Brian De Palma's debut novel is as absurd, as erotic, and as moral as his films
Words by Bobby Vogel
Brian De Palma, it’s easy to say, is well-prepared to write crime novels. But it’s not his sense for the lurid, as eager and vast as it is, that prepares him. It’s something else more absurd than erotic: it’s Robert De Niro punching a pizza in Hi, Mom! (1970), or Antonio Banderas in Femme Fatale (2002) suddenly, inexplicably speaking with a lisp (and limp wrist) for the length of one scene. Or Penelope Ann Miller in Carlito’s Way (1993) kissing her man to “You Are So Beautiful”, camera circling and increasingly off-kilter, only to ask, in the transports of lust, “where is my cheesecake?” Or Body Double’s (1984) Craig Wasson fishing a woman’s underwear out of the trash, his eyes all aglow, and pocketing it: an erotic memento, to be sure, but a ridiculous one, if sadly believable. Even when Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill (1980) discovers, from her hookup’s medical report, that “YOU HAVE CONTRACTED A VENEREAL DISEASE!”—which is already funny enough—the joke is that it happens just minutes before she dies.
In Are Snakes Necessary?, which De Palma co-wrote with his partner Susan Lehman, multiple male characters, apropos of seemingly nothing, get or claim to have gotten vasectomies. Political strategists eat at McDonald’s in this world, at suburban, shopping-centre bars with dead goldfish in the tanks; they not only eat at McDonald’s but encounter beautiful women employed there, whom they hire as secret agents. At one point Elizabeth, the girl in question, threatens to go back to working in fast food: in the light of what she’s been asked to do, “Big Macs are oily enough.” Another woman, who wants to “get rid of” her cheating husband, has been emailing a stranger who might help; the stranger tells her, sensibly, that their “online connection” must be hidden, and proceeds to instruct her to throw her laptop into the river, as if destroying a piece of hardware had anything to do with email. Another woman, who this time only suspects her husband of cheating (he is, and we know it before she does), “boots up” her computer in the library room of her home, and types the desired URL “into Google.”
"Politics, in De Palma’s view, is not truth or justice, but the interminable, confused pursuit of whatever can be made to resemble them."
'Are Snakes Necessary?' c0-author and movie director, Brian De Palma
Behind intelligent taste for absurdity is heightened awareness of reality. De Palma and Lehman give us a pitiful, medicated Parkinson’s sufferer who doesn’t know how to use a web browser, but they also give us Fanny, a senatorial intern of 18, who makes viral videos and says she believes in “truth.” Her political consciousness is entirely conditioned by social media, which is why she speaks of truth and not tactics (or justice). Politics, in De Palma’s view, is not truth or justice, but the interminable, confused pursuit of whatever can be made to resemble them. Fanny is aware of this but thinks she can surmount it; she sees and wants purity. This is not only youth but an effect of technology: she thinks her videos of the senator are the senator, beyond “spin”, beyond performance; what is filmed and said in private is more real than what is said and done in public. Writing a novel set in American politics, in 2020, risks the obvious, but De Palma is less interested in “Trump” or “nationalism” (the latter is depicted briefly and almost neutrally) than in a social media wizard such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; the novel sees the landscape, but not the one we were looking for.
De Palma and Lehman know that today’s teenagers spend whole weekends in their bedrooms, that daughters tell their mothers about their sex lives now, that young, intelligent men are as inept as ever around girls like Fanny. The novel, which is written plainly, can be sensuous—the visual De Palma has a good eye for clothes—but it is especially evocative in the experiences of women. There is tenderness in the book, and not only because someone is “tenderly” smothered. One woman muses on the married father of her unborn child, imagining all the ways she could tell him, and all the different results, some passionate, some cold; being pregnant is a secret that inspires one’s daydreams. Looking back on that scene years later, she remembers what she was wearing. She is “not the only woman who vividly remembers” such things when looking back on a great moment. This is touching, if a little broad, but later in the book the authors turn it inside out, when they show a different, more pathetic woman try to remember the same and fail.
"It is De Palma at his raunchiest, but it is also deeply moral, as his raunchiest films have been."
Book cover for 'Are Snakes Necessary?' (Hard Case Crime)
When women are attracted to men in this book, they acknowledge their feelings with articulate reasons, while the men merely respond with their “animal center.” The reader is repeatedly struck by the coarseness of description—“nice ass,” “giant breasts”—when a man is doing the watching. But the men, when seen by women, have dual, mixed qualities—a “mix of dopey lines and seeming straightforwardness,” an “odd blend of total surprise and…awareness”—which make them ineluctably but mysteriously attractive. This clash of the sexes, when it is irresistible and not vexing, is cinematically caricatured in a moment approaching horror: a two-sided sex scene in which paragraphs alternate between male and female viewpoints. When the man thinks “how can I get her clothes off?” the woman, in her head, is saying “you are the love of my life.” And so on. It is funny, and it is sad, especially when it culminates in a woman’s desire for eye contact and a man’s desire for sex positions which happen to make eye contact difficult. It is De Palma at his raunchiest, but it is also deeply moral, as his raunchiest films have been.
