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Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote
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Music for Chameleons (1980)

by Truman Capote

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"Music for Chameleons" might be described as a compilation of literary B-sides, a collection of interviews, reportage, and fiction thrown together during the author's long decline that blurs the line between the straight-out fiction and verifiable fact. Still, if this is Capote at his most desultory and booze-addled, it only demonstrates how great a writer he really was. While alcohol flows freely in many of these stories, Capote's prose is still nearly impeccable, and some of the scenes he depicts here -- such as the Manson Family's Bobby Beausoleil, cool as a rock star in his prison cell, or a sad, flighty Marilyn Monroe visiting New York's old, run-down waterfront -- may stay with the reader a long time. Not everything works as well as it should, though. While "Handcarved Coffins" the book's longest piece will remind many of "In Cold Blood" the fact that it lacks a satisfying conclusion will probably frustrate many readers.

While Capote specialized in literary portraits, "Music for Chameleons," when taken together, really functions best as a portrait of Capote himself. He allows himself to be more of a presence here than in "In Cold Blood," and, while he likely expunged the least glamorous elements of his addictions from the text, what we end up with is fascinating in its own right. He comes off as poised and erudite, equally at home with movie stars and notable New Orleans eccentrics. Whatever personal demons he might have had, Capote was also one of those rare figures who knew seemingly all his era's most fascinating figures, and his undeniable talent for capturing their characters on paper is our gain. At one point, he tells Beausoleil that he'd interviewed Charles Manson, known both Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski socially, and had met most of the Manson's family's other victims as well. Amazingly enough, he then reveals that he met both Lee Harvey Oswald and John F. Kennedy years before their lives intersected so famously. "Music for Chameleons" might also be described as the reminiscences of the twentieth century's own attendant lord, and that is, in its way, a compliment. Recommended for fans of good reportage, good fiction, good prose, and material that might fit all three of these categories. ( )
1 vote TheAmpersand | Jan 22, 2013 |
This is quite a good book, and one would merely have to read the first two paragraphs of the famed preface to gather that Capote was a great writer, so I will quote them here: "My life-as an artist, at least-can be charted as precisely as a fever: the highs and lows, the very definite cycles.
I started writing when I was eight-out of the blue, uninspired by any example. I'd never known anyone who wrote; indeed, I knew few people who read. But the fact was, the only four things that interested me were: reading books, going to the movies, tap dancing, and drawing pictures. Then one day I started writing, not knowing that I had chained myself for life to a noble but merciless master. When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation ."

The rest of the book actually lives up to the promise of the preface, so read it. You can also read an essay I wrote about "Music for Chameleons" on my blog at this address:
http://larsaumueller.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/this-is-an-essay-i-wrote-for-a-cla... ( )
  larsbar | Mar 29, 2012 |
A very natural style. At times funny, at times more dramatic. "Handcarved Coffins" shows Truman at his (dramatic) best. In "Conversational Portraits", the 3rd and last part of this book, one wonders if some stories are real or made up. The one about Marylin Monroe is a beauty. Highly recommended ( )
  jm_arroyo | May 2, 2010 |
I picked this up some time last year, partly because I never read anything by the guy, and partly because I recalled a friend saying this was one of her favorite books. Capote definitely has a style, and it's on display here in this collection of non-fiction stories and conversations. At least, one assumes it's non-fiction; he says so, at any rate.

He did live a very varied life, so it's easy enough to accept the stories as true; the old woman with the cats in her freezer, being smuggled onto a plane by Pearl Bailey, etc. Some of the stories are definitely better than others, and the showpiece, Handcarved Coffins, was only all right, all around. Most of the "conversational portraits" in the third section of the book, except for the last one, were very well done, and even that one (a conversation with himself) wasn't that bad. The earlier ones didn't get into my head as much, I have to say.

His writing style does draw in the reader, though, and the decision to include himself in the stories probably was a good one; his influence on what's going on is a big key to the reactions of people around him. Not a great book, for me, but a good introduction to Capote, I s'pose. ( )
  Capfox | Jun 16, 2009 |
Music for Chameleons is my go-to book whenever I need to read something comforting and comfortable; I have read this collection of short stories at least fifteen times. Capote is master at creating settings and conjuring up personalities. The central story, a novella entitled Handcarved Coffins, follows the same guidelines as In Cold Blood yet is even more terrifying and haunting. ( )
  poplin | May 3, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679745661, Paperback)

In these gems of reportage Truman Capote takes true stories and real people and renders them with the stylistic brio we expect from great fiction. Here we encounter an exquisitely preserved Creole aristocrat sipping absinthe in her Martinique salon; an enigmatic killer who sends his victims announcements of their forthcoming demise; and a proper Connecticut householder with a ruinous obsession for a twelve-year-old he has never met. And we meet Capote himself, who, whether he is smoking with his cleaning lady or trading sexual gossip with Marilyn Monroe, remains one of the most elegant, malicious, yet compassionate writers to train his eye on the social fauna of his time.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:37:05 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

In these gems of reportage Truman Capote takes true stories and real people and renders then with the stylistic brio we expect from great fiction. Here we encounter an exquisitely preserved Creole aristocrat sipping absinthe in her Martinique salon; an enigmatic killer who sends his victims announcements of their forthcoming demise; and a proper Connecticut householder with a ruinous obsession for a twelve-year-old girl he has never met. And we meet Capote himself, who, whether he is smoking with his cleaning lady or trading sexual gossip with Marilyn Monroe, remainds one of the most elegant, malicious, yet compassionate writers to train his eye on the social fauna of our time.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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