Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Big Clock: Kenneth Fearing

George Stroud is an editor at Crimeways, one of many magazines that are published by Janoth Enterprises, run by Earl Janoth and his right-hand man, Steve Hagen. George Stroud is clearly unhappy with his job; he describes the corporation he works for and the machinations that go on daily as a big clock, sometimes running fast, sometimes running slow, but always seeming meaningless. He gets involved with Janoth's girlfriend, and when she is murdered, he is pulled into a  manhunt for the culprit.

That sounds like a pretty straightforward story, but there is nothing simple and easy about this book. To start with, there are seven first person narrators. The story is mainly told from George's point of view, but the switching around of narrators can get confusing. Each chapter title includes the narrator's name, but if you skip chapter titles, like I sometimes do, it can take a while to figure out who is talking. Not that I am complaining. I enjoy stories told from the point of view of several characters.

George is married and he doesn't want to lose his wife and daughter. George's wife is named Georgette and their daughter is named Georgia. And to complicate things further, Georgia calls both of her parents George. That sometimes makes reading dialogue difficult, and I am sure there was some symbolism to it that I missed.

All of this sounds like I did not like the book and that is far from the truth. The characters are not fully fleshed out but the book is paced nicely. Any one who has been in the working world and felt like they have lost control of their own life and time or anyone who has dealt with meaningless bureaucracies can empathize with this story. This was a complex, dark novel and the symbolism of the clock worked well.

A personal plus for me was the setting in the publishing world. This story is about a big business and how its workers are subjugated. I worked in a smaller, family run business. But still, publishing is publishing; we did produce serial publications and we were in competition with other publishers.

A quote...
One runs like a mouse up the old, slow pendulum of the big clock, time, scurries around and across its huge hands, strays inside through the intricate wheels and balances and springs of the inner mechanism, searching among the cobwebbed mazes of this machine with all its false exits and dangerous blind alleys and steep runways, natural traps and artificial baits, hunting for the true opening and the real prize. 
Then the clock strikes one and it is time to go, to run down the pendulum, to become again a prisoner making once more the same escape.  
For of course the clock that measures out the seasons, all gain and loss, the air Georgia breathes, Georgette's strength, the figures shivering on the dials of my own inner instrument board, this gigantic watch that fixes order and establishes the pattern for chaos itself, it has never changed, it will never change, or be changed.
The book was adapted into a film also titled The Big Clock, directed by John Farrow, and starring Ray Milland as George, Maureen O'Sullivan as his wife, and Charles Laughton as Janoth. We watched the film in early 2014, and it was over two years before I read the book. I had plenty of time to forget the intricacies of the story, although I remembered the basic plot and the clock imagery. When we watched the film again after I read the book, I was surprised by the differences between the two.

The film contains less sexuality than the book. I assume this is because of the mores of that time. George does not have an affair with Janoth's girlfriend in the movie, he just spends an ill-fated night on the town with her because he is exasperated at his boss and he is drinking too much. The only real flaws he has in the movie is heavy drinking and poor judgement. George is not a very likable character, in the movie or the book, but it is more obvious in the movie.

Thus the novel is much darker, more serious, and realistic; the movie is more fun and less confusing. The movie conveys the symbolism of the clock very well but doesn't really give us a hint why George feels like he is on a treadmill. Even though it is obvious (fairly early) that he has a demanding and unscrupulous boss, his job seems pretty good to me. I liked the book better but the film is great too.

There is a more recent film adaptation, No Way Out, with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman. That film is a very loose adaptation. I have not seen it, but it has been recommended, and I do want to try it.

See thoughts on both the book and the film at Tipping My Fedora, and posts on the film at Riding the High Country and at LILEKS.COM.


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Publisher:    New York Review Books, 2006 (orig. pub. 1946)
Length:        175 pages
Format:        Trade paperback
Setting:        US
Genre:         Mystery
Source:        I purchased my copy.


20 comments:

  1. I may have a copy of this one somewhere. I don't seem to be reading older books at the minute though - everything's contemporary!

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    1. I am very glad I read the book, Col, but I was mainly interested in reading the book as a comparison to the movie. This book did not seem "vintage" to me, maybe because the style was so unique.

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  2. It does sound like a story people can relate to, Tracy. So I'm glad you enjoyed that aspect of it. I have to agree with you, though, that multiple first-person narrators can be confusing. I don't mind multiple POVs if they're in third person. But it's much trickier in first person.

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    1. I liked this book a lot, Margot, even though I spent a lot of time saying "What is going on here?" while reading it. I get confused easily but that did not deter my enjoyment.

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  3. Not sure I'll read the book, but you sold me on the Ray Miland movie.

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    1. Many people who have read the book and watched the movie liked the movie best, Ryan. Definitely worth watching.

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  4. I have actually seen the movie and read the book. Unusually, I actually enjoyed the movie more. However, it is so long ago I am not sure why I preferred it. I would like to to see the Costner/Hackman version.

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    1. Initially I thought the Costner version would not be interesting, Ed, but the more recommendations I see, the more I am convinced to try it. I liked both the book and the Ray Milland movie for different reasons.

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  5. Thanks for the great review Tracy, this book is a real favourite of mine - and I love both movie versions too (NO WAY OUT, though loose, is a proper adaptation, with the same main characters, story and beginning, middle and end, but does lots of clever things to vary it too - I really recommend it).

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    1. I saw that you gave the book 5 fedora tips out of 5, Sergio, that does not happen often. I was glad I finally got around to reading the book. Glen really likes the movie, and we will try No Way Out.

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  6. I was always of the opinion that this was written as a straight fiction novel as opposed to genre mystery fiction.

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    1. Honestly, I don't know enough about this author to know the answer to that, Richard. I didn't give the genre nomenclature a lot of thought. I have heard the book referred to as crime fiction or a thriller. The intro to the New York Review Books edition I have calls it a mystery but that is just that writer's opinion. It certainly isn't a straight puzzle mystery, more of an inverted mystery really. And also definitely very literary. A lovely book that I will reread.

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  7. Love his poem "Dirge, but I couldn't finish the book. Everything is slightly off, as in Nashville, or Waking Life. The magazines, with stories endlessly chewed over, reminded me of working at a certain publication, but the contents are again - slightly off. Is this a genre? Is the protagonist dead? It seemed like a backwards mystery plot.

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    1. It is definitely a very backwards mystery plot, Lucy. I like that description. It seems to fit the description of an inverted mystery, where you know the perpetrator of the crime, but it is unlike any of those I have read.

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  8. I enjoyed No Way Out immensely, Tracy. Have seen it a couple of times. Very well done. Now that I've read your review I shall look for The Big Clock.

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    1. Well, now I definitely have to see No Way Out. You should try the book, Mathew, so you can tell me what you think of it.

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  9. This sounds like an interesting read. I hadn't heard of it, but loved No Way Out with all its twists and turns.
    Ann

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    1. I found it very interesting, Ann. I will be watching No Way Out, and just added it to my Netflix queue.

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  10. I watched and enjoyed both the film versions - I think you will like No Way Out well enough. Now I must read the book next...

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    1. I said I liked the book better, Moira, and I did, but really they are just different and both enjoyable. Some people don't get along with the structure of the book. Looking forward to watching No Way Out soon.

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