From Capote, waspish self-conscious gossip; Music for chameleons: New Writing, by Truman Capote, New York: Random House. $ 10.95
No, this is not at long last the trumpeted novel whose advance excerpts, studded with celebrity names in embarrassing situations, scandalized Capote readers several years ago. But these more-or-less autobiographical pieces appear to be warming-up exercises for a rewritten version of the opus in the new style Capote has sought to develop -- "into which I could assimilate everything I knew about writing."
Pretentiously self-conscious as Capote's prefatory remarks may be, they imply the concern for professionalism that has accompanied the preciosity of his literary image and his admittedly checkered private life. The preciosity lingers in this Book-of-the-Month Club selection, the perverse characters, the obscene words in silken contexts, the big names in shock-effect episodes. Yet the storyteller's technique, the hand of the wordsmith, are evident, to the point that a reader is jarred to see Capote use the redundant adjective "simianlike" when "simian" means apelike in itself.
Here Capote is referring to the presumed but unprosecutable multiple murderer in the book's longest segment. This is labeled "a nonfiction account," but the villain is reminiscent of the ominous "wizard man" character recurring in Capote's earlier fiction. And the interweaving of scriptlike dialogue including the author ("TC") is a contrivance that only helps to turn whatever fact there may be into fable.
Indeed, "Music for Chameleons" seems another step in the trend by various writers (Norman Mailer, E. L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, Ishmael Reed) to break down the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, as Defoe did centuries ago. It is as if in the imagination all things are created equal, whether invented or not. This approach theoretically can be a useful reminder that things are not what they seem, in mortal existence anyway. Yet it can be mischievous, too, as when a Capote trivializes his talent with waspish gossip unworthy of the comedy, pathos, or social commentary attainable when he is at his best.