Anne Katharine Green: The Leavenworth Case

Green, Anne Katharine (2010 [1878]), The Leavenworth Case, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-310612-8

Anne Katherine Green is widely seen as a precursor to modern mystery novels – or one of the first modern mystery novels, depending on how you want to judge eras. Michael Sims’s introduction makes clear how much writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and especially Agatha Christie owe to Green’s work and to her 1878 debut novel The Leavenworth Case in particular. This book’s portly detective, who breaks his case by inviting all suspects into a room and explaining the facts of the case to them is clearly what Christie based her chubby Belgian detective Poirot on. In my experience, many of these “precursor” novels are interesting, often better literature than their more generic offspring, but also sometimes more dull, less concentrated and shaped. If there’s no genre conventions to use and work with, sometimes there’s a bit of Victorian shapelessness to some books, excuse my frank language. But the case of Anne Katherine Green is interesting.

With crime novels, what I as a reader particularly enjoy is reading the environment outside of the plot – issues like class, race, culture, and their reflection in the objects surrounding the plot and characters. Because mystery novels are often epistemologically locked rooms, we as readers enter them as a detective enters a locked room where a murder has happened. We examine the interior, the paneling etc. And while the world of the mystery may seem to roam across broader landscapes, in reality, for the reader, they are all locked rooms, and we enter them suspiciously. This has interesting effects. The author’s implicit biases become part of the narrative and furniture. In influential books like Dorothy Sayers’s debut Whose Body?, the author’s antisemitism becomes part of the structure, part of how we read and understand that novel. I’m not saying anything new, McHale’s disquisition on postmodernism has already sufficiently explained how detective fiction and modernism are connected.

But I found it necessary to explain because of how extraordinarily well made Green’s debut is, and how it appears to address these critiques and ideas. The book is narrated by a Watson type character, a smart person who comes close enough to the mystery’s solution at various points that the resolution can be genuinely surprising. He travels, interviews suspects, collects, saves and presents evidence – and the tone of the novel is extraordinarily melodramatic, designed for the reader to follow this proto-Watson through New York and into the heart of a complex family intrigue. But he never gets a real grip on the solution – that is reserved for the detective. His name is Mr. Gryce and he is introduced like this:

And here let me say that Mr. Gryce, the detective, was not the thin, wiry individual with the piercing eye you are doubtless expecting to see. On the contrary, Mr. Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pierced, that did not even rest on you. If it rested anywhere, it was always on some insignificant object in the vicinity, some vase, ink-stand, book, or button. These things he would seem to take into his confidence, make the repositories of his conclusions; but as for you—you might as well be the steeple on Trinity Church, for all connection you ever appeared to have with him or his thoughts. At present, then, Mr. Gryce was, as I have already suggested, on intimate terms with the door-knob.

The first sentence, as Sims notes, is a reference to Wilkie Collins’s detective Sergeant Cuff from the 1868 novel The Moonstone, who is described as having eyes which “had a very disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself.” The psychologist detective is its own tradition, but the detective who reads and interprets his environment is a different – and much more interesting – one, in my opinion. Green’s Mr. Gryce is almost a parody of these characters, but appearing long before them – his obsession of not looking into your eyes but carefully observing objects, things, appearances, is stressed more than once in the novel.

This makes him the perfect foil for the protagonist and his melodrama which is almost exclusively focused on psychology, on talking to people, trying to understand them, trying to intuit them. Detective fiction has more than once served as an analog for literary criticism, but this novel, curiously, long before the advent of academic literary New Criticism, offers a powerful and convincing rejection of speculative psychology. What matters are facts – and context, and plausibility. From Peter Szondi, we learn that an interpretation needs to be consistent, and so Mr. Gryce solves his case because he notes that of all the evidence he found, “the chain was complete, the links were fastened, but one link was of a different size and material from the rest and in this argued a break in the chain.” So he ends up offering a Poirot-esque confrontation that leads to a confession.

Mr. Gryce is not an unfathomable genius like Sherlock Holmes – and maybe in this the voice of a female writer becomes clearer. There’s no fetish of masculine genius here – Gryce is led by the facts and the quality of his analysis against his intuitions, and is in the end surprised by the confession. Usually the Watson character is the reader analog – he is our representation in the story. We’re smart but not that smart, observant, but not that observant. But The Leavenworth Case recalibrates this – the Watson character is there to show us the world, but our real analog is Mr. Gryce. We feel with Green’s Watson-like character, and we follow him on his adventure, but as readers thinking through the story, we are more like Mr. Gryce. We create a chain of evidence, and we don’t get all the way there – but neither does Mr. Gryce. The unpleasant celebration of the inexplicable, beautiful genius of Sherlock Holmes, sometimes offered with evidence that was not visible to us as readers, is undercut here. He is encouraging: when the narrator finds a piece of evidence, Gryce tells him: “don’t show it to me. Study it yourself and tell me what you think of it.”

