The Infatuations

By Javier Marias

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I love Javier Marías despite the fact that he is annoying.

I’m not trying to be glib or dismissive. I’m also not trying to insult Javier Marías, because I really do love him. I love reading his books. I respect him, I enjoy him, I think he’s wonderful writer. But he’s annoying.

It’s his writing style. Marías has as distinct a style of writing as any author I can think of alive today – his prose is recognizable almost instantly. It’s his great virtue, but, like most highly distinct styles of writing, it’s irritating to read.

It’s almost impossible to have a sense of what I mean if you have not actually encountered Marías’ prose, so, forgive me, but I will quote him at some length. Please trust me that this quotation is highly representative – the entire book is like this.

“…We think men will change their mind or their beliefs, that they will gradually discover that they can’t do without us, that we will be the exception in their lives or the visitors who end up staying, that they will eventually grow tired of those other invisible women who existence we begin to doubt or whom we prefer to think do not exist, the more we see of the men and the more we love them despite ourselves; that we will be the chosen ones if only we have the necessary staying power to remain by their side, uncomplaining and uninsistent. When we don’t arouse immediate passion, we believe that loyalty and our mere persistent presence will finally be rewarded and prove stronger and more durable than any momentary rapture or caprice…I know that it wouldn’t offend me to be a substitute, because we are all of us substitutes for someone, especially initially…Yes, we are all poor imitations of people whom, generally speaking, we never met, people who never even approached or simply walked straight past the lives of those we now love, or who did perhaps stop, but grew weary after a time and disappeared without leaving so much as a trace, or only the dust from their fleeing feet, or who died, causing those we love a mortal wound that almost always heals in the end. We cannot pretend to be the first or the favourite, we are merely what is available, the leftovers, the leavings, the survivors, the remnants, the remaindered goods, and it is on this somewhat ignoble basis that the greatest loves are built and on which the best families are founded, and from which we all come, the product of chance and making do, of other people’s rejections and timidities and failures, and yet we would give anything sometimes to stay by the side of the person we rescued from an attic or a clearance sale, or won in a game of cards or who picked us up from among the scraps…” (p. 120)

Marías lives inside the mind of his characters. He is interested in the intersection between our psyches and the world around us. He is fascinated not by what happens to his characters but in how they experience what happens to them, how they think and feel. His project is to represent that experience with fidelity.

I think that’s why he writes that way. Marías understands that our internal worlds are not linear, they are obsessive, recursive, tangential. We think in endless loops on the same problems, splintering off and coming back, and so, therefore, does his prose. You can see it in the above passage, the way he takes a single thought and iterates it, winding and rewinding, trying something a little different each time, adding, adjusting, tweaking and taking a slightly different stance. His writing is super clausal: every sentence layers itself on top of a theme, sometimes for whole chapters at a time. Nothing is simply stated once; rather, every thought is re-stated three or five times synonymously. Concepts are defined and refined in slow shadings until they have morphed into different concepts, which are then themselves refined, and so on.

It’s exhausting, but it’s effective. It is, perhaps, the best representation that I have ever encountered in prose of how we actually think. Psychically, humans are enormously complex, and it’s almost impossible to represent this complexity on the page. I have come to love his style, even while sometimes feeling winded by it. It has verisimilitude, an honesty. He is writing about nuance and ambivalence, and he is unflinching in his portrayal of human contradiction, of our multifacetedness.

But he requires a completely different style of reading. Some authors, most authors, need to be actively read: you need to push yourself through the text, paying attention. Marías is different: you need to trust him, let him carry you. If you try to stay alert the whole time, if you try to remember everything, you will exhaust yourself and lose patience.  If, though, you relax into his writing, Marías can become kind of magical to read. It’s the reading equivalent of letting your eyes unfocus. What seems at first like endless verbiage, like self-indulgent editorial failure, is, in fact, the deliberate and artful construction of a cadence.

Most annoying writers become more annoying the more you read. What differentiates Marías is that his prose becomes easier as you get into the flow of it, rather than more grating over time. By the end of one of his books, you are so used to being carried on his particular current that you almost don’t remember that it’s possible to write differently.

And, if you are interested, ‘The Infatuations’ is a great place to start. I started with ‘Your Face Tomorrow’, a trilogy of about 1300 pages which I came to love but which took me months to work my way through. ‘The Infatuations’, though, is short and gripping, a murder mystery-love story, riddled with uncertainly and moral relativism.

Javier Marías

It’s hard to represent the discursiveness of human thought and still have space to develop anything like a plot – that’s why most authors shorthand emotional experience. There are very few authors who really commit to thought, with all its reiterations and redundancies (Proust, for example, who, of course, is also exhausting to read). It’s really fun to see Marías’ particular lens come up against the normal constraints of a murder plot, which usually require exactly the sort of bright lines that Marías eschews.

There is a truism of relationship therapy, that the things which you love the most about your partner are the things which will come to irritate you the most, in other forms. The same is true of authors sometimes: the things which make them special, which stand out about them, are also the things that grate on you. Javier Marías is special – he’s difficult, he’s annoying – but he’s special. And the things that make him special (his prose, his observations), which make him annoying, also make him worth it.

Gone Girl

By Gillian Flynn

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I know that everyone loves ‘Gone Girl’. I mean, I love ‘Gone Girl’. I read it, years ago, in one swallow: a beautiful summer afternoon spent inside, on the couch, unable to tear myself away. I have a lot of respect for it as a novel, the craft, the excellent execution of it.

But the other day I finally got around to watching the movie (which I also think was competent and gripping), and was reminded of something that tweaked me about the story, and, frankly, about the genre in general.

