Shroud for a Nightingale

By P.D. James

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When I look at my most-used tags on this blog, one in particular stands out: ‘England’. I’ve tagged a dozen posts ‘England’ – the only other tags that common are all genre tags: ‘Science Fiction’, ‘Mystery’, stuff like that. ‘England’ is the most common tag which is not a major literary genre.

Which makes sense, when you think about it: ‘England’ is almost a literary genre in its own right. For several hundred years, English writers have been producing literature whose Englishness was central to the point and purpose of the work. Literature where the tone, culture, and context all are so deeply English that it is almost impossible to imagine the work in another context.

There are many novels whose essential Englishness is vital to the work: anything by Trollope, Waugh, Dickens, or Austen, for example. It’s not all dead authors, either: even some modern English novels are grounded, inescapably, in this sense of place: try bleaching the Englishness out of, say, Harry Potter, and see where it leaves you.

This tends to inculcate in lovers of English literature a sort of nostalgia for a literary England that (probably?) doesn’t exist. A highly local sort of England: quaint but complex, peaceful but also roiling with social and class tensions. A nation of country-sides and towns (none of which are more than an hour’s drive to London) full of vicars and hedgerows, where 50% of the populous are landed gentry and where there are a lot of murders.

As you may know, I have been reading a lot of P.D. James lately. Her spare prose and beautifully-plotted murders make for perfect fall reading, and I’ve been working my way through her Adam Dalgliesh series. I haven’t written about every single one, because they are formulaic (but in the best way), but her fourth, ‘Shroud for a Nightingale’, got me thinking about the Englishness of novels.

That’s probably because ‘Shroud for a Nightingale’ is saturated with English-feeling. To an American, James’ novels play right into our ignorant, Miss Marple-y ideas of what England was. ‘Shroud For A Nightingale’, for example, is set in a nursing school. All the students are (of course) women. They wear uniforms and have elaborate hot-beverage routines before their bedtimes (all the easier to murder them!), they fall in love with doctors and they have private and stoically-unacknowledged griefs.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, let me share a few representative passages with you:

“The quickest way to the private wing was through the out-patients’ hall. The department was already buzzing with activity. The circles of comfortable chairs, carefully disposed to give an illusion of informality and relaxed comfort, were filling quickly. Volunteers from the ladies’ committee of the League of Friends were already presiding at the steaming urn, serving tea to those regular patients who preferred to attend an hour before their appointments for the pleasure of sitting in the warmth, reading the magazines and chatting to their fellow habitués.” (p. 90)

Or:

P.D. James

“Fifteen minutes later, Masterson’s car passed the flat where Miss Beale and Miss Burrows, cosily dressing-gowned, were sipping their late night cocoa before the dying fire. They heard it as one brief crescendo in the intermittent flow of traffic, and broke off their chatter to speculate with desultory interest on what brought people out in the small hours of the morning. It was certainly unusual for them to be still up at this hour, but tomorrow was Saturday and they could indulge their fondness for late-night conversation in the comforting knowledge that they could lie in next morning.” (p. 304)

The atmosphere of this novel (of almost all of these novels) is imbued with a sense of profound orderliness. A sense that society has been arranged in a stable fashion, with predictable rules and predictable consequences for breaking those rules. I have a sort of pet theory that it is exactly this impression of English orderliness that has allowed the murder mystery sub-genre to thrive so well within it. Attention can be lavished on each individual murder because, otherwise, things hum along so smoothly. And the murders themselves are always coherent, always intimate and motivated. Murder within order is interesting; murder amid chaos is scary.

I suppose that this fondness might read as patronizing to actual English people – I can understand that, although I do not see that it is all that different than the fondness of Europeans for stories of the Wild West. And I would point out that all of the authors that I have named here are British. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that the smallness, the old-fashioned twee-ness of the setting, isn’t part of what audiences are responding to. To romantic notions of aristocracy, to a longing for a more orderly society. And, of course, for the intimate dramas and creative local murders that might plague such an imagined society. It’s not accurate, of course, but it is lovely.