Anne Katherine Greene wrote this novel over several years, pushing herself to finish it, publishing it finally to great success. She married a younger man and actor who later became a famous designer, but she was the primary breadwinner. It would seem counterintuitive then that Green was not a feminist, and in fact spoke out against suffrage in 1917, but here, as with writers like Mary McCarthy, the work itself is more complex. “[G]etting a wife,” we learn, is “the same as (…) acquiring any other species of property.” But in the novel, it is the female characters who plot, who shift things around, who cloud the waters, and men who have to try to hang on to this wild ride. In fact that quote is from a conversation where a man is trying to hang on to the facts of a contract in a situation where life has long made other plans. There is a malleability to this world, a kindness and a depth to its objects that justifies looking at them closer – and though many aspects of The Leavenworth Case became formative for the genre of modern mystery novels, one feels a bit miffed that Sherlock Holmes, who first turned up ten whole years later, has had so much influence on mystery fiction. Everybody in Greene’s novel loves, admires, fears and thinks – Sherlock just sneers. I can’t help but feel we need more of the former and less of the latter.

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Blake Crouch: Dark Matter

Crouch, Blake (2016), Dark Matter, Pan
ISBN 978-1-4472-9757-4

I’ve said it before, on this blog and elsewhere – the power of science fiction is to make familiar things less so, to expand the way we read, both texts as well as the world that surrounds us. That doesn’t mean that all texts have to be Dhalgren, but they don’t also have to be Crichton light. It is particularly odd when basic structures of our world as we know it, are lazily reinforced in fiction that would not need to be tied to them. Some books are under-girded by sexist stereotyping but are otherwise well meaning and expansive in other ways. None of that is true for Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter the most disappointing book I can remember reading in a long time. Not the worst, mind you, there are a lot of bad books out there and I do read epic fantasy. But the most disappointing. A book I was told was, to quote a blurb, “mind-bending,” when, in the end, there wasn’t as much bending as settling. My god what a boring book Dark Matter turned out to be. A book about the multiverse, about identity, reality, about who we are, or at least that is what it could have been. Instead, Dark Matter is about one man’s quest to get back the woman he feels he owns. It’s utterly baffling that anyone who has ever read a good science fiction novel would look at this godawful mess and think, yes, this is good, I have no notes for the author. To be clear – this is not about the prose. With genre, I am willing to make compromises. Not everybody is Brian Evenson. So yes, the prose is absurdly bad. It’s not overwritten purple prose. It’s merely plain, and banal, and utterly unaware and directionless, with its writer having invested as much effort into crafting interesting sentences as he has into the structure of the novel as a whole.

The main effort, clearly, went into researching the science behind it all. The whole book has a massive masculinity problem, as has the odd modern obsession with science over philosophy (Neil Degrasse Tyson is a particularly noxious example) and general forms of thought. Science fiction has always attracted scientists and sometimes they have not been the greatest stylists. But writers like Asimov and Clarke are considered classic writers because they use their background to dig deeper into the soft flesh of the world, to grope for possibilities, for pushing our understanding. There is none of that here, or in the current fascination with science, or rather, engineering, as an answer to all our problems. Fittingly, the book has a blurb by Andy Weir, whose Martian had also disappointed me, a book unwilling or unable to imagine anything beyond an engineering problem. But Dark Matter even undercuts the Martian on the marketplace of ideas. And it’s such a bummer, because as always, the science is truly fascinating and begs for someone to find the right literary approach. What’s worst is that the book isn’t even any fun. I have a big heart and soft spot for genre books that may not enlarge the language or possibilities but are greatly enjoyable. That’s not the case here. There is no difference between the incessant, dour, seemingly unending monologue of Crouch’s protagonist and all the many thousands poor, put-upon white men all over mainstream fiction who walk through their cities, their banal, unfair worlds, eager to stick it to the lesser people around them, and to stick it into a woman, any woman, ideally a woman that somehow belongs to them. These are worlds that give the lie to Galileo – the earth doesn’t revolve around the sun, it revolves around the taint of mediocre white men who think they are geniuses in disguise.

Only in this case, Crouch constructs a fictional universe that does revolve around his unbelievably unbearable protagonist. He gives up the game real early – his protagonist used to be a brilliant scientist, and teaches at a second rate college now, because he gave up his career to raise a child with a woman who’s an artist. Yes, this is the same gender split as in Charlie Jane Anders’s reactionary novel. But what’s worse is that he makes the woman such a wooden regurgitator of the praise he feels is owed to the protagonist.

I move to the cabinet beside the sink, open it, and start hunting for a box of fettuccine.
Daniela turns to Charlie, says, “Your father could have won the Nobel.”
I laugh. “That’s possibly an exaggeration.”
“Charlie, don’t be fooled. He’s a genius.”
“You’re sweet,” I say. “And a little drunk.”
“It’s true, and you know it. Science is less advanced because you love your family.”
I can only smile. When Daniela drinks, three things happen: her native accent begins to bleed through, she becomes belligerently kind, and she tends toward hyperbole.