A little context, for the two people alive who haven’t read the book or seen the movie: On their five year wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife Amy vanishes from their home. The first half of ‘Gone Girl’ is a murder mystery, told both from Nick’s perspective in the days following her disappearance, and from excerpts of Amy’s diary during the years of their courtship and early marriage. As the days pass, more and more evidence emerges, all of which points to Nick having killed Amy. He has been having an affair. He has just taken out a large life insurance policy on her. Amy’s best friend comes forward and tells police that Amy feared that her husband would kill her.

It’s a masterpiece of unreliable narration, and Flynn manages to wind her readers through almost two hundred pages of Nick Dunne’s first person account without ever revealing whether or not he murdered his wife. I can’t really understate how impressed I am by her ability to do that. Two hundred pages of first person narration without revealing, in either direction, whether or not that person is a murderer? It’s a real high-wire act of suspenseful dubiety, and it’s completely successful.

However, after a deft, tense first half, Flynn abandons her well-constructed ambiguity and turns to that favorite device of genre fiction: the psychopath.

Amy is alive, of course. She has elaborately, painstakingly framed her husband for a murder that has not happened. And now she is free, living in disguise and watching her brilliant revenge play out from a safe distance.

The psychopathic genius is a tempting plot device. He is a human without humanity  He is capable of any evil, smarter than his opponents, and conveniently unencumbered by normal emotional frailties.  There aren’t any characterological weaknesses to limit him, and so he can enact any outlandish deviousness his author dreams up for him.

However, there are two big problems with the meticulous psychopath.

First, he is totally unrealistic. In real life, antisocial personalities are characterized not only by a lack of empathy, but also by impulsivity, recklessness, and unlawful behavior.  Flynn’s psychopath, however, shares with her fictional brethren a distinct lack of impetuosity.  The premise of ‘Gone Girl’ rests on the ability of a flamboyant sociopath to plan minutely and far in advance, to mask their thoughts and emotions and to forego any short-term satisfaction in order to execute an elaborate and excruciating revenge.

In real life, this is very un-psychopathic behavior.  The diagnostic criteria of antisocial personality disorder include “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest”, “consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations”, and “impulsivity and failure to plan ahead”.  It is striking that these traits are not only absent in Flynn’s psychopath, they would severely limit, if not completely obviate, her ability to plan and carry out her scheme.

Gillian Flynn

Second, the literary psychopath isn’t actually interesting. While he may have the immediate magnetism of a car wreck, he isn’t actually a character.  He has no internal conflict; he is all plot. 

Now, that can be OK. When plot is all that matters, he’s fine.  That’s why he does such reliable work in cop dramas, soap operas, and beach reads. But he isn’t a person – he’s a tool that an author can use to advance action. And he’s very useful, obviously, but this utility has caused him to be badly overused in fiction.  Once, he was shocking, novel, outre. Now, he’s everywhere, committing ever more elaborate crimes, devising ever more esoteric tortures for the rest of us. He’s become predictable.

Which is a shame, because the beauty of the first half of ‘Gone Girl’ was how difficult it was to predict. The tension Flynn manages to build in the first half of the novel is effective and affecting.  The different early perspectives offered by Nick and Amy Dunne make the reader question not only the reality of their marriage, but also the ability of any two people to ever really know each other. The first, better, half of ‘Gone Girl’ is a completely different book: one about intimacy, about whether it is even possible.  It offers a view of marriage that is not a shared life, but merely coincident delusions.  It is a dark vision, and it is much more compelling than the Dances with Psychos that the book becomes.

The Shining Girls

By Lauren Beukes

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This book wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

I’ll admit, I only read it because it’s been made into a TV show. When I see a new show (or movie) that has been adapted from a book, I feel peculiarly guilty about watching it if I have not first read the source material. I have a prejudice that, since the book was first, it is the “real one” and anyway it’s probably better. So, as soon as I heard about the TV show for ‘The Shining Girls’, I dashed out and bought the book.

Now, of course, genuinely shitty books do occasionally get made into better movies (ahem, ‘The Godfather’, ahem). And just because someone was willing to make a TV show of it does not necessarily mean the book was worth reading in the first place. But it does mean that someone took a look at the plot and thought it was interesting or cinematic enough to hold the attention of a TV audience. More, it means that someone thought it was interesting enough to put their money where their mouth is and make it.

And I was intrigued by the plot of this one. ‘The Shining Girls’ is a murder mystery about a time-traveling serial killer, and it sounded like it might just be crazy enough to work.

It’s a real thing, the Just So Crazy It Works Plot, but it’s rare. It needs beautiful execution: control, balance. It’s much more likely to work on screen, I think, but there are books that are completely captivating despite being impossibly outlandish: ‘And Then There Were None’ by Agatha Christie, for example (best murder mystery every written, in my opinion). Or, say, ‘The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel. Or anything by Thomas Pynchon or Carl Hiaasen (a guilty pleasure writer of mine). Just because a plot is ludicrous doesn’t mean that the book will be bad.

And the plot of ‘The Shining Girls’ is ludicrous. As plots go, this one will not benefit from a synopsis, but I will provide one anyway. One day in 1931, Harper Curtis discovers a House. Though it appears derelict from the outside, the inside of the House is richly decorated, and upstairs, written on the walls, are the names of girls. Girls that shine, though with what, we will never quite learn: potential, life, energy. The House, Harper discovers, will allow him to travel to any time of his choosing (between 1929 and 1993, anyway). In exchange, all Harper has to do is kill the Shining Girls: to find them, whenever they live, and disembowel them.

Kirby is one of the girls. When Harper comes for her, in 1989, her dog manages to chase him off before he can finish the job, leaving her with horrible scars and a determination to find Harper, and to stop him.

My expectations were pretty low, going in. I expected the writing to be bad, and the plot to be stupid. I was wrong about the writing – Beukes only distracted me with clunky writing a few times, and it was usually in an attempt to do period-appropriate dialog that fell flat. Mostly, the prose held up: not annoying, not alienating, not confusing.

But the plot, the plot is another thing altogether.

