Pure Hollywood by Christine Schutt

Hardcover, 144 pages
Published March 13th 2018 by Grove Atlantic

In 11 captivating tales, Pure Hollywood brings us into private worlds of corrupt familial love, intimacy, longing, and danger. From an alcoholic widowed actress living in desert seclusion, to a young mother whose rejection of her child has terrible consequences, a newlywed couple who ignore the violent warnings of a painter burned by love, to an eerie portrait of erotic obsession, each story in Pure Hollywood is an imagistic snapshot of what it means to live and learn love and hurt.

Schutt gives us sharply suspenseful and masterfully dark interior portraits of ordinary lives, infused with her signature observation and surprise.

Pure Hollywood proved to be a collection plagued by a wide spectrum of dullness. There were moments, mostly at the start of the collection, where overwrought prose ran rampant in a way that made no sense whatsoever. It was as if the author, Christine Schutt, had her trusty Word thesaurus immediately on hand, ready to whip out at any moment to form absurd sentences instead of creating readable literature—as if her way of being “creative” was to write so evasively and nonsensically as to confuse the reader into thinking, “Damn, this MUST be the newest form of erudite art; I’ve got to HAVE it!” purely (sure, why not?—pun intended) because they don’t get it at all.

As many readers and writers know, Ernest Hemingway is famously quoted as saying: “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing, he may omit things that he knows, and the reader … will feel those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” I’m confident that this is not what you’ll find in Schutt’s Pure Hollywood. All of the stories seemed incomplete and covered in a blanket of gray soot. They were all a bit dreary in atmosphere (I found that to be fine if that’s the mood she was going for) and very unfinished. There was very little shock factor in this collection at all, and what little there was wasn’t followed-up on, so the few moments of revelation turned out to be aimless, pointless, near-powerless punches that slipped off the skin like water, non-scathing and unmemorable.

The first story in the collection took up one-third of the space of the entire anthology and had literally only one moment of pure interest. You’ll know that moment when you get to it. I left “Pure Hollywood” behind feeling that moments of my life had been squandered in reading it. But, I pressed on.

The second story in this collection, “The Hedges,” begins as such:

The woman who had just been identified as attached to Dick Hedge looked pained by the clotted, green sound of her little boy’s breathing, an unwell honk that did not blend in with the sashaying plants and beachy-wet breeze of the island.

*raising hand* Umm, did you just try to say that a woman’s son was sick on the beach? I had to read that line at least three times just to extract some meaning from that sludge of words, almost senseless when mixed in that formula. That opening line alone was enough to make me say “Pass” on that story. BUT I pressed forward again. I ended up liking “The Hedges”—the story of a strangely unhappy young couple on vacation with their fussy toddler and the events on that vacation that led to an unfortunate event—far more than I liked any of the other stories, but I didn’t like everything about it. It read like an adult version of Fun with Dick and Jane (and the husband is even named Dick). If that was Schutt’s intent, it fell just short of being clever because it was somehow never fully realized. It read like an outline of a story with none of the goods filled in, and because of that I didn’t especially care about the family, particularly that toddler.

“The Duchess of Albany” was the absolute epitome of the word WASP(y) and held no interest for me whatsoever. It read easily, sometimes even jauntily, but in the end left absolutely no impact.

“Family Man” was a dull flash fiction about a dull man. Literally. That is all.

“Where You Live, When You Need Me” warranted only an annoyed side-eye glance and a curt flipping of the page. As far as I can tell, it said nothing about anything but still managed to be rather snobbishly WASPy. Are these people hiring a homeless woman whose full name they don’t even know to help them out around the homes they’re renting in “the Berkshires,” then contemplating their belief in God (for one ridiculously, pretty much ironically brief second) with nothing else said as if that was enough? The nerve. Nothing else to be said about this one.

“The Dot Sisters”—what for??

“Oh, the Obvious” drew me in because of the potential for irony implied in the title. There was some irony in the end that was tolerably well done.

In the end, Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood is a collection I’m sure most people can live without. This compilation of stories added nothing to the dialogue about anything, unless you are the kind of reader who enjoys a dry read of literary content the likes of which is sure to make future readers inexperienced with the genre cringe away from it. I get the feeling that Schutt may have been going for dry, witty, ironic and possibly socially commentating fiction, but I do feel that I very well might be stretching for benefit of the doubt. (If not, it definitely needed to be stepped up several notches.)For me, it was fiction without a soul (except for, maybe, the second one), which, I’ve noticed, is almost always what you get from Grove Atlantic/Grove Press. (This is an unfortunate, but accurate observation, in my personal opinion.) To give the best and most accurate analogy I can think of, this entire collection was written for and about extremely uptight Protestant-esque people of coin (probably family money) who would wear cardigans buttoned at the neck and drone on and on about the troubles with “the help.” Picture that person and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the audience for this short story collection. I struggled with what rating to give Pure Hollywood. In the end, 2 stars seemed fair enough, and I’ll move on with my life thinking no more about it. **

*I received an advance-read copy of the book from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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