If I cannot move heaven, I will stir up the underworld. Virgil, The Aeneid
My reading—and life—were swallowed by subterranean forces in 2019—and I’m all the better equipped to face our civilizational crisis because of it.
Besides the fact that I work out of a collective literary cave called the Writers Grotto, the primary reason for the obsession with underworldly literature is my own book: a reported memoir about my 30-year journey across the 2,500-mile chain of mass graves, forgotten dead, and devalued life. The book takes me from wartime El Salvador to the remote tropical forests, cartel-controlled deserts and other infernal places where underground elements—MS13 and other gangs, as well as governments—have killed, dismembered, and buried tens of thousands of their victims.
Underneath a refugee crisis story conveniently curated to begin at the U.S.-Mexico border is an altogether different reality from that contained in spectacularly shallow headlines that have, at different times, dominated the electoral and news cycle for weeks, as we will soon see again in the coming election year.
The refugees’ epic journeys through Mexico and the United States, my home country, are the closest thing many U.S. citizens will ever come to western civilization’s foundational underworld stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid.
Yet, if there was ever an English-language story that could benefit from narrative power of the depths it is the Salvadoran epic. Outside of translations of the virtuoso writing of award-winning journalist Oscar Martinez, the author of the The Beast and The Hollywood Kid (written with his brother, Juan), there are few to no major English language Salvadoran narratives about the ongoing crisis written by actually existing Salvadorans. Scholarly works by Leisy Abrego, Joaquin Chavez, Cecilia Menjivar, and other U.S. scholars do much to fill in the academic void in the English language. Journalism and literature are another story.
My research shows that a similar erasure of Central Americans and the resultant superficiality in storytelling exists in recent media coverage of the ongoing humanitarian refugee crisis. The effects of this lack of a English-language Central American perspective (except, that contained in two dimensional images of pain and sound bites of suffering) can be seen in the controversy surrounding the video of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a Guatemalan migrant who died in a south Texas immigrant prison.
After a news organization failed to ask their permission before releasing the disturbing footage of their boy’s horrific final hours, his parents released a statement in which they declared the following: “It’s been really painful for our family to lose Carlos….but having all these people watching him die on the internet is something we couldn’t have imagined in a movie or a nightmare.”
Left out of the crisis stories is a deeper context that includes the 74 other migrants who died similarly horrific deaths between March 2010 and early 2017. Unlike Hernandez Vazquez’s, these stories and bodies were buried in anonymous media graves by the inconvenient fact that they weren’t killed by Donald Trump.
Desaparecido in the English language is the voice of those hailing from cultures that the great Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria described as a “map of deep mystery.”
In search of a deeper way to tell this perpetually-urgent story, I found the ideal trope with which to explore ideas and emotions in times of such epic and interconnected personal and political crisis: the trope of the underworld.
The magical literary workings of the Great Below are described in Wendy Lesser’s masterful The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History. Hands down the best survey of the subterranean in literature, Lesser’s book helped me understand (pun kind of intended) how different authors have used narratives of descent as a way to structure, move and animate fiction, nonfiction and poetry, especially in times of profound personal and civilizational crisis.
Central to the different genres using underworld tropes—noir (i.e. The Maltese Falcon), thrillers (i.e. The Third Man), sci-fi (i.e. The Time Machine), psychological, working-class struggle (Hard Times), racism (Invisible Man)—argues Lesser, is the way such literature contrasts a surface world or reality with a parallel world below. And, more often than not, this contrast serves to attack the existing order. In our Age of the Spectacular Superficiality, dissent necessarily means descent.
To complement the shortcomings of Lesser’s marvelous book, my own reading drew primarily from the wells of a underworldly Latin American literary tradition that includes the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of creation, Antígona González which uses the Greek tragedy Antigone to tell a story of the search for Mexico’s thousands of desaparecidos, and Yuri Herrerra’s outstanding Signs Preceding the End of the World, the story of a lyrical, hard-boiling journey into the criminal, political and migration depths. The first words of the protagonist, Makina, who works as a telephone operator, make clear the story’s abysmal ambitions: Estoy muerta.