Here’s the thing about wacky plots, I think: to pull them off, you really need to commit to them. If they rely on a crazy mechanic (time-traveling, a house that compels you to murder young women), you can’t flinch from it. You need to show it to the reader, let them look on it in full and at leisure. If you try to gesture at it and then move on, it will perversely only draw their attention to the fact that it makes absolutely no sense.

Beukes, I think, makes this mistake. The House, the girls, the time-traveling: none are explained, none are even well-described. Harper feels compelled to kill specific girls; he knows psychically where they are. He opens doors and finds himself in different decades. Bodies appear and disappear and reappear again – people who have been killed come back. Everything, we are told, is a circle, but we are never told what the hell that means. The entirety of this eccentric plot rests on a mechanic – a time-traveling murder house – that we do not understand at all. And, ultimately, that isn’t good enough.

It’s strange to complain, of a murder mystery, that there isn’t enough about the time-traveling house, but that’s what I’m saying. I suspended all my disbelief to read about a serial killer whose House makes him travel through the 20th century to murder certain young women, and if I’m going to suspend my disbelief that far, I want all the unbelievable info in return. And I was not satisfied.

I wish there had been more detail. I wish there had been more information. Beukes takes the entire novel at a sprint and it feels rushed. The chapters are too short. The perspective skips between multiple characters, and, because the chapters are so brief, the switching feels chaotic. You can’t settle into anything. Nothing was clear – nothing is resolved.

We never learn what the House is, how it travels through time, or why it does. We don’t know where it came from, who built it. We don’t learn what is special about the girls, whether it is something real or a delusion of Harper’s. We never learn why the House requires their deaths; we never really even learn if it actually does, or whether Harper simply wants it to.

Lauren Beukes

And it’s not that every single question needed to be answered in full. I get that there is a place in literature for mystery. There is a way to do magic without explaining magic, and sometimes that is the better option. In fact, it often is. We were all better off, for example, when the Force was just the Force, and no one had ever heard of midichlorians.

And there might have been a way to do ‘The Shining Girls’ without jilting the reader and without explaining the House. I don’t think it was just the lack of explanation that ended up being problematic for me; I think it was the combination of the lack of mechanistic insight, and the too-brisk pace that did it. It felt as though Beukes knew that the premise (time-traveling murder house) wouldn’t bear up to sustained examination. It felt as though she wanted to write this story, this plot, but she also felt insecure about it, so she rushed to get it over with. It felt like she didn’t believe in it, and that’s the kiss of death for a wacky plot.

You can’t write the time-traveling murder house and then flinch from the time-traveling murder house. You have to lean in to it, to own it, glory in it. I think, to make it really work, you need to be proud of the time-traveling murder house. It would have been difficult, I’ll grant you: it would have taken HUGE authorial balls. But I think she could have carried it off, though. She’s capable enough as a writer, and certainly doesn’t lack for imagination. I wish she had tried.

Rebecca

By Daphne du Maurier

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I read ‘Rebecca’ once, years ago, in high school, and I remembered nothing about it save the general tone and premise. I had conceived an idea, however, that ‘Rebecca’ was a maligned novel. While very famous, it is not usually included among the Great Books – people tend to think of it as sort of romance novel-adjacent. I have always assumed that this was an injustice: that if ‘Rebecca’ had been written by a man (instead of by a woman with the absurdly romantic name ‘Daphne du Maurier’), it would be a great deal better celebrated.

‘Rebecca’ begins with our narrator, a young and painfully shy woman who will never be named (we will know her only as the second Mrs. de Winter), working as a lady’s companion in Monte Carlo. One day, she meets Maxim de Winter, a handsome man twice her own age. Her companion tells her that he is the owner of Manderley, a beautiful English estate, and that he is a widower. His late wife, Rebecca, drowned tragically only a year ago and Maxim, our narrator is told, has been deranged by grief ever since.

After a perplexing and whirlwind romance, our narrator marries Maxim and returns with him to Manderley. Once there, she finds herself reminded constantly of the late Rebecca, stifled by her vanished presence. Rebecca, who ran Manderley, who commanded the love and loyalty of the servants (especially Mrs. Danvers, the head of the household), who threw the best parties in the neighborhood, who was brave and witty and elegant and exceptionally beautiful. Slowly, the second Mrs. de Winter will become obsessed with her predecessor, with her marriage to Maxim, and with her strange death.

As someone who has always felt that there are many more great books than Great Books, I have always been a little bit indignant on behalf of ‘Rebecca’. We have tended, as a culture, to relegate novels by women about women to lesser status – they are Entertainment, not Art. Chick Lit, as a named genre, is both real and offensive. It may that there are books which, due to their subject matter, are more likely to appeal (on a population level) to women than to men, but that should not exclude them from Category: Literature.

In my opinion, greatness transcends subject matter. We do not consider books Great because their contents appeal equally to all people. Think about ‘Moby Dick’, with its endless passages about the processing of whale oil. Think about ‘Anna Karenina’, and that middle section where Levin just threshes wheat for a dog’s age. For god’s sake, think about Proust! ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is considered one of humanity’s great artistic works and it contains within itself whole novels worth of esoterica! Given this literary landscape, I fail entirely to see why romance should be considered a niche interest (women only!).

On the other hand, if I am being fair, I should mention that perhaps ‘Rebecca’ is Not-Great for reasons other than its feminine perspective. It is a true Gothic Romance, with all the requisite elements: a mysterious marriage, a rambling spooky house, creepy servants, dark aristocratic family secrets. Romances (Gothic or otherwise) are often sneered at, in part because they tend not to be terribly sophisticated, from a literary perspective.

And while there is more perhaps atmosphere and less bodice-ripping in ‘Rebecca’ than in other romances, it’s not sophisticated, nor is it subtle. Romances don’t aspire to plausibility, and they do not intend to instruct. They are meant to be absorbing rather than enriching, and, certainly, I do not feel enriched by ‘Rebecca’.

