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The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry, The Penguin Press, 2009, $25.95.
Private Midnight, by Kris Saknussemm, The Overlook Press, 2009, $25.95
LIKE A skydive, my friends, it can easily go either way. Exhilaration—or the profoundest of disappointments.
The waters are deep, and you must know them well to navigate safely and reach whatever strange ports and piers you have in mind. There are no maps.
What we're talking about here is writing cross-genre. You know, cats that solve crimes, vampires working at McDonald's, that nice family of spies living next door in Sunny Acres.
Okay, okay, that's not what we're talking about. What we are talking about is the great American genius for quirkiness, for turning off the paved road to walk the rails or find our own path through the brush.
But first, the pre-test. Answer true or false; append extra sheets as necessary.
The world is not as we see it. All art that reaches beyond simple entertainment leads us to question received wisdom, to interrogate "what we know" of the world and ourselves, to look at people, social structures, sky and sea, mores and morals, modes of thought—existence itself—anew.
Arealist fiction, be it science fiction, fantasy, or surrealism, by its very abjuration of the visible, consensual world, calls that world into question. The mystery, similarly, addresses gulfs between appearance and reality: mask and character, society's svelte self-image and the violence at its heart, public morality and private corruption. Mystery fiction deals with the irruption of the past, of realities denied, into the present; as much as anything, it is about understanding, about coming to know.
The Manual of Detection is a first novel by Jedediah Berry, who works as assistant editor at Small Beer Press. Former work appeared in Chicago Review, Salon Fantastique, and reprinted in Best American Fantasy.
Of a sudden and quite mysteriously, believing it in fact to be a clerical error, Charles Unwin is drawn from his cloistered life of indexing the world—extracted, one might say—and tossed into the thick of it. He has spent years putting to rights the communiques and reports of the Agency's great detective Sivert, weaving these tatters into coherent narrative. Now Sivert is missing and he, Charles Unwin, is the new detective charged with solving the mystery of Sivert's disappearance.
The Agency, mind you, does not solve crimes; it solves (or resolves) mysteries.
And so, in a world where it is forever raining, a world of sleepwalkers throwing their alarm clocks into the sea, a world of phonographs and steam-powered trucks, Unwin sets off on his bicycle, riding not toward exegesis but into proliferate mysteries. Soon he is suspected of murder, becomes the target of one of the oddest femmes fatales ever to grace a page, has met with a dead person or two perhaps in dreams, is poring over The Manual of Detection with its missing eighteenth chapter, and has discovered that Sivert's solutions to his great cases, "The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker," "The Oldest Murdered Man," "The Man Who Stole November Twelfth," were quite wrong.
And we readers, my friends, despite such elegantly crafted guide-sentences as the following, are as much at a loss as is Unwin.
The revolving doors spun ceaselessly, shunting travelers out into the rain, their black umbrellas blooming in rapid succession.Despite, too, vivid descriptions such as this, of the Rook twins:
The Rooks regarded him unblinkingly. Their long faces, molded as though from the same mottled clay, could have been lifeless masks if not for the small green eyes set in them. Those eyes were very much alive, and greedy—they caught the light and did not let it go.And intriguing passages like this one, in which Unwin is studying the Manual:
"He still does not know where to begin," said the man on the telephone.At a loss because we are truly, here, in another world. Berry has taken to heart art's mandate to make the familiar strange. As he follows Unwin into cascading mysteries, the novel's events and encounters appearing ever more chaotic, nonetheless the half moons and jagged edges of the puzzle begin to lock into place. And the prose, for all its hallucinatory cargo, remains steadfastly focused, precise. Unwin begins as a stereotype, a blank; slowly, against the maelstrom about him, his character emerges.
With its typewriters and phonographs and monolithic gray buildings, Unwin's world—vaguely Londonish, vaguely nineteenth century—shadows, but is resolutely not, ours. And while a battery of high-powered names may cross the reader's mind, among them Kafka and Beckett, G. K. Chesterton, Jack O'Connell, Jeffrey Ford, Jonathan Carroll, and Gene Wolfe, they will cross and be gone quickly: Berry's book is very much an original, and an extraordinary first novel.