A great 19th-century illustration of how the narratives of descent disorganize the senses of readers in ways Rimbaud demanded of all poets is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll deployed Alice’s journey, in part, to disrupt and deconstruct Victorian English sensibilities. He did so using a defamiliarizing technique that defines the workings of the underground in literature: literally deforming a character’s (in his case Alice’s)—and everyone else’s—body, their sense of identity and meaning. Also known as “katabasis,” the underworld journey of rebirth also serves to alter notions of time and space, as Carroll does to the spatio-temporal ideas created and enforced by the forces of industrial capitalism.
A more contemporary filmic example of the uses of the underworld trope to disorganize our senses is The Matrix, released at the beginning of the century, in 1999. Neo, the Wachowski sisters’ central character, undergoes an Alice-like descent into the depths of the myths and lies of post-industrial capitalism. These myths and lies are delineated in John Beaudrillard’s epochal Simulacra and Simulation, a book featured in the movie. Both remain relevant.
All the prizes and plaudits recently won by narratives using subterranean tropes appear to indicate that the literary and cultural establishment also believes these tropes can help us to grapple with our astonishing global crisis and inequality. Jordan Peele’s Us used underworld themes to great effect and garnered numerous awards. My favorite award-winning filmic example this year is Korean master Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a brilliant satire about the class conflict brewing in the nuclear bunkers turned into housing beneath the apartment buildings and homes of post-war South Korea. The film’s acid critique of the Korean “economic success” story has already racked up Cannes’ Palme d’Or, eight Golden Globe nominations, and is generating serious Oscar buzz.
In similar fashion, this year’s Nobel prize in literature went to Olga Tokarczuk, the author of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a book whose protagonist balances her heavenly pursuit of astrological truths with her love of one of the greatest English language promoters of underworld power, William Blake. The theatrical re-telling of the Orpheus myth of Hadestown won eight Tony awards this year, including Best Musical, while The Ferryman, the story of a former member of the Irish underground, the IRA, won the Tony for Best Play.
On television, HBO’s Westworld series regularly takes viewers on this underworld journey each time its (robot and human) characters descend into the high-tech storeroom where androids, some of which/whom are becoming sentient, have the stories they’re programmed to enact in the amusement park world above erased. This descent into erasure parallels the crossing of the Lethe, the mythological Greek River of Forgetfulness (or, in some interpretations “river of Unmindfulness) that the souls of the dead must drink from before entering the afterlife. The literary treatment of the Lethe is described smartly in Herald Wienrich’s Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting. “Lethe” is also at the center of the adventure and search for truth in the recent His Dark Materials television series based on the Phillip Pullman book series of the same name. The instrument guiding Lyra, the story’s central character, as she navigates a world layered in lies, intrigue and erasure is called a “alethiometer,” a kind of compass that finds the truth behind any question asked of it. This association of of the Lethe with truth also harkens back to the Greeks for whom the search for truth was directly related to remembering forgotten truths.
Our time, our literature require the narrative alethiometer that is the underworld. Recent revelations that 3 U.S. Administrations—Bush, Obama and Trump—lied to the public to keep almost a trillion dollars of our tax dollars flowing to military industrial contractors and others profiteering from death and war in Afghanistan should serve as a reminder to go deep—and then keep going deeper.
For these and other reasons, I let the underworld swallow my attention this year. And, from a glance up at the future, I will continue to follow Blake and and AC/DC in seeking salvation on the highway to hell.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: “What literature influenced you as a young person?” My fellow panelists—the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam—named beloved, important books and authors. My answer—which I think came as a surprise to most—was that I hardly read as a child and youth.
My parents are immigrants—English is not their first language—and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over—something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos.
The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college—relatively late for someone who now writes and reads “professionally.” Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience—I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe—and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn’t put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I’d call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about “mystical susceptibility,” the experience of books and language as “irrational doorways… through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them.” I’m so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment—because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I’ve picked up since then.
It’s true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago—the project of frantically “catching up” with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill—in James’s words, “states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain”—when reading.
In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time—”catchup” reading I’ll call it still—captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a “too late” (in fact, there may be a “too early”) when it comes to the reading life.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there…He had style, but his audiences didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement.” I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author’s concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn’t take to it as much as Hammett. I’ve just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler’s recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I’d read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I’d identify with Jo—if you’re reading the book at all, you’re Jo!— but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female—a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it’s all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here—four score and a decade later—still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel’s themes—social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness—have room to come forward.
King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn’t actually sure if I’d read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I’d “read” it, I definitely hadn’t read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter’s Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn’t ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays—Henry IV is currently on deck.
Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin’s stunning feats of compassion—for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: “Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking…finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world—” (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni’s Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment—Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness—inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I’m still asking them.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be “selfish,” which is to say centered around one’s creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin’s/Edna’s attraction to heterogeneous culture—cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility—is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call “gentrification”: affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin’s descriptions of Edna’s nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested…Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience—those moments when the inward life questions—that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration—collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read—whole-soul read—being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier’s.
Image credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz.
When it comes to detective novels, we all know the drill. One page one, a mysterious blonde turns up with a job offer the detective soon learns is a ruse for the job she really wants him to do. Or maybe the phone rings in the middle of the night with a whispered tip about a murder. Or maybe, just to keep things simple, the story can begin late at night on the rough side of town when a figure steps out from the fog, his face shrouded in shadow. There’s a shout, a cry for help, and then — bang! bang! — the victim falls into the gutter and we’re left with the sound of murderer’s footsteps echoing against the pavement.
Sara Gran, author of the gutsy new Claire DeWitt detective series, is too cool for such old-school detective novel stuff. Her latest book, the second in the series, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, opens not with a murder or a mysterious blonde, but with this decidedly unnoirish sentence: “I met Paul when a friend of my friend Tabitha played at the Hotel Utah late one Thursday night.” From this start, for two short, action-filled chapters, Paul and Claire — he a hipster musician, she a hipster private eye — fall in love, find themselves separated by circumstances, and move on. Or rather, Paul moves on, meeting a beautiful fellow musician named Lydia, with whom he starts a band and eventually marries. Claire, on the other hand, a coke-snorting, fitfully bisexual, Zen-koan-spouting San Francisco detective, buries herself in her work and one night dreams of quietly smoking a cigarette while Lydia drowns.
This is a detective novel, so Paul turns up dead in chapter three, but by then Gran has staked out her territory. Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, with its snappy prose and San Francisco setting, is both an homage to hard-boiled detective novels in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and at the same time a brash reboot of the genre for the 21st century. Like Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Claire DeWitt is one cool customer, solitary and cynical, nursing an existential hurt only the ceaseless search for the truth can salve.
But Claire is funnier than her noir forebears, and a good deal funkier. She cannot, for instance, search a victim’s medicine cabinet without pocketing a few Vicodin for later use. She is also a disciple of a famous dead French detective named Jacques Silette, whose aphorism-rich how-to manual, Détection, she is forever quoting, and when she is stuck on a case she wanders deep into the Oakland Hills to seek the wisdom of a shaman-cum-homeless-guy she calls the Red Detective. If, at times, Gran leans a little too heavily on dream sequences and has a habit of letting quirk stand in for character trait, she is also capable of masterly gems like: “Maybe two people in love were like two trains, racing toward each other. With a whole town of saps in the middle, not hearing the whistle blow.”
Gran, who has written for the TNT series Southland, structures the Claire DeWitt books more like a cable series than a standard-issue mystery series. While mystery writers often allow their investigator to grow over time, letting him or her get married, have kids, go into rehab, get sober, and so on, the books themselves tend to reset to zero each time, with a new crime and a new set of facts for the detective to grapple with. In the Claire DeWitt series, each book focuses on a different crime, but the stories and characters overlap from book to book.
This can be confusing to a reader who begins, as I did, with The Bohemian Highway and finds himself trying to make sense of stray references to two kids from New Orleans, Andray and Terrell, who, it turns out, figure prominently in the first book in the series, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, published in 2011. But the continuing story lines, along with a series of interlocking flashbacks to Claire’s teen years in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Lower East Side, give the books an overarching narrative scope and tone that, like with cable series like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, encourage binge-reading sessions. (Soon you may be able to binge-watch as well: Gran is developing a cable series based on her Claire DeWitt novels for TNT.)
Also like some cable series, the Claire DeWitt books have taken a little while to hit their stride. The City of the Dead, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, is several orders of magnitude better than your average police procedural, and Gran, to her credit, handles her black characters without condescending to them or romanticizing their often violent lives. Still, as smart as that first book is about New Orleans during and after the 2005 hurricane, neither the mystery nor the detective trying to solve it are original enough to qualify The City of the Dead as anything more than an unusually good detective novel.
But with The Bohemian Highway, set in San Francisco’s indie music scene, Gran finds her voice and Claire leaps off the page with quirky élan. Gran nails, better than anyone else I’ve read recently, the Bay Area’s peculiar mix of hipper-than-thou smugness and genuine scruffy charm. Or, to be more precise, she nails the smugness and charm I remember from my years living there in the 1990s. At times, in fact, the book feels trapped in some fictive time warp before the dot-com zillionaires drove the artists and the poor people from San Francisco’s Mission District and Chinatown neighborhoods, where much of the action takes place. Aside from a few mentions of Google and Facebook and some jokes about houses costing “about a billion dollars,” the book could easily be set in 1997 before I and thousands of other underpaid writers and artists fled the city ahead of the flood of cyber geeks cashing in on the dot-com bubble.
But perhaps this is part of Gran’s point. Hipsterism, with its veneration of all things vintage, grassroots, and artisanal, is almost by definition an aesthetic of nostalgia, the expression of a generational yearning for a pre-post-industrial era when the stuff of life — food, work, clothing, facial hair — was “authentic,” which is to say shaped by human hands. So far at least, two books into the series, the points on Claire DeWitt’s compass, Brooklyn, New Orleans, and San Francisco, are hotbeds of hipsterism, and Claire herself is an exemplar of hipster cool. She frequents vegan restaurants, sees a traditional Chinese medicine healer, spends a lot of time hanging out in small clubs watching indie bands play, and when she’s in trouble she seeks help from a former California surfer turned Buddhist lama.
Even her hero, the late French detective Jacques Silette, radiates cool. In the world of the novels, Silette and his book stand at the head of a global underground network of private eyes who follow Silette’s published dictums, which read like a cross between Albert Camus and Buddha. “Mysteries never end,” runs a typical Silettian riff:
And we solve them anyway, knowing we are both solving everything and nothing. We solve them knowing the world will surely be as poorly or even worse off as before. But this is the piece of life we have been given authority over, nothing else; and while we may ask why over and over, no one yet has been given an answer.
What saves all this from being hopelessly precious is Claire’s impatience with preciousness, which renders The Bohemian Highway at once a dead-on portrait of a self-consciously liberal-minded, multi-culti, uber-tolerant social universe and a very funny sendup of that world. At one point, as Claire is quizzing her delightfully nerdy assistant on his ethnic origins, he tells her: “My dad is Nigerian-French. My mother is Vietnamese-French by way of Oslo. They moved to Berkeley when I was a kid.”
Claire’s response? “‘Wow,’ I said. ‘They should open a restaurant. I would eat there.'”
If the mysteries at the heart of both books are less than fully satisfying — I saw the big reveal in The Bohemian Highway coming about 30 pages early — that’s fine because the real subject of the books is not crime or detection, but the enigma of Claire herself. A survivor of a chaotic childhood in a pre-gentrification Brooklyn reminiscent of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Claire hungers for truth in a world riven by ambiguity. She solves crimes not because she particularly cares whodunit, but because she wants the world to reveal itself, to give up its secrets and shades of gray. When she can’t find the truth, she begins to unravel, to the point that much of the second half of The Bohemian Highway is a brutally honest portrait of an addict’s slow-motion swan dive toward bottom. “With each day that passed something ugly was growing in me,” Claire explains. “I watched it grow. I fed it cocaine. I loved it and held onto it, kept it alive.”
Claire DeWitt and the San Francisco of The Bohemian Highway are confections, no more real than Harry Potter and Hogwarts — or for that matter, than Sam Spade and the 1930s-era San Francisco of The Maltese Falcon. But Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway is so deliciously odd, and its fictional world works so well within its own skewed logic, that to complain that Claire DeWitt’s San Francisco doesn’t match the real city now overrun by software engineers and young finance types is like complaining that there is no Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station. Great fiction presents fantasies in the place of real people and then, like magic, makes you care about them. In Claire DeWitt, Sara Gran has given the hard-boiled detective a good, hard hipster twist, creating a character with a savagely vigilant mind and a black heart always on the verge of breaking.
In 1989, Welsh journalist John Williams crossed the Atlantic. Operating on the theory that crime writers were the best chroniclers of American society, Williams hoped to pinpoint the connections between the real clime and fictional crime. So he talked with the writers.