Lack of moral nourishment does not make a book bad, obviously, but I’m not convinced, having reread it, that ‘Rebecca’ is good so much as it is entertaining. But it is entertaining, and to a degree that required serious skill on du Maurier’s part. It’s difficult to build an entire novel around a character who never appears, especially if that character is cast in the role of villain.

Villains have to appear in stories, because they need either to vanquish or be vanquished, which they cannot do off-screen. You can spin them out, keep them in the wings for a long time, but eventually, we need to confront them. I don’t know that I can think of a single other story where the villain never makes an appearance.

Part of the reason, I think, that villains must come into the light is because, if they don’t actually appear, they can’t hurt us. And if they can’t hurt us, they can’t scare us. A menacing but unrealized presence hovering off-screen might be creepy, but it isn’t a villain. A villain must exert force, must act on other characters, and it must act, at least once, with the audience for a witness.

Daphne du Maurier

What ‘Rebecca’ does beautifully, though, is cheat that requirement on a technicality. Rebecca herself is a marvelous villain: perfect, beautiful, malicious, and dead. And her deadness is a strength, not a weakness. As our narrator herself says, “If there were some woman in London that Maxim loved, someone he wrote to, visited, dined with, slept with, I could fight with her. We would stand on common ground. I should not be afraid. Anger and jealousy were things that could be conquered. One day the woman would grow old or tired or different, and Maxim would not love her any more. But Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same. And she and I could not fight. She was too strong for me.” (p. 234)

There are two reasons why I think it works to have Rebecca be a villain from beyond the grave. The first is that, while Rebecca might be dead, Manderley is still inhabited by her avatar, Mrs. Danvers, her devoted and psychotic servant. If Rebecca is dead, Mrs. Danvers can still act on her behalf.

The second is that our narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, is so terrorized by the memory of her husband’s first wife that Rebecca feels very present to the reader. She may not be alive, but she dominates the novel as completely as she dominates the second Mrs. de Winter.

These two mechanisms allow du Maurier to achieve what might otherwise be impossible: to make a dead villain into an active and effective villain. And effective villains, really effective villains, are artistic achievements in their own right. No work of art is perfect – perhaps work can achieve greatness through one of its facets. We give Oscars for aspects of a film: acting, directing, sound-editing. So while ‘Rebecca’ might not be Great Art, it does have a Great Villain. Surely that earns it a slot in the Literature Hall of Fame.

Troubled Blood

By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

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I know that J.K. Rowling has become a subject of some controversy in recent years. Some of her stated opinions, particularly her positions on trans-women and womanhood in general, have alienated her from large parts of her public. I’d like to completely avoid the topic of her politics here, not because I agree with them, but because there are some aspects of her written work that I admire and would like to discuss. If you think that it’s impossible or improper to discuss an author’s strengths if you find her politics abhorrent, I suggest, without rancor, that you skip this post.

I’ve talked a lot here about the differences between fiction and Literature. I feel strongly that we should have different standards of greatness for different kinds of books, standards which take the goals of the books into account. I see no reason why we cannot consider, say, ‘World War Z’ a great book just because we also consider ‘East of Eden’ a great book – they are both great, just in different ways.

Robert Galbraith (who is J.K. Rowling) published the first of the Cormoran Strike series, ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, in 2013. ‘Troubled Blood’ is the fifth novel of the series. All five books follow the career of two private detectives: the one-legged ex-boxer, ex-military policeman Cormoran Strike, and his business partner Robin Ellacott. The two meet in the first novel, when Robin accepts a temp position in Strike’s obscure little detective agency. By the fifth novel, they are partners in a quite-famous detective agency, two opposites working together, solving murders and nurturing their growing intimacy.

If that sounds like a worn premise, you’re right: it is. But it doesn’t really matter. There’s a reason that the British detective novel has endured: the genre is built upon a very robust narrative structure. It lends itself to iteration, and resists boredom. Murder mysteries require only three ingredients to be successful: complicated and interesting murders, tolerably good characters, and writing that stays out of the way.

J.K. Rowling can obviously handle plot and character with both hands tied behind her back. So today, I’d like to talk about that third element: writing that stays out of the way.

When we describe writing as ‘good’, we usually mean positively good. We mean that it is lovely, the language beautiful, the descriptions apt. We mean that we notice it. We almost never talk about writing that is negatively good, that serves its purpose so well that we do not notice it. We do not have words for the idea, in literature, that some writing serves its best purpose by vanishing.

Genre novels are story-driven: plot is their purpose. They are not often thought of as literary, for the simple reason that they are usually badly written. That doesn’t make them bad – again, language is not their purpose – but it often makes them more difficult to read. When the writing is poor, it disrupts the reader’s focus. You stop and think, ‘Ugh, what a terrible description’, or, ‘He used that metaphor already’, or, ‘No one would ever say that in real life’. It compromises your immersion in the story.

And that immersion is crucial to the experience of genre novels. Because they’re all about plot, plot is what you focus on when you read them. A perfect genre experience is to read without noticing the language, to inhabit the story and not the writing. And while that might sound easy, writing invisibly isn’t simply a question of not writing badly – it is a skill, and there aren’t that many people who do it well.

J.K. Rowling does it brilliantly. J.K. Rowling is famous for her stories, but in my opinion, her actual writing is at least as skilled as her world-building. No one thinks about her that way, as great master of prose craft, but she really is. She just has a different goal than high “literary” authors.

Rowling somehow always manages to deliver crystal clear stories without obstruction from her language. Her prose slides through your brain as easily as your own thoughts. When reading her, you never stop and think, ‘What does that mean? What just happened there? Why did she use that word?’. Her language is basically a perfect delivery system for what matters to her: her stories.