Who is he talking to here? This last condescending remark – who is he arguing against? Do men have to explain their silly wives, even when they are fictional? Don’t mind her, after a few drinks, you know how she gets. And also – “hyperbole”? This misplaced modesty is both unpleasant and typical. We know, from the rest of the book, that it’s true, that the protagonist has indeed made a spectacular discovery. He made it largely on his own, which is not how big scientific discoveries are made, but coming up with a team of scientists would have complicated Crouch’s shitty narrative, so it’s one man, one theory, and, crucially for the plot, once that man vanishes, nobody can reconstruct what happened, not even with all notebooks and data intact. I mean, he’s a real genius, and somewhere in Crouch’s infested mind, this is how geniuses work in science.

So what happens in the book is this (spoilers, spoilers, etc): a version of our protagonist, who didn’t abandon his career for a baby, creates a machine that allows people to access the infinite other selves that exist in the multiverse. You have to take a drug, and hop into a kind of time machine, which is half TARDIS, half HG Wells. Now, that scientist visits our protagonist, takes him and basically does an exchange of hostages, takes over his happy family life. Our protagonist, meanwhile wakes to a world where he is a successful scientist who has made a pact with a ruthless billionaire. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the protagonist decides to get back to his original “world” and reverse the exchange. He takes with him a female scientist who, of course, is a psychologist, because GOD forbid there are female physicists in Crouch’s dick-shaped worldview.

Now, due to complications and an equal amount of stupidity on the part of the so-called genius that’s our protagonist and the so-called “mind-bending” nitwit who wrote him, a proliferation of versions of the protagonist, a multitude of selves, descends on this original world, and in the end, after some chases, some gun- and knife-fights, the protagonist escapes with his wife and child, into the multiverse. If this sounds like a stupid plot, it is. But the most bizarre thing is that the idea isn’t necessarily bad? Crouch is aware that his scientific research gives him no firm ground to stand on, ontologically. Differences between the multiverses are minute, the same applies to the different versions of the protagonist. At no point does this lead Crouch to introduce the idea of undecidability, of ambiguity, into the book. Everything in the book is always exactly clear, exactly nailed down. We know that the world he lands in last is the original world, because he can tell, of course. And what’s more important, because we always follow his voice, we are never shaken in our faith that the person we’re listening to is the original one, the real one, the one who “deserves” to get the wife.

If anything’s mind-bending, it’s the author’s utter gall to write a novel based on a science of ambiguity, and undecidability, and make it absolutely, boringly immobile. Nothing changes, nothing is odd or unexpected. We are always where we need to be. It’s always clear what’s real and what’s not, who’s real and who’s not. And added to that, we are let into the mind of our protagonist, who needs his wife back – not any old version of her, but the one he met and fucked. I mention that part, because that part is particularly important to him. He’s obsessed whether the self that replaced him temporarily fucked his wife better than he did. It’s constantly on his mind, and once he re-acquires his wife, it is one of only a handful questions he asks, and she, of course, answers in detail. And symbolically, she only becomes fully his (and comes fully on board with this multiverse story he tells her) after they have sex and he re-asserts his territorial importance.

This is a story about two things: about identity and how fractured it is in a multiverse, and about love. But this is a diseased, greedy, kind of love where the woman is a mere bit player. And the question of identity? We are never, not for one moment, shaken in our sense of who we follow, who is where, and it feels like taunting when Crouch has his stodgy, surprisingly stupid protagonist say: “My understanding of identity has been shattered – I am one facet of an infinitely faceted being who has made very possible choice and lived every life imaginable. I can’t help thinking that we’re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.” But of course, he has to say it, absolutely HAS to, because the novel doesn’t fucking say it anywhere in the way it’s made. And as if to affirm all this, the very next sentence is “but none of the other Jasons matter. I don’t want their lives. I want mine.” I thought these facets are inseparable? They are not? Who’d a thunk it.

Dark Matter has already been optioned for the screen and it will make a passable movie, maybe even a good one. The writing already reads like explanations for the screen. As far as thrillers go I have read worse. But this is mainly disappointing, because of what it could have become, instead of what it is, a spoonful of spunk after 300 pages of masturbatory, uninspired middle-of-the-road thriller fare. Sad.

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Curzio Malaparte: The Kremlin Ball

Malaparte, Curzio (2018), The Kremlin Ball, NYRB Classics
trans. Jenny McPhee
ISBN 9781681372099

I reviewed Malaparte’s posthumous and strange novel for Review 31.

For better or worse, The Kremlin Ball gives us a point-blank perspective on Malaparte’s literary and personal inclinations: his egomania, his disdain for simple people, his attraction to totalitarianism, and his conflicted feelings towards masculinity. That alone makes it well worth reading.

You can read the whole thing here.