Williams found out that James Lee Burke’s novels had emerged, in part, because of his love for Louisiana music. Gar Haywood spent his twenties latching onto science fiction’s escapist hatches before confronting the open doors of South Central’s ravaged reality. In 2005, returning for another transcontinental spree of conversational investigations, Williams learned that Vicki Hendricks had used her bodybuilding and scuba diving experience for Ramona Romano, the tough-as-nails Miami nurse in Iguana Love. He also discovered why Daniel Woodrell’s settings were so authentic. “I don’t want to live on the Upper West Side or something,” said Woodrell to Williams. “There is something here for me…I’m just one generation from illiteracy.”
These experiences – originally published as Into the Badlands and later rewritten as Back to the Badlands – helped confirm Williams’s hypothesis. Crime fiction was indeed drawing from vivid personal experience, sometimes working territory that other practitioners wouldn’t touch. But Williams still didn’t ken why the gatekeepers routinely ignored these faithful annalists.
In recent years, crime fiction hasn’t faced the histrionic threat of a Meghan Cox Gurdon declaring that YA books “focusing on pathologies help normalize them,” but it has faced crusty, post-crest condescension from The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella. Yet even Acocella, in her reductionist view of Blomkvist as “anti-masculinist,” had to concede that Stieg Larsson “may have had a weakness for extraneous detail, but at the same time, paradoxically, he is a very good storyteller.”
There’s no paradox about it. There are, in fact, two crime novels on the 1998 Modern Library list of the 20th century’s top 100 novels: James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Even John Banville, who has written many crime novels as Benjamin Black, has called Georges Simenon and Richard Stark (the name with which Donald E. Westlake wrote his remarkable Parker novels) “two of the greatest writers of the 20th century.” Crime fiction is bona-fide literature. Why such reluctance to qualify it further?
Perhaps this failure to encourage the rising crop comes from recent developments in the field, especially those involving women writers. On May 14, 1990, two Newsweek writers had this to say of the mystery landscape: “Call her Samantha Spade or Philipa Marlowe and she would deck you. A tough new breed of detective is reforming the American mystery novel: smart, self-sufficient, principled, stubborn, funny – and female.” While women had been creating such crackling heroines well before 1990 (see Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and others), these gains had been somewhat swift.
Megan Abbott, the author of five striking novels, isn’t merely a natural response to this increasingly progressive atmosphere. While her quintet can be found in the mystery section, and while she has won a well-deserved Edgar Award for a highly entertaining pulp tale of a take-no-shit woman clambering into the casino underworld (Queenpin), Abbott’s novels are distinguished by rhythmic prose, historical settings (in sequential order: 1954, 1949, 1950s, 1931, and the 1980s, with The Song is You and Bury Me Deep taking inspiration from real criminal cases), and a candor about the way people live that isn’t often found in today’s well-groomed posterboys.
Abbott’s protagonists are not professional investigators. The character who comes closest to a true-blue boy in blue is Bill King, a junior investigator in Abbott’s debut novel, Die a Little, who is the brother to Lora, a schoolteacher in 1954 Hollywood concerned about the new woman that Bill has married. In fact, detectives tend to show up in Abbott’s novels at the last possible minute, long after the reader has been presented with some version, often subjective, of the facts. And with the long arm of the law tied behind the world’s back (and very often corrupted), this gives Abbott the focus and the restraint to contort her universe.
Abbott’s sentences are frequently stacked with a stylish repetition telegraphing the schism within action. In The End of Everything, told through Lizzie Hood, a thirteen-year-old girl who has seen her best friend disappear, Abbott writes, “And I thought of Bobby in the front seat of his parents’ cars, his forest green varsity jacket with the chenille C. I thought of him hunched there, gazing up at Dusty’s bedroom window, its frothy curtains, Dusty’s frothy girlness.” Aside from the striking imagery (especially the lovely “chenille C”), we see how the phrase “I thought of” generates two discrete moments: Bobby’s visual image in the first sentence and an effort to affix longing that reverts back to another visual image leading to Dusty. And when the prose reverts from the feeling to the object, Abbott repeats the word “frothy,” suggesting that Lizzie’s thoughts will return to this same visual/emotional cycle.