Let me put it another way: she has flawless negative style. Her writing is characterized by a total absence of noticeable tics, habits, or flourishes. There is nothing to distract from the meaning, which is nevertheless always expressed well and coherently.

Here are two passages picked (truly) at random from ‘Troubled Blood’:

“With three days to go before Christmas, Strike was forced to abandon the pretense that he didn’t have flu. Concluding that the only sensible course was to hole up in his attic flat while the virus passed through his system, he took himself to a packed Sainsbury’s where, feverish, sweating, breathing through his mouth and desperate to get away from the crowds and the canned carols, he grabbed enough food for a few days, and bore it back to his two rooms above the office.” (p. 316)

J.K. Rowling

Another:

“So furious did Roy Phipps look, that Robin quite expected him to start shouting at the newcomers, too. However, the hematologist’s demeanor changed when his eyes met Strike’s. Whether this was a tribute to the detective’s bulk, or to the aura of gravity and calm he managed to project in highly charged situations, Robin couldn’t tell, but she thought she saw Roy decide against yelling. After a brief hesitation, the doctor accepted Strike’s proffered hand, and as the two men shook, Robin wondered how aware men were of the power dynamics that played out between them, while women stood watching.” (p. 413)

I know that this writing isn’t beautiful in the normal sense of that word, but I am deeply impressed by it. Rowling makes reading easy; she removes all drag on the brain from language. When you read her, it’s like there is no barrier between the text and your understanding of it. It’s smooth.

And the thing I admire the most about it is that Rowling has not sacrificed any precision or complexity in order to achieve that smoothness. The sentences are structurally sophisticated; they are branching, phrasal. They contain description, they are vivid. And they are very clear: their meaning is unmistakable.

This writing isn’t flashy, it isn’t emotionally powerful, it isn’t poetic. There is an almost total absence of rhetorical flourish: no poetry – just information. Nevertheless, it is really, really good. It takes a lot of control to produce writing this tight: a lot of discipline, a lot of facility.

I know that Rowling will be remembered for ‘Harry Potter’, for the world and the wizards and the stories, and fair enough: she writes great stories. But I think she’s also a great writer, in the technical sense of the world: she is great at writing, exceptionally so. And I hope that someone also remembers her for that.

Devil House

By John Darnielle

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about ‘The Final Girl Support Group’. I expressed disappointment, because it had not turned out to be the novel that I wanted to read. Not to be too blunt about it, but I felt it had wasted an opportunity to explicate a cultural phenomenon that needed explicating (final girls in horror movies). Ultimately, however, I was unable to articulate what I needed from ‘The Final Girl Support Group’ that the book failed to provide – I didn’t have the language to describe what I wanted.

‘Devil House’ is what I wanted. ‘Devil House’ does for murder what I wanted ‘The Final Girl Support Group’ to do for horror. It is that very rare thing: a novel which is also an effective moral document, moving, smart, and not annoying.

I picked up ‘Devil’s House’ because it got really, really good reviews. More than that, it got those reviews from reviewers who seemed honestly surprised that the lead singer of the Mountain Goats actually turned out to be able to write good books (I am also surprised, because people aren’t usually good at multiple things). I get really excited when reviewers are surprised – it means they aren’t just rubber-stamping things based on cultural consensus. It means they actually liked the book they’re reviewing.

‘Devil House’ is, loosely speaking, a story about a True Crime writer named Gage Chandler who becomes professionally obsessed with a pair of grisly murders in Milpitas, California. The murders, believed to be the work of local teenagers, happened in an abandoned porn shop. The bodies, badly mutilated, were discovered amidst occult decoration, and local lore has sprung up that the culprits were a practicing Satanic cult. Chandler, who’s speciality is the extensive imagining of the spaces in which murders occur, moves into the porn shop, hoping to figure out what really happened there.

‘Devil House’ is about True Crime, as a genre, but what that really means is that it’s about our cultural relationship to murder. True Crime is, at the very least, a morally complicated phenomenon: ostensibly journalism, it also serves up actual murder as entertainment. The only reason, of course, that it can do that is because murder is already entertainment: grisly killing, under the guise of news, transfixes and obsesses us. As far as I can tell, it always has.

It’s this observation – that True Crime exists because we are fascinated, spellbound, by violent killing – that animates ‘Devil House’. By choosing a True Crime writer as his main protagonist, Darnielle risked reducing his book to a simple morality tale: crime writer gets obsessed, feels regret, bites the hand that feeds him.

This is not that novel – ‘Devil House’ is complex, and there is no such catharsis. Darnielle has chosen to write about one of the murkiest corners of our culture, and he isn’t going to resolve it for us. Instead, he asks us to think about why we spend so much time reading about the terrible things that happen to other people. Why is sexualized or occult violence more interesting? Why is a suburban domestic murder more likely to titillate us than a robbery/homicide in a dangerous neighborhood? Why are we excited by torture? Why are we excited by the deaths of people who look and act like us?

The first problem with True Crime is that is makes murder, the death of real people, into a spectator sport (or, as the book expresses in cutting epigrammatic fashion, “There aren’t any villains in a true crime book. There’s the hero, and there’s his victims.” (p. 61)).

The second problem with True Crime is that it feeds our prejudices, that we use it to confirm our interpretation of the world. We see villains where we wanted to see villains (teenagers, Satanists, the sexually abnormal), and so we miss the fact that villains are humans, too.

John Darnielle, taken from The Boston Globe

Darnielle, if ‘Devil House’ is any indication, is a great novelist. It’s really difficult to write a pedantic novel without being pedantic, to indict your reader without coming across like an asshole. I think Darnielle does it really, really well here. As a novel, ‘Devil House’ is wonderfully un-didactic: its thesis is never quite pronounced, and yet is beautifully humane: that murder is pain passed from one person to another. That the people who commit murders are, usually, individuals in some form of psychic agony (be it rage, psychosis, or desperation), and the act of murder is the explosion of that interior pain out into the world. That when we tune in gleefully to True Crime stories, we are turning pain into entertainment: the pain of the victims, and the pain of the murderers.

