Picked up by a deputy police officer, a man claiming to get lost ghost-hunting in the woods was actually cooking meth. A man who won a competition to party with the Breaking Bad cast and crew was busted for manufacturing narcotics. A Hialeh, Florida, official pulled over by the cops secreted a meth pipe in his rectum.
Even forgoing the bleakest cases, meth fact is stranger than meth fiction. It’s fair to ask why a young writer would take on a subject when the finished novel will be less astonishing than the day’s headlines. (Granted, if that was a requisite, all fiction would go unwritten.) Some plucky writers, I assume, hope their writing acquires by association some of the drug’s features: highly addictive, vivid extra-sensory illusions, the intimations of ruin and transcendence.
The story of a thirteen-year-old heir to a family drug operation, Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God takes its title from a song by Swans. When they recorded “Young God,” Swans was still in its most harrowing, dissonant period before Michael Gira made slightly less harrowing, less dissonant music later in that decade. The song takes the perspective of Ed Gein, the serial-killer inspiration for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho movies. The macabre lyrics, as bellowed by frontman Gira, are all jagged edge:
I don’t know where I am
I’m dancing in my corpse
I don’t remember anything
I’m wearing your flesh
Your flesh is my face
I love your face
Though Morris’s writing shares some of that song’s dark, cryptic tone, the novel has a conventional five-act structure. In spare, piquant prose, we watch as the protagonist Nikki flees a Department of Social Services home and seeks out her father, Coy Hawkins. Nikki might not have courage, but, as Lorrie Moore once described a very different character, she has “bitterness and impulsiveness, which could look like the same thing.”
The first scene begins at a perch overhanging a swimming hole (formatting is consistent with the book):
This is the jumping off place. everywhere else is the wrong side. Nikki bends at the knees and moves her feet one by one. With a lunge she grabs the head of the shrub. Now the river flings its white froth at her. The falls roar in her ears.
“i’ll go first.”
“No,” Nikki says.
“Just walk down on the path,” Wesley says.
“Nikki,” Mama says.
“God,” Nikki says.
Since she is going to die she would like to be remembered, spoken of in the backs of cars in words that shudder. Nikki pictures this. she turns the shrub loose and stands up.
she slips a step and then jumps.
Years after her mother commits suicide (in a mordant parallel, by leaping to her death) and a stay in DSS, she decides to return to her father’s house. The father, Coy Hawkins, is an appealingly grotesque villain, formerly “the biggest coke dealer in the county,” now a fading specter. The narrator says, “iN her MoUth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.”
Tragically, she find her father’s expressions of sympathy as inexplicable and unfamiliar as his paroxysms of violence. In her conversations with her father, she is both naïve and clinical:
“is it BeCaUse oF the eCoNoMY?”
“That you’re a pimp?”
Coy hawkins laughs with his head thrown back.
“What?” Nikki says.
she laughs, too. Though she doesn’t think it’s funny.
“You used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county.”
Coy hawkins rests his elbow on the bench seat. He looks at her.
“You were,” she says.
“everybody’s on pills now,” Coy hawkins says.
“This is my new thing. This is the future.”
Nikki looks out at the motel parking lot. her teeth are grinding.
As in Winter’s Bone, the devastation caused by the meth trade in this rural North Carolina region has unsettled all the usual social structures that might constrain the impulses of a smart, ruthless teenage girl. Either novel could be mistaken for professing a kind of feminism, but I would prefer to call it selective misanthropy.
Each chapter is a fresh descent. Nikki endures the rape and murder of her friend, the mutilation of a rival drug dealer, and a dangerous stick-up. She becomes aware of how he has made her vulnerability a weapon:
“i don’t need you,” he says. […]
all NiGht she sits oN the CoUCh in the dark with her mind racing.
he does need her. He couldn’t have gotten into that apartment without her, for one thing.
she pictures the black girls, with their mouths wide open, but she doesn’t hear them scream.
Watching her father’s casual brutality, of course, Nikki becomes more jaundiced about life generally, and more cynical about family ties specifically. Violence is something she masters, but Morris isn’t particularly interested in a sociology of the drug trade or criminal pathology. Instead, Young God unfolds unselfconciously, as character study.
One of the strengths of the novel is how Nikki’s emotional disfigurement is subtle and teased out patiently over the course of the novel so that, until the final pages, neither the reader nor Nikki herself fully grasp what heinous acts she is capable of doing in order to restore her family’s status.
The unconventional capitalization and grammars, as in Sapphire’s Push, is meant to convey the main character’s lack of formal education, though I found it mostly distracting. In her first novel, Morris also allows a few quirks to clutter the prose. For instance, “muscle,” “chin,” and “shoulder” are all used as verbs. Those choices might be naturalistic, but I thought they were fussy diversions from a taut, concise plot.