Paulette Jonguitud: Mildew

Jonguitud, Paulette (2015), Mildew, CB Editions
ISBN 978-1-909585-03-4

Is it still a translation if a book was translated by its author? There’s something to that transition that many writers find a bit daunting. Yoko Tawada, for example, an author writing in both German and Japanese, does not translate her Japanese work into German. Thus, the Japanese novel which was translated into English as The Emissary, arrived in German later than in English, and in a translation by her longtime translator Peter Pörtner, despite the author being not just fluid in German, but regularly producing excellent novels and essays in this language. Another example regarding translations to Germany is Mikhail Shishkin, who is a professional translator between Russian and German, and yet, he does not translate his own Russian novels into German. In other cases, most famously Joseph Brodsky, it has been argued that Brodsky’s English equivalents of his Russian poems are inferior to the work produced by professional translators. As I said, it’s a bit of a curious issue. Why not regard the “translated” text as a new creation by the author? In any case, these are some of the questions raised by Mildew, Paulette Jonguitud’s (in many ways) masterful novel(la). Jonguitud is a Mexican author, and this book was published as Moho in 2010, and translated by the author in 2015. I found as I read and reread the book that one’s perception changes depending on whether we read it as a translation or as a new creation or re-creation by the author. I don’t think the book improves if we read it as translation – occasionally we come across strange changes in register, slightly uneven syntax, and other linguistic choices that I suspect read absolutely natural in the Mexican original. There’s a part of my brain that reads these passages as ‘mistakes,’ as infelicities, as problems that editors or a more careful translation could or should have fixed. I find that these passages don’t stick out as much if we read the book as an original English translation.

Here’s why: the protagonist is a mentally unstable woman, and the book an interior monologue as she comes to terms with some horrible things that happened to her and in her life, as she’s preparing for her daughter’s wedding. If we read the stylistic oddities as related to her state of mind, they seem less odd than if we read them as related to the language of origin. And in this way, they add to the tapestry of the book – the sometimes odd syntactic choices can make a fussy impression: the language of someone who is trying to piece together what has happened in the past years, months and – crucially- hours. Constanza, the protagonist, is preparing herself and her daughter’s dress for the imminent wedding, but as she prepares, she notices a stain on her leg. The more time passes, the longer and larger and greener the stain grows, the titular ‘mildew’ slowly envelops her body. Jonguitud uses well-trod literary ground, but she remakes it new. The book weaves memory and worries, past, present and the possible future into a seamless narrative. The book is conceptually heavy, but never loses the fat meat of literary narrative and psychology. Unlike other books that have seemed too skeletal to me, like fellow Mexican writer Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd, which was all concept and structure, Jonguitud’s book has emotional and narrative depth beyond the conceptual playfulness. Constanza appears before us: believable, distressed and lost. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her, and neither do we – we look at her past for clues, much as she invokes her own past as what has led her to this point and the green growth on her body. I’ll spoil it now: while there is a revelation towards the end, we never really get an explanation for the mildew. The book beautifully ties everything together in the dark last chapter, but that’s not an explanation.

And there’s a good reason for that. I will say I am leery of writers who use disfigurement and disability as a cheap metaphor – too often in books where, once the ‘problem’ is cleared, the disfiguration also clears up. It was in our heads all along! Sontag has warned of the use of metaphor to discuss illness: “illness is not a metaphor, and […] the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” But here’s the thing: it’s not really a metaphor, and not really an illness. And it doesn’t clear up. I honestly expected it to be in the narrator’s head – a manifestation of her fears, her self-hate, her guilt. I know this – the feeling some part of your body has developed a life of its own, the Sancho Panza to my anxiety’s Don Quixote, rushing the windmills of my mental health. It was instantly believable – but when Constanza’s daughter comes in and sees the mildew, and thus the mildew becomes a real object in the real world of the novel, we move out of these simple equivalencies. That we don’t get a reality based solution to what the mildew is means that we’re in a very different territory here. The obvious siblings of Jonguitud’s story include writers like Kafka, and his stories of the world’s terrifying, unexpectedly cruel and monstrous reality. The world suddenly turns on many of Kafka’s narrators and suddenly things we considered workable tactics in dealing with our environment slip out of control, change, become strange or threatening or both. Constanza isn’t suddenly disabled, or possessed – no, a real, physical mold has started to grow on her, something that inhibits her movements, even, not a discoloration, it’s suddenly there, it’s part of her reality and she has to deal with it. It mirrors the way things have changed in her own life, how certain people and their actions have become part of her reality and she had to deal with them.

There is an obvious Deleuzian angle here – but it’s indirect, in the way that much of the important theory of our time is Deleuzian in one way or another. When Foucault said that we would view the 20th century as Deleuze’s century, he was right – but off by a century. And I don’t really want to dig into the theoretical angle here, but I do want to note how extraordinarily rich in meaning Jonguitud’s mold is. Depending on how you approach the book, it can be seen to be about a vast variety of things. There is the obvious issue of the body – of the way women are socialized to view their bodies from birth to the end of their lives – and how other women often reinforce the pressures and expectations of physical womanhood. What is feminine, what is attractive, what is worth having? In this reading, the mildew is what Sontag called a “punitive […] fantasy” – but Constanza didn’t do anything wrong – except to be born a woman into a patriarchal society that places certain values on certain physical manifestations of feminity and womanhood. And yet – she’s clearly complicit in these narratives to a certain extent – and complicit in something much worse, as it turns out. The most obvious reading of the book would be an ecofeminist one, about how power separates and controls things, how certain forms of speech control and damage. There’s so much here, but it’s hard to really discuss without giving away some crucial details of the book. In some ways, one can read the book as an attempt at connecting the “becoming-minor” with “becoming-woman” as Deleuze and Guattari suggested in their Kafka book (I appear to circle back to Kafka here).