Why am I even talking about this? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. Certainly, I don’t have a great reason. But, as I chew my way happily through the James canon, I am struck over and over again how grounded these novels are in a sense of place. And, also, how familiar that place (which is fictional) feels to me, an American born in the 1980s.

English literature, writ large, has conveyed so coherent a vision of itself that I recognize it from book to book, author to author. I feel at home in it, despite its imaginary quality and my own lack of Englishness. That really is a triumph for a national literature: to make your shared vision of a country (and time) so consistent, so vivid, that it becomes an imaginative home for people all over the world. To build a world so persuasive that it comes to define whole genres. To build a world so enduring that it is recognizable from Dickens to J.K. Rowling.

The tags of this blog accurately reflect my own reader’s mind: I love English literature. Whole eras of my reading life have been defined by English literature; English authors would dominate any list of my favorite writers. This is not a supremacist point of view, but a sentimental one: I am not and would not argue that English literature is better than other national literatures. But it is very dear to me.

Case Histories

By Kate Atkinson

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You know the old saying, ‘Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good’?

Books, like people, are never perfect. They are rarely even excellent. The lucky ones, the once-in-a-generation books, are perfect along only one axis, but those are usually deficient along most others.

None of the Great Books are perfect; often, though, they are powerful in many dimensions. They are well-plotted, well-written, the characters are strong, the imagining vivid. What makes books really excellent is never that they are perfect, but often that they are consistently strong.

But what about books that are only excellent in one or two ways? Books that are lopsided?

I have great fondness for lopsided books. Not mediocre books – I resent those – but imperfect ones. Good books, strong books, but ones with clear and conspicuous failings.

Kate Atkinson has only recently bubbled up into my consciousness. I don’t remember how I first heard of her, but it was one of those things: as soon as I had first registered her name, I started hearing it everywhere.

Atkinson, a novelist, writes both stand-alone novels and a series of murder mysteries centered around the fictional detective Jackson Brodie. I purchased one of each, but I’ve been going through a bit of a murder mystery kick lately, so I started with the detective novel. ‘Case Histories’ is the first novel of the series, and is non-traditional in structure: rather than following one mystery, it blends three together:

On a summer night in 1970, 3-year-old Olivia Land vanishes from a tent in the backyard where she has been camping with her sister, Amelia. Her body will never be found. One summer day in 1994, 18-year-old Laura Wyre is working at her father’s law office when a man in a bright yellow sweater walks in and cuts her throat. He is never caught. One evening in 1979, Michelle Fletcher, a young mother whose world is unraveling into post-partum chaos, splits her husband’s head with an ax after he wakes their baby.

All three of these cases will converge, decades later, on Jackson Brodie. Brodie, who has retired from the police force and is working as a private detective, is something of a mess. His wife has left him for another man, and he is too chaotic to be a great parent to his beloved daughter, Marlee. His most reliable client is Binky Rain, an octogenarian with no family who is convinced that someone is stealing her cats.

Atkinson is a better writer than she is a plotter. ‘Case Histories’ eschews the tropes of normal murder novels. Important events happen off-screen; the murderer will not necessarily turn out to be a known character; bad guys are not always brought to justice, and narrators are not reliable. All of which might have been ok, except that the story-telling is uneven. Atkinson leans too much on sudden resolutions and improbable coincidences. Protagonists from different stories wander in and out of each other’s plot lines, people inherit improbably large sums of money suddenly, and, weirdly, everyone seems to live on the same block in Cambridge (England).

Too much important stuff happens off-screen. As a technique, the sudden jump forward to a later point in the action can be effective, but a little goes a long way. If you use it a lot, if a lot of your chapters end on cliff-hangers, only to be picked up on the next page two months later, it’s jarring for the reader. It starts to feel like watching a TV show while skipping episodes.