What “young god”? Nikki does possess the sort of inarticulate, elemental impulses (rage, pity, hatred) that used to drive the gods of ancient Greek mythology and the Old Testament. It’s clear that her godliness is some mix of her ability to take life and her Nietschzean amorality. Paradoxically, her omnipotence is representative of the narrowness of her worldview, like the narrator of Ted Hughes’s poem, “Hawk Roosting:”
Now I hold Creation in my foot
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly —
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body.
Why a “young god”? Throughout his career, Kenneth Burke pointed out the perversity of metaphor. In the essay, “Why Satire,” he quoted the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Burke suggests that this aphorism has discomfiting implications for our perspective on “need” and “motherhood.”
If a meth-dealing teenager is a “young god,” how radically changed is Morris’s secular world from O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. The central metaphor of Morris’s novel — Nikki as god — is a provocation, sure, and one that indicates a rift in Southern literature. Though their works diverged widely in subject matter and method, Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCullers wrote novels and short stories in riot against the modern assumption of the rational, knowable self, and that self’s ability to master history and nature. Their skepticism about modernity has been so widely embraced – by thinkers who have no interest in Sutpen genealogy, and those who might think of the Southern Agrarians as little more than a historical curiosity — that it seems de rigueur. Perhaps the concerns of O’Connor, et al, were prescient, and prescience is obsolescence in a flattering alias.
The novels of Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, and Morris have a much narrower philosophical scope. Young God is a strong entry in the tradition of the Southern Gothic Novel (redneck noir subcategory), but, while reading it and after watching the HBO series True Detective, I began to wonder if the genre still has any explanatory power for contemporary America. Stripped of its context and without invigorating it with new significance, that familiar mood has become an affectation. The style is still there, nestled between the derelict churches and the epic violence, but without the expansive critique that ran like a quicksilver thread through Wise Blood and Absalom! Absalom!
Late in Young God, the narrator repeats her father’s words: “This is the future.” Then, Nikki disposes of a body by hacking it into pieces. I suspect the Southern Gothic Novel (like many of the characters that have populated it) will have an even less tranquil afterlife.
An unpublished novel by ESPN the Magazine editor Paul Kix will be adapted into a movie by True Detective director Cary Fukunaga. The project is known as Noble Assassin, and it will concern a French aristocrat who trains with British Special Operations in hopes of one day returning to his native country to lead the World War II resistance.
True Detective ended weeks ago, but someone once told me, “Time is a flat circle,” and that everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again. And this piece on the show’s finale by Lili Loofbourow is going to be the best one you’ll read on the internet again and again and again forever. (Bonus: Our own Ujala Sehgal crafted a reading list based on one of the show’s [missing] elements.)
We learned earlier this month that Nina Jacobson, a movie producer responsible for the the Hunger Games franchise, among other things, has acquired the rights to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and is looking for a director to make it into a film or mini-series. Lucky for Jacobson, dream-casting the movie version of a book is one of my life’s true passions, and my colleague Edan Lepucki and I hereby submit our ideas for the Goldfinch cast. The process reveals the bizarre extent to which I think I understand the Hollywood casting processes (and how often my first choice is ten years too late), which starlets we think play trashy the best, and how it might be worth it to turn the cast on its head to let Michael B. Jordan play Theo.
[Warning: Our discussion of what will be required to play these characters results in many spoilers.]
Janet: It strikes me that almost any beautiful actress past her starlet age could swoop in and play an angelic, sophisticated mother who loved art and New York and whom we will probably see in fuzzy, nostalgic flashbacks for the duration of the film. Ten years ago it would have been Julianne Moore’s in a heartbeat, but now I picture Rachel Weisz or Michelle Monaghan (probably because we all just saw her play a lovely woman who married the wrong guy young in True Detective).
Edan: I love the idea of Rachel Weisz playing this role — she does elegant/maternal very well. The same goes for Kate Winslet. (I’m sorry, but a chair can act better than Michelle Monaghan.) I’d also suggest Kerry Washington for the role; her face can go from assured to vulnerable in a millisecond, and she’s got a powerful presence that both Theo and the audience will grieve.
Imagine, too, a non-white Theo Decker…his outsider status might then take on a whole other dimension…
Janet: Theo’s father is complicated. At one point he wooed Rachel Weisz up there, and continues to be a charming, charismatic guy, but ends up running schemes in Vegas. The part of me that likes to think I understand Hollywood surmises that it’s not a big enough role for the likes of Ben Affleck or Bradley Cooper, who would both be great but might be too busy on the A list. I could see Josh Brolin or Mark Ruffalo, though. They’ve both got the range and the tragic good looks.
