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.
Genre, genre, genre, whole days go by when I am asked of nothing else, especially those moronic questions about horror that should have been swept out of civilized discourse at least thirty years ago: Tell us now, if you can, for we are really terribly curious about this, why is it, do you think, that reasonable people should pay good money to be, well, frightened? What, you know, can the appeal of such… unpleasantness… actually be? And on a more personal note, please, we’re all so curious… if you wouldn’t mind… what scares you? Okay, in reverse order, then: pretty much the same kind of thing that frightens you, what did you think I’d say, giant lizards? And, moving on to the first question: What are you trying to suggest, that you are not, have never been, implicated in this particular transaction? How certain are you, anyhow, that what you call “unpleasantness” is not a necessary, even crucial, part of our experience? Maybe you should lock yourself up in your heart long enough to work out your actual relationship to matters like shame, loss, envy, panic, brutality, greed, insecurity, loneliness, failure, whatever you find particularly unpleasant. Because that, dimwit, is where you live, especially if you really hate the whole idea of familiarity with such crappy, low-rent feeling states.
Let’s be honest, down there in the gutter is where most of us live better than half the time anyhow, probably a lot more than half. And if we are talking about those states of consciousness kept on back-burner low-simmer, we have to jack the figure up to maybe ninety per cent of the time, maybe ninety-eight. At this point, some impolite character like me comes along and says, It’s too bad you find this stuff so unacceptable when it takes up so much of your life, hmmm, couldn’t you maybe revise your category stances and define all this prime-time, tight-focus actuality in a different way? Because let’s face it, you don’t spend your life hang-gliding from one emotional peak to another, do you. The only way you recognize an emotional peak when you are fortunate enough to experience one is that it feels so different from the rest of your life, hmmm, let’s make that little noise again, hmmm, it’s so expressive of almost unwilling mentation. Why, we could say, it’s almost as though we were designed to be struggling and limping our way through the lowlands and gutterscapes, it’s like, you know, that’s the point, the struggling and limping, the gutterscapes so foul so fragrant. The point. The more you take in, the more you see. Shame shock blood pain grief suffering… you might even say, that’s the good part.
Oh, not really. Please. If that weren’t so perverse, it’d just be silly.
Um. Well, yes, perverse, I agree, but not at all silly. Yes, really: the good part. Meaning, the room where you and your life sit opposite each other in the dark, blinking and squinting, hoping the grimace on the blood-smeared face across the room is a brave grin. Or “plucky,” if that’s the way you think.
Well now, come on, that’s completely ridiculous. That’s just… genre, is what that is. And you accuse us of thinking in clichés!
Okay: genre genre genre, here we go. Crime novels and horror stories huddle down here in the gutter, right?, while real literature lives in the fragrant uplands and on the radiant peaks where plotting is at most secondary and life proceeds by instinct and intelligence, by fine intuition and a lively moral consciousness, owing nothing to formulae and the requirement to gratify the lazy reader’s expectations of suspenseful suspense and exciting excitement. One is disposable, the other immortal. However… well, just for beginners, let’s admit that literary fiction is a genre, too, shall we? Expectations guide its readers, that of respect for consensus reality and the poignancy of seemingly ordinary lives, of sensitive character-drawing and vivid scene-painting, of the reversals and conflicts characteristic of the several sub-genres of literary fiction: the academic novel, the comic novel, the adultery novel, the comic academic adultery-novel, the experimental novel, the novel of foreign travel or inward journey, of unexpected encounter, of breakdown, of alcoholism, of youth, of middle age, of a hundred different things so well-known and encoded that the fonts used for the titles and the authors’ names tell you as much as the flap copy.
You know what else those fonts can tell you? This isn’t an exact science, let me admit, but they suggest how many copies the publisher thinks he is going to sell. It’s all there, right on the jacket: this book is a challenging yet comforting work of fiction in which the sensitive and ironic young protagonist experiences painful yet comic difficulties writing his first novel in a French fishing village. Soon, pages of his manuscript disappear from his desk and begin to turn up in the locations they describe. We hope to unload at least ten thousand copies of this well-written, pallid piece of post-modern, post-Jamesian crapola, but five is about what we expect. Title and author’s name “charming” in crumbling white letters, sans serif, all lower case, title just below jacket center and to the left, author’s name two lines down, tabbed farther left and irregularly spaced, some letters slightly askew. That says: five is about what we expect. The author will soon find that he no longer has a two-book contract.
Which is to note that publishing companies tend to signal complex decisions about marketing in ways both deliberate and inadvertent. Bookstores organize their inventory by sorting them into categories, and publishers try to make it easy for them. Genre jackets feature bright colors and embossed lettering, the author’s name in immense fonts bannered across the jacket bottom underneath some thematic kabuki. That’s how you know they are crime novels, all that vulgar hoopla on the jacket, even the “good taste” crime jackets look crass and shiny. In bookstores, you spot them right away, and that’s the point. Genre fiction came into being because publishers discovered from the pulps that there was a market for it, and it stays viable because it’s like food, people keep buying books by Robert B. Parker and Michael Connolly to get the same delightful taste in their mouths over and over, as if the books were made of maple walnut ice cream. (I’d say that people bought three decades’ worth of John Updike and Philip Roth novels for the same reason, and that a completely different set of readers have kept returning to William Gaddis and Thomas Bernhardt for an earned anticipated nourishment that cannot really be compared to ice cream.)
Now, as fantastically reliable as he was in delivering the desired goods, Robert B. Parker grew awfully soft in his later years, but Michael Connelly has remained true to his original impulses, to put on display the underbelly of L.A. while tracking an idiosyncratic detective’s solution of a complex crime or series of crimes. While remaining a very reliable and pleasurable crime writer, however, Connelly never rises above that category. Because Connolly is both wholly serious and honest about what he does, he would find the idea of “rising above his “category” risible. He should, anyhow—he’s earned that much, the right to an absolute respect for his own work. It is worth noting that both Parker and Connelly are rooted in Raymond Chandler, who may be the only American crime writer ever really to turn genre crime fiction into art, and he managed to do it only once, in The Long Goodbye. He knew he’d done it, too: you can feel it in his letters, the evolution from an earlier edgy, wary defensiveness into, late in his life, a self-doubting, self-questioning master’s sense of accomplishment. Though Ross Macdonald came very close a couple of times, none of the writers who followed along after Chandler ever wrote anything as resonant, complex and sad as The Long Goodbye. None of them, not even Macdonald, ever could, in large part because they were all using a borrowed template that grew thinner and thinner with every generation.
Macdonald, Parker, and Connelly worked or work in a genre that provides convenient situation-patterns, a condition that is made possible because the designations “crime” and “mystery” identify and to some extent predetermine the content of the fiction they cover. Crime writers and academics of genre fiction like to denigrate horror by pointing out that unlike “mystery,” “western” or “romance,” “horror” specifies no content beyond the emotion it is intended to arouse. I think this absence of specificity is not at all a limitation but the reverse, a great enhancement. That no situational templates are built into horror grants it an inherent boundlessness, an inexhaustible unlimitedness. If the “horror” part is not stressed all that overtly and the author spares us zombies, vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, hideous things in bandages, etc., what results is fiction indistinguishable, except in one element alone, from literary fiction. That crucial element could be called point of view, or angle of vision. It is whatever dictates the way in which everything is seen. For further details, return to my first paragraph. Consult your heart, go on, lock yourself in and think about loss and loneliness, about grief, these hard, necessary facts. Where do you live, really, in what kind of world? The question can never be answered in a way that is not unsettling.
Image Credit: Flickr/naixn.