Suffice to say that Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew is darkly brilliant – condensed but rich, one of the best books of its kind that I can remember reading. Stylistically it’s not without flaws – but it’s not all bad, either. Jonguitud’s English is simple – I am not a fan: simplicity is the most difficult style – there’s nowhere to hide. I sometimes have the suspicion that the reception of writers like Kafka in translation is also one of simplicity of language – in German, there’s nothing simple about Kafka’s language which consists of carefully layered tenses and conditionals, of precariously balanced registers and complex descriptions that can take many readings to unfurl. We don’t get that here. The language in Mildew is plain – but even so, the book is brilliant and everyone should read it.

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Elizabeth Hand: Generation Loss

Hand, Elizabeth, Generation Loss, CR Crime
ISBN 978-1-4721-0279-0

Hand, Elizabeth, Available Dark, CR Crime
ISBN 978-1-4721-0278-2

Over the past year I have read quite a few crime novels in between doing work and other things, and I’ve increasingly felt that there are two specific things a good crime novel will do well: it will have mastered the generic structure of uncovering a crime (subverting the structure is its own kind of mastery), and it will be about something unrelated to the murder business. I find I am easily tired of the Elizabeth George type of contemporary crime novel – where characters and setting basically fill in the gaps in the mystery structure. I understand the appeal – and a well executed generic mechanism can be a thing of beauty, and is often underrated by “literary” critics. Novels that do both aspects well, however, are rare. One such writer I enjoyed greatly is CJ Sampson whose novels set in Henry VIII’s time work enormously well as crime novels, but who also use the historical context as more than attractive setting. Similarly, some of the most lauded crime novels of the past years take on the topic of racism in the American South, like Lori Roy’s Bent. Moreover, it appears to me, writing a novel that connects both spheres – or just writing an exceptionally tightly structured crime novel – can be like catching lightning in a bottle – often, previous and subsequent attempts fall far short of the mark.

All this is to say that Elizabeth Hand’s novel Generation Loss is an almost perfect example of what I enjoy in a crime novel, and the one sequel I have read of it, Available Dark reads like an underdeveloped print of what made the original book succeed – and indeed I am apprehensive of reading the third and most recent installment. Generation Loss is not Elizabeth Hand’s debut – far from it. Hand has been writing speculative fiction since the early 1980s, but for her 2007 novel Generation Loss she switched into realism, producing a noir crime novel that seems quite unique in setting and outlook, but underneath the hood of this remarkable book is a finely tuned generic crime mechanism. The introduction of characters, of the central mystery/crime, the small revelations that drive the plot and finally the big confrontation and resolution are both generic and extraordinarily well paced. But just as a lot of midsize cars built by the same company have the same motor but appear to be different brands, what makes Generation Loss so unique is Hand’s choice of setting and characters. Much of the plot may be mechanical, but Hand’s mastery is so deft that the plot’s movements seem to derive from an internal logic of settings and characters rather than from the execution of a genre-based mechanism.

The protagonist of Generation Loss is Cass Neary, who works in a bookstore and is generally quite miserable. She is a photographer – or rather, she used to be a photographer, who produced one well regarded book and then fell into obscurity. When the novel opens, she barely makes a living as a clerk in a bookshop. Like Elizabeth Hand, Cass Nearly is a craftsman – when she talks about photography, and when she takes her own picture, we quickly find that her relationship to her art is not one of vague ramblings about the nature of art and photography. Cass is interested in the mechanics of what makes a good photo – how to manipulate film, focus etc. I cannot tell whether her comments will seem insipid to a real photographer, and of course, many of the comments take the form of information dumps in convenient dialogue for readers like me, but it never seems overwhelming or bothersome. It is always tied to Cass’s personal approach to art – Cass’s first and only book featured dead and destitute people of the 1970s/1980s punk scene, and her ideas about photography, as well as the artists she admires, are all centered around this concern with (and sometimes paradoxical seeming distance from) reality. The book starts when Cass is offered a job to interview a legendary photographer who lives on an isolated island off the coast of Maine. She arrives, only to find that the photographer knew nothing of an interview, there are children disappearing in the area, and one morning, the photographer is found dead.

Cass’s interest in photographing the dead becomes a central element of the book’s resolution, but more importantly, Hand quite cleverly connects the genre of realist noir to the protagonist’s preoccupation with realism in photography. Many of the character’s musings on her art can be applied to the book’s own genre, with the conventions of realism being questioned quite intently. The conventions regarding what passes for real, and what does not translate not just to the mechanics of plot, but also to the minutiae of style. Hand’s style is self-consciously modern and hard-boiled. She uses pathos that’s quite typical of the genre, in order to shift into certain emotional states that she does not want or need to explore in details not typical of the genre and not expected of this kind of naturalist fiction. Not having read her other novels, I’m obviously speculating, but since this is her first noir contemporary novel, and it is written in a pitch perfect noir contemporary style, she must have created it for this book – and it never reads as parody. Additionally, though Hand is far from the first one to do it, she inserts a female protagonist into a male genre – thus drawing additional attention to questions of gender. This also gets repeated on the level of photography – or the art world in general. On the island(s) off the coast of Maine, she encounters not just the legendary photographer she was sent to interview – and who is a woman. She also meets male artists, and as if to drive the point home, there is a child that connects these two characters. Art, biology, and the anxiety of influence appear and reappear in various guises throughout.

