Film critics who write novels are often suspected of trying to enter the world of filmmaking through the back door. In Vincent Canby's case, let us dispose of the suspicion. His first novel, [Living Quarters,] although it begins with an act of violence, soon turns into a recounting of the life, loves, and schizophrenia of a madcap heiress from the Midwest. (p. 26)
Mr. Canby's prose is flat and dry, glinting now and then with satiric, disenchanted humor. The book's method is that of remembered gossip, told in monotone, but not monotonously. Little in the way of sympathy is allowed any of the characters—so careful is the author in keeping any sentiment or unseemly emotion from coloring the tale. All incidents of the past, he seems to be saying, have the same weight in memory, whether it be a failed movie actress who takes her life or a jaded Frenchman who suffers the embarrassment of a dog's suddenly urinating against his leg. The text might have been taken from Ecclesiastes: All is vanity. Yet Daisianna, caught in off-hand glimpses that add up to a portrait, emerges as memorable, as does an aspect of America that no longer knows where it is going. Mr. Canby doesn't reach for very much with his first novel, but what he gives us is done with professional care and an amused appreciation of the not always lovable quirkiness of his characters. (p. 27)
Hollis Alpert, in Saturday Review (© 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 8, 1975.
"Living Quarters" is the story of a charmingly psychotic woman in the deranged late 20th century. It's told in language that shimmers. It's a story that emerges from plots that explore human longing, suffering and pleasure among the civilized on three continents as though seeking a statement about a condition beyond articulation….
If I understand "Living Quarters" correctly, it suggests, while offering champagne-and-acid entertainment, that the present environment requires a streak of madness if you want to live in it at all. Deception, betrayal, exploitation, faithlessness are bred into us by our surroundings, along with our drinking habits and a drive to be made whole through the uses of the flesh. We need not wonder why Daisianna gets off scot-free. Vincent Canby's society cultivates all kinds of nuts.
Meanwhile, despite his confirmation of what tolerant people have been thinking for some time, Canby gives us art, so that we can taste the truth and not find it unbearably bitter. His novel explodes with forms and techniques: pictures of places that look like paintings, intense short stories and strange yarns that surface briefly in the midst of other events, home movies and scenarios, vivid tableaux of families, characters moving as though documented on film.
Some of the pleasure of this novel lies in seeing Canby build this jeweled structure that goes backward and forward in time as it reports on society's mental health by watching the weather inside human heads. But most of the pleasure won't submit to scrupulous examination: it's inherent in the novel in a larger sense. Canby creates a world; he makes people live there, luxuriating in desire, waste, comic boredom. And he insists that we believe and understand them by almost becoming them—he has that power….
Vincent Canby's film criticism in The Times shows that he was born to think and to write. This first novel says that he may have been born to write fiction. (pp. 4-5)
Webster Schott, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1975.
[There's] much generic ambiguity about Vincent Canby's [Living Quarters]: the crime, victim and culprit are swiftly identified, and the book sets off in a series of ever-retreating flashbacks to root out the social and psychological background to the event. Daisianna turns out to be an archetypal American whore/bitch/goddess, pill-slugging, schizophrenic, religioso, selfish and idle; her friends and family are scarcely less neurotically self-indulgent. Even straight Jimmy Barnes, Daisianna's lawyer, who actively seeks an exciting life, turns out to have a wrecky streak, and is laid low by alcohol, troilism and divorce. The flashbacks eventually (if bafflingly) reach flash-back-of-beyond with an ancestor's journal; and we wait for Mr. Canby to drop his tone of glazed detachment and lay a moral on us. Jimmy runs into it on an archaeological site. Pondering on a handy cross-section of the dig, he is told that there are 17 different periods of human habitation represented there. Some layers have been squashed down by later generations into a mere 15 inches of clay. It's quite a thought. (p. 285)
Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 20, 1976.
Can a chilly, misanthropic, half-crippled, middle-aged, twice-divorced, multimillionaire WASP whose hobby is researching the Albigensian heresies find happiness with a radical Jewish journalist who's 20 years younger than he, depressed by his money and resolved "never, never [to] marry a goy?"
Yes and no is the answer delivered in ["Unnatural Scenery"]…. Marshall Lewis Henderson, the WASP multimillionaire, and Jackie Gold, the Jewish journalist, commence living together at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas…. Their lovemaking is animated (Henderson is half-crippled, repeat) as is their talk, and over a period of nine years the culture gap narrows a bit….
Finding happiness is one thing, though, and preserving it is another. Miss Gold shows up late for dinner one night, and objects when Marshall Henderson punishes her tardiness by pummeling her with lobster salad. She turns to an Esquire editor for comfort and, soon thereafter, splits for good.
Such personal disasters are an old story for the hero, a loser, despite his money, almost from birth…. Adding things up after the Jackie defeat, Henderson decides that "something has to be done, a gesture made." And the book culminates in his search for an ideal late-20th-century American gesture of protest against things as they are.
"Unnatural Scenery" is shrewdly paced, nimbly written and full of ingenious cross-cutting, fast...
(The entire section is 420 words.)
[Unnatural Scenery] whirrs with rapid, centrifugal force, yet gives little indication of the generative impulse behind all the noise—other than possibly an interest in the geographical lore of the state of Virginia.
Marshall Lewis Henderson, the narrator, is one of those larger-than-life figures who is, at best, representative of the world around him and, at worst, an oafish presence. His childhood is depicted from a bewildering variety of angles, featuring elements of gentility and reclusiveness that usually characterize WASP boyhoods; alongside these are contrasting elements of dissipation and familial violence that typify novels dealing with the Southern gentry….
Unnatural Scenery is "antic," which means that believability is sacrificed in the interests of diversity. Canby orchestrates his novel like a ringmaster at a three-ring circus, constantly sparking the flagging attention of his audience with new acts and daredevil performers. The book is admittedly entertaining in parts, yet only because it is so furiously au courant. The humor seldom penetrates…. [For] all its efforts Unnatural Scenery palls frequently, mainly because Canby supplies us with heaps of information in place of characterization. Marshall remains a distant curiosity rather than the touching survivor he is meant to be. The reader, meanwhile, remains very much on the outside, wondering what all the damned fuss is about. (p. 15)
Daphne Merkin, in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 29, 1979.