Recently finished a truly excellent novel, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936), by Dawn Powell. A formerly neglected master, she was “rediscovered” in the 1990s, thanks to the efforts of critics and writers like Gore Vidal and Tim Page. Today, she is seen by some as at least the equal, if not the superior, to Dorothy Parker as satirist of the first rank — especially of the New York literary scene. That scene is the main subject matter for the novel in question, and it struck this reader as dead on, with elements of post-modernism thrown in, before it supposedly existed.
Post-modern in the sense of it self-referentiality, its meta context, its story within a story and mirrors facing one another. In the following excerpt, Dennis Orphen, a young writer, imagines writing about the people and surroundings in his immediate path and circle, and one can’t help but think this is likely Dawn Powell’s meta commentary about the process she goes through as well. To step further back, Orphen has carved fiction out of “fact” within the context of Powell’s novel, penning The Hunter’s Wife, a scathing satire of another writer, one Andrew Callingham. Callingham was once married to Orphen’s best friend, Effie Callingham, but left her for a younger woman:
Some fine day I’ll have to pay, Dennis thought, you can’t sacrifice everything in life to curiosity. For that was the demon behind his every deed, the reason for his kindness to beggars, organ-grinders, old ladies, and little children, his urgent need to know what they were knowing, see, hear, feel what they were sensing, for a brief moment to be them. It was the motivating vice of his career, the whole horrid reason for his writing, and some day he warned himself he must pay for this barter in souls.
Always as he emerged late in the afternoon from a long siege of writing, depressed by fatigue, he was accustomed to flagellate himself with reproaches and self-inquiry. Why had he come to New York, why had he chosen this career? though to tell the truth he could not remember having made any choice, he just seemed to have written. But if a Muse he must have, he reflected, why not the Muse of Military Life, or better the Muse of Advertising? . . . Actually I should have gone out to South Bend, he decided, into my uncle’s shoe factory and made a big name for myself in the local lodges; but there again was the drawback. Did my uncle invite me? No. He said, “You’d be no good in my business, Denny. Here’s a hundred dollars to go some place way off.”
Curiosity. A young writer’s vice and the motivation for so much of what he or she does. Curiosity about people and places, about the dynamic between them, what makes them tick. One of the things Dawn Powell does so well in this novel is to show how, despite their best efforts, the observer can never remain just that. He or she must eventually upset the delusion of objectivity and disrupt the lives being watched:
The answer to this query was not gratifying for his speculations on Effie, her emotions, her past, her future, had resulted in his latest book, so that if this was loyalty it worked hand in glove with his major vice. Face it, then, curiosity was the basis for the compulsion to write, this burning obsession to know and tell the things other people are knowing. Unbearable not to know the answers.
So Orphen’s book causes a stir, affects actual human beings, friends and foes. There are real costs involved, and Powell details them all with chiseled, economical prose and a great sense of wit, just screaming for a movie to be made in its honor. Her last name reminds me of an actor, in fact, who would have been perfect for the role of Orphen: William Powell, especially in his The Thin Man movies. That’s who I heard when I heard Orphen speak, though William Powell’s Nick Charles would have been at least a decade too old.
But back to the novel about stories within stories. Reading the work, I couldn’t help but wonder about the source material for her satire. Who was Andrew Callingham based upon, for instance? In the novel, he’s considered among the great American writers of his generation, but Powell suggests that generation hit their stride near the end of WWI, and that Hemingway and company followed it. Some have postulated that he is based upon Hemingway, but if that’s the case, then Powell must have purposely played fast and loose with chronology. It does fit in other ways. Hemingway married several times, and was unfaithful all too often. Powell makes infidelity a central trope of Turn, Magic Wheel, but she’s more than even-handed with the subject, as men and women both share the vice. It’s not just Callingham. Living in a glass house of his own, Orphen carries on an affair with a married woman, while his spirit is torn and confused by his feelings for Effie.
Through it all, Powell brings us closer to her two leads, primarily via a kind of stream of consciousness. We learn the most about Effie and Dennis this way, and then step back again to see their entire circle in action.
Her ability to construct fully fleshed out personal psychologies is among the best I’ve encountered, and is rare among satirists. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books in the first of two Library of America collections.