. I usually find myself skimming over these passages so I can quickly jump back into the story. “The Annex” is, basically, one long dream sequence, and the ending framing section is filled with lots of “ah ha!” moments where we learn what it all meant. And while repeated readings of the story provide greater insight into all of the various symbols and related settings, dramatically the piece comes off as obvious. Still, MacDonald’s prose is at the top of its game here, and it really sings in places.

As noted, “The Annex” was anthologized several times after it first appeared in Playboy. It first reappeared in Best SF: 1968: The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss (1969). That same year is was included in Playboy’s Stories of the Sinister and Strange. It was the final story in MacDonald’s own science fiction anthology, Other Times, Other Worlds, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and was the lead tale in what was perhaps the most obscure MacDonald anthology ever, The Annex and Other Stories. This collection was something MacDonald helped to prepare in the months preceding his death, a signed, limited edition with a run of only 350 copies containing his four favorite short stories: “The Annex,” “The Bear Trap,” “End of the Tiger,” and “Hangover”. It was published in Helsinki and was printed on special Michelangelo paper made at the Magnani Paper Mills in Pescia, Italy. I believe it was put together to help raise funds for some environmental cause, but I can’t swear to that and can't locate any information about it in my files. The book was printed and signed, but apparently never “released,” and a copy or two usually show up for auction on the internet for very high prices.

The most notable inclusion of “The Annex” in an anthology was, of course, as the seventh and final story in MacDonald’s 1971 collection S*E*V*E*N. A combination of new and previously published stories (all in Playboy), S*E*V*E*N is one of my favorite JDM guilty pleasures, one that I’ve gone back to more times than I can remember, and -- I have to say it -- I usually don’t bother with “The Annex”.

The anthology appeared without warning as a paperback original, without an introduction of any kind, and went through a relatively small number of printings before being permanently consigned to the used book stores of the world. MacDonald’s original title for the collection was The Random Noise of Love, after the first story in book, and he wrote that had wanted to combine “a bunch of related stories into a novelistic structure without it being one of those things where the seams and joints show, and without it sounding as if I had hauled folk in from far left field to join the party.” He claimed that it took “all available concentration to keep everything constantly sorted out in [his] mind,” and that he had gone “underground” while putting it together. I’ve often tried to discern the connecting theme of the anthology, with little success, other than the obvious fact that they all reflect various aspects of love and friendship, and all seem to be seen from the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator. “The Annex” just doesn’t seem to fit in with any of these themes and, for me, it’s just not very compelling reading. I certainly wouldn’t go as far as the author did and include it among his finest works.

I’ve now written about all of the stories in S*E*V*E*N. They are:

Despite what I wrote in my posting titled “Three Years Later” a few pieces back, S*E*V*E*N is now available as an eBook from Amazon and Barnes & Noble (as is The Executioners, leaving only Other Times, Other Worlds as the one JDM original not digitized). Used copies of the paperback are, of course, available, and there’s even a hardcover version of S*E*V*E*N available on Amazon, published in 1986 by one Amereon Ltd, a British concern, I’m guessing. If “The Annex” is all you are interested in, used copies of the original issue of Playboy are usually easy to find for a relatively low price.

1 comment:

  1. I read this in Other Times, Other Worlds when I was young. At the time, it stood out to me from the rest for its prose and subtlety.