But her prose is also quite chewy. There is a grab-them-by-the-lapels quality to some sentences which demonstrates why melodrama is sometimes the best method to send a message. Consider this moment from Bury Me Deep, my favorite of the five: “This is what the man with the Adam’s apple thick-knotted in his long neck was singing in Ginny’s ear, plucking at a banjo.” This is told from the perspective of Marion Seeley (based on Winnie Ruth Judd), a woman who ends up in a heap of trouble while estranged from her husband, shirking his duties as doctor and husband by fleeing to Mazatlán. This sentence’s beauty comes from the way it undercuts an intense Adam’s apple twice: both in describing the man with some hyperbole (“thick-knotted in his long neck”) and by appending the phrase “plucking at a banjo.” But it also hints at the horrors ahead.
An author’s understanding of the human condition (to say nothing of how far she is willing to go) is often revealed through the manner in which they write about sex. John Updike, of course, was fond of external sexual imagery. Lionel Shriver’s greatly underrated novel, The Post-Birthday World, succeeds in part because of its attentive detail to sexual position and how it often determines status. But with Abbott, when sex isn’t used for diabolical ends (this is a dark world; so it does), it is often something that is either observed or confessed. And this quality permits the reader to become implicit in the way certain characters judge others. In The Song is You, Abbott has Barbara Payton reveal she’s “such a dumb cluck” just before describing a sexual episode to impress her listeners: “So he backs me into the tub and fucks me for five minutes, my head hitting the faucet over and over again like a freaking knockout bell.” This fictive directness from a real-life public figure is clearly descended from James Ellroy, but, in Abbott’s hands, the anecdote itself carries an odd humorous quality that generates an additional question: why is this the story Payton’s using to impress? In The End of Everything, Abbott employs voyeurism during one moment when Lizzie observes her mother having sex with her new partner, Dr. Aiken (like Bury Me Deep, another doctor as partner): “I want him to turn around, to face her. I want him to look at her.” That Lizzie issues this judgment when neither her mother nor her lovers can see her suggests a certain lack of self-reflection.
Stewart O’Nan (Songs for the Missing), Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), and Michelle Richmond (The Year of Fog) have been called “literary” for their missing girl novels. Why not Abbott’s The End of Everything? Abbott’s ability to tap into tangible teenage experience is equal to O’Nan’s, especially when describing the “body-closeness” of girl get-togethers (“I’d look at my own left thigh and wonder where the white curl went, the scar like a half-moon, a nail dug deep, from falling off Dusty’s Schwinn in second grade.”), detailing a folded-paper game called FLAME, and providing glimpses into “the teen-boy world” (“a world of sweat socks and thumping bass and torn-out magazine photos of bulbous tan breasts and white rabbity teeth and yellow flossy hair”) that elicit an unflinching image of comparative innocence.
Where Sebold and Richmond have compromised their talents by settling for, respectively, sappy late-stage farewells between a dead ghost and her boyfriend and a hypnotist helping a mother to extract abstract details about her daughter’s disappearance, Abbott is too smart a novelist to fumble with bald attempts to play to the bleachers. If Bury Me Deep demonstrates how malicious forces can push a lonely soul into a deepening abyss, The End of Everything examines how tampering with memory and maintaining a quiet solipsism can flick you into the same pit of despair. Abbott’s most recent novel shows a greater willingness than Sebold and Richmond to bury hypocrisies and prevarications within the text. Late in the book, we encounter a bloody incident mimicked in a manner suggesting that Lizzie’s memory is far from fallible. Instead of pursuing neat resolution, Abbott ponders the untidiness of all seemingly “neat” endings. In the end, Lizzie confesses that memories are “self-spun, radiant fictions” – a remarkable statement from a thirteen-year-old girl that you certainly wouldn’t expect from Alice Sebold’s Susie Salmon. If such finesse can’t also be called “literary,” it’s outright criminal.
USA Today rounds up media coverage of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. They share this tidbit, too:The Maltese Falcon was first published serially in five parts in Black Mask magazine from September 1929 to January 1930; Knopf published it as a book in 1930. “There are about 2,000 differences between the two published texts – sometimes a comma or a paragraph placed (differently), but often it’s Hammett fooling with the prose to get it just right,” says Richard Layman, author of six Hammett books, including Shadow Man, a biography, and a trustee of Hammett’s literary property trust.USA Today also put the book’s first chapter up. Check it out.