However, Atkinson is a great writer. Her prose is a blast to read: funny, readable, colorful. She writes well – the prose is sophisticated and excellent – but her tone is conversational, idiomatic. Her imagination is vivid: Atkinson prefers to spend her words inside her characters’ psyches, which she depicts with winning detail.

There are real and salient problems with the book, unmistakable and frustrating. However, in a weird way, they only made me like ‘Case Histories’ more. Atkinson’s prose is so engaging and lively that the plot feels a little beside the point. Most murder mysteries, the plot is the whole point; in ‘Case Histories’, the plot is merely an excuse for the characters to interact with each other via Atkinson’s sparkling writing.

I genuinely believe that, if ‘Case Histories’ had the robust and well-paced plot it deserved, I would love it less. There is something idiosyncratic about the slap-dash plot against the vividly-imagined interior lives of the characters, something charming. The point of this book is the prose: its light-heartedness, its humor, its specificity:

Kate Atkinson

“Julia started sneezing again. It was always embarrassing when Julia had a sneezing fit, one after the other, explosive, uncontrollable sounds, like a cannon firing. Amelia had once heard someone say that you could tell what a woman’s orgasm would be like if you heard her sneeze. (As if you would want to know). Just recollecting this thought made her uncomfortable. In case this was common knowledge, Amelia had made a point ever since then of never sneezing in public if she could help it. “For God’s sake, take more Zyrtec,” she said crossly to Julia.” (p. 127)

“He felt absurdly vulnerable, lying there in the chair, prostrate and helpless, subject to the whims of Sharon and her silent dental nurse…Jackson tried not to think about this, nor about that scene in Marathon Man, and instead worked on conjuring up a picture of France. He could grow vegetables, he’d never grown a vegetable in his life, Josie had been the gardener…In France, the vegetables would probably grow themselves anyway. All that warm fertile soil. Tomatoes, peaches. Vines, could he grow vines? Olives, lemons, figs – it sounded biblical. Imagine watching the tendrils creeping, the fruit plumping, oh God, he was getting an erection (at the idea of vegetables, what was wrong with him?). Panic made him swallow and gag on his own saliva. Sharon returned the chair to an upright position and said, “All right?” her head cocked to one side in an affectation of concern while he choked noisily. The silent dental nurse handed him a plastic cup of water.” (p. 146)

The truth is, despite its deficiencies as a murder mystery, I loved this book. I am absolutely going to read more of this series – the prose is irresistible. Atkinson isn’t a perfect novelist, and ‘Case Histories’ isn’t a Great Book, but it was so much fun to read. It is lopsided in the best way, lopsided in a way that makes you love it more. It’s special.

Cover Her Face

By P.D. James

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We do not usually expect perfection in art. There’s good reason for this: in art, as in life, perfection is rare, perhaps impossible. It’s not a reasonable standard by which to judge something, be it a person or a work of art.

But, if there are not perfect works of art, might there be perfect genres? Might there not be artistic species which, honed over decades in the hands of the capable, achieve a perfection of form? Or, if perfection offends you as a concept, might we not think about certain kinds of art as apotheosized? Of having reached a sort of ideal consensus, a set of norms and prescriptions which, when followed, produce something familiar and yet also sublime?

As an example, consider the limerick. In a limerick, a specific, metered rhyme scheme is used to express material which is, canonically, humorous and crude. Both parts – the meter and the content – are requirements of the form. Both are crucial: limericks are so funny because the constraints imposed by the rhyme and meter force you, the listener, to anticipate the humor (or the filth). The limerick is sort of a perfect kind of art: known, efficient, un-improvable.

I’d like to argue that the British murder mystery is another perfect form of art, a genre whose conventions and standards have been honed to a state which cannot be meaningfully improved. The British murder mystery is a fully actualized art form.