That’s what sets this book apart – it’s not the female centered take on noir, it is not the excellent execution of crime genre writing. It is, instead, the fact that somehow, despite actually running on the rails of genre, it appears to be motivated and pushed and formed by art, and by the protagonist’s obsession with it. Cass Neary is a close cousin of Thomas Bernhard’s Der Untergeher, an artist brilliant and talented enough to be able to recognize genius and to understand the gulf between her talents and that of the true standout artists of her genre. Cass is obsessed with art, and it is only fitting that the final confrontation is between her and another art obsessive. Everything fits and clicks.

That makes it a bit of a disappointment that her next novel, Available Dark, does not rise to the same heights. We appear to meet another art obsessive, we appear to be drawn into another maze of the arduous space between art and life, as Cass Neary is flown to Helsinki to help assess the value of a set of photographs. Instead, in this book, photography and the art and technique of it is incidental. Available Dark sidles up even closer to noir conventions, with Neary sometimes merely following the winds that blow her across the icy Scandinavian plains of a baroque plot. As the resolution presents itself I was more irritated than anything. A lot of stupid people doing stupid things and killing other people for even more generic, stupid reasons. I know that a lot of crime novels are centered around the stupid things that stupid people do (and the half-clever ways they try to cover it up), but that’s not what I find interesting. There’s a disturbing thing that happens at the end of Generation Loss that I am unwilling to spoil, but it is entirely in line with that book’s general theme, but it expands it, and opens up Cass Neary’s world into another direction – it’s tough to see it fall by the wayside within the first couple of pages of Available Dark, serving merely as motivation for Cass to take that Helsinki job. However, whatever misgivings I may have about Available Dark, they don’t tarnish Generation Loss, which is fantastic. Read it if you like that sort of thing. It’s good.

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Mur Lafferty: Six Wakes

Lafferty, Mur (2017), Six Wakes, Orbit
ISBN 978-0-316-38968-6

I’m behind on reading all kinds of lists and books – and this year’s Hugo shortlist is no exception. For whatever reason, the first book I picked off that list is a novel I had never heard of by a writer I had never heard of: Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes. It was an excellent choice: Six Wakes is a very good science fiction novel. For some reason, reviewers of science fiction – and genre generally – are obsessed with the question of ‘transcending genre’ – can a book be more than ‘just’ a genre novel? It is a bad question and the books that ‘transcend genre’ can be quite dull, to be honest. And it is applied more often to science fiction and fantasy novels than to crime novels, for example. And while it’s true that certain novels, mired in genre conventions, may not be appealing to a general public, it is not due to immutable literary laws. SO yes, it is true: there may be readers who may not take to Six Wakes, because it is written within the conventions of science fiction – but at the same time, it also has all the trappings of a conventional mystery. Most of the book’s events could also take place in a locked house, or a house locked down due to weather phenomena – and inside the house, a drama between six individuals with their secrets develops. It would be a quite traditional set-up, if not for the fact that the house is a space ship, and the house itself is a character here. But everything truly science fictional has happened in the past, and Lafferty cleverly restricts the possibilities of the book’s present in such a way that you could replay most of its plot with Agatha Christie’s vocabulary and furnishings. This allows us to appreciate what the truly unique elements are that science fiction brings to this particular table: questioning the limits of what it means to be human, in a way that is just not possible for a plain ‘realist’ mystery. Lafferty won’t win any points for language or concision here – the book is a bit longer than it needed to be – but it is an exceedingly intelligent book, which, like all good mysteries, is very well constructed. This is a genuinely good work of science fiction, and I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason why you shouldn’t read it. Should it win the Hugo? Probably not – but it is a strong field this year. It is still one of the better science fiction novels I’ve read over the past years.

It’s a bit of an irritant: Mur Lafferty, the internet tells me, has written a lot of books and I have read none of them before Six Wakes. At the same time, this appears to be her first foray into ‘proper science fiction,’ after several books that sound more like urban fantasy. And while I enjoy zombies as much as anyone, a book that interrogates our sense of identity and self – and the future of the way we construct those two things – is more up my alley. On the surface, the book is about a generation starship which is run by a small crew of six people. One day they all wake up with no memories of what happened – except the knowledge that one among them is a murderer. The rest of the book is spent figuring out who dun it and what it means for their mission. The actual details of that surface plot are a bit more complicated, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But the most interesting aspect of the whole book was the unexpected decision by Lafferty to make much of the book about religion and faith. One character in the book has an obvious, strong connection to the topic, but ultimately, the question of religion and faith touches all the characters, and Lafferty yokes her discussions of what it means to be human to the question of what it means to have faith. There is no snideness or irony to any discussion of faith here – it is, excuse the pun, enshrined by the author as a fundamental human act, one that helps us and our selves, our morals and values cohere in a way that nothing else does. And it is the aspect of humanity that is the first to be endangered when the basic parameters of being human fall by the wayside and we can become, technically, immortal. Over the past five, six years, there’s been an on/off debate about secularism, and the role of faith in our world – this debate left its fingerprints all over the humanities. At every conference, someone brings up at least Charles Taylor. The religiousness of everything has been offered, denied, interrogated. It is quite refreshing to see a use of faith that does not take sides in this debate, that takes faith seriously as a technique of the self. This is not about God. This is about people.

