Alfred Hayes’ 1958 novel My Face for the World to See was reissued in 2013 by the always reliable NYRB imprint.
Only 130 pages long, it packs a punch way above its weight. As Nicholas Lezard said in this review, its content suggests it might be a ‘grim read’ but it isn’t: it’s ‘unsettling’ but the ‘beauty of its precision is what carries you through.’
The unnamed narrator, a writer of film screenplays, watches from a plush beach-house balcony (he’s at a tediously boozy Hollywood party, seeking to escape the ‘smiles which pinned you against the piano’) as a long-legged pretty girl in ‘a jaunty cap’ woozily enters the ocean, martini glass in hand. When she gets into difficulty (under ‘the indifferent sky’ – a Camus allusion perhaps, certainly one of Hayes’ frequent nods to European existential bleakness) he intervenes and rescues her.
Intrigued and troubled by this event he later phones her and they start an affair – he’s married, but his wife is on the other side of the continent in New York, and their marriage is in an unhealthy state – but then his whole life is. His work disgusts him. This affair is also toxic, and reveals some ugly things about the girl and the narrator.
That’s it as far as plot goes. It’s the measured, cautious narrative voice that is the most compelling feature of the novel, though. Apart from the bleakly anonymous, smoke-filled Californian bars, restaurants and parties that so weary him, the narrator’s ennui and self-disgust are redolent in almost every line; here’s a random example, from the opening of ch. 4:
I took a hot shower and went to bed. Occasionally, a car went by in the street; occasionally, there was the sound of a bird in a tree. I did not feel, in the darkness, lost or in despair or even unhappy. My throat burned a little, but that was because I smoked too much: it seemed somewhat ironic to have only that as a concern lying there in the darkness. I’d been coming here now, to this place, off and on for about five years. I’d work for a few months at one of the studios and then I’d go back to New York. It was not a disadvantageous arrangement. I did not feel, or at least I did not think I felt, superior to the things which concerned these people here.
I’ve quoted at length to demonstrate the meticulous style. There’s a surface simplicity and lucidity reminiscent of Hemingway (that fondness for ‘and/’and then’ structures, the monosyllabic vocabulary), but this is counterpointed by a disturbing and contrasting complexity. Hayes carefully fragments his syntax with those awkward incidental details (the fronted, repeated adverb ‘occasionally’, ‘in the darkness’ and ‘to this place, off and on’).
The simpler elements (the opening sentences of that extract) create a rhythmic fluency, enhanced by the symmetrical repetitions (he’s fond of tripled structures); but look again at their negativity: ‘I did not feel’ when repeated suggests our narrator is being less than candid with himself. He acknowledges this when he goes on to concede that ‘at least’ he did not think he felt these things. Even the birds are denied agency: they don’t sing in the tree, there’s just their sound, passively registered by this fretful insomniac, lying there in indifferent ‘darkness’ (also tellingly repeated), who is, surely, despite his denials, irredeemably ‘lost’, ‘in despair’ and ‘unhappy’.
The denials are hollow, hence that unconvincing double negative in ‘not disadvantageous’ – this lapse into the kind of clichéd structure deplored by language purists like Orwell is deliberately fatuous and discordant in comparison with the mellifluous, fastidious syntax the narrator usually deploys. The emptiness of his soul is conveyed with deeper resonance here because of the hollowness of this note.
This is a narrator who’s in existential crisis. Like a bird caught in a hunter’s net, the more he struggles to free himself, the more entangled he becomes. All he can do is to explore these futile attempts and try to survive them. That’s why, when asked later by the girl about his work, he says sardonically that he’s not writing but ‘writhing’.
The narrator’s portrayal of the girl tends to be superficial and callous. We never know much about her except that she has a pretty face – that’s what caused her doomed decision to try to make her fortune in the ‘rhinestone’ fakeness of Hollywood and become a star (the town at night is marvellously described as ‘looking as hell might with a good electrician’). She’s failed, and she knows it, and measures out her lonely, dwindling days in a ‘bleak apartment’. The narrator says this about her at the start of ch. 9:
I found she struck the nerve of pathos, somehow; there was an air about her of a somewhat touching injury. It was possibly accentuated by the fact that she was pretty.
Here again is Hayes’ characteristic hedging: ‘somehow’, ‘somewhat’, ‘possibly’. Every thought or experience is held up and examined as potential mitigating evidence in his defence. For although he can’t admit or confront it, that’s what this narrative is: he’s on trial for the betrayal or abandonment of his moral, spiritual and emotional integrity. He knows his conduct is indefensible; this is, in a way, his confession. Probably that’s why the girl’s role is so tenuous: he’s responsible for his own actions, including his cowardly behaviour towards her, and his own tenuous grip on reality. The superficiality of the narrative towards her is part of his indictment of himself. That’s why we get passages like this a few sentences later, as he scrutinises the evidence:
Looking at her, it struck me that among the things wrong with her was that she had neither humor nor, really, charm. The eyes were fine and quite beautiful, and she was undeniably a very pretty girl, but there was no charm in that somewhat rigid face, in the manner so constantly tensed. She hadn’t all evening said anything I could recall as either charming or witty. What she did have, apparently, was a sort of desperateness, which compelled another, and different sort, of appeal.
The stuttering style accentuates the narrator’s disingenuousness; if there’s so much ‘wrong with her’ and she’s so humourless, desperate and ‘rigid’ why is he pursuing her? If her beauty is just superficially there in her ‘face for the world to see’, why is he attracted to her? The answer isn’t ‘apparent’ to him, because he’s rejecting the possibility that what he sees in her is a mirror image. He’s attracted to a kindred spirit whose damage is more overt and ‘apparent’ than his own. He can’t acknowledge this without condemning himself, but the language here reveals the true cause of her ‘appeal’ to him, perhaps. He can’t spell it out any more clearly (as always the prose if full of hedges and evasions like ‘somewhat’ – again – and that awkwardly positioned ‘really’) than to say it’s of a ‘different sort’. Later, thinking he’d even prefer not to be with the girl, he admits there’s nothing else ‘out there’ without her: it’s ‘a little colder, a little lonelier’ out there:
…at least here, together, even unhappily together, there was a semblance of warmth, there was a kind of light, there was a habitation of a sort.
That ‘habitation’ is just right in its unexpectedness, pointed up by the habitual use of tripling in ‘a semblance’, ‘a kind’, ‘of a sort’. But now I’m straying into cod psychology, and had better stop. Without giving too much away, I’d warn that things don’t turn out too well in the end. From what I’ve shown so far this should come as no surprise.
Why are intelligent men like this drawn to equally damaged, wilfully destructive women? Why are such women attracted by emotionally evasive men like him? Like all the best literature, this novel doesn’t try to answer such questions — but it asks them in fascinating, beautifully written ways.