I’ve found myself a bit concerned, lately, with questions of place. Specifically, will it be glaringly obvious to the casual reader of my as-yet-unfinished third novel, much of which is set in the Florida suburbs, that my entire experience of the state of Florida consists of two lightning-strike maneuvers in and out of Boca Raton for the purpose of attending Bat Mitzvahs?
I’ve never been in Florida, it occurs to me, for longer than 36 hours at a stretch. Several of those hours were spent in the airport. Several other of those hours were spent watching second-cousins-by-marriage (unless those were first cousins by marriage once removed? I’ll admit to a certain haziness on the topic of genealogical terminology) read their Torah selections in brutally modern synagogues and flowery rented halls in the outer suburbs. I think I’ve built in a little leeway by virtue of the fact that the town I’m setting the book in is entirely fictional, but still: what if there’s some obvious and huge part of the Florida experience that I’m missing? What if, for example, Floridians have a secret handshake? This is the kind of thing that I fret about.
Over these past few months I’ve been working my way through John Updike’s Rabbit series, which takes place mostly in the impeccably-rendered and entirely fictional town of Brewer, PA. His papers were full of notes on the town, photographs of houses and businesses that would serve as models for the homes and establishments in the books. The place is vividly real and wholly anchored to this earth. I often think that Brewer is what novelists should aspire to: a town so completely, boringly alive in all its mundane details and bus routes and neighborhoods, a place with such specificity that you’re startled to find out later that it doesn’t exist.
Regardless of whether or not a setting exists in the real world, establishing a novel’s physical landscape is difficult. In her debut novel Orion You Came And You Took All My Marbles, Kira Henehan handles this problem quite neatly by dispensing with place altogether. Where is Orion set? I have no idea. The action transpires on a landscape as blank as a bare stage. Chapter One, quoted below in its entirety, gives us the setting:
It was all over gravel, but better than the last place. There was all over swampland and crocodiles.
There is gravel, then, apparently in great expanses, and golf carts are the chief mode of transport. Copious amounts of shrimp are consumed, which suggests that we perhaps might be somewhere near the sea or near another large body of water, but on the other hand, our narrator has traveled and there have been shrimp at all stops:I have been in swampland and gravel, sand, ocean, rain forest, and bog. Some places indescribable, having characteristics of neither swampland nor gravel, rain forest nor bog. Nor sand. Nor ocean. And so forth. Some places have been straight clean poured concrete, another entirely encased in liquid.
Orion is a mysterious book. It’s exuberant, often funny, and very strange. Our narrator, Finley, is a member of what can only described as a cell of detectives. I’m tempted to describe them as secret agents—there’s something of the sleeper cell in the group’s organization—but they do after all wear fedoras. There are three of them—Finley, Murphy, and The Lamb—living and working together under the direction of Binelli. There are Investigations. They are given Assignments. Finley’s latest Assignment involves investigating an outfit by the name of Uppal Puppets, although puppets are, as she’s informed Binelli, among her Most Hated things. They travel between landscapes of sand, fog, and gravel, but they always live together in a restaurant/bookstore/surfing memorabilia museum/inn called Tiki Ty’s Tiki Barn: “Wherever we went, wherever the concerns in need of Investigation took us, we always stayed at Tiki Ty’s Tiki Barn. And unlikely seeming as it seems, it always seemed to be exactly the same place. One learns that certain questions are unanswerable.”
Finley’s an adult, but her memories begin only a few years before her Assignment to Puppets, when she woke after a great silence with no memory of her previous life. She’s a highly trained Investigator—although the objectives of the team’s Investigations are never remotely clear—and a devotee of California noir. Henehan’s writing style is a delight: the novel is Finley’s report, and it’s written in exactly the kind of voice one might expect from a socially inept young detective who reads a lot of noir and has no memory of most of her life. Finley is self-assured, frequently wrong, and a little off.
Finley retreats into California noir novels whenever things get complicated, which is often, because very little in this book makes sense at first glance. It’s a clever book, and the book’s cleverness is in some ways its downfall: there is a plot here, and there are clues, but the clues are so extremely missable and the finer details of the plot are touched upon so lightly that both have a way of disappearing into the prose. I’ll confess that when I finished the book for the first time—standing in an interminable Canada Customs line in an airport—I was actually mostly baffled.