‘Devil House’ is the book I have been craving ever since I read ‘The Final Girl Support Group’. It is exactly what I wanted: a smart, unresolved explication of something so culturally ubiquitous that we have stopped noticing that it is completely fucked up. I don’t think Darnielle uses the word ’empathy’ once in ‘Devil House’, but empathy is the center around which the entire novel revolves: why we have it, why we lose it, and what it means when we find it again.

I don’t think Darnielle wants anyone to stop reading True Crime, by the way. He isn’t prosthelytizing. He’s running a thought experiment: what if the people we read about in True Crime books were real people? What if the person writing the True Crime book really connected with that fact, understand that his subjects (victims and murderers alike) were human beings? What would that do to him? What would it do to us, to remember that the people whose stories we read about in headlines, whose deaths we watch in docuseries, whose mysteries we try to solve in podcasts, that those are real people whose pain is equal to our own? Who were loved and cherished the same way we are loved and cherished, the same way we cherish our loved ones?

Would we be entertained then?

Djinn Patrol On the Purple Line

By Deepa Anaparra

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

So, one of the things that happens when you read a lot (like, a lot) is that you start to get a feel for stories.

Storytelling is like any well-developed art form: it has a sort of syntax all its own, with signifiers and allusions and conventions which become more and more familiar the more time you spend immersed in the medium.

Let me give you an example: you’re watching a horror movie. There are some teenagers, some are boys, some are girls. One of the girls is hot, blonde, and a little, er, wild. The group of teenagers all enter the haunted house/abandoned asylum/house of mirrors, and shortly thereafter the blonde girl sneaks off with a boy to screw around.

In that moment, you 100% know she’s going to die, horribly, very soon. Everyone knows she’s going to die, horribly, very soon, because that blonde girl isn’t actually a character – she’s a trope. She’s a signifier, a syntactical element, placed there in reference to a tradition (repulsive, reductive, misogynistic though it may be), placed there to orient you within the framework not of this specific story, but within all stories.

That’s a particularly unsubtle example, I know, but stories are filled with elements like this, and when you live, as I do, in stories, they become a second language. Familiarity with this language allows you to grasp, quickly, the dense web of references that most stories reside within, and, often, it can tell you, like Chekov’s Gun, what is going to happen long before it actually does.

If you get good at this language, you can often predict with eerie precision what’s going to happen in a book or movie. And, as in the case of our Slutty Blonde above, the more stereotyped a story is, the easier it is to spot the future coming.

I’m good at this language, and I’m rarely wrong about how a story ends, which is both fun and slightly boring.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line‘ positively bristles with signifiers. It’s incredibly obvious what kind of story it’s going be: everything about this book, the title, the cover art, the premise, promise you a funny, poignant, humane romp.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line‘ is the story of Jai. Jai is nine years old, and lives with his mother, father, and older sister in a sprawling Indian slum. Jai is undistinguished by any particular talent, he daydreams through school, lacks his sister’s athletic talent or his parents’ work ethic. But Jai nourishes a secret dream of being a television detective, and when children of the slum start disappearing, he decides he’s exactly the right person to solve the case, albeit with the help of his two best friends Pari and Faiz (and an adopted slum dog named Samosa).

A funny, poignant, humane romp, right?

The novel is written primarily in Jai’s voice. Or, to put it another way, it’s written in the voice of a nine year old boy. This device is usually extremely irritating, but Anaparra really pulls it off, and Jai is mostly a wonderful narrator: detailed, whimsical, bewildered, and funny. Really funny, actually – Anaparra captures very well the slightly misaligned certainty with which children interpret their world, the way that they come to very particular conclusions which are often a little askew, but reasonable based on the info they have. The workings of the world as seen through Jai’s eyes are arbitrary, magical, hilarious. Hilarious, at least, until, suddenly, they aren’t.

You know that old saw, that good literature shows, and doesn’t tell? Well, the dirty little secret is that almost everyone tells, at least a little. It makes sense – it must be nearly irresistible for authors to tell. Imagine it: you write this whole book, construct characters and metaphors and conflict and catharsis and you, presumably, do it for a reason – how can you resist pushing your audience in the right interpretive direction? Even just hinting at them what lesson they are meant to draw from your work?

Deepa Anaparra

Anaparra doesn’t tell, at all – she just describes. And she doesn’t provide catharsis, either, and it is perhaps this, more than anything, which takes her story and changes it into something else, a story I absolutely didn’t see coming. The deliberate lack of catharsis is, I think, exactly why she worked so hard to make ‘Djinn Patrol‘ look like a completely different kind of book than it is – it’s why she worked so hard to disguise it as a light-hearted mystery romp. Because mystery romps always, always get endings.

Think about it this way: imagine this premise (misfit detectives) in another setting. Imagine it, say, in a quaint English village in the 1930s – you’ve got Jeeves and Wooster. Or in a working-class Indiana neighborhood in the 1980’s – you’ve got ‘Stranger Things’. Or ‘Harriet the Spy’ or ‘The Adventures of Alex Mack’ or Hercule Poirot or Veronica Mars or any of the dozens and dozens of stories of unlikely people running circles around the actual police. This is one of the most beloved genres of stories that humans tell, and we know exactly how it’s supposed to end.

But ‘Djinn Patrol’ doesn’t end the way we expect it to – it doesn’t end at all. And that’s because what all the wacky detective stories you’ve ever read have had in common was this: the lives that they described were valued. But the lives of Jai and his friends (and his parents and his friends’ parents) aren’t valued, not by society at large. And so it’s not that their stories don’t end: all stories end. It’s that no one cares enough about them to figure out what the end is, and to tell it.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line‘ is NOT a funny, poignant, humane romp, NOT a zany, misfit detective novel. It’s actually a crushing demonstration of the disposability of human life, of how little human society values the lives of the poor, even if the lives in question belong to children.

