Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons: the final
gem in the author’s often erratic yet underrated oeuvre
To write about any of Capote’s works is to find oneself in the mire. I say mire because I assume that, more than most of the authors I think are considered great by the critical establishment, Capote divides the critics into extremes. John W. Aldridge writes, in his essay titled The Metaphorical World of Truman Capote,
“[i]n Capote one feels not that life has been lived and then laboriously achieved but that life has somehow been missed. Capote’s world seems to be a concoction rather than a synthesis. It has a curious easiness about it, as if it has cost nothing to make, as if, really, the parts had all been made separately at some anonymous factory and might have been put together by just anyone. Its purity is not the purity of experience forced under pressure into shape, of painstaking selection and rejection amid a thousand possibilities. Rather, it is the sort that seemingly can be attained only in the isolation of the mind which life has never really violated, in which the image of art has developed to a flowerlike perfection because it has developed alone.” (Aldridge 38)
This argument, relating that the author forces his narrative into shape by choosing to use or decline elements in his mind that life’s ups and downs have put there, reeks of what the New Critics called the intentional fallacy and is repeated by several other critics, as I intend to show, to the detriment of the criticism itself. Certainly Paul Levine, in an essay titled Truman Capote: The Revelation of the Broken Image, which is far more favourable to the man’s writing, illuminates this tendency of critics to concentrate on Capote’s image as a larger-than-life personality whose effeminate nature speaks to his “flowerlike perfection” and childish innocence and conflate that with his literary achievement or lack thereof. Levine writes,
“The inclusion of Truman Capote in any discussion that pretends to be at most scholarly and at least literary is usually frowned upon by the more sternfaced of our critics. The mention of his name conjures up images of a wispish, effete soul languishing on an ornate couch, emitting an ether of preciousness and very little else. The reaction to the amazing success of his early books […] has relegated Capote to the position of a clever, cute, coy, commercial, and definitely minor figure in contemporary literature, whose reputation has been built less on a facility of style than on an excellent advertising campaign […] Yet the attacks on Capote seem more personal than literary. Critics like John Aldridge […] have blatantly confused the author’s private life with his literary ability. The notion- as fantastic as any of Capote’s stories- that Capote’s style comes too easily is an excellent example.” (Levine 81)
Levine sticks to the texts themselves, and the author’s personality does not stop Levine from praising the work even while injecting some of Capote’s like-minded opinion: “[…] some of his stories- notably “Children on Their Birthdays” and “A Tree of Night”- are striking examples of their medium. Even Capote admits he is most at home in the short story” (88). For my part, after reading this kind of criticism as well as Music for Chameleons, Capote the writer is not the simple yet vengefully gossipy larger-than-life persona many claim him to be, a character given even more life by Capote himself in his social behaviour. Thus, he cannot consider himself blameless of his lack of deserved status among the literati, but he is correct in acknowledging his skill at writing short stories, for he is a master.
Music, a compilation of works previously published in periodicals such as Esquire, McCall’s, and The New Yorker, begins with six short stories that prove Capote’s talents in a variety of ways. The title story showcases his constantly verse-like approach to prose; he uses copious simile to enliven his plots and showcase his genuine insight into the tenor of human conversations. His narratives entertain further when he opens up about his favourite artists and his opinions expose him as an astute consumer of art similarly to his consumption of life and consequent regurgitation of reality through his characters. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he humorously points out, “[t]he man in charge of the casino is called Shelley Keats. I thought it was a joke at first, but that really happens to be his name” (Capote 8). His humour balances his accurate probes into the darkness of life such as this one: “Strange where our passions carry us, floggingly pursue us, forcing upon us unwanted dreams, unwelcome destinies” (11).
In “A Lamp in a Window,” chronicling Capote’s rendezvous with Mrs. Kelly, an old widow who provides him with shelter after a late-night escapade goes awry, the latter echoes his wonder at the unexpected fates our desires result in with this confession: “Of course, I was raised a Catholic, but now, I’m almost sorry to say, I have an open mind. Too much reading, perhaps” (18). This story, as well as the preceding “Mr. Jones,” underlines the author’s respect and admiration for the downtrodden and forgotten of society. Even after commending Mrs. Kelly’s hospitality, he feels he has to further dispel his readers’ suspicions about her. He admits he found her, “[a] bit dotty. Yes, a bit dotty, I thought […] But radiant: a lamp in a window” (20). It is this rehabilitation of the impressions his characters give his readers which is one of the current themes of the collection. Thus, when he writes admiringly of a public figure like Marilyn Monroe in “A Beautiful Child,” he is derided as a gossipy naïf who exposes painful secrets while he’s instead trying to recover what made the public admire her in the first place. Thus, as he watches her, he laments: “The light was leaving. She seemed to fade with it, blend with the sky and clouds, recede beyond them. I wanted to lift my voice louder than the seagulls’ cries and call her back: Marilyn! Marilyn, why did everything have to turn out the way it did? Why does life have to be so fucking rotten?” (245).