I can’t remember the last time I didn’t understand a novel, and there was some temptation to blame the disorienting effects of air travel and/or the inevitably Kafkaesque elements of going through Customs. There was, I’ll also confess, some comfort in turning the book over and discovering that at least one of the blurbers was somewhat baffled too—“Hilarious, severe, baffling, and sometimes so far over my head that I can see only a distant glow”—and it quickly became clear that I was going to have to read it again. Which I did, whereupon a few things fell into place and one or two other things didn’t—I may go to my grave without fully understanding what exactly happened to Kiki B. It was a pleasure to return to Henehan’s prose, but a person might reasonably wish for a more clearly-rendered plot.
But I found, in the end, after two readings and numerous spells of confusion, that I loved this book. Orion’s strangeness is mostly wonderful. Henehan is a writer of considerable grace and skill.
I have a moderate Raymond Chandler obsession, which emerged a few years back when I encountered The Simple Art of Murder, his famous essay published in the December 1944 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. His description of the archetypical hero of detective fiction is unforgettable, and I sometimes catch myself repeating the words under my breath at odd moments. “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” Chandler wrote, “who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
What happens when a detective novel is lifted from the mean streets, or when the mean streets are part of an unrecognizable world? It’s not a new trick, but it’s a deeply appealing one. The prose styles are wildly different, but Orion reminds me a little of Jonathan Lethem’s pre-Fortress of Solitude work. Lethem’s breakout novel, Motherless Brooklyn, was of course a detective story, and that novel’s Minna Men are only a few degrees removed from Orion’s traveling misfits. Motherless Brooklyn clung ever-so-tenuously to consensual reality—there was a menacing gang of Zen-trained doormen, yes, but they occupied a recognizable Manhattan—but it was preceded by a detective story that didn’t. Before Motherless Brooklyn there was Gun, with Occasional Music, which incidentally is #2 on an informal Titles I Wish I’d Thought Of First list. (#1 is The Long Goodbye. There are others.)
I liked Motherless Brooklyn, but I loved Gun, with Occasional Music. It’s a classic private-detective story, but the detective is a man born far too late. He dresses the part—fedora, trench coat, snarl—but he occupies a surrealist dystopia far from the mean streets walked by Philip Marlowe. No part of the world he moves through is conducive to being the man he wants to be. Most of the population is addicted to complicated bouquets of pharmaceuticals. There have been certain advances in genetic engineering, and now the detective’s mean streets are shared by talking animals. Dogs are employed as deliverymen. A self-conscious pig glances shyly at him from under her bonnet in an elevator. He meets a little kitten who’s learning to read. His arch-nemesis is a kangaroo.
Returning, for a moment, to the recognizable: Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, set solidly in the cities of New York and Los Angeles. “A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies,” Woody Allen’s character said in that film, and I believe the same could be said of well-established genres.
I think it would be difficult at this point, although probably not impossible, to write a truly fresh detective story that is also entirely traditional. In other words, a detective story set in traditionally noir mean streets in a traditional era, an era when private eyes wore fedoras and trenchcoats without looking nostalgic in them. The innovations of experimenters like Henehan and Lethem are what keep our most beloved genres alive.
I think of Jonathan Lethem as the poet laureate of gentrification. This is true in the literal sense — in the case of the subject of this piece, The Fortress of Solitude, and to a somewhat lesser extent with his follow up to it, You Don’t Love Me Yet — in that he writes about neighborhoods in transition: Gowanus in Brooklyn and Echo Park in Los Angeles. But Lethem is also an author gentrifying genre fiction – noir thriller and sci-fi – as he did in his earlier novels Gun with Occasional Music and Girl in a Landscape. Perhaps it’s a kind of reverse gentrification, in that case.
The Fortress of Solitude is the tale of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, friends across the color line in the evolving neighborhood of Gowanus or Boerum Hill, as it would come to be called. Their racial difference hangs over every interaction in the book, despite their shared tastes in comic books and music. Split into multiple parts, divided by something that already seems incredibly ancient – a liner note – the book is shot through with pop culture, punk rock trivia and super powers. At its best moments, the book perfectly describes a time and a place in near constant transformation, and in realizing two great characters, in Dylan and Mingus. At its worst, it leaves itself open to charges of a kind of forced exotification, as the adult Dylan seems to have collected artifacts of African-American culture – most notably an African-American girlfriend – as one might the relics of a lost civilization.
You have to admire Lethem’s bravery — he fearlessly addresses race in a way that most white writers wouldn’t dare. At the same time, he embraces his geek origins, blending together hip-hop, punk, graffiti art, avant guard film and comic book culture into a dazzling pastiche. While it will likely be his earlier book Motherless Brooklyn that solidifies his reputation, The Fortress of Solitude remains his “biggest” novel to date, a book that tries to stand next to the other greats of the decade. That it doesn’t entirely succeed does little to diminish Lethem’s stature as one of the decade’s great writers.