I have come away loving this book, and not just because it surprised me. What I loved more is the way it manages to deliver a brutal message completely without pedantry. There is power in the juxtaposition that Anaparra sets up here: tropes badly misapplied, the total refusal to release her readers into the familiarity of an ending they expect. It’s breathtaking, it really is, and I know that sounds unlikely – I had this one pegged a beach read, too. But it’s not, and it’s so clever how she pulls it off. By denying you, her reader, the comfort of a resolution, she is showing you what the lives of her characters really lack: sufficient value, in the eyes of their fellow human beings, to get an ending.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

By Olga Tokarczuk

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“The fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future is a terrible mistake in the programming of the world. It should be fixed at the first opportunity.” (p. 271)

There is a tricky kind of novel, rare and hard to pull off: the Novel of Dubious Guilt, First Person. ‘The Turn of the Screw‘ is this kind of novel; ‘Gone Girl‘ is this kind of novel; ‘His Bloody Project‘ is this kind of novel.

In novels of this kind, a protagonist, speaking directly to the reader, relates a series of events in which they are implicated without revealing the extent of their involvement. Usually, but not always, it is a murder. The trick of it is: the reader must not be able to discern whether or not their narrator is guilty or innocent. They must not be able to trust the narrative, even as they invest in it by reading further. They must keep always before them the possibility either that the narrator is lying, or that the narrator is mad.

It’s hard to pull this off. If you make a narrator too cagey, if they act suspicious to their reader, their guilt will become apparent. But too much information, or obvious psychosis, also destroys the ambiguity, and once a reader has “figured out” what really happened, the effect is ruined.

Shame on me, I had never heard of Olga Tokarczuk. This really isn’t forgivable – one of her previous novels, ‘Flights‘, won the Man Booker International Prize, and she herself won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018. But I had never heard of her: I picked up ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ solely because I found the title irresistible, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it is going to end up being the best book I read this year.

Janina Duszejko lives in rural Poland, near the Czech border. She is a teacher, an aging astrology enthusiast, an intense lover of animals. She has only a few friends, but she is known in her community: she cares for the summer dachas of the city people during the hard winters, and she has frequent confrontations with the local hunters. In her free time, she and her friend Dizzy translate Blake into Polish; she pores over the star charts of everyone she meets, a side project she has to prove her theory that the moment of a person’s birth contains, complete and unchangeable, the moment of their death. She had two dogs, her little girls, but they went missing the year before and she has never been able to find them.

One night in the middle of the winter, her neighbor Oddball comes to her house in the middle of the night to tell her that their mutual neighbor Bigfoot has died. He has choked on a bone from a deer that he poached, a habit for which Janina loathes him. As Oddball and Janina make the body decent for the police, Janina looks for Bigfoot’s papers – she wants to know his birthday, to draw his chart and add his death to her charts. She finds a photograph which shocks her; she does not tell us what is in it, but it sparks a series of events which leads to the deaths of four more men.

Over the next year, prominent men in the community begin to die in suspicious circumstances. The commandant of police falls down a well. A priest burns down in his own church. A fur farmer is found in an animal trap. The only thing that the men have in common: they were all hunters. Deer tracks are found near one body – fox tracks near another. Rumors begin to swirl around the community: the animals are taking their revenge.

Janina is a spectacular narrator: smart and observant and sad and sly and barking mad all at the same time. Tokarczuk, even in translation, is a beautiful writer, and this is prose like I’ve never quite encountered before. It’s a blend of real weirdness, humor, loneliness and wile. It’s pathos and bathos and rage.

“Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances; soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve them in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish.” (p. 124)

Janina’s focus, her obsession, is animals. She has made what appears to be a small imaginative leap, but one which makes a permanent, wrathful outsider of her: she believes that animals are the moral equals of people. That they have souls, intelligences, if not identical to ours, like enough to warrant protections equal to the ones we offer each other. She views humans who kill, cage, or eat animals with the same revulsion you would feel for an unrepentant murderer. To a cannibal.

Olga Tokarczuk

“So I spoke, using wise words…

“”You’ll say it’s just one Boar,” I continued. “But what about the deluge of butchered meat that falls on our cities day by day like never-ending, apocalyptic rain? This rain heralds slaughter, disease, collective madness, the obfuscation and contamination of the Mind. For no human heart is capable of bearing so much pain. The whole, complex human psyche has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing. To stop the truth from reaching him by wrapping it in illusion, in idle chatter. The world is a prison of suffering, so constructed that in order to survive one must inflict pain on others…What sort of world is this? Someone’s body is made into shoes, into meatballs, sausages, a bedside rug, someone’s bones are boiled to make broth…Shoes, sofas, a shoulder bag made of someone’s belly, keeping warm with someone else’s fur, eating someone’s body, cutting it into bits and frying it in oil…Can it really be true? Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies. What sort of world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” (p. 107)

Because Janina is so single-minded, ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ isn’t a true mystery. By the “reveal”, you have a pretty good sense of what’s going on, but, at that point, you’ve come far enough with Janina that you are thoroughly on her side.

The trick of those mystery narrators, those Did-I-Or-Didn’t-I novels, is how do you sympathize with narrator who might be a murderer? ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ is a neat twist on this: how do you sympathize with a narrator when you are both murderers, she in your eyes, you in hers? Can the charm of her prose, the righteousness of her cause, the clarity of her vision, bring you along with her, make you a kind of accomplice?

The answer is yes, emphatically yes. Janina is as winning a narrator as I have encountered in years; ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead‘ is a great love. A book this good, the first thing I do is buy something else by the author. ‘Flights‘ won Tokarczuk a Man Booker – I’ll start with that. Books this good are rare – when you find them, follow them.