Edan: If Mark Ruffalo knocked on my door right now, I’d open it naked. Yes! Ruffalo! I also could see Peter Krause of Six Feet Under (and Parenthood) fame — he’s handsome enough, and he emits a slight aura of bratty rage that playing Larry Decker would require.
Janet: Larry’s girlfriend is introduced as “a strange woman, tan and very fit-looking: flat gray eyes, lined coppery skin, and teeth that went in, with a split between them. Although she was older than my mother, or at any rate older-looking, she was dressed like someone younger: red platform sandals; low-slung jeans; wide belt; lots of gold jewelry. Her hair, the color of caramel straw, was very straight and tattered at the ends; she was chewing gum and a strong smell of Juicy Fruit was coming off her.”
So not Amy Adams, is what I’m saying. I could see Anna Paquin (who already has a gap in her teeth) or Chloe Sevigny taking a fun trip to trashville to play Xandra, or, if they stick to the age described, Rachel Griffiths.
Edan: Like Hollywood would ever stick to the age described! I bet the producers cast Elle Fanning, those ageists! Though I love Paquin and Sevigny, Paquin strikes me as too round-faced, and Sevigny is far too rich girl for me to believe her as Xandra. She’d be better off as a Barbour with her George Plimpton-esque mid-Atlantic accent! My pick for this role is Taryn Manning; her meth-head-turned-religious savior in Orange is the New Black is by turns gleeful, hideous, frightening, and humanizing. That girl can trash it up, and she is so fun to watch. [Janet: With Peter Krause as Larry and Rachel Griffiths as Xandra we could have a Six Feet Under reunion on our hands. Think about it.]
Young Theo/Young Boris:
Janet: The first section of the book follows Theo from age 13 to 18, and Boris comes in about halfway through, so it’s hard to know how that will be cast—maybe they’ll shrink the timeline so that one actor can play all those years, because I can’t imagine them getting both a middle school Theo and a high school Theo. Teenage Theo and Boris are also pretty weighty parts, so they can’t just find kids who look like a young version of their leading men to fill in for the first 20 minutes — like Jennifer Garner’s doppelganger in 13 Going on 30. Not that any of this matters, because I’m not familiar with a lot of young teenage actors, so I’ll just name the three I know because of Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars: Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, and Nat Wolff. (Ten years ago: Nicholas Hoult.)
Edan: I have no opinions about man-boy actors. Just don’t cast the teenage son from USA’s Necessary Roughness; I have nightmares about his Ken-doll face.
Janet: Theo is an intentionally divisive character. I found myself loving and hating him in equal measure, and getting the wrong actor could push the character too far in either direction. And, like his father, Theo is equally conversant in New York society, the antiques world, a life of crime, and a drug habit, so the actor has to have the same versatility. Andrew Garfield and Joseph Gordon Levitt both came to mind as bankable leading men, but they might be too adorable for Theo. (And can you imagine Joseph Gordon Levitt pining for but never winning Pippa? Hahahaha no.) Our colleague Lydia suggested Adrien Grenier, Adam Brody, and Zachary Quinto, each of whom have varying degrees of edge. My prediction is Jake Gyllenhaal, because I think he’s established enough that a studio would trust him to carry the movie (why am I talking like this?). But my dream actor is Emile Hirsch. He’s that perfect tragic-hero mix of magnetic, melancholy, doomed, but likable, and I’ve been waiting for the rest of America to fall in love with him since Into the Wild.
Edan: You think Joseph Gordon Levitt is that irresistible? [Janet: YES.] I mean, he’s adorable, yes, but he’s also small — he looks short on screen, which must mean he’s a teeny-tiny person. There’s also a strain of nerdery in him that could work for this role and make him less Mr. Cool. However, I love your idea to cast Emile Hirsch — what a phenomenal actor.
If Kerry Washington is cast as the mother, however, might I suggest Donald Glover from Community in this role? Or, the incredible Michael B. Jordan from The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and Fruitvale Station? (Hell, cast Jordan anyway! His eyes — they convey innocence, rage, curiosity and longing all at once!)
Janet: Oh Boris, you lying knave. I can’t get past the idea of how great a younger Leonardo DiCaprio would be, so I have no ideas. Lydia astutely suggested Paul Dano. But I know you have a strong opinion…
Edan: Adam Driver is the only man for this role. That pale skin! Those jug ears! He looks like a boy raised on vodka! Driver continually surprises me as Hannah Horvath’s boyfriend on Girls. He imbues every line of dialogue with unexpected nuance, and his physical presence is fascinating, discomfiting, sexy, comic, and tragic. Plus, he’d do something great with Boris’s accent!
