Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mad Men gets literary again

Season 5 of Mad Men is off to a fine start. Episode 1 culminates in a surprise birthday party for Don. And it's a fabulous party: drinks for everyone, boys looking at girls, marijuana on the balcony, a little yé-yé, and a heated political discussion in the kitchen that references in great detail Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo.

[I read Johnny when I was about 14 and it blew my mind. And boy, do I know it — talking about that book is a great way to kill a party. But then, at 14, I was going to a different kind of party.]

No blatant literary references in episode 2, but I couldn't help but pick up a little Lolita vibe as Lane Pryce obsessed over a photo of aptly named Dolores.

Maybe it's a sign that Simenon is too much on my mind, but it strikes that a couple characters are potentially deeply Simenonesque.

Pete Campbell, junior partner. I don't find him sympathetic, or even likeable, but mostly he's just trying to catch a break. He tries hard. In these episodes I'm noticing a look in his eyes. When he rides in to work on the train in the morning, there's a look like it might be his last ride, he's not riding home ever again. When he returns to his suburban home one evening there's a look of "how did I get here?" (I mean, "how the hell did I end up here?") and for a moment I thought he might snap his wife's neck.

Lane Pryce, finance guy. British, but also deeply sympathetic. He keeps wanting to step out of his box, but always ends up squarely in his box. Now he finds a wallet, finds a photo inside the wallet, calls about returning the wallet and talks to the girl in the photo, returns the wallet, but keeps the photo. It's so small, but it's a transgression, and it's pervy. The others may topple secretaries over their desks, but Lane's innocuous actions are more loaded. My money's on Lane absconding with the company funds. For a girl.

Now, all the characters cross lines, social and ethical. So why do I point to these two as typical Simenon antiheroes? For most of the characters, their morals fall whichever way the 60s are blowing. They fill an immediate need, resolve an immediate problem; they scratch an itch. They're not, on the whole, acting out of any deep-seated unhappiness; they're just reacting. But these two! It's like they're prodding some existential bruise.

Is Simenon colouring the way I look at the world? Am I reading too much into Pete and Lane? Are they any different from the rest of the Mad Men? What do you think makes them tick?

See my list of books referred to in Mad Men's first 4 seasons.

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