The erotic thriller, as formulated by De Palma, has roots in screwball comedy as well as in noir. Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and Femme Fatale all end in coupling, not doom; the protagonists of these films share an ability to learn which is the province of comedy. In Body Double, Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is a claustrophobic, cuckolded method actor of the Lee Strasberg variety, in which memories are not only used but ostensibly relived. It’s a mode of passive self-obsession De Palma compares to pornography. But De Palma being De Palma, prudery is not an alternative: Jake only succeeds when instead of lazily watching porn he performs in it himself. His new comfort with artifice is freeing in its falseness: truth was an obstacle; purity doesn’t exist; “body doubles” are everywhere. The ability to act freely is highly related to one’s capacity to tell lies, and, it follows, one’s willingness to forgive them. De Palma’s morality is summed up by Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), the film from which Are Snakes Necessary? takes its title: “the best girls aren’t as good as you think they are”, she says, “and the bad ones aren’t as bad…not nearly as bad.”
"The femme fatale of screwball comedy can cry and sometimes mean it, she can regret the revenge she exactingly planned, and yet she can enter into a marriage with her cunning intact: she is cruel for the sake of love, not the other way around."
Barbara Stanwyck & Henry Fonda in 'The Lady Eve' (Preston Stuges, 1941)
Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn) of Femme Fatale watches a different Stanwyck movie at the start of that film, but by the end of the film, she could be watching The Lady Eve. Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) is as bad as a virginal Henry Fonda thought she was in The Lady Eve. Laure may want to be as bad as that, to be able to say to someone’s face that “I never loved you or anyone else”, but her own humanity gets in the way. As Stanwyck’s does in The Lady Eve, who looks doubtfully downward in her moment of triumph. The femme fatale of screwball comedy can cry and sometimes mean it, she can regret the revenge she exactingly planned, and yet she can enter into a marriage with her cunning intact: she is cruel for the sake of love, not the other way around. Elizabeth of Are Snakes Necessary? is a femme fatale in training, an autodidact of her own allure. The question of the book, the force of its dilemma to the extent it is asked, is which version of Stanwyck she will choose to become.
The book is at its best when she is feeling her way towards a sexier, cleverer, chillier self. She has natural good taste: she knows from the beginning that “it’s the flash of skin”—not the bare skin itself—that is the pivot of desire; her knowledge that “the point where the conceal and reveal join…is most interesting” is something she shares with De Palma the director. Still, the authors admit, Elizabeth, whose laugh is like “wild poppies,” doesn’t quite know what she’s doing. She thinks flirtation, for example, is a matter of willpower: “does the woman want to go through with it or not?” is the only relevant question. The fate of a femme fatale is to a great extent determined by the men she encounters, and there are no men in this world who might find her routine of “giggle…smile…kiss the boy” tiresome. Nick, her first mark, lets strange women kiss him, pretends to smoke cigarettes, and is proud of his preference for eating peach yogurt: he has little self-awareness and great self-regard. When such a man tells a woman that he’ll be “very good at undressing” her, the fact that he had to say it makes him a pearl in her necklace.
"If anything, the flaws of the book suggest the greatness of his films: Brian De Palma is the most musical filmmaker of our time, as audial as he is visual."
Rebecca Romijn in 'Femme Fatale' (Brian De Palma, 2002)
Nick has had a brush with fame, a single photograph that went viral; this does not, impressively, do much for Elizabeth: she prefers “planning and artistry” to the outcomes of chance, another instance of good taste which she shares with her author. But men are not movies, and sex is not something one simply accedes to: desirous she may be, but she is not overwhelmed. And neither is De Palma: there is a great deal of chance in the workings of desire. When a man and woman kiss in this book, “it nearly knocks them out”, but like the boasting of Nick, this is stated as mere fact; the reader is shut out from the feeling and left fully awake. At one point the authors describe sex as “a world far from conversation”, as if talk were not arousing—real talk, not the humouring of a vain man. It may be a reflection of the characters in question, as much of the narration is, but it is too easy in such moments to imagine De Palma’s camera roving and taking over, embellishing the supposed defects of speech with the nimble grace of a deed.
If anything, the flaws of the book suggest the greatness of his films: Brian De Palma is the most musical filmmaker of our time, as audial as he is visual. In a certain sense, the great director he resembles is not Hitchcock but Stanley Donen, who crafted sequences so musical and ecstatic that whatever surrounds them can seem uninspired. Even the experience of watching Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is one of patiently waiting for the drama to stop, for the next extended thrill to descend. And so it is with the ballet sequence of Passion (2012), the overture to Femme Fatale, the finale of Mission to Mars (2000); nothing can top him when he lets himself sing. It is the musician’s fate to be bored with or hate an unmusical world: there is sad vexation in the best of De Palma, and it is there in this book. He treats drama the way Scottie treated Judy in Vertigo (1958): with a certain obliging menace, a friendly unfairness borne of high expectations, a hope that for even mere seconds or minutes the promise of beauty might be more than just haunting.