Sunday, September 17, 2006

Same player, new game

When we last saw Griffin Mill, he was sitting on top of the world with a beautiful wife, a great job and a flawless reputation. Sure, he’d murdered a guy, but nobody knew about that and the people in his line of work were too concerned with their own day-to-day survival to let a simple thing like that stir up too much of a fuss. Michael Tolkin's The Return of the Player again takes the reader into the mind of the amoral Mill, whose dealings at the top levels of Hollywood were the subject of both the 1988 predecessor and Robert Altman's ingenious 1992 adaptation. But nearly two decades later, Mill's path has changed. The dramas of marriage, divorce, parenthood and the economic and cultural changes of the period have changed Griffin.

Well, not really; he's as ruthless and self-centered as ever, but his targets have shifted. While his children seethe with anger, his wife breaks down over their crumbling marriage and his ex-wife June (whom he seduced after killing her boyfriend in the earlier novel), inspired by a visit to a Mormon church, develops a private religion in which she and Griffin are still married for eternity, Mill loses his place in Hollywood and goes after bigger targets by aligning himself with one of the richest and most powerful men in the world... who, as it turns out, is equally obsessed with someone even richer and more powerful than himself.

Cut loose from the security of his job, desparate to secure a place in the world of new media (and with another murder - sort of - under his belt), Griffin relies on the only skill that held him together in the studio boardroom, an ability to interpret film pitches through the design of the Hero's Journey a la Joseph Campbell. While the first novel stayed mainly in one environment, the insular world of Hollywood power, the sequel sends Mill into a less definable and more dream-like world ruled by manipulative and nearly invisible barons. His family life disintegrating and his grip on reality never quite certain, Mill's quest for power - which climaxes with an encounter with a real-life public figure I won't name - is not entirely as convincing but in some ways darker and more surreal than in the first novel. Some reviews are already citing Highsmith's Ripley novels as an inspiration (Tolkin even throws in a reference to Purple Noon, incase you miss the connection, but I'm not sure that Tolkin is planning a third volume. The Return of the Player, though not as neat as the first novel, takes a wild flight into the future, where Griffin may well have passed us all.

Tolkin discusses the novel in the current Bookforum.


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