And people are, in some ways, on their way out in the world of Lafferty’s book. At least people as we define and understand them today. Cloning has become viable – more than viable, it has become an almost everyday occurrence, a tool. In fact, abuse of cloning has become enough of a problem that laws dealing with it have been enacted. Lafferty’s invention here is the idea, which I have not seen before, of the use of cloning. Books involving cloning very rarely follow the interesting uses such a technology might have: in this case, a form of immortality. Humanity has learned how to make mindmaps – and if you want, you can have your mindmap implanted in a clone that carries your DNA, thus living on for as long as someone is there who can wake a new clone and imprint it with your most recent mindmap. There is, in the world of Lafferty’s book, a debate between humans (people who have not exceeded the “normal” human lifespan) and clones. Since there is always only one version of each person (multiple clones are banned by law), clones are as individual and unique as normal humans. This development also gave rise to a new form of hacking. If you hack someone’s mindmap, kill them, and wake a clone with their modified mindmap, you have created a version of the same exact person that may be more to your liking. A rebel who is no longer interested in being a rebel, for example. She does not make the connection more explicit, but this is the first novel I have read that almost directly engages with the ideas put forth by Achille Mbembe in his seminal essay “Necropolitics” – and puts a new spin on it. The new technology of cloning was at first a wild field of possibility – the law, specifically, to rein in the numbers of clones (only one at a time) seems like an exercise of sovereign power in line with Mbembe’s ideas.

The cloning technology also allows for longer distances to be bridged in space travel, with the crew dying and waking up again anew in the cloning bay. And indeed, this is what happens as the book opens – with one crucial technical problem: before death and revival, the mindmaps had not been updated – indeed they had been wiped of everything that happened since they were loaded into the ship’s data. What’s more, the previous bodies of the crew were not properly disposed of. They are found floating around the ship with signs of violent death. Someone stabbed, strangled and poisoned the crew. It stands to reason that it was one of the six. It could have been any one of them. Not only do they not know – the murderer him or herself also does not know since all six mindmaps have been wiped clean. The rest of the book is dedicated to resolving that mystery.

Six Wakes very specifically works on two levels: each person’s memory of the time before the ship’s take-off is a dive into Lafferty’s ideas and the political and social consequences of technology as she envisions it. That part is straight – and very good – science fiction. Everything that happens on the ship after waking, could strictly speaking, with one significant difference (the AI on the ship plays a major role), be rewritten as a Gothic mystery. The ship functions as a big gothic mansion. The six people in it barely know each other. They all have secrets that they hide from one another and the revelations of those secrets will lead straight to the discovery of the murderer. While this story has SF elements, it doesn’t need them, and it is quite clever of Lafferty to write a novel so clearly in two different conventions. It allows her questions about humanity and identity to resonate on different levels as well, allows her novel to push and pull at the reader in two different, but entirely conventionally recognizable ways, which makes the fundamental ideas of the novel stand out. The impression, structurally, is one of craft and care – which, regrettably, doesn’t filter down all the way to the sentence level. The book is too long for the story it tells, and many paragraphs feel padded and superfluous. Long mystery novels structured like Lafferty’s tend to employ incident, conflict and revelation more densely. She does not do that – and at the same time, many of the recollections that form the backbone of the crucial SF parts of the novel are not structured at all with notions of conflict, they are meant to add up to a final revelation, to add up to a picture of the society and this difficult technology it has brought forth. And there is one final weakness: almost all mystery novels I have read suffer from a very weak conclusion and revelation. Six Wakes doesn’t escape that particular fate either.

And yet – this is a very enjoyable book, despite its weaknesses. It is very smart, its ideas unique and cleverly used. The use of genre is done with judiciousness and care. It is not meant to be analyzed sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, but as a whole the book holds up very well to careful critical (even academic) analysis. This book is very good.

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Warren Ellis/ Phil Hester: Shipwreck

Ellis, Warren; Phil Hester et al. (2018), Shipwreck, Aftershock
ISBN 9781935002802

If you read comics, you will have come across Phil Hester’s work here or there – he’s inescapable. And not like the ubiquitous mediocre artists. Hester’s work is always excellent. Shipwreck is no exception. Every panel, every page works. There’s a touch of J.H. Williams III about the panel layouts here, and a couple of younger artists have produced similar work, particularly in the way Hester relies on his inker here for depth and stature. And then there is the writing. Shipwreck is one of many projects by Warren Ellis, who has something of a renaissance these days – he has never gone away of course, but the recent creator owned comic books published by Image Comics (Injection, and, more relevant for this book, Trees), as well as his work on characters like Karnak or Moon Knight has been exemplary. Shipwreck is unusual among all these titles by being self contained. It’s a 6 issue comic, collected in one trade, published by Aftershock. The tendrils that Shipwreck extends towards other comic books are too numerous to list, but the book never feels derivative. It clearly feels like part of a longer comics conversation, yet its structure and character is quite unique, and Hester’s bold pen contributes to this certainly.