This line of thinking has been prompted by the fact that I just read ‘Cover Her Face’ by P.D. James. Now, despite being a fan of the murder mystery, I have never actually read P.D. James before – I wasn’t avoiding it, I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I wanted to start at the beginning. Like many of her ilk, James has a favored creation, a detective who stars in most of her books. In James’ case, it is Adam Dalgliesh, a talk, dark, and handsome poet-detective. I’m a little anal about book order, so I wanted to start with the first Adam Dalgliesh mystery, which is ‘Cover Her Face’, published in 1962.

‘Cover Her Face’ is a lovely little murder mystery. The Maxie family, of Martingale Manor in Essex, are planning their annual church fête (an aside: nothing good ever comes of a church fête in a murder mystery, and it is a testament to the success of the genre that the phrase “church fête” sends a chill down the spine of every American reader, despite the fact that none of us have ever encountered one in real life). The Maxie household has been under some recent strain: their patriarch is terminally ill, and is being cared for at Martingale by his wife, Eleanor Maxie. To help with his care, the family has recently brought on new help: the beautiful Sally Jupp, an unwed mother from the local womens’ refuge. When, on the night of the fête, Sally Jupp announces that she has been proposed to by Stephen Maxie, the estate’s heir, everyone is horrified. When she is found strangled the next morning, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard begins to wonder whether the murderer might have been a member of the household.

What should be clear from my description is that ‘Cover Her Face’ is an entirely doctrinaire murder mystery. No Agatha Christie novel could have been truer to the form; in fact, but for a more permissive attitude toward sexual intercourse, ‘Cover Her Face’ might easily have been written by Christie herself.

And I hope it is obvious from my preamble that I do not mean ‘doctrinaire’ as an insult. On the contrary, the reason that I am arguing for the perfection of the murder mystery as a form is because of how satisfying a totally doctrinaire murder novel can be.

It’s a little counter-intuitive, that something so formulaic could be so enjoyable to read, but it is not uncommon when you think about it. Many forms are like this: romantic comedies, horror movies, police procedurals. The predictability of these forms is part of what makes them enjoyable. As a consumer, you inhabit a familiar world, where the signals are transparent to you. That comfort frees your attention to focus on the details. It makes the experience of these genres psychically cozy: familiar and yet new at the same time.

P.D. James

Murder mysteries have a very well-developed set of norms and signals. We know that the murderer is never (never!) a wandering vagrant – it will always be a known entity, a member of the household (or one of their guests). Despite the fact that the murder will occur in a genteel setting, among church-going villagers or landed gentry, motives will abound, and there will be a surprisingly large number of plausible murderers. There will be some situational complexities that make reconstructing the actual crime difficult: the crime will have intersected with other, more minor sins. Multiple suspects will lie (in fact, most of them will be lying about something or other). Our detective, patient and opaque, will carefully unwrap it all, and will reveal the full complexity of the situation in a denouement which will somehow involve the entire cast of characters, who will be assembled in the drawing room.

As is probably clear, I’m fond of this genre, and, in my fondness, I object to the characterizing of these books as “guilty pleasures” or beach reading or whatever. Just because something is sold in airport bookstores doesn’t make it bad, and I see real literary achievement in the murder mystery. The fact that ‘Cover Her Face’ is so conventional and yet so good speaks to the strength of the genre.

And, yes, there is a murder aspect to its success: murder is fun to read about. But I believe that there is more to the popularity of the murder mystery than audience ghoulishness. I think that this is a perfectly balanced form: that it provides novelty and familiarity in perfect proportion. Any more predictable, and they would be boring; any less, and they wouldn’t be reliable. The murder mystery walks the fine line between these two outcomes, and it has been walking it successfully for generations.

This form, these norms, are extraordinarily robust. They have been replicated again and again by different people, in different times, in many different countries. They have spawned and informed other genres. In Darwinian terms, the British murder mystery must be considered one of the most successful forms in human literary history, and I suspect that I will be reading them with pleasure until I die.

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

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

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)

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

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

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

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?