Janet: This will probably be some child actress we’ve never seen before, but Kiernan Shipka would be great.
Edan: I vote for an unknown here.
Janet: Saintly, delicate Pippa is the European boarding school-educated flautist whom Theo doesn’t know how to quit. I think Emma Watson would do nicely. And she kind of looks like Kiernan Shipka!
Edan: I’m the only person (on Tumblr) who hated the film adaptation of Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Emma Watson’s bad American accent was part of that hatred. Shipka can have it. Or perhaps Saoirse Ronan (from Atonement and Hanna) is available? She’s like a younger, prettier, and more ethereal version of myself, so of course I’m rooting for her always.
Janet: Widely decried as the most two-dimensional character in the book, lovely old Hobie could basically be played by any amicable actor who has time on their hands. I thought of Michael Gambon, who is most likely too old. Jeff Bridges or William Hurt would also be good, although both too American. Screw it, let’s give it to Cumberbatch.
Edan: I would have loved to have cast Philip Seymour Hoffman in this role. If we want bona fide English, I’d go for Steve Coogan. Everyone loves Coogan, right?
Kitsey “Kitten” Barbour:
Janet: Theo’s high-society, two-timing fiancee. Leighton Meester or no one at all.
Edan: I’ve never seen Gossip Girl, but I’ve read the gossip rags for many years, so I am all about Ms. Meester and her snobby, beautiful face. She looks like she was born wearing a sweater set and pearls.
Various Barbours and background players:
Janet: Mrs. Barbour is a surprisingly complex minor character that you’d just have to be elegant and icy to play. Jennifer Connelly, perhaps (ten years ago: Joan Allen). I have a sinking feeling Paul Giamatti will be Mr. Barbour because he shows up everywhere, and I don’t have any strong opinions about their children other than Kitten. Matt Dillon could show up as the guy who comes to threaten Theo’s dad with a baseball bat.
Edan: Let’s just call Meryl and see if she’ll play Mrs. Barbour, though I also love Connelly’s skinny-woman-ice. I’d love to see Robert Englund play a member of the criminal art underworld. Oh, and of course: a little known actor named Omar Little would be perfect as Popchik. (I’m Omar’s momager; call me if you’re interested!)
Four episodes into HBO’s crime show True Detective, I thought to myself, This is so good, it’s almost like a book. For this viewer at least, True Detective achieved a rare balance. Standard procedurals like Law & Order are reliably engaging because we know the mystery will be solved and wrapped up (more or less) nice and neat by the end of the hour. But stuffing plot twists, red herrings, and personal strife into an hour-long format can be hasty if not, at times, absurdly implausible. On the other hand, endless dramas with mysteries at their core run the risk of failing to resolve the puzzle long past the point where viewers still care enough to tune in each week.
But True Detective contained the psychological depth of a drama with the reliability of a procedural — in short, all the satisfaction of a great mystery novel. Let’s hope that the eight episode mystery format returns for at least another season.
One particular wish (buoyed by rumors) for a second season is that HBO will cast female detectives next time around. Amid the outpouring of love for the show, more than a few viewers diagnosed True Detective with having something of a “woman problem.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, for example, wrote that she was worn out from True Detective’s “macho nonsense,” what with its lack of complex female characters and tired trope of male detectives “avenging women and children, and bro-bonding.” In short, True Detective offers the same old “heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses,” and that’s boring.
These conventions are as tough to shake in the crime novel as they are on television. If you love a good mystery book, there is little getting around the fact that most of the victims are women. A little girl goes missing, is a classic opening. Or, The body of a woman is found. A whole sub-genre, the “Special Victims Unit” of these books if you will, involves violent sexual crimes against women. If women must always be the victims, why not have them be the saviors, too?
As someone who inhales crime novels in bulk, I was getting a little tired of the male detective-female victim set-up myself. Recently, the owner of the wondrous Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca (a shop so charming I’d like to move into it), remarked to me off-handedly that I had a “type” when it came to mysteries — I went for the female detectives. (I use the term “detective” here loosely to describe the crime-solver, whatever their job or lack thereof.)
I never intended to discriminate against the men! But there was some truth to his observation. It wasn’t a matter of principle, it was about the books. Female “detectives” were bringing new twists to the classic tropes. Some of the best mysteries I was reading had women cracking the cases.
So whether or not True Detective returns for another season and solves its woman problems, here is a short list of crime novels (many of them the start of series) where there’s a woman in charge. You might discover, like me, that you’re an accidental fan of the female detective. And if you have any other recommendations, please share — with True Detective over, it’s an especially bad time to run out of crime novels.
Garnethill by Denise Mina
Garnethill begins when Maureen O’Donnell wakes up with a terrible hangover to find the dead body of her lover, a psychiatrist at the outpatient clinic she attends, tied up dead in her living room. There are clues in the room that point to Maureen’s own trauma as an incest survivor — secret pieces of her personal history that almost no one knows about. Looking to clear her name, Maureen and her close friend Leslie, a domestic violence shelter employee, begin uncovering a horror story of abuse at the local psychiatric hospital.
Maureen and Leslie are as hard-living and jaded a duo as True Detective’s Cohle and Hart. They have seen terrible things. The novel, the first in a series, takes place in economically-ruined Scotland, and the descriptions of booze are almost loving. (Glenfidditch, ice, and lime cordial. Peach schnapps and fizzy lemonade from a two-liter. A whiskey miniature with a cold can of Kerslin.) This is a sex crime book, but one where the avenger is a victim herself, and no Stieg Larsson-esque male heroes show up to do any last minute protecting. In Garnethill, those tasked with protecting the vulnerable are often the most dangerous, and it’s usually up to the vulnerable to protect themselves.
It might sound like there is nothing more empowering than a victim of sexual abuse taking on crime flanked by her motorcycle-riding, domestic-violence fighting friend. But fair warning: Garnethill is dark and angering, for the ways in which Maureen and Leslie touch on reality. Maureen constantly reminds that crimes don’t end for the victims just because the perpetrator has been stopped. Tough girl Leslie reminds of how much ingenuity it takes for women who protect other women to counter the physical threat that men pose. Together, though, Maureen and Leslie achieve that magic of any great crime-fighting partnership. Each is strong and weak in her own way, and just when you think one leans more on the other, everything changes.
The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
The Crossing Places, first in a series featuring archaeology academic Ruth Galloway, begins when the local chief detective approaches Galloway about bones found in a bleak area near Norfolk, a sacred ground in the Iron Age. The chief detective believes these might be the bones of a young girl who disappeared ten years before, and whose abductor continues to send him letters riddled with obscure archaeological and literary references.
Crime brings several men into the life of Ruth Galloway, who is nearing 40, single, overweight, and living a solitary with her two cats. Ruth is relatively content about this arrangement; it’s the men about her who don’t quite know what to do with her. Watching men react to Ruth is frustrating but also great fun. Some patronize her, others desexualize her. Some assume she needs protecting, others forget her in their haste to protect more delicate-looking females. They are all rather inept. Forget solving the crime, Ruth has her hands full dealing with the men bumbling about her. But despite its grim crimes and grim setting, The Crossing Places is on the lighter side and Ruth is infinitely relatable.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
In Sharp Objects, hard-drinking, damaged, and recently institutionalized reporter Camille Preaker returns to her hometown after eight years to report on the disappearance of two girls. Gillian Flynn’s most famous character is Gone Girl’s cool girl/psychopath Amy, and in Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel, the women are likewise the show-stoppers. Camille’s hyper-perfect mother, with her crew of bored and medicated ladies who lunch, and her beautiful, Mean Girl half-sister, flanked by popular groupies, run the town. Staying in the secretive and somewhat surreal mansion with these two alpha-females and her own resurfacing past, Camille is very, very vulnerable. She’s trapped in a world of women that she doesn’t understand and that grows increasingly sinister. Girl world is a scary place to be.
Sharp Objects provides a counter-narrative to True Detective — the women in the novel are powerful, well-connected, and menacing. Not to say that Sharp Objects sends up female stereotypes or empowers women. More than once I’ve wondered: does Gillian Flynn even like women? In a Millions conversation on Flynn, Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter note that Flynn “repeatedly portrays hanging out with women as torture.” Nonetheless, Sharp Objects inhabits the world of women as fully as True Detective inhabits the world of men. As a female reader, there was something familiar about the grotesques in the world of women that made reading about them that much more eerie than the usual male suspects.
The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
The Various Haunts of Men, the first in a series by Susan Hill, is billed as a “Detective Simon Serrailler” mystery. But DCI Serrailler is barely a presence for much of this first book. Instead we follow Freya Graffham, a newly arrived detective in Lafferton, England who has just left London and a marriage that failed for relatively banal reasons. Hill’s book begins when a female jogger goes missing without a trace, and in pursuing the case, Freya is caught up in the world of alternative medicines, miracles, and snake-oil salesmen.
What hooks Freya onto the case is discovering that the missing woman has a bold case of unrequited love. This sticks with her. She relates to what unrequited love feels like, and that makes the lost jogger hard to dismiss as just another missing person. This sort of touch is exactly why female detectives can be such a refreshing change — Freya is drawn into action based on a very simple shot of empathy for the victim, unlike the macho men of True Detective, who are rather heavy-handedly motivated because they see red at the very thought of a woman hurt.
On the other hand, one of the pleasures of hard-boiled mystery novels is the vicarious thrill of reading about detectives behaving badly, from scotch for breakfast to questionable liaisons with murder suspects. If that’s the sort of fun you’re looking for, you won’t find it in The Various Haunts of Men. Detective Freya’s main hobby is singing in the church choir.
The Likeness by Tana French
The first time we meet Cassie Maddox is in Tana French’s first book, In the Woods, where she is homicide co-cop to detective Rob Ryan. In The Likeness (not a sequel), a murdered woman is found who looks exactly like Cassie, and Cassie’s old boss convinces her to go undercover in the woman’s place to tempt the killer into coming out into the open. Operating undercover, this time Cassie is all alone.
Being alone is precarious. Cassie’s ties to the police force, including her boyfriend and her boss, give her a lifeline to reality but don’t prevent her from being seduced by the life of the murdered woman and her isolated, close-knit group of friends. This clique, comprised of former loners, seems to be bound together not because any one is in love with another so much as each are in love with the group as a whole. The lack of conventional one-on-one relationships makes their bond look magical, almost divine. While some loner detectives like True Detective’s Cohle look in sometimes enviously, even longingly, on happy scenes of marriage and children, Cassie, firmly in a relationship, falls for the unromantic connection that holds these people together. She longs to be part of it.
The Likeness is sprawling and rich. Tana French’s novels look forward as they look backward, and are filled with nostalgia for the heady, heightened reality that comes with working a big case. Should True Detective take hints from The Likeness or any other of French’s novels, that would be a thrill for mystery fanatics in and of itself.
I have a dark and abiding love for the electronic dance music of the nineties and aughts. If it shows up on the “Faithless” Pandora station; if it has been compiled in a collection like “I Love Ibiza” or “Ultimate Trance Vol. 18”; if it has the seductive hooting of indigenous pipes and angelic female voices over a thumping beat; chances are I like it. They have machines that pulse a beam of sound and cause you to fall down shitting; I hear this kind of music and compulsively yearn. I first heard it when I was a cooped-up teenager watching MTV Europe in a hot Athenian apartment, and it has always seemed to represent all of the sexy, free, mystical things that are expressly forbidden the adolescent. None of my experiences with this music in the wild have approached its promise when it vibrates in that apartment or in my headphones, while I vacuum the house or write this review. Of all this genre’s notes, the plaintive thumps the loudest.
I tell you this now only because something about the experience of reading J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence recreated this feeling so profoundly that I felt compelled to break out the Faithless and examine the component parts of my enthusiasm. I learned about Submergence on Twitter (never say that Twitter never gave me anything). The novel is, variously, a love story, martyrology, heresiography, science book, and spy novel. Like its Twitter supporters, who spoke in rapturous terms, I was sucked into the novel right away, from its commanding first line — “It was a bathroom in an unfinished house in Somalia in the year 2012″ — to its final epigraph from Horace: “Plunge it in deep water: it comes up more beautiful.”
The plaintive is alive in this novel. It is largely the story of a James More, a British spy who is being held by Somali Jihadists. The latter are beleaguered and ineffectual in the scheme of their own ambitions, but deadly effective for people in “a very dark and specific place” — like James More in his unfinished bathroom, like the fourteen-year-old Somali girl who is hooded with burlap before her stoning. As More is taken out and mock-executed, as he is worked over and then marginally repaired by a marginally sympathetic doctor, as he is taken to a desolate waterless part of Somalia and then to a mangrove forest, he contemplates damp England, and his forebear Thomas More, and, most importantly, a romantic week during which he met and fell in love with a dazzling scientist based in London. The scholarship of this woman, Danny Flinders, forms the leitmotif of the novel: she is interested in the patterns and mysteries of the deepest ocean, the least known part of the world. The novel follows More in his dark and specific place and Danny in hers — a submersible in a near-mythological section of the ocean called the Hadal deep. Submergence flirts both with what is called Big History, a an all-inclusive discipline of which the human experience forms a miniscule part, and with the genre of “CliFi.” As Danny tells James during their interlude:
Let’s say the Atlantic is 160 million years old…We appeared less than one million years ago. We walked in yesterday. It’s not much of a claim. Yet somewhere in the Atlantic right now and in other oceans…some man is smashing up a seamount more ancient than any greenwood on land, which he can’t see and refuses to value.
I have a weakness for bizarre analogies, but I think this novel aligns with my secretly cherished dance music, both its content and its praxis. Thematically, the novel shares many of the same elements with electronic dance music — the erotic, the foreboding, the melancholy, the mystical, the vaguely orientalist. There are reasons that electronic dance music and club culture has been cited in scholarly articles about modern forms of religious or spiritual practice. James himself thinks along these lines — one of his dreams in captivity describes:
…a Lenten carnival. A Christ-like figure on a carnival float was leading a crowd of young people in a dance. The music was techno. The street was narrow. Bodies were pressed up against old buildings…the Christ and the crowd repeated over and over with their hands a thousand years of love, a thousand year of peace.
(The bacchanal is cut short by a suicide bomber.)
Electronic dance music invokes mystical themes, with lines like “This is my church” or nonsense about the ocean: “Open my eyes/ Bigger/ Listen to us/ Swimming in Saltwater.” Its beats are structured for maximum epiphany and release. It is culturally affiliated with mind-expanding drugs that promise vast sensation and awareness that will be lost in the morning. Submergence too encourages spiritual-philosophical meditations about things you don’t really understand. The novel is full of information about the most mysterious parts of the planet and its inhabitants; never before have I heard about a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, let alone pondered the romance of its liminal existence. Ledgard concludes an unforgettable description of decomposition and reanimation at the bottom of the ocean thus: “Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.” Submergence offers up a similar, if headier and wetter, line of inquiry than the bio-mathematics of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: “We exist only as a film on the water,” Danny tells James. Whoa.
(This novel encourages you to look for the meaning of things. I learned later that “Hadal” is also the term for “word, “speech,” or “expression” in Somali. I don’t know what this means, but it just seems important. After all, the Angel Gabriel told Mohammed, “Recite”; the miracle Qu’ran was his recitation. For better or worse, this is the mode that Ledgard puts you into.)
Some of my interest in techno music is rooted in that yearning teenage place, trapped in a parental apartment and wishing to be out among the European youth, to whom everything, I erroneously believed, was permitted. The novel is finally calibrated to exploit yearning for the world. Danny and James embody the infinitely attractive versions of statelessness. She is a brilliant and great-looking woman of Australian and Martiniquan descent, with a cabin in Italy, an apartment in London, at home in Switzerland and the bottom of the ocean. James is both personally and professionally tied to his particular state, but he is still at home in the world, a speaker of Arabic. In his normal life you can find him among the Jacaranda trees, wearing linen shirts and eating breakfasts of “papaya and scrambled eggs, toast, and Kenyan tea.” These are cosmopolitans.
Americans are sensitive to the very existence of people this cosmopolitan, and they show poorly in the novel. They are the CIA guy in a food court talking over a terrorist’s errant appendage: “We think it’s an Arab hand, don’t we Bob?” They are on the boat with Danny, the un-fun ones who spend the voyage “sipping iced water,” who “purchase ugly expedition t-shirts.” The women “covered themselves in such loose-hanging cotton garbs…seldom wore high heels in their lives, and…felt [Danny] was a snob and an ice maiden.” Their hotels are “prefabricated, with piped music, airless corridors, tinted windows that would not open, circulated air that could not be shut off, a small plastic bathtub, chlorinated water…” Meanwhile, the British have “Chaucer to Dickens, the First World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and drizzle” (and lots of club hits). The American reader is left feeling a bit resentful: Just you wait, motherfucker — our uniformity is contagious. And then Ledgard has the last laugh, because he shows the very American-ness of that instinct — the blind, obliterating force of American reaction:
It glinted. It burned from its tail. It was an astonishing creation. Entirely human, wholly American…It was impossible in the final moment not to see the missile as something more.
There are several versions of statelessness. In addition to Danny and James, there is the decidedly nasty kind, the men who leave home turf of Saudi, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or the United States, to come to Somalia and build a frontier of Jihad, a sad inversion of the roving Muslim scholars of centuries past. Jihadists are often described as harboring a medieval view of things, but this is in many ways an affront to medieval Islam, when the practice of religion and the pursuit of knowledge in the sciences and humanities were often the same thing. I think Ledgard knows, although one is never sure whether James More does, that without these Muslim scholars and their translations from Greek to Arabic and back to Greek, James More’s ancestor Thomas, his beloved Francis Bacon, might never have known their Classical philosophers. (Ironically, a real-life “Thomas More Law Center” exists, in benighted America of course, to forestall those “Radical Muslims and Islamic organizations in America” who “take advantage of our legal system and are waging a ‘Stealth Jihad’ within our borders.”) I disliked how little room the novel made for the non-Jihadi varieties of Islam, but why should it, I suppose, when More’s captors make even less?
Many critics have made passing reference to John le Carré as a point of departure for Submergence, since this novel, because of all the mythical deep and so forth, is so much more than just a spy novel. But some of its success, I think, lies in the dexterous deployment of elements of genre fiction. John le Carré is himself a departure and elaboration of genre. And while he is not poetic in the Ledgard mode, like Ledgard he is so observant, so fond of characterizations, and makes them in such a way — with the dangerous seduction of erudite British public servants — that you are certain they are true. Like the novels of John le Carré, who has a conscience and is often concerned with dark matters, Submergence thrums at the level of high genre from which wonderful novels emerge. Lonesome Dove (the ne plus ultra). Neuromancer. Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels.
High genre is fiction that allows you to investigate an individual text, because it is full of its own traits and merits, whether in its characterizations, its plot, or its prose. Regular genre, I suppose, is something you can only talk about as a family — tracing the themes shared collectively among its members. High genre will always be vulnerable to the taint of its lower peers, because it shares the equipment, the same beats. This is why people are drawn to True Detective, and yet can accept assertions that it is just another dead naked lady show. I mentioned the praxis of electronic dance music. Detractors would have it that this music is derivative noise, the artless patching together of beats at just the right frequency to make the ladies tear off their cardigans in the middle of the dance hall. These are the same kinds of things that people say about genre novels. But DJs (like medieval Islamic poets, in fact), demonstrate their mastery through use of the material of their peers and predecessors. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to be really good at spinning it.
There is some less-high genre at play in Ledgard’s novel, too. Rand Richards Cooper’s New York Times review of The Constant Gardener called le Carré “the writer who rescued the spy novel from the clutches of Ian Fleming by creating an anti-James Bond — the spy as brooding skeptic, whose freedom from conventional mores conferred not playboy romance but the loneliness of exile.” This was 2001, several years before the Bond franchise was reanimated in a darker key, with all the visual pleasures of earlier Bonds but decidedly more brooding. I’m thinking of the film Casino Royale, which, like Submergence and techno music, is sexy, sad, and possessing of high production values.
Ledgard wrote a scholastic hero and turns your head with trippy descriptions of oceans and molecular life, but some of his pleasures are carnal in the Bond tradition. Consider here, when Danny and James meet over Christmas at the Hotel Atlantic, a Ritz hotel on the French coast, which, with its copper bathtubs and Turcoman rugs, its lobster bisque and suckling pig, is probably the best approximation of one version of heaven in modern fiction. (The ceiling beams have been “soaked in milk for a year to harden them.”) In rustic French country splendor, as the snow blankets the world outside and the wind howls across the Atlantic, these sexy people meet for dinner. She, who will be described as both “a Persian and an alley cat,” is looking spectacular: “Her dress shimmered purple and brown and in and out of those colors, showing off her breasts and hips.” He wore “a blue suit with suede shoes and a gray Turnbull & Asser shirt. He had only his regimental cufflinks with him. A silver parachute on maroon.” As the snow pours, they eat:
…servings of duck foie gras with a peach wine jelly, Scottish scallops, ham, deboned saddle of lamb from the Auvergne, white beans with truffles, sea bream, poached apricots, bay leaf panna cotta, cheese and chocolates. They drank champagne, a house white wine, Rothschild Bordeaux, Chateau Villefranche dessert wine…
And more. They smoke cigarettes. They go upstairs and do it on the rug. By the middle of the novel I was Googling the hotel to see if it existed and if it were possible to get a room. It is now my single greatest material aspiration to stay in a hotel like this.
The Bond element resurfaces in funny little ways, as here, when James travels to a small island to track down the family of a terrorist. A sister cooperates, and after their interview, James has another request.
“You’ve been very kind,” he said. “Might I ask one more favor?”
“But of course.”
“I need a haircut. Do you think you could cut my hair?”
“I’ve never cut gold hair!”
They took a communal taxi across the town. They were squeezed in the back with another woman. He was buttock to buttock between the two…[she] rested her head absently on his knee.”
It’s such a pointless, comparatively light-hearted, pseudo-sexual, weirdly colonialist interlude, right out of Bond. I’ll cut your hair, I murmured to myself, picturing Daniel Craig.
Some people interpret the invocation of genre as a way to temper enthusiasm, which is not my goal here. I am very enthusiastic about this novel, because I found it transporting. Those dinners, those Bondian wine lists, those Condé Nast interiors, are so materially exciting that they do not necessarily detract. If the novel’s national and civilizational categories are shallow, its ecological meditations are deep, its imagery sublime. How can I forget the ship Challenger trawling an unexplored trench, its nets bringing up “slime that covered the inside of the dredge…all that remained of the most exquisite forms of millions of sea squirts, salp, and jellies, whose diaphanous musculature — more remarkable than any alien species yet conceived — had lost its form in air”? Like the dance music of my teens, Submergence takes me to another plane. I’m so young in evolutionary terms, after all, and addicted to consciousness.