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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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1,300136,024 (3.93)16
  1. 00
    Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts by Sylvia Plath (sweetiegherkin)
    sweetiegherkin: The writing styles aren't identical, but these are both lesser known works by well-known authors. They are both full of shorter works, especially a number of observational pieces drawn from the authors' own lives. Of course, with Plath that's a lot of English countryside / visiting neighbors type things, while with Capote it's interviewing convicted murderers and hobnobbing with celebrity pals. But both books give insight into the author's art and their particular writing style (poetic for Plath and journalistic for Capote).… (more)
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Music for Chameleons contains a bunch of short story-length works and one novella-length one, which are all supposed to be nonfiction and "a continuation of Mr. Capote's concern with developing the artistic possibilities of journalism," according to the dust jacket. The shorter pieces in the first section of the book touch on a variety of issues from random misadventures to childhood memories to travel reflections. The second section is the novella-length Handcarved Coffins, which is subtitled "a nonfiction account of an American crime," even though there's been a lot of speculation about how much of this story was true versus how much was Capote's invention. The third part titled "Conversational Portraits" is interested in a number of gossip-like celebrity (and some non-celebrity) anecdotes.

In addition, the book contains a preface from Capote in which he talks a great deal about his literary career, noting highs and lows. He also talks about his experiment with the "nonfiction novel" quite a bit:
"For several years I had been increasingly drawn toward journalism as an art form in itself. I had two reasons. First, it didn't seem to me that anything truly innovative had occurred in prose writing, or in writing generally, since the 1920s; second, journalism as an art was almost virgin terrain, for the simple reason that very few literary artists ever wrote narrative journalism, and when they did, it took the form of travel essays or autobiography. ... I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry."
He also mentions how after writing his first "nonfiction novel," In Cold Blood, he realized what was missing from this work was his own presence and voice, a problem he corrects in Music for Chameleons

"Music for Chameleons," the first part of the book, contains six short stories on a wide range of topics. One of these stories, "Mojave," particularly seems like a piece of fiction, given that Capote does not play a role in it, and it is an intimate look at a day in a married couple's life. Even in the other pieces, Capote is presumably there as the unnamed narrator, but these could just as easily be works of fiction. These stories were a little bit tedious, in my opinion, and not my favorite examples of short stories - not much happens by way of plot or even theme; they read more like writing exercises on being observant. They are well written but not especially gripping.

Handcarved Coffins tells the story of Jake Pepper, a pseudonym used for an FBI agent, who is on a most peculiar case of multiple murders. There is apparently nothing that directly ties the murders together in terms of means or motivation, but each victim received a hand-carved coffin with their photograph in it through the mail before their death. Pepper eventually figures out who committed the murders and why, but he has no way of proving it. This novella (purportedly factual) is fascinating and page-turning; there's bizarre circumstances, lots of dread and suspense, and colorful characters. The 'unsolved' aspect of it leaves for a bit of an unsatisfying ending, but it's overall a good read. Personally, I approached it as fiction rather than worrying this far in the future about whether the details were or were not true. Quite frankly, it was too strange to seem real, although as they say "truth is stranger than fiction" sometimes.

Although Handcarved Coffins was affecting, "Conversational Portraits" was probably my favorite part of the book. Like the first part, it contains short stories that are observational in character, but I found these far more interesting than the earlier ones. There are seven stories altogether, in which Capote recounts conversations or events shared with his house cleaner, old school chum, celebrity pals, and more. Capote inserts himself even more so in these works, as he is an integral part to the dialogue and happenings, revealing details about himself and his subjects. The most interesting of these is "A Day's Work," where he follows his house cleaner for a day; "Then It All Came Down," in which he interviews a convicted murderer; "A Beautiful Child," when he and Marilyn Monroe have a lunch date after a funeral for a shared friend; and "Nocturnal Turnings," in which Capote interviews himself, forcing himself to confront some demons and hard truths. Of course, there is still controversy here; for instance, Robert Beausoleil, the interviewed prisoner, contests that Capote misrepresents their meeting, and other subjects, like Ms. Monroe, aren't alive to refute or confirm Capote's portraits. But there was something about the pacing, flow, and characterizations in these that made them fascinating reads.

All in all, this was a book that I'm glad I tackled, and one with plenty of fodder for discussion, especially given the whole issue of how much is truth and how much is Capote's imagination run wild with only a thread or two of fact remaining intact. That being said though, I don't think this book is for everyone. If you're not a fan of short stories or vaguely open-ended conclusions, this won't be for you. However, it's a must for Capote fans to get a better understanding of his art. ( )
  sweetiegherkin | Jun 21, 2015 |
"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. ( )
2 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 |
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She is tall and slender, perhaps seventy, silver-haired, soigne, neither black nor white, a pale golden rum color.
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A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That's why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:43 -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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