American Society Portrayed in Tolkin's The Player and Among the Dead

American Society Portrayed in Tolkin's The Player and Among the Dead

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A Fractured American Society Portrayed in Tolkin's The Player and Among the Dead

The novels 'The Player' and 'Among the Dead' are not simply tales about any given character, as it would appear, but in fact they represent Tolkin's own personal vision of what he thinks American society is becoming. Namely, that it is a fractured society built on false values, where people have difficulty dealing with the truth of feelings or situations and where people will do anything to make money. The individual plots are realistic though, and they seem to work as both true-to-life dramas and broader social commentaries. This gritty realism becomes apparent after a brief look at the events of each novel.

Part of a major Hollywood executive's job is to reject writers in the polite 'don't call us, we'll call you' fashion. But when 'The Players' Griffin Mill starts to receive death threats from an anonymous writer, he panics. In an attempt to clear his conscience of not replying, he contacts a writer at random from his old diary, who he can't even remember, and chases him down to apologise and offer him a job writing a new film. But when the writer laughs in Griffins face, Griffin goes mad with frustration and murders him. The rest of the story involves Griffin's slow breakdown involving: knowing he'll get caught; his romantic attachment with the writer's widowed girlfriend; his realisation of knowing he's getting older and a new young hot-shot producer threatening his job, and the real death-threatening writer still trying to kill him. This also acts as a broader social commentary on the way American society, particularly Hollywood, is made up of lies, false values and dishonesty to the point of absurdity.

'Among The Dead' begins with another executive, Frank Gale, writing a letter. This letter is a carefully crafted 'forgive-me' note in which he confesses to an affair he's been having. The plan is to take his wife on holiday and give her the letter and then spend the rest of the time trying to sort out their marriage. But Frank takes too long saying goodbye to his mistress and he ends up missing the plane, which then crashes killing everybody on board, including his family. The book then follows Frank dealing with his wife and daughter's death and the way in which the Airline company find Frank's letter in the wreckage, and sell it to create a sensational news story and also in defence against a law suit from the victims of the crash's families, as blackmail against Frank.

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The book also looks at how none of the people affected by the crash can grieve without looking for a way to make money, selling stories to the press and suing the airline, and because of 'Political Correctness' people hide their emotions from each other and themselves.

These two novels are very closely linked with their main characters being emotionless executives, who are dishonest and lie to their loved ones. Tolkin has created his own worlds in which people have trouble dealing with the truth and want to hide their feelings. There are also major parallels of events in each novel: both executives commit crimes and suffer guilt from their actions; they both hurt their loved ones; both of them have threats to their jobs and both of them decide on going to Mexico to resolve their problems.

There are little clues to the theme that America has trouble dealing with genuine emotions in the first pages of both 'The Player' and 'Among the Dead'. A line in 'The Player' states, 'Griffin was used to hiding at the right moment'. This does not just mean Griffin is used to hiding his feelings when he needs to, when he shouldn't be hiding them, (in this case an outburst of anger at a younger man threatening his job) but the whole of America hide their feelings when they shouldn't. The clue in 'Among the Dead' is a little less subtle, when Frank is thinking about ways to tell his wife he's been having an affair. He first has the idea of getting dressed up and taking her out to a fancy restaurant to tell her over dinner. He thinks boldly, 'How else but through the right performance of mundane actions could he hide how uncomfortable the pressure of his feelings made him.' He feels he can't tell her exactly how he feels unless he waters it down and tries to hide it. He has problems dealing with his emotions. In an interview Tolkin once said: 'This society has trouble dealing with emotions, people live in a constant fear of having to reveal their true feelings...' I think this shows exactly how he feels about society today.

The first example of hiding feelings from oneself, let alone someone else, is when Frank is writing the letter to his wife confessing his affair. Of all the times one should make one's true feelings known, especially since Frank wants to by confessing, this is one of them. Frank however second guesses everything he writes,

'Dear Anna,

This is difficult'

And immediately he thinks 'Or is that begging for mercy?' and scores it out. He looks for any trace of feeling in his letter and cuts them out, cutting out this line for fear it will show him as being wrong, which he is, and later trying to make out, even though he has been unfaithful he is still her equal, by putting in the line "... I wanted to take this trip so we could find a way to heal ourselves.' He feels he is being generous by giving her these two words, 'heal ourselves', which he calls 'a sacrifice'. By using this he is not admitting that he his wrong but trying to find a way to get out of it, a way to hide from what he feels in case he hurts her, which his actions will do anyway. This is what Tolkin thinks American society is like in general. It has lost touch with real emotions so much that everything needs to be packaged up and hidden.