In many ways, what Jedediah Berry catches up here is the lucid dream of childhood. Safe within our immediate compass, where everything is known, we look out on a world filled with mysteries. Then one day we're thrown into that world: extracted, evicted, reassigned. The mysteries—if only we stay awake, if only we pay attention—do not end, but we learn to navigate among them. And in so doing, we become ourselves.
That sense of mystery is a hard thing to hold onto, as person or as writer. And unexploded landmines lurk at even the most imaginative novel's end, threatening to pull what we've experienced down toward the ordinary.
Here is the ending of The Manual of Detection.
What frightens us about the carnival, I think, is not that it will come to town. Or that it will leave town, which it always does. What frightens us is the possibility that it will leave forever, and never come back, and take us with it when it goes.To which I will append one final, well-considered critical remark:
Private Midnight is Kris Saknussemm's second novel, following upon the 500-page picaresque, post-apocalyptic satire Zanesville characterized by its author as "techno-theological post-American monster vaudeville." Here's how Private Midnight opens.
It was what my mother would've called a "BIG floppy" day. As in hot—brutally hot for only early May. I called it ball-sweating, and out of the scorching blue, in struts Jack McInnes. I might not have recognized him if it hadn't been for the Brut 33.
Working the day watch out of homicide, right? With that voice, we know exactly where we are, right?
Well, not for long. Sergeant Friday Land soon shifts to darkest noir. Grisly, worn-out, spectre-haunted cop—check. Chain of horrible, graphic crimes—check. Irresistible, inscrutable bad lady soon to show up—check.
But that's not it, either. And the ground keeps shifting beneath your feet, threatening to give way and swallow you, right up to the final pages.
The cases. Detective Sgt. Birch Ritter and his new partner begin investigating the death of a man who chained himself to the wheel of his Mercedes after dousing it with gasoline, then set the vehicle on fire. Next, a city employee has apparently emasculated himself outside a bar and bled to death. Is there a connection?
The woman. Between those two events, Ritter's former partner gives him a card with an address on Eyrie Street. There he meets Genevieve Wyvern, a weirdly seductive woman who seems to know more than is possible about everything, including Ritter's own nightmare-sown past. As the eroticism blossoms into something far darker and world-embracing, we learn ever more about that past.
The changes. Is what one sees in the world outside the skull a reflection of what is inside? And do events, what we choose, what we encounter, truly change our lives? This is from just past the novel's halfway mark:
I woke up naked in the empty bathtub at 5:30 AM. Muscle spasms, hot flashes then rushing cold. A mass of gelatinous fuzz had dried to a crust on my upper body […]Many changes are to follow. And soon Ritter is touring Genevieve's private cellar, where reside, among other earthly delights, the embalmed body of an old lover, Gilberto, the Silkworm; and rack upon rack of tubular molds taken from each man Genevieve has "instructed or been intimate with," some of them cast in bronze, nickel-plated or jewel-inlaid, others carved from wood.
Some readers will, I'm certain, find components out of kilter, horror elements overshadowing the embedded crime novel, Ritter's interiority arrant; and some will object, on moral or aesthetic grounds, to such full-blown, graphic eroticism. But for me the balance of elements is wonderfully maintained. The detective work runs like a river through the whole, counterposing the weightiness of the fantastic; the biographical elements never go on too long, and fall in seamlessly; the teeter-totter of what is imagined or projected, what real, never falters.
Private Midnight is, finally, a brilliant and brilliantly disorienting novel. Those sounds you hear beneath the floorboard? As with The Manual of Detection, they're the sounds of a writer respecting and rooting deeply into the conventions—finding out what's in there.
In interview, Kris Saknussemm has said: "I would always support the wild, deviant, and visionary work over the quiet, accomplished, and methodical." And further along, that "the greatest hope for American fiction that I see lies in the direction of 'speculative' fiction… mutant, hybrid forms."
What Greil Marcus termed that "old, weird America" is still with us, scouts. And it is perhaps never more with us than in fresh new work like Saknussemm's and Berry's.
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