Book Review: Are Snakes Necessary? by Brian De Palma & Susan Lehman
By Scott AdlerbergMarch 23, 2020
Are Snakes Necessary? by Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman is a new Hard Case Crime thriller with three disparate threads propelling the fast-paced plot towards its explosive ending.
Full disclosure: Brian De Palma is one of my favorite filmmakers ever, someone whose films I’ve been watching since I saw Carrie in 1976 as a 14-year-old. Though prolific for the first three decades of his career, from 1968’s Murder a la Mode to 2002’s Femme Fatale, De Palma has had difficulty getting the funding to make new films for a good while now. For lovers of De Palma cinema, this is a great pity and a major loss. So to discover that De Palma, co-writing with Susan Lehman, has concocted a novel—and a novel that has the twists and turns and snappy pacing of his suspense films—is a treat. For a couple of hours, we get to re-enter the slippery world familiar to us from films like Blow-Up and Dressed to Kill and Body Double and enjoy De Palma’s wit and sardonic humor.
But first off, the novel’s title: does Are Snakes Necessary? have a particular meaning? I’ll leave that for the reader to discover, but the title itself comes from the title of a book Henry Fonda is seen reading in Preston Sturges’s 1939 comic classic, The Lady Eve. That De Palma, ever playful, would make a film reference through his book’s very name is not surprising, and I chuckled to find that one main character in the story is a videographer and another a photographer.
We are in prime De Palma territory here; the list of De Palma protagonists who work with film or video—with images—who engage with the world through a lens of some kind, is long. While they may think they fully understand what they are seeing through their lenses, appearances can be deceptive. What the artiste-technician captures in the end, more often than not, is disturbing—even devastating. The quest to discover something, to shed light on a mystery or dig deeper into a situation, almost never, in De Palma, works out as intended.
Are Snakes Necessary? has three plot strands. One follows a beautiful young woman named Elizabeth. She gets recruited by a political operative named Barton Brock to help him conduct a dirty trick against a senatorial candidate. After that, she reinvents herself as the wife of a Las Vegas mogul, and then she reinvents herself again as something entirely different.
A second strand involves the photographer, Nick Sculley, who has dreams of publishing a photo essay book that will chronicle, in a way he imagines masterful, the progression of a couple’s relationship. He crosses paths with Elizabeth and they have an intense fling.
Last we have the videographer, 18-year-old Fanny Cours, who is idealistic and impressionable. Through a connection her mother had to the senator Barton Brock once devised a dirty trick against, she talks herself into becoming the senator’s official video chronicler for his newest reelection campaign. A series of webisodes she shoots will be posted on the senator’s Facebook page and will aim to show the public a side of Senator Lee Rogers that it has never seen before.
Things get complicated when the senator, a long-time philanderer, starts sweet-talking Fanny. She begins to fall in love with him and thinks his proclamations of affection for her are genuine. He happens to have a wife of many years, though, a woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and none of what transpires between Fanny and Rogers sits well with the senator’s fixer, the aforementioned Barton Brock.
Wasn’t Brock working against Senator Rogers earlier? He was, but this is politics, after all. Allegiances are mutable, and loyalty can be bought. Barton is nothing if not professional, and when he decides the senator must be protected if Rogers is to maintain his public reputation and win the election race he’s in, Fanny finds herself in danger.
De Palma and Lehman tell the story in the present tense, keeping the language tight but casual. The book does read something like a cross between a novel and a movie script, complete with short scenes and quick transitions. Backstory on the characters is supplied as needed, tersely, and the novel’s continual forward momentum carries you along.
De Palma’s films, the thrillers in particular, frequently have a dreamlike quality that embraces the absurd and the ludicrous, to most enjoyable effect, and Are Snakes Necessary? is no different. Through a chance meeting, Elizabeth winds up living in a place you’d never expect, doing a somewhat ridiculous job, but that plot development has a wonderful payoff in the end. What starts for Lee Rogers as a mere dalliance with a staffer turns into lurid melodrama at its finest. And when subterfuge is needed by someone, as we’ve seen in more than one De Palma film, what does the trick better than a skin-clinging mask? As explained, it’s “Some sort of rubber thing, the kind you pull over your whole head, like on Halloween. In the half-light it looks almost real.”
What’s real and what’s artifice, as well as the deceptiveness of appearances, is something De Palma has explored since his career began. He has fun with those obsessions in this book and with the idea of people having fluid and untrustworthy identities. Doubles and doubling have been a fixture in De Palma’s films—think of Sisters or Obsession or Body Double or Raising Cain, to name a few—and so have mirrors and the reflections they cast. Mirrors can contrast how people see themselves with how they actually are. The shot of a De Palma character gazing into a mirror, however briefly, is a common one, and we get that precise thing in this book:
The face she sees reflected in the guest-room mirror looks exhausted. She turns away from her reflection and walks, crying, into the bathroom.
One night we decided to go to a motel. We couldn’t get any privacy in the dorm. I was on top of her, fucking her brains out, I thought, when she kept on yelling more, more, more. I open my eyes and saw she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at her reflection in the mirror over the bed. She was basically fucking herself.”
No film involving doubles has preoccupied De Palma more than Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film he has said he saw when it opened in 1958. In an interview with NPR done in 2016, De Palma says that Vertigo “had an incredible impression on me way before I was interested in making movies.” As he puts it, “… there was something about the way the story was told and the cinematic language used in it that connected to me.” It’s amusing, then, that when Nick Sculley is at a dead-end in his life and gets offered a chance to work on a film shooting in Paris, that film is none other than a remake of Vertigo. But who would remake a film widely considered Hitchcock’s masterpiece, a film that is stuffed with Hitchcock’s own personal obsessions?
“What a great idea, remake one of the most revered pictures in cinema history.”
“The story was originally French,” Manny explains. “And they didn’t like the American version.”
But hasn’t De Palma, by his detractors, been the one accused of “copying” Hitchcock? This Vertigo remake conversation comes with a little sting, and I couldn’t help but laugh when I read it. Here’s De Palma being irreverent again, playing around, but all the while a question persists: what exactly does “original” mean?
One character in this book takes the job writing the lovelorn column for a newspaper. She takes the name “Dottie” because it’s the “Dear Dottie” column. In answering letters from desperate and lonely people, she uses the Dottie-column grammar she is supposed to use, but she employs that grammar for her own ends, ends quite different than those of her predecessor. It’s a funny and decidedly low artform De Palma and Lehman present here—the lovelorn column—but if the use of a certain established grammar for one’s own distinctive ends doesn’t sound like a metaphor for De Palma’s relationship to Hitchcock (and others it’s said that he’s imitated—Michael Powell, Luis Bunuel, Michelangelo Antonioni), I don’t know what is.
Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe as a De Palma buff, I’m reading too much into the novel. But if I do have uncertainty, I’m comfortable with that; it seems, somehow, De Palmaesque. The “Heisenberg principle,” Nick Sculley tells Fanny when talking about her videography project. “In weighing something you tip the scales.”
Are Snakes Necessary? is primarily a potboiler, a blend of thriller and political satire, with women in danger and dangerous women, but it also has just a little bit of thought-provoking heft.