Then, after the crash when the letter is found and sold to the media, instead of everyone seeing Frank for the cheating sleaze he is and not showing his true feelings they all see him as a hero. 'Women newscasters are asked by the men beside them if they would forgive an unfaithful husband if he wrote them in this way. Frank is grateful that they all say yes.' and then at the memorial service the governor says: 'I think this is one of the most beautiful letters ever written because it tells the truth.' What people actually see in the letter and appreciate is Frank's hiding of his feelings, and this is accepted in society today as normal and, in fact, to tell what people see as the truth of your feelings you have to hide them in this way. Tolkin feels that American's vision of the truth is distorted.

An example of hiding things from loved ones can be found in 'The Player', when Griffin begins seducing David Kahane's (the writer he murdered) widowed girlfriend, June. At the end of their first date they come home and they are about to make love when June pulls away. She says she isn't ready yet, and Griffin doesn't force her. Not because he respects her grief but because he knows that it won't get him anywhere. He instead offers to stay and talk for a while. June however starts crying as she remembers David, and just before Griffin leaves her she says, 'I don't know you very well, but I think you're one of the best men I've ever met.' This is ironic as it shows just how fractured American society is when the killer of a man can seduce his widowed girlfriend and let her believe that he is the perfect man. Griffin doesn't even have the guts to tell her he murdered her former lover, even though he owes it to her. Instead, he is more concerned with sleeping with her. This also represents America on a larger scale, where people will be as dishonest as they can just to get things they want, even though morally they should be honest.

When Griffin is lying to the police lieutenant about the murder in 'The Player', he thinks 'He could tell her that if honesty is a weapon, then it's not honesty, not if you use it as a tool. He could but he wouldn't.' This shows how he is using a genuine quality to his advantage to get him off the hook. He is acting honestly but this is just a front as he is really lying. He knows this and he also thinks he could tell her this but in an act of double dishonesty, he doesn't. He is building a shell of lies around himself, so he has lost the truth. Later on in the book he realises, 'He was so used to lying that he had lied without thinking.' This shows how lying has soon become normal to him and that is all he can do. His relationships have been built up on lies. He doesn't ever tell June he murdered her boyfriend. He doesn't tell his secretary who the postcards are really from but that he is scared and instead weaves a web of absurdly pathetic excuses. And he doesn't tell his girlfriend he's met someone else. This is what Tolkin thinks of American society too. It is built up on layer upon layer of lies and dishonesty and can't handle dealing with real feelings and emotions anymore because lying is a lot easier. A shell of lies has also been built up around America and it has now even forgot why it started lying in the first place: the need to make money and false values has become accepted as 'normal' behaviour.


Another feature of Tolkin's vision of American society is that everyone's feelings have to be labelled. Tolkin makes this apparent to the reader in 'Among the Dead' by, instead of saying what the character really feels, swapping it for the bold-type professional names and clichés for what is happening, like it was a news report. When describing what Frank needs to do to get on with his life he writes 'Lowell (Frank's brother) would... bring him to his house, and help Frank to PUT THE TRAGEDY BEHIND HIM.' The characters act not in the way that real people should but more how professionals like psychiatrists and doctors have labelled the way everyone acts. In a burst of sexual repression he fantasises about raping the airline representative. He also fantasises about the after effects which would happen when she would press charges and 'learn that it was NOT A SEXUAL CRIME, but A CRIME OF VIOLENCE.' This means that what is obviously a sexual crime has been turned around because American society won't allow any victims any more, and often make the perpetrators of the crime appear to be victims. The psychiatrists have labelled and explained everything. He says 'she might forgive him if she considered that, to be violent, HE MUST HAVE BEEN TREATED VIOLENTLY AS A CHILD. HE MUST HAVE BEEN BEATEN AND RAPED HIMSELF.' We know this is not true but if this ever happened, Frank would be able to get away with the crime by letting his lawyer invent a reason for him performing this horrible act of violation, that he was raped himself as a child. In this way, Tolkin shows that America won't let there be any crimes committed simply because someone was mentally unstable but now people commit crimes because they were a victim of society, that they only copy what they've been taught as a child, and in this society it is not the true victims who are seen as victims, but the criminals. The logic has been turned upside down. This is shown in real life stories in papers every day. Tolkin shows how absurd this whole affair is by asking if it means that for the case of the man who blew up the plane, causing it to crash and everyone on board to die, that 'He MUST HAVE BEEN BLOWN UP AS A CHILD. His father must have put a hose up his ass and pumped air into him until his intestines ruptured.' This amusingly shows how Tolkin thinks American society and law system are creating problems. Criminals are disassociating themselves from the reality of their actions. As Frank Gale discovers later, by knowing that he is in the 'medical' 'State of grief that is denial... can he still deny?' It would appear that Ben Elton and Michael Tolkin both think that American society needs to see that the problem they have is their own creating of problems for excuses before they can sort themselves out.