Shipwreck, like many great contemporary comic books, is high concept: a man lands on a strange world. As it turns out, he built a machine that can jump to a parallel earth, an attempt made in order to save the ballooning population of “regular” earth. This parallel earth is a strange hellscape – Ellis’s depiction draws from various ideas of postapocalyptic landscapes. The tropes are all there as expected: strange bars, unexpected encounters, no large communities – this is about isolated individuals strewn across a large vista of rocks and ruins. At the same time, we learn that somehow this world of destruction and mystery has a high level of technical expertise, plus a level of organization that allowed them to insert a spy in “regular” earth’s mission, there to sabotage it. This parallel earth is an earth of violence tropes, of fear. Towards the end of the book, a character from parallel earth says to the protagonist: “nobody understood you back there because you were afraid of everything and they weren’t. you’ve come home.” This insertion of fear here points to what Ellis is doing with the tropes and narratives here – he’s condensing them into one sharp image: the leap. It is a Kierkegaardian leap, this leap from one earth to the other, and Ellis has exposed it as such, with all the implications it has for other texts in this vein.

To my mind, the comic books that I thought most immediately about were Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein’s Drifter and Jeff Smith’s Rasl. Drifter ran through multiple trades until it ended beautifully last year. It is about a man who lands with his ship, seemingly dropped out of time – traveled through more than just space. There are contradictions and mysteries that Brandon wraps around an engaging story. While Brandon’s story, in turn, shares a lot with many other recent comic books about space-as-wild-west (Copper is one excellent example), his inversions of time and identity made his book stand out. The dominant narrative – who shoots who, who does what, all of these are diversions in the greater mystery of time and place. Drifter is full of leaps, and even engages the idea of religion, but manages to still wriggle out of it, boiling it down to a personal journey of melancholic self-discovery. This comic, towards the last trades, has some of the loneliest and emotionally gripping panels I can remember reading from a comic in this genre. Nic Klein’s art is essential to this. I’ve been meaning to do a review of Drifter for a while, but I never quite got around to it. The book’s final revelations aren’t real revelations in the sense that we are genuinely surprised – instead, we can kind of guess at everything after the first trade, but Brandon manages, with great skill, to use the majority of his run to carefully tease out all the implications and turns in his concept. The result is a wonderful comic that everybody should consider reading.

In many ways, Shipwreck uses very similar moments of revelation, the landing of the ship, the alien-but-familiar landscape, down to the way Hester renders moments of surprise, and mental strain. Another book that is similar, though in less immediately obvious ways, is Jeff Smith’s Rasl, which he published in four volumes a few years back. Smith is most well known for Bones, but I’d argue that Rasl is a greater accomplishment. RASL is a book about science, indirectly referencing various debates about the Manhattan Project and the viability and exploitability of various forms of scienti´fic progress. But more relevantly, it is about a man who straps a device to his body that allows him a form of interdimensional travel. The protagonist in Shipwreck also has a device that allows him a specialized form of travel – it allows him to jump short distances – i.e, disappear and reappear somewhere not too far away. Like RASL’s device, this one takes a toll on its user. There are a couple of scenes that read like direct references to Smith, but it’s hard to tell with such a broadly allusive book like Shipwreck. Smith does tether his story to religion, but more in the sense of a general meaty mysticism rather than something more specific. Smith’s book is effusive and inspired rather than precise and direct. Ellis’s book is the latter, more than supported by Hester’s inorganic, angular lines.

As a whole this reads like a master’s comment on a whole genre – it feels less like fiction, and more like metafiction. A comic book disquisition on craft. There is a lot of “story” in the book but at the same time, the book doesn’t appear to be interested in story. That Ellis can do story is evidenced by his own Trees. Shipwreck reads more like a proof of concept, a master showing up his disciples. Or: Masters, plural. Hester, too, has been around longer than many fêted contemporary artists, and has provided great art all this time. I first encountered Hester’s work on Kevin Smith’s iconic Green Arrow run – whatever you think of Smith’s work in comics, Quiver is a masterpiece, and Hester’s art is a big part of that. His work here is recognizable – but it, too, seems to dip into current trends, but on a much higher level. As I said – a proof of concept comic, by a legendary writer and a legendary artist.

A note towards the end: this was published by Aftershock comics. I have never heard of this publisher before – but the book is well produced, and it’s not just Ellis who writes for them these days. There’s a book by Garth Ennis, and one by the powerhouse pairing of Palmiotti/Conner, as well as a comic by Cullen Bunn, who seems to be everywhere these days.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)