Gabriel Blackwell describes Madeleine E, a project he began as a personal rumination on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as “a kind of critic’s notebook, an assemblage, a commonplace book, but also an homage and an acknowledgement.” This is a very apt description of this strange and eclectic book, which contains critical commentary on the film, passages of fiction, sections of what might be memoir, and an assortment of quotes from writers as diverse as Jose Saramago and Slavoj Žižek.
I begin with Blackwell’s own words because the book is loaded with these obsessive acts of self-description. In the multiple chapters self-referentially titled “Madeleine E.,” he provides several possible versions of the a book he is supposedly writing. For example, he says, “This is a book about a man and his girlfriend, who live together . . . She is going to have an abortion.” But later the narrator (if it is the same narrator) says, “In this book, a man goes through a painful divorce. He believes his wife cheated on him, and she maintains her innocence.” And, by contrast, he asserts that “This is a book about a woman who has a terrible accident. She goes into a coma, and it is two months before she comes out of it.” Like Vertigo, each retelling or reframing of Madeleine E. leads always to deeper mystery rather than to clarity and resolution. It is a book that does not develop in any traditional sense but estranges. It is a work that seems to be in the midst of revision, as if it isn’t quite finished, as if it can never be finished. Sometimes revision is an act of cutting and compression; sometimes it is an act of expansion or rearranging, but then there are those works of art that grow only as you become increasingly estranged from them. The more Blackwell doubles and trebles his themes, his narratives, his allusions, the farther he gets from the narrative voice(s), the more we enjoy the experience. It’s as if he wanted to recreate the vertigo of Vertigo (in himself, in the reader) rather than simply explain it, describe it, or critique it.
Though the book relishes its dizzying array of postmodern techniques, there are two major elements that drive the book and keep it connected to the movie: doubling (and doubles) and obsession. While working on a book about Hitchcock’s classic, the narrator spots his double on the street. He predictably becomes obsessed with this double and has several more run-ins with him until they eventually meet. However, this is where the narrative ends. Blackwell says, “All the stories of doubles and doppelgangers I’ve read involve a confrontation between the two doubles, and they all end with the death of one of those doubles.” He then goes on to say that this is not one of those stories. On the one hand, this is a novel variation on the doppelganger device; on the other hand, it seems less than satisfying. I certainly don’t require narrative satisfaction from a book of this kind; in fact, I expect to be thwarted at every turn, and yet there was something more I wanted if not from the doppelganger narrative at least from the book as a whole. Infinite regresses can be tedious if there isn’t something more to be gained from their use. Thankfully, Blackwell has had another trick up his sleeve.
For all of Vertigo’s ambiguous strangeness, at heart it is a movie about the failure of love. Scottie (Jimmy Stewart’s character) falls in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak’s character). What he doesn’t know is that she is a fake who has been hired to pretend to be Madeleine as a part of a convoluted murder plot. Predictably, Scottie falls for her and is devastated when she appears to jump to her death. However, a year or so later, he runs into Judy Barton (also played by Kim Novak) and becomes obsessed with her just as quickly. Of course, Judy is the same woman who had been hired to play Madeleine previously. Scottie embarks on a disturbing mission to transform Judy into Madeleine, making her change her appearance so that she more closely resembles the “original.” To make matters worse, Judy has now inexplicably fallen in love with Scottie, which is why she allows him to change her. She asks several times if he couldn’t just love her for herself, which, of course, he can’t do. More to the point, he doesn’t even try. He’s in love with a person who never existed, and she is in love with a man she cruelly duped and nearly drove to madness. What’s far more disturbing is the fact that no one seems to take any responsibility for anything in the movie. Scottie never accepts responsibility for Judy’s death; Judy never accepts responsibility culpability for Madeleine’s death, and Elster appears to have gotten away with murdering his wife.
This notion of blame seems to be on Blackwell’s mind. At the very end, he gives us one last description of the book he is writing. He says,
This is a book about a man writing a book about Vertigo. In his book, he thinks, he will trace his thoughts about the film as they relate to the guilt he has about how he has lived his life, about the lives he hasn’t led, and about the lives of others he believes he has ruined.
Clearly someone named Gabriel Blackwell is trying to take responsibility for his actions, but which Gabriel Blackwell and which actions? If we can’t even agree on the basics of the story, then we really can’t assign guilt, which means no responsibility can be taken. This is a clever and well-thought-out ending, which sustains the ambiguity of the movie and yet creates a deep sense of yearning for closure, luring us towards and then thwarting our desire for the kind of simple, coherent narrative we often confuse for “the real.”
Carlo Matos has published four books of poetry and one book of fiction. His poems, essays, and stories have appeared in such journals as Iowa Review, PANK, Another Chicago Magazine, and Handsome, among others. Carlo is a professor at the City Colleges of Chicago and a teaching artist at the Poetry Barn.