Tolkin's Vision of American society is also one in which death is extremely marketable. One of the funniest and ironic examples of marketing death in 'Among the Dead' is when the 'survivors' of the crash (the families of the dead in the plane and on the ground) are taken out to the refrigerated warehouse to identify the bodies. There are however, no bodies to identify but merely 'pieces of legs' 'fingerless hands without arms' and torsos (stored) in shallow plastic caskets.' The most horrific part of the description though is probably the line: 'On every piece of flesh someone had taped a strip of paper with computer bar-coding, so that each piece was identified.' This image combined with the refrigerator and the survivors walking around, eyeing up the remains to see if they can identify them, reminds me of a supermarket, where people walk around looking in freezers for something to buy for dinner. Death is being packaged in America because it removes feelings, and this is how America is coping with grief and other emotions. It seems like the pieces of bodies have been cleaned up and shrink-wrapped to be sold, as a souvenir of the crash, which is not unlike the media's treating of the crash, ignoring people's personal feelings and putting everything on display. Like with printing Frank's letter in the paper and revealing the name of the woman he was having the affair with, as well as ruining both their lives.

Everyone appears to be trying to make money out of the crash: the people with their lawsuits against the airline and even Frank when he thinks to himself 'Could this be made into a movie?' knowing that it could. Money appears to be more important than grief and death appears to be a large money making industry now.

Tolkin uses a story pitch in 'The Player' as a little dig at the law system. This little story (called Habeus Corpus, Latin for 'Produce the Corpse') within the story is a realistic drama about a man faking his own murder to get his wife sentenced to the gas chamber. When the man is asked in court what his murder weapon was going to be he says 'The State of California'. This shows how wrong the law system is because with a good lawyer a completely innocent person can be sentenced to death. The director who pitches the story makes it clear that the woman doesn't get saved and should die, 'because that is the reality. Innocent people die.' In Tolkin's screenplay for the film of the book he wrote in an extra scene where the characters are watching the film Habeus Corpus after it has been made. At the point where the girl should have died, like in the original pitch, our district attorney hero suddenly blows the gas chamber door away with his shotgun, rescues his girl, makes a cheesy one liner and kisses her, the words 'The End' fade up on screen. One of the executives stands up complaining about how the producers changed the ending of the story and the director now says, 'people want a happy ending. That's the reality.' She protests further and is promptly fired. This shows how people in America, even artists, will just as soon drop their own personal beliefs and ideas if it means they can get on with their co-workers and make more money. They have a hypocritical view of the truth in that the real truth is not what they feel, but what will benefit them more.

There is a parallel in 'The Player' to Frank Gale's thought in 'Among the Dead' about his story being made into a movie. The studio's security chief works out Griffin killed the writer and is telling him that if he went to Pasadena with the intent to kill he could got to the gas chamber. 'This was starting to sound like Habeus Corpus' thinks Griffin. He too is more concerned with how he could make money out of his situation, than facing the grim reality of what he has done.

