I’m not sure when I first ran across The Arrangement.
The book (picture from here) was written by Elia Kazan in 1967 so it could not have been before that. That would have put me in high school, either in Alabama or Washington depending on when it percolated down to me.
I was certainly familiar with Kazan’s work as a director.
I grew up in southern California in the fifties and, by coincidence, the local television stations didn’t have a lot to fill the daytime hours. If you wanted to watch television—and I did—it was old movies or soaps and I didn’t like soaps. I saw a lot of Humphrey Bogart and W. C. Fields, Joe E Brown and Orson Welles, Peter Lorre and Greta Garbo. And, of course, a lot of films directed by Elia Kazan.
(All in black and white, of course. We never got a color television. I never knew The Wizard of Oz was in color until I was in college.)
Pretty much everything Kazan directed was gold: On the Waterfront, East of Eden (my personal favorite), A Streetcar Named Desire. He started writing novels in the sixties. Of them, I have only read The Arrangement.
I’ve been reading and re-reading The Arrangement every few years. For reasons I find obscure, it’s a sort of touchstone novel with me, along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Stars My Destination, and Kim, among others. I don’t know how this works with other authors but to me touchstone novels are curious things. They don’t necessarily have to be good—but often are. They clearly don’t have to be science fiction, though some are. By their nature, they are books that I find something new and interesting them every time I read them.
There are going to be spoilers in this discussion. Be warned.
The Arrangement is about the breaking of a life.
Eddie Anderson is a second-generation Greek working as a very successful advertising executive. He has arranged everything in his life to his own satisfaction. He continuing affairs. His success is based on lies—at one point, Eddie masterminds an advertising program for a cigarette company. This is right when the cancer association is becoming fully public and he works out a way to take advantage of the scare to sell cigarettes.
Eddie’s own name is a lie. He was born Evangelos Arness but, besides Eddie Anderson, he also goes by Evans Arness. He has a second career as false as the first: he writes hit pieces on right wing figures for liberal magazines. It’s a point in the book that he usually makes up his mind about what he will say long before he meets the person he’s discussing.
The critical thing is he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong—in fact, by the end of the novel when he has changed everything, it’s not clear he thinks anything he had done was morally wrong. He’s sorry about some things and hurting some people. But he has no real moral crisis. The book pursues a personal redemption rather than a moral redemption.
These days, such a novel would have to examine Eddie’s psychopathology or consider him a psychopath or sociopath. The novel does none of these things. Eddie does confront the damage he’s done but it is personal damage.
Eddie’s life is perfect as far as he’s concerned. Then, into his life walks Gwen Hunt.
Gwen starts showing up in conferences and presentations under the direction of the president of Eddie’s company. He doesn’t like her. She doesn’t radiate approval for what he’s doing—which is something Eddie lives for. Eventually, they begin an affair and things begin to break apart. He falls hard for Gwen—trying to convince himself that he’s not that struck by her. They break up at one point and things seem to go well for him—he avoided a dangerous challenge to his life.
Then, as he’s driving his sports car to work, something seems to reach down and twist the steering wheel into a terrible car wreck. He recovers but it starts a gradual descent into paranoia and psychosis—a “nervous breakdown” in the vocabulary of the book. Things break apart one by one. He returns to his father—now a sick and dying man—to be with him as he dies.
What’s happening here is the lies by which he has lived are, one by one, being detached. It’s not that Eddie didn’t know he was lying—he was constantly aware of it. Depending on the lie, he either accepted it as the way things were done or reveled in it—these lies were being broken. Even the lies about his name and who he had fashioned himself to be.
Until the monster he is—Eddie’s own words—can be embraced. He ends up with Gwen. Only the two of them can stand up against each other. Other people—as shown in the book—are ultimately destroyed in one way or another.
Why is this book important to me? Or worse, what does having this novel as one of my touchstones say about me?
That’s not an easy question to answer. I read it recently and it is a rough book to read. It was rough when I first encountered it and it has not dulled with age. The relentless damage people do to themselves—Eddie’s not the only transgressor here—gets tough to watch after a while. My appetite for observing self-destruction is not as strong as it was when I was younger.
That said, along with that relentless damage is a relentless honesty. The narrator is telling the story of what happened to him and by him and he does not spare himself or anyone else. He doesn’t justify himself. He doesn’t evade what he did. He doesn’t blame anything on anyone else. Eddie just tells the reader what happened. He doesn’t blink while he’s talking. He started out selfish and he ends up selfish but in a different way.
Most stories tend to be romantic in nature. By this I don’t mean high school heart throb stuff. I mean that there is usually a little glossing over this or that. The villain is evil pure and through—that’s romantic. It’s idealized. Nothing is pure evil. Good is painted as better than bad. Moral authority wins through. Or moral authority loses. It’s good when the good guys when. It’s bad when the good guys lose.
None of this is wrong but it’s not completely true, either. Eddie just tells the truth, step by step. He makes no moral judgements of himself or anybody. He makes personal judgements—that hurt his wife. This hurt his friend. But no moral judgements.
I think this struck a deep chord in me. This idea of personal redemption without moral redemption. I was raised in the religious south and moral redemption stories always have a little bit of religious feeling about them—religion is often romantic, too. This is quite likely a character flaw but it’s my character flaw, thank you very much.
The Arrangement has none of that. Which, I think, is why I keep reading it.