The cuckolded husband in “Mojave” might well ask the same question, but Capote, knowing many couples stay together while one party is having an extramarital affair, does not allow him to be so simplistic. Instead, “[h]e was always careful not to offend her, just as she took the same care with him: a consequence of the quiet that simultaneously kept them together and apart” (31). Of course, life, in keeping us on our toes, encourages us not to get complacent and Capote, being the writer he is, inserts some levity via another jilted husband’s viewpoint. “There’s two things I’m scared of. Snakes and women. They have a lot in common. One thing they have in common is: the last thing that dies is their tail” (33). Hence another form of Capote’s ultimate salvation of his characters is their continuous humour in the face of common yet daunting toil.
Nobody toils more in this book than Detective Jake Pepper in the compilation’s tour de force, “Handcarved Coffins,” a story Capote calls in his brash In Cold Blood-like manner a nonfiction short novel. Pepper has lived away from home for almost five years in a small, cheap, motel room trying to solve a case as “intricate as a rat’s maze” (68). The author dazzles throughout in his attempt to combine “the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry” (xiv). He excels on all counts in the narrative, for one is gripped by the atrocity of the crimes committed as in a serial-killer film like The Silence of the Lambs. Capote himself daydreams of these gruesome crimes, with haunting effects. “I saw the car dark under a hot sun, the swirling serpents, the human heads growing green, expanding with poison. I listened to the wind, letting it wipe the scene away” (70). The narrative is teeming with the author’s similes, which as always add levity to gripping material but more importantly serve as wonderfully concise descriptions of character and intent. “Again and again Jake slammed a hard fist into a cupped hand, like an angry prisoner too long confined, frustrated. Well, he had now been imprisoned by this case for many years; great fury, like great whiskey, requires long fermentation” (80). It is this final sentence that points to Capote’s great observations of character, as well as the thrill of reading a true-crime narrative flavoured with poetic touches, and, later, a novelist’s eye for the bob and weave of dialogue, both silent and spoken aloud, between lovers, written screenplay-style. This is one conversation between Truman, Jake, and Jake’s pair Addie Mason:
“TC: What does he look like-Mr. Quinn?
JAKE: Don’t tell him!
ADDIE: Why not?
JAKE: Just because. (Standing, he walked over to the fireplace and offered what remained of his cigar to the flames. He stood with his back to the fire, legs slightly apart, arms folded: I’d never thought of Jake as vain, but clearly he was posing a bit-trying, successfully, to look attractive. I laughed.)” (94)
It is this keen insight into real character of Truman Capote’s that shows that critics have misjudged him as, quite contradictorily, an unviolated flower isolated from life or an inveterate gossip. These criticisms are those of character, not writing prowess. As Roland Barthes would say, their signified of “bad writer” has morphed into their signifier of “Truman the person,” notably not Truman the writer. This also mirrors Fredric Jameson’s conviction, in his Nostalgia for the Present, that the public is prone to “shift from the realities of the 1950s to the representation of that rather different thing, the “fifties” (Jameson 28). Hence many critics have decided to represent Truman Capote as either the young man luxuriously lying on a couch in a photograph for his first literary triumph or the post-In Cold Blood-fame alcoholic and drug abuser, neither of which elucidate his status in the canon.
Capote, Truman. Music for Chameleons. New York: Signet, 1981.
Jameson, Fredric. “Nostalgia for the Present.” Lentricchia and DuBois 226-242.
Lentricchia, Frank, and Andrew DuBois, eds. Close Reading: The Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
Aldridge, John W. “The Metaphorical World of Truman Capote.” Waldmeir and Waldmeir 37-48.
Levine, Paul. “Truman Capote: The Revelation of the Broken Image.” Waldmeir and Waldmeir 81-93.
Waldmeir, Joseph J. and John C., eds. The Critical Response to Truman Capote.
Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.