The Witch Elm

By Tana French

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Things have been going well at work lately.

I had a particularly good week – good stuff with the team, good experimental results. It was a great week, actually, which is why I was surprised when I found myself having what felt like a minor panic attack yesterday.

It was puzzling – I am not prone to them, and I have nothing to be anxious about (or, at least, nothing to be acutely anxious about this week – the world is burning, but it has been for a while, I’ve acclimated). But even though everything was going well, I walked around all week with an uncomfortable tightness between my lungs, as though a balloon had been inflated inside my chest cavity and was pressing against my heart.

Catharsis was achieved on a red line train home from work. I was reading ‘The Witch Elm‘, and Toby, the main character, was starting to really unravel, his perspective, his sanity, was becoming less and less trustworthy. Meanwhile the danger around him was increasing, and I really needed to him to stay calm, keep a cool head, because he being framed for murder for fuck’s sake, and he just needed to open his eyes and figure it out and fucking handle it, and I noticed that I was freaking out on the train. Not about work, or something my mom said, or whether I had forgotten my anniversary again – I wasn’t freaking about my own life at all. I was freaking out about Toby. ‘The Witch Elm’ was so unsettling that it had anxiety-bombed my entire week.

The Witch Elm‘ is Tana French’s latest novel. It is also her first novel which is not a Dublin Murder Squad novel, and so even those of us who love her (which is all of us, right?) viewed it with some slight trepidation. I’ve been very clear about how much I love Tana French. But until ‘The Witch Elm’, it would, technically, have been impossible to say whether it was Tana French I loved, or just the Dublin Murder Squad.

Don’t worry – ‘The Witch Elm‘ is a murder mystery. But it’s an unusual mystery, because it takes as its protagonist not a detective (or a coroner, or a reporter), not a victim, not even a murderer. It takes as its protagonist…a bystander?

There is a reason that most murder mysteries feature detectives – they are the participants in criminal dramas who most closely approximate an omniscient narrator. They are the ones who will eventually know everything, and that’s what we expect in exchange for reading a murder mystery: to eventually know everything, too.

That’s why, despite the fact that every murder mystery detective has crippling demons, they are also brilliant and intuitive and unerring. Despite being tortured, often in the grips of strong PTSD flashbacks, and always, always alcoholic, they approach omniscience. We need to trust them, in order to get what we came for: a solution.

Everyone else involved in a murder mystery is a flawed narrator. The job of a detective is, after all, to assemble complete knowledge. Everyone else has incomplete knowledge, a skewed perspective, their own motives. None of them are trustworthy, and one of them will turn out to be the murderer.

In ‘The Witch Elm‘, French leans into this untrustworthness, hard. Toby Hennessy is, well, a complete tool. He’s a handsome, happy-go-lucky Irishman, a thoughtless optimist who has always gotten his way. He has a good job in PR, good friends, a close family, and a great girlfriend to whom he is thinking about proposing when he surprises some burglars one night robbing his apartment. They beat him nearly to death and leave him with lasting brain damage.

A few weeks after being released from the hospital, Toby learns that his beloved uncle Hugo has been diagnosed with brain cancer, and that his case is terminal. Crippled, fractured, traumatized and spiraling into addiction and depression, Toby moves back to Ivy House.

Ivy House is the Hennessy family home. Purchased by his grandparents, it has been Hugo’s residence since their death. It is a beautiful, secluded old mansion with a long, walled garden. When they were children, Toby and his two cousins, Leon and Susannah, spent their weekends and summers there; it was in this private, lovely estate that they became like siblings.

Toby and his girlfriend move back to Ivy House to care for Hugo in his last days, and to let Toby heal. And so they are there when, one afternoon, Toby’s young nephew finds a skull in the Ivy House garden.

The Witch Elm‘ asks: Are you capable of murder? What if you had recently sustained a serious neurological injury? If your memory was damaged, if you could no longer focus, if you were having sudden, dramatic mood swings? Would you be capable then? And if you might be capable, and there were holes in your memory, would you ever be sure that you hadn’t killed someone?

Really, ‘The Witch Elm‘ is a novel about sanity and home. Specifically, about family homes, about how much the places where we happy as child matter to us, about we much we need them even as they haunt and hold us back. It’s about what we lose when we lose our past, and whether we can ever change unless we leave it.

This is a theme with Tana French: houses, houses that we love, homes (this is basically whatThe Likeness‘ was about). She has a good, visceral understanding of the way in which a beautiful place can became a physical embodiment of love itself, that losing a sense of the sacredness of a beautiful place is heartbreaking, like losing a person.

The Witch Elm‘ is really good. It’s good in all the ways that Tana French is normally good: it’s moody, atmospheric, richly detailed and absorbing. She’s a lovely writer; her prose is miles better than almost any other murder mystery prose (Benjamin Black is the only exception I can think of).

But it’s unsettling in a different way. Toby knows that he is in terrible danger, but he cannot discern whether the danger is from within, or from without. Unable to tell whether his family is trying to frame him, or whether he is, in fact, a murderer, he is excruciatingly vulnerable. This vulnerability will communicate itself to sensitive readers in the form of low-level anxiety and panic attacks on the red line.

For me, this is what sets Tana French apart from other mystery writers. Other authors are strong on plot mechanics, or on atmospherics, or on quiet menace; very few are strong on all of them. Tana French’s novels are so richly detailed that it becomes disturbingly easy to lose yourself in them.

It also makes her difficult to write about. I can’t communicate the anxious dread ‘The Witch Elm‘ made me feel. I felt like I was smothering when I was reading it, like I was in danger. This isn’t merely suspense – this is deep, subconscious identification, and it’s difficult to achieve when you read as much as I do. Tana French is special, and, at this point, I’ll read anything she writes – if she puts out a cookbook, I’ll read that cover to cover.

And, at this rate, it’ll probably scare the shit out of me.