Tolkin's vision of American society also shows how fractured he thinks the society is because of it's little segregated groups and the constant need to be Politically Correct. The state of how ridiculous people are acting out of fear of accidentally offending someone else's beliefs is shown at its best at the memorial service in 'Among the Dead.' The 'survivors' are told that a Bishop, a Protestant minister and a rabbi will be at the service. However 'They drew lot's, to choose the order of the prayers. This way there's no implied opinion expressed, on behalf of the airline, either respecting or disrespecting the superior or inferior importance of any one of the religions by the order of the appearance of their ordained representative.' This is satire and shows how the airline, as well as other groups in America, are so worried about being Politically Correct, that they don't give people a proper chance to grieve. I think that Tolkin feels that society is sorting itself into little groups of people with support groups who feel they are being discriminated against. Now there are so many of these groups to take into account you can hardly say anything without offending someone. Even the days when people would turn around and argue with someone who offended them have been replaced by ones were people jump into a court trial at the first hint of offence. The need for Political Correctness has grown out of the society's false values. The many different religions and people's groups shows just how many pieces America is made up from, and possibly explains why its society is so fractured.

One such group appears in 'The Player.' When Griffin phones Larry Levy, the executive threatening his job, to tell him about a pitch Levy says he is 'on his way to an AA meeting.' Griffin says he didn't realise Levy had a 'problem.' 'I don't,' replies Levy, 'but that's where all the deals are being made these days.' This shows just how corrupt America, and especially the movie making industry, is when it comes to making money. The people in this society are so stressed that they are now all recovering alcoholics, so it is normal for business deals to happen at the AA. This up and coming executive is taking advantage of the support group by lying about a problem so he can make movie deals with all the other alcoholic players and earn some money. This is reflecting most businesses in America, where the whole society is so concerned with making profit they will lie about genuine (or invented as Tolkin has already hinted at) problems to do it. They have no shame or morals when it comes to making money.

At the memorial service in 'Among the Dead' people are less busy thinking about what they are actually there for and more concerned with what lawyer they are going to go with. In fact, an argument between all the mourners breaks out while the governor is making his speech. One of the arguers even says, 'In my hour of grief are you saying there's something wrong with me?' not in referral to arguing at a memorial service as you might think, but actually referring to someone criticising their choice of lawyer. This scene shows there actually is something wrong with someone when they are more convinced with making money than grieving for their loved ones.

Perhaps the most powerful image of how fractured America is the fact that Griffin, like the father in The Bicycle Thief the film he murdered David Kahane at, actually gets away with his crime. He walks from the crime when he doesn't get picked out in a line-up. This symbolises how the witness couldn't see that he was a murderer because his lying had become so complex that it had now become the truth for Griffin. His lawyer tells him that the police lieutenant 'thinks you just got away with murder.' Without a witness, there is, of course, nothing the lieutenant can do about it, because that's how the American law system works. It is in favour of the accused who is innocent until proved guilty, whereas Tolkin thinks it should be in favour of the victim, the accused should have to prove their innocence. America has so much trouble identifying the truth of situations that it is a society full of corrupt morals and personal relationships.

Tolkin links the books not only through the parallels of theme and plot but also by inserting little in-jokes, In 'The Player' there is a mention of a record company executive who has sold out that could possibly be Frank Gale, and in 'Among the Dead' in a newspaper list of the crash victims, Larry Levy is listed as being, among the dead. These little connections help create a more believable world, where the characters are interlinked. The stories in Tolkin's world are not only realistic, gritty dramas, but also show his own personal vision of American society. It is a society that is deeply corrupt when it comes to making money, it is built upon fractured groups of people, making itself fractured and it has trouble dealing with the truth and will even hide its true feelings from people it shouldn't.

Tolkin best described the theme of his books himself in a recent interview: 'The book is simply about the difficulty of having a genuine emotion in a society in which all emotions are immediately commodified. My goal was to write a novel about a guy whose wife was killed in a plane crash and how this country, or society, cannot handle such a large emotion as grief.' I think Tolkin is successful in conveying this vision of American society in the novels 'The Player' and 'Among the Dead'.

Works Cited

Tolkin, Michael. Among the Dead. 1993. New York: Avon Books, 1994.
-----. The Player. 1988. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1989.

Interviews from:

Premier Magazine US, 'Up and Coming', by Mark Dennehy, Feb '91.

The Times, 'Leading Player in the fights for rights', by William Cash, May '93.
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