By all accounts, the outrageous behavior of English comic actor Peter Sellers (1925-1980) was a key reason the 1967 James Bond vehicle Casino Royale turned into a turkey. What's more, one of Sellers's biographers suggests that the guy was a jerk. And yet, following some research that Elizabeth Gonzalez James (Mona at Sea) did for a novel about a comic actor in the 1960s, she finds herself fixated on Sellers. Five Conversations About Peter Sellers is James's funny, dogged and structurally inventive effort to reckon with the question that consumes her and may well come to consume her readers: What's up with her obsession with Peter Sellers?
Its title notwithstanding, James's book reads like a single conversation. Each of five characters, the author among them, represents a different slant that she, as "Elizabeth," summarizes as "personal excavation, film history, pop culture reportage, cultural criticism, and dispassionate metatextual analysis." Disagreements abound among the conversationalists. (Abby: "For God's sake/ haven't we exhausted/ this examination of hideous men?... Close the curtains./ Strike the set./ Shut it down./ Shut all of it/ down." Elizabeth: "No, we're not done. And that isn't the answer.") Is Five Conversations About Peter Sellers stronger for its multiple-perspectives format, or could the book have achieved the same end if James had structured it as a straight-up first-person essay that considers various viewpoints? Not in question is the book's ultimate value: with its pitiless dissection of Casino Royale, it's hard to imagine a more engaging postmortem on a problematic cinematic artifact. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer