A letter appears before the text of The Comedians, the 1966 novel by Graham Greene. The author penned the letter to Alexander Stuart Frere, his longtime publisher who had recently retired. Greene debunks the common assumption that he is the first person narrator of his novels: “in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette. I don’t wish to add to my chameleon nature the characteristics belonging to the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, a possibly illegitimate birth and an education by the Jesuits. Ah, it may be said Brown is a Catholic and so, we know, is Greene…[all characters] are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.”
Frere, of course, would not need this explanation, so why address the letter to him? Does it instead exist for the edification, or perhaps entertainment, of the reader? Greene’s letter appears without label. Is it an introduction, a preface, a foreword, or something else?
The distinctions between prefaces, introductions, and forewords are tenuous. In the essay “Introductions: A Preface,” Michael Gorra offers a useful introduction to, well, introductions. “An introduction,” he writes, “tells you everything you need to sustain an initial conversation. It might include a bit of biography or a touch of critical history, and it should certainly establish the book in its own time and location, and perhaps place it in ours as well.” Introductions often postdate the original publication of a work. Introductions turn back to move forward a book’s appreciation. Although introductions are often written by someone other than the author, they need not be objective. Gorra thinks the best introductions are “acts of persuasion — ‘See this book my way’ — coherent arguments as learned as a scholarly article but as lightly footnoted as a review.” Although they share a “review’s assertive zest…unlike a review they assume the importance of the work in question.”
Gorra remembers reading introductory essays in used, 1950s-era Modern Library editions as an undergraduate. His understanding of literary criticism was molded by this prefatory form: Robert Penn Warren on Joseph Conrad, Irving Howe on The Bostonians, Angus Wilson on Great Expectations, Randal Jarrell on Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner, and Lionel Trilling on Jane Austen. Gorra notes “many of Trilling’s finest essays — pieces on Keats and Dickens and Orwell, on Anna Karenina and The Princess Casamassima — got their start as introductions.”
Gorra moves beyond definition to explain the critic’s role within introductions. They need to know “how much or how little information a reader needs to make that book available; he must achieve a critical equipoise, at once accessible but not simplistic.” That care “puts a curb on eccentricity; however strongly voiced, an introduction shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic.” Introductions exist not for the critic, but for the reader. They should be “shrewd rather than clever.” Better to “address the work as a whole” than “approach it with a magic bullet or key or keyhole that claims to explain everything.” The introduction does not unlock the book for its readers; it takes a hand, leads them to the doorstep, and then leaves.
One of the few introductions written by the book’s own author is the unconventional opening to Lonesome Traveler, Jack Kerouac’s essay travelogue. Kerouac formats the essay as a questionnaire.
His response to “Please give a brief resume of your life” traces his childhood as the son of a printer in Lowell, Mass., to his “Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise.” He shifts from family detail to statements of purpose and misreadings of critics: “Always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the ‘beat’ generation. — Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.”
Kerouac ends his introduction by replying to the query “Please give a short description of the book, its scope and purpose as you see them” with a nice litany of subjects: “Railroad work, sea work, mysticism, mountain work, lasciviousness, solipsism, self-indulgence, bullfights, drugs, churches, art museums, streets of cities, a mishmash of life as lived by an independent educated penniless rake going anywhere.”
We know Kerouac’s essay is an introduction because he tells us so. It is not a foreword, which, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, is also typically written by someone other than the author. Some dictionary definitions identify a foreword as an introduction. They both introduce, in the sense that they both preface the work. But neither are prefaces — in the traditional sense.
Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert M. Gay’s Words into Type doesn’t differentiate between prefaces and forewords, noting that both consider the “genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness.” Forewords often feel promotional. Skillin and Gay also note that, in terms of numerical pagination, introductions are typically part of the text, while forewords and prefaces have Roman numerals.
My favorite foreword is Walker Percy’s comments on A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans in 1976 when “a lady unknown to me” started phoning him: “What she proposed was preposterous…her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it.” Percy was understandably skeptical, but finally gave in, hoping “that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther.” Instead, he fell in love with the book, especially Ignatius Reilly, “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Percy essay arrives as a pitch; no one would mistake it for a contemplative preface.
That last comment admittedly comes from the hip, owing to seduction by sound. Introduction sounds clinical. Foreword sounds, well, you know. Preface massages the ear with that gentle f. Unlike introductions and forewords, prefaces are often written by the authors themselves, and are invaluable autobiographical documents. A preface is an ars poetica for a book, for a literary life. A preface often feels like the writer sitting across the table from the reader, and saying, listen, now I am going to tell you the truth.
In the preface to his second volume of Collected Stories, T.C. Boyle soon becomes contemplative: “To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination — or, as Flannery O’Connor has it, an act of discovery. I don’t know what a story will be until it begins to unfold, the whole coming to me in the act of composition as a kind of waking dream.” For Boyle, imagination and discovery means that he wants “to hear a single resonant bar of truth or mystery or what-if-ness, so I can hum it back and play a riff on it.” He includes memories of middle school, when “Darwin and earth science came tumbling into my consciousness…and I told my mother that I could no longer believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine that had propelled us to church on Sundays for as long as I could remember.” Boyle thinks “I’ve been looking for something to replace [faith] ever since. What have I found? Art and nature, the twin deities that sustained Wordsworth and Whitman and all the others whose experience became too complicated for received faith to contain it.”
By “received faith,” Boyle means a faith prescribed rather than practiced. He later found “the redeeming grace” of O’Connor; his “defining moment” was first reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find:” “here was the sort of story that subverted expectations, that begin in one mode — situation comedy, familiar from TV — and ended wickedly and deliciously in another.” Boyle’s preface rolls and rolls — think of an acceptance speech that goes on a bit long, but we love the speaker so we shift in our seats and wait out of appreciation.
There are some gems. John Cheever, who taught Boyle at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “was positively acidic on the subject of my academic pursuits,” but was otherwise “unfailingly kind and generous.” Cheever disliked Boyle’s self-identification as “experimental,” instead insisting “all good fiction was experimental…adducing his own ‘The Death of Justina’ as an example.”
He documents his early magazine submission attempts. He was quite successful, placing early stories in the likes of Esquire and Harper’s, but also had “plenty of rejection.” He covered his bedroom walls with the letters. He ends the preface with a return to first principles: “Money or no, a writer writes. The making of art — the making of stories — is a kind of addiction…You begin with nothing, open yourself up, sweat and worry and bleed, and finally you have something. And once you do, you want to have it all over again.” This act of writing fiction is the “privilege of reviewing the world as it comes to me and transforming it into another form altogether.”
Boyle has already elucidated some of these ideas in an essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” but for other fiction writers, prefaces are rare forays into autobiography. For jester-Catholic Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner, his sole collection of stories, was his preferred confessional. The essay is labeled an introduction, but I think function trumps form. Pynchon’s essay is self-deprecating, contextual, and comprehensive. It is the closest he has ever come to being a teacher of writing.
The last story in the collection, “The Secret Integration,” was written in 1964. Pynchon admits “what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks.” He hopes the stories are cautionary warnings “about some practices which younger writers might prefer to avoid.” Rather than presenting an abstract, sweeping declaration of his amateur past, Pynchon skewers each story in the collection. “The Small Rain,” his first published work, was written while “I was operating on the motto ‘Make it literary,’ a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.” One sin was his bad dialogue, including a “Louisiana girl talking in Tidewater diphthongs,” indicative of his desire “to show off my ear before I had one.” “Low-lands,” the second piece, “is more of a character sketch than a story,” the narrator of which was “a smart assed-jerk who didn’t know any better, and I apologize for it.” Next up is the infamous “Entropy,” fodder for his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon dismisses the tale as an attempt to force characters and events to conform to a theme. It was overwritten, “too conceptual, too cute and remote.” He looted a 19th-century guidebook to Egypt for “Under the Rose,” resulting in another “ass backwards” attempt to start with abstraction rather than plot and characters. The same “strategy of transfer” doomed “The Secret Integration,” as he culled details from a Federal Writers Project guidebook to the Berkshires.
Pynchon served in the Navy between 1955 and 1957, and notes that one positive of “peacetime service” is its “excellent introduction to the structure of society at large…One makes the amazing discovery that grown adults walking around with college educations, wearing khaki and brass and charged with heavy-duty responsibilities, can in fact be idiots.” His other influences were more literary: Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” On the Road by Kerouac. Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars. Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Hamlet. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Early issues of the Evergreen Review. And jazz, jazz, jazz: “I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, nursing the two-beer minimum. I put on hornrimmed sunglasses at night. I went to parties in lofts where girls wore strange attire.” The time was post-Beat; “the parade had gone by.”
The essay ends on a note of nostalgia “for the writer who seemed then to be emerging, with his bad habits, dumb theories and occasional moments of productive silence in which he may have begun to get a glimpse of how it was done.” A reader taken with Boyle will forgive his trademark bravado; a reader taken with Pynchon will forgive his self-parodic deprecation. Those who dislike the fiction of either writer won’t stay around for the end of his preface — or crack open the book in the first place.
More often than not, introductory materials are welcomed because we appreciate the fiction that follows. Such expectation can cause problems. The most notable examples are the forewords of Toni Morrison’s Vintage editions, which began with the 1999 version of The Bluest Eye. In “Lobbying the Reader,” Tessa Roynon casts a skeptical eye toward these prefatory remarks. She begins her critique with Morrison’s foreword for Beloved. “Without any apparent self-conscious irony,” Roynon notes, Morrison says she wants her reader “to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population — just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.” This before the reader encounters the first sentence of the actual novel, “124 was spiteful,” which becomes neutered by Morrison’s prefatory, critical self-examination.
Roynon’s love for Morrison’s fiction is contrasted with her disappointment in the forewords. She considers the essays formulaic and rushed, containing “apparently indisputable interpretations of the text…among profoundly suggestive ambiguities,” as if Morrison is hoarding her own meanings. Roynon worries that Morrison’s goal is the “desire to ensure that readers appreciate the scope of her artistry and her vision to the full.” Shouldn’t that be the experience of her readers? Morrison almost gives them no choice. The essays “demand to be read before the novels they introduce, not least because they are positioned between the dedications/epigraphs and the work’s opening paragraphs.”
Morrison’s prefatory summary for Beloved is so sharp, so commanding that Roynon thinks it threatens to undermine the novel itself: “The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom.” Morrison has articulated elsewhere her reasons for contributing to the discussion about her books, but the gravity of these forewords makes readers passive recipients. What if the reader experiences the novel slightly differently? Does Morrison’s foreword negate those other readings? As Roynon notes, Morrison’s earlier critical essays would elicit, rather than close, “controversy and discussion.” By focusing on the autobiographical and the contextual, rather than being self-analytical, Morrison’s best forewords treats her readers as participants in the artistic experience, rather than people who are waiting for lectures.
Roynon’s solution is both simple and eloquent:
Were I Morrison’s editor I would urge her to cut the most explicit of her interpretations, to bury the explanations at which we [readers] used to work so hard to arrive. And I would entreat her to move all of her accompanying observations from the beginning of her books to their ends. Turning all the forewords into afterwords would greatly reduce their problematic aspects. In metaphorical terms of which Morrison herself is so fond: we don’t need lobbies or front porches on the homes that she has so painstakingly built. But back gardens? They could work.
No matter whether it is called an introduction, foreword, or preface, the best front piece written by the book’s own author encourages a reader to turn the page and start, but respects her need to experience the work on her own. William Gass’s long preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is an exemplary selection. Originally written in 1976 and revised in 1981, Gass’s preface works as a standalone essay, an inspiring speech for fellow writers, and a document of one artist’s continuing struggle.
Gass reminds us that most stories never get told: “Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?” His “litters of language” have been called “tales without plot or people.” Received well or not, they are his stories, the words of a boy who moved from North Dakota to Ohio, the son of a bigoted father without “a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn.” “I won’t be like that,” Gass thought, but “naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit.”
Gass turned inward, moved in the direction of words. Lines like “I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables” sound a bit sentimental if one is somewhat familiar with Gass, but he has always been, in the words of John Gardner, “a sneaky moralist.” Gass began writing stories because “in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style…to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page — something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known.” His earliest stories failed because they were written in the shadow and sound of the canon, leading Gass to wonder “from whose grip was it easier to escape — the graceless hack’s or the artful great’s?”
He broke free “by telling a story to entertain a toothache,” a story with “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” That story, the subject of constant revision and reworking for years, would become The Pedersen Kid, his seminal novella. Gass shares his personal “instructions” for the story: “The physical representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed.” Here one might think Gass is making the same sin of explanation as Morrison, but these are plans, not an exegesis of his work. These thematic plans soon eroded, and “during the actual writing, the management of microsyllables, the alteration of short and long sentences, the emotional integrity of the paragraph, the elevation of the most ordinary diction into some semblance of poetry, became my fanatical concern.” Only years and many rejections later did Gardner publish the story in MSS.
A great preface is a guide for other writers. While the biographical and contextual minutia might be of most interest to aficionados and scholars, working writers who find a great preface are in for a treat. At their best, these introductory essays are the exhales of years of work: years of failure, doubt, and sometimes despair. Gass’s preface for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country contains a handful of gems worthy of being pinned to a cork board above one’s desk:
The material that makes up a story must be placed under terrible compression, but it cannot simply release its meaning like a joke does. It must be epiphanous, yet remain an enigma. Its shortness must have a formal function: the deepening of the understanding, the darkening of the design.
All stories ought to end unsatisfactorily.
Though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
To a reader unhappy with his fiction: “I know which of us will be the greater fool, for your few cents spent on this book are a little loss from a small mistake; think of me and smile: I misspent a life.”
Gass ends with a description of his dream reader. She is “skilled and generous…forgiving of every error.” She is “a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines;” someone “given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper.” Her “heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs.” She “will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses.” She will “shadow the page like a palm.” In fact, the reader will “sink into the paper…become the print,” and “blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation…from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language. Yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”
A preface might begin as a cathartic act for the writer, but it should end as a love letter to readers. Books are built from sweat and blood, but without the forgiving eyes and hands of readers, books will gather dust on shelves: never touched, never opened, never begun.
Growing up in socialist India in the 1970s, I haunted my neighborhood bookstores and lending libraries to look for something exciting to read. There was very little contemporary British and American literature but there were plenty of novels with titles in big block letters, their covers featuring a man running or caught in the crosshairs of a riflescope. I soon became addicted to these thrillers.
Back then, the Berlin wall was still standing, the USSR remained hidden behind its Iron Curtain, and we lived under the constant threat of a nuclear attack. I imbibed this world through the thrillers that I devoured: Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana anticipated the Cuban missile crisis; John le Carré’s Smiley series created a murky moral world where the British MI6 and the Soviet KGB played a cat-and-mouse game of espionage; Fredrick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal centered around the machinations of an international assassin. Later, I discovered the globetrotting, amnesiac hero of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series and the CIA analyst protagonists of Tom Clancy’s techno-thrillers.
These were the masters, but there were plenty of imitators. Over the years, I grew tired of these constantly recycled scenarios: CIA and military protagonist, elaborate espionage operations, the “free world” versus the evil Soviet empire. I stopped reading the genre, but it remained with me as a predilection for taut plots and doomed protagonists.
I only returned to reading thrillers a few years ago when I started to write my own series, and, much to my surprise, something fundamental had changed. The new breed of thrillers were no longer set within the geography of the Cold War but located all over the globe—in Thailand, North Korea, Kenya, and Marseilles.
And something else was radically different. During the Cold War, the conflicts that powered the thriller were rooted in ideology: Le Carre’s Berlin and Greene’s Havana were mainly backdrops against which the clash of the superpowers was played out. The new thrillers were not focused on ideology but on place; it was the peeling away of layers of culture and history that gave these novels their impetus.
And clearly this incarnation of the thriller is thriving. Several independent presses now focus solely on novels with international settings: Soho Press, founded in 1986, has a crime imprint that publishes only novels set abroad; Melville House’s Crime Series, founded in 2001, publishes “edgy literature from around the world;” and Europa Edition’s World Noir imprint, founded in 2013, specializes in international noir.
As a writer, I was deeply intrigued by this development. How has the thriller retained the hallmarks of the genre—suspense, swift pacing, intricate plotting, and outsider protagonists—and combined it with such a nuanced exploration of place?
To understand this trend, I turned to four writers for whom place, not ideology, was central to their narratives.
The setting of John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 is the most famous sexual emporium of our time. The protagonist is a Thai detective, Sonchai Jitplecheep, who is no stranger to Bangkok’s sexual bazaar; he is a half-caste, the son of a Thai prostitute and an American GI from the Vietnam War. Yet, he is also an arhat—a monk-in-training who mediates—and he speaks English, French, and German with taste for designer clothes and expensive perfume.
Like Sonchai, Bangkok is a city with a split identity—caught between the spiritual and the pragmatic. The locals call their home “Krung Thep,” the City of Angels. For them, prostitution is simply a way of earning a living, and true salvation can only be attained by being released from the endless cycle of birth and death.
The plot is set into motion when an American Marine is murdered, and his exotic half-black, half-Thai girlfriend, who has important information about the murder, vanishes into Bangkok’s underworld. Sonchai is assigned the case, and his search for this woman takes him deep into a world of Thai and Russian brothels, dance bars, and sex-reassignment surgeries. It soon becomes clear that the city’s sexual economy is the focus of the book, and Sonchai must navigate his way through the two versions of the city.
Exotic “Bangkok,” it turns out, is a nighttime construct that is sold to lonely white men who have confused sex with salvation. In precise prose, Burdett describes a brothel during the clear light of day: “…women in overalls wiped the tables and mopped the floors. The aroma of pine cleaning fluid blended with stale beer, cigarettes and cheap perfume.”
Burdett is too intelligent a writer to try to reveal the “true’” Bangkok, and that is the main appeal of this novel. The city remains a series of shifting perceptions, both metaphor and reality. Staring at his city’s skyline, Sonchai tries to make sense of its mix of spirituality and raw physicality: “Its true signature, however, is the permanent skeletons of unfinished buildings, their bare bones turning black in the pollution, as if the Buddha is reminding us that even buildings die.”
The protagonist of James Church’s A Corpse in the Koryo, North Korean police “Inspector O” is caught in a convoluted, vicious plot between two branches of the nation’s security services. O is a disaffected maverick who only survives because he is the grandson of a national war hero. Investigating a car smuggling operation, O travels through North Korea to try and unravel the mystery but finds himself deeper and deeper in a game of chess where the players remain hidden.
Church’s North Korea is a society so closed and regulated that daily life has been drained of its vitality and reduced to a series of symbols. Reality is slippery here, and the capital city, Pyongyang, seems difficult to describe: One character likens it to Washington D.C., while another says that it “fits together nicely.” Instead of a panoramic overview, Church gives us detailed description of the gimcrack buildings: “Much of the building’s yellow façade…had fallen away, leaving concrete that for some reason turned a deep green when it rained.”
In O’s world, the present is barely real. The only real thing is nature— particularly trees. O’s grandfather was a skilled woodworker, who taught him that trees were more “civilized” than people. To maintain a grasp on reality, O has taken to carrying around small pieces of wood, which he sands down compulsively.
As the mystery deepens, and O is hunted, it’s wood that signals his salvation. O’s grandfather used to make furniture, and these pieces—a desk, a chair, a box, all lovingly and intelligently built—surface throughout the novel, signaling a network of people who are still loyal to O’s grandfather. These pieces take on the role of survivors—reminders of a physical world that was destroyed to make way for a utopia that has all the heft and dimension of a stage set. The absence of a setting haunts the book as the labyrinthine plot advances with reveals and double crosses. In the end, it’s Pyongyang—barely described and ghostly—that creates the powerful feeling of mystery that permeates this fine novel.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat starts at a flashpoint of racial tension: In Madison, Wisconsin, the body of a murdered white girl is found lying on the doorstep of a dark-skinned African man, a Rwandan activist who saved thousands of lives during the genocide and is now a professor at the local university. African American police detective Ishmael is under a lot of pressure to solve the crime: While black-on-black violence often goes unpunished, a possible black-on-white crime must be solved promptly. He is sure there is a link between the Rwandan activist and the dead girl but cannot prove it. When a mysterious phone caller tells him that the answers to the crime lie in Nairobi, he travels there. As an African American, Ishmael has had little curiosity about his ancestral land: “There was a part of me that had come to believe it was a land of wars, hunger, disease and dirt even as my black skin pulled me towards it.”
But Nairobi (called “Nairobbery” by locals because of the crime rate) is very real. In the post-independence city, the upper classes live in gated communities patrolled by security guards, while the poor, including refugees from Africa’s many conflicts, live in slums where even the air smells different: “In spite of the open sewers, and the thousands of barely clothed sweating bodies milling around us, it wasn’t a bad smell.” The smell of the slums is the first indication that Nairobi, despite its poverty and violence, is an intensely human place, and Ishmael feels its appeal. He teams up with a local African detective, and the two of them search for the mysterious caller.
As Ishmael and his partner bludgeon and shoot their way to the truth, he feels the pull of being in an all-black world, where his own blackness is not, for once, defined in relation to whiteness. Yet, he does not fit in, and the Africans recognize his height and bulk as alien and call him muzungu (white man).
Ishmael takes a local lover, becomes more and more familiar with Nairobi, and even helps a group of tribesmen slaughter and cook a goat. He feels liberated from the racial constraints he has experienced in America, but he also acutely conscious of his difference. He cannot trade in his American identity for an African one, and he eventually returns home to Madison.
Instead of providing a new identity, Africa becomes a way for Ishmael to re-evaluate his American existence. A few days after his return, he is at a grocery store in Madison and sees it through different eyes: “I had wanted to throw up—the chicken, so full of chemicals that it looked white, the giant oranges and bananas.”
The triumph of Nairobi Heat is that it does not paint Africa as the “dark continent” or as a place that allows easy submersion into a new identity. Instead, for Ishmael, Africa becomes a mirror that is held up to his American existence, a way for him to re-imagine the boundaries and possibilities of his world.
Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos is the story of three friends who all grow up together in the port city of Marseilles. One of them becomes a criminal and is killed; the second friend, now a sailor, returns to Marseilles to avenge the death and is set-up and murdered. It’s left to the survivor of the trio, Fabio Montale, now a cop, to solve the mystery of his friends’ deaths.
Fabio is motivated by guilt. He has moved away from his old neighborhood and has distanced himself from his friends. Yet, he is still haunted by Lole, the beautiful gypsy girl that all three of the men loved. On the surface, Total Chaos is a classic tale of a man forced to confront his past, but at its heart, it’s a portrait of the changing face of Marseilles.
During Fabio’s youth, Marseilles was a thriving port that attracted immigrants from all over the Mediterranean and Africa—Fabio’s own parents are Italian immigrants. All of these new arrivals became denizens of Marseilles, speaking their own patois, eating the distinctive food of the city, and engaging in a strict honor code. For Fabio, Marseilles was a utopia: “A place where anyone, of any color, could get off a boat or a train with his suitcase in his hand and not a cent in his pocket, and melt into the crowd.“
But in the decades since, the city has changed. The economy has collapsed, and the old way of life—with its egalitarian spirit and its easy rituals—is fading fast. Even Fabio’s neighborhood, a mildewed and ancient slum, is being gentrified. As the city is transformed, the new immigrants—mainly Arabs—are discriminated against and forced into housing projects on the periphery.
As Fabio investigates his friends’ deaths, he enters a world of police corruption and mafia factions, where hidden forces are competing to control the lives of the Arab immigrants and to shape the city that is coming into being. And Fabio comes to a deeper realization: that his friends died, in part, from nostalgia. Trapped in the old Marseilles and following its code eventually proved lethal for them. Of the three men, only Fabio—because he has an outsider’s perspective—can hold both cities in his mind.
Total Chaos is ultimately a novel about the transformation of a city. It’s also an exploration of nostalgia as a double-edged sword: It a can provide a counter-narrative to unthinking change but also can prove to be lethal. As one of the characters muses: “What he had to say would have taken ages… But they didn’t have time for that anymore. Or rather, time had overtaken them. The future was behind them. Ahead, nothing but memories and regrets.”
Taken collectively, these novels offer a glimpse into the evolution of the thriller. Although ideology provided the impetus to the previous generation of Cold War thrillers, place has come to be the new focus: Burdett’s novel explores the two competing visions that make up Bangkok; Church’s North Korea is a portrait of the unreality of totalitarianism; Ngugi’s Nairobi is a way to re-think racial boundaries; Izzo’s Marseilles examines the nostalgia caused by rapid urban change.
All of these novels are the first in a series. A large part of the pleasure of reading the subsequent books are returning to these settings, which become characters as vivid and complex as the protagonists themselves.
The re-invented thriller genre shows that it can find its conflicts embedded in place. With its contested histories, clashing cultures, and competing visions of reality, place may eventually prove to be the ultimate mystery.
Image via pagedooley/Flickr
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.