Show business takes many forms from motion pictures and TV to live theater to music and dance performances. Here are some of the best novels that take place at the show.
‘The Day of the Locust’ by Nathanael West (1939) This is not the first Hollywood novel about an aspiring young actress of little talent and astounding beauty, but it is perhaps the best. A realistic novel about a few hangers-on in a Hollywood grotesque.
‘The Vagabond’ by Colette (1910) – This novel is the story of a woman who after her divorce becomes a dancer in music halls. It was inspired by Colette’s own experiences.
‘The Loser’ by Thomas Bernhard (1983) A fiercely original novel in which one of the main characters is Canadian musical genius Glenn Gould, “the most important piano virtuoso of the century”. Thomas Bernhard constantly berated his native Austria for its Nazi past, its stupidity, its sentimentality, and its philistinism, yet he rarely left the country. This is perhaps the finest novel by one of the most unique writers of the twentieth century.
‘The Feast of Love’ by Charles Baxter (2000) – In this novel Charles Baxter uses one of the oldest most dependable of schticks, a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Nights Dream’ in modern times. This year I’ve already read two works of fiction with re-imaginings of ‘Midsummer Nights Dream’, ‘Wise Children’ by Angela Carter and a story in Donald Antrim’s collection of stories. “Disparate people joined by the meanderings of love come together in a tapestry that depicts the irresistible arena of life.” – Promo text for ‘The Feast of Love’.
‘Margaret in Hollywood’ by Darcy O’Brien (1991) – O’Brien was a son of Hollywood with his father being actor George O’Brien and his mother being actress Marguerite Churchill, a frequent costar of John Wayne. This novel is about someone like his mother, and it depicts her Vaudeville and silent movie days. Here one gets an authentic picture of early Hollywood including the crooked agents.
‘Young Man with a Horn’ by Dorothy Baker (1938) – This novel is loosely based on the short tragic life of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke who was a great cornet player but died of alcoholism at the age of 28. It was made into an excellent movie starring Kirk Douglas and Doris Day.
‘A Couple of Comedians’ by Don Carpenter (1979) Two guys are a comedy team that goes to Hollywood to make a movie each year, then heads to Las Vegas to perform their act. It is an hilarious look at the underside of show business. This is the first novel in Carpenter’s Hollywood Trilogy.
‘The Song of the Lark’ by Willa Cather (1915) – the story of a young soprano from a small Colorado town who winds up an opera diva at the Metropolitan Opera House.
“But if you decide what it is you want most, you can get it. Not everybody can, but you can. Only, if you want a big dream, you’ve got to have nerve enough to cut out all that’s easy, everything that’s to be had cheap.” Willa Cather, ‘The Song of the Lark’
‘Morality Play’ by Barry Unsworth (1995) – This novel takes place in Medieval England that centers on a travelling group of players who portray morality and mystery plays. It was made into a movie called ‘The Reckoning’ in 2003 starring Paul Bettany and William Dafoe.
‘Contempt’ by Alberto Moravia (1954) – a novel about making a movie and about a marriage disintegrating. Never has contempt been depicted so realistically. Read the novel and watch the movie; you won’t regret it.
‘Jazz’ by Toni Morrison (1992) – A lyrical novel told in an improvisational jazz style. It is about Harlem, New York in the 1920s but extends back to the Civil War to tell its story of jealousy and romantic love.
‘The Englishman’s Boy’ by Guy Vanderhaeghe (1996) – A young man goes to Hollywood and winds up filming a movie about a cowboy hero. This is a novel about the early movie days as well as a Western.
Enough for now. There are so many others: ‘Sister Carrie’ by Theodore Dreiser, ‘Rehearsal’ by Eleanor Catton, ‘Nana’ by Emile Zola, ‘The Garrick Year’ by Margaret Drabble, ‘Theatre’ by Somerset Maugham, ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan and on and on and on.