26/02/2009

A Review of a Review, Cont'd

In the wake of my article on his review of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, critic Jeff Turrentine sent me a thoughtful reply which I post here with his permission:
Xavier:

Hey there. I just came across your review of my review of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, the novel I reviewed for the Washington Post some years back. I very much enjoyed your spirited rebuttal. As a critic, which is to say someone who likes to believe that people still care enough about books to argue about them, I'd much rather encounter friction than silence, which is what most of us encounter after our reviews are published. (You seem astonished to learn that my review has, in the four years since it was published, elicited no comments or responses. In fact, though I still dream that my book reviews will spark controversies and lead to literary bar brawls, the only person who ever has anything at all to say about them -- positive or negative -- is my mother.)

In any case, I'm sitting in a coffee shop right now, where I'm supposed to be working on a novel of my own. Which means that I'm supremely grateful for the opportunity to ignore my responsibilities and write to you in a highly caffeinated defense of my review.

As I'm sure you have, I've devoured the works of Chandler, Hammett, et al., and hold them all in the highest regard. But I don't find it at all ridiculous, or indeed defamatory, to assert that a defining characteristic of detective fiction is the happy subservience of character development to plot. Indeed, this is why I read detective fiction, and I'd be willing to bet it's the reason most people do. Which isn't to say, of course, that writers of thrillers or detective fiction haven't, over the years, given us great characters like Holmes, Spade, or Marlowe. But I'd maintain that the modes of character development are so qualitatively different from the modes of character development in so-called "literary" fiction that my assertion can be justified. John Updike -- or Dickens, or Cervantes, for that matter -- are allowed to, indeed are required to, spend paragraph after paragraph and page after page burrowing into the psyches of their characters, in long expository passages that implicate personal history, past and present relationships, etc. Typically -- and I'm choosing that word very consciously, as I did in my review, aware that it allows for plenty of exceptions to the rule -- detective fiction doesn't grant its authors as much expository freedom or flexibility. They're expected to reveal character more immediately: through hard-boiled dialogue, for example, or through clever displays of deductive prowess, or through their response to exigent crisis. I think there is a very good reason for this: namely, that the point of a puzzle is to solve it. We read mysteries for different reasons than we do character-driven literary fiction. I realize it's easy to see a statement like that and simply figure that, if it comes from a mainstream literary critic, then it must be assuming some sort a hierarchy -- that said critic must be assigning unequal values to the two styles of fiction. But I swear to you that I love Raymond Chandler every bit as much as I love John Updike. (I love Chandler more, actually.)

I wouldn't go as far as Todorov does in his oft-cited structuralist analysis of detective fiction, but I think he's basically correct when he writes that the "story" of the detective (as opposed to the "story" of the crime he's investigating) is "a story which has no importance in itself, which serves only as a mediator between the reader and the story of the crime." He goes on to say of these two parallel stories -- that of the investigated and the investigator -- that "one is absent but real, the other present but insignificant." Like I said, he goes too far. But he's essentially acknowledging the same point, that the conventions of the genre are fairly strict in the sense that they don't allow too much time for a detective's personal reflection, e.g., musings on his unhappy childhood, sexual insecurities, mental replaying of emotional traumas, etc. There's a murder to be solved, goddamnit.

I also think it's fair to claim, as I did in my review, that the multiple-narrator structure of Case Histories is formally atypical. I'm certain that you've read many more thrillers than I have, and are ready to counter that claim with dozens of notable examples, but even so: Perhaps we can stipulate that the vast majority of thrillers are written as first-person accounts or are narrated by an omniscient third-person voice who follows the detective's progress, and no one else's, very closely. I can't help but think that the reason this is so is that the smartest of these writers know that, fundamentally, detective fiction is so much fun to read because it suggests that we, as individuals, are somehow capable of solving even the most intractable riddles by ourselves, through our wits and our reasoning. Single narrators, be they first-person or third-person, reinforce this epistemological link between reader and detective. (I also think this is why detectives are so often cast as lone wolves, working in solitude, operating outside of legal or social norms.) By limiting the narrative voice to one and only one, these writers acknowledge the primacy of the investigation -- Todorov's "second story" -- and, in a way, make their books all about the ability of one person to decipher and comprehend systems of gargantuan complexity. In this way, I think, the best of these writers are not unlike the great existentialist philosophers.

Well. That's quite enough, as I'm sure you'll agree. Back to anemic novel-writing for me. Keep up the good work, even if the good work means skewering me from time to time. I love to learn that there are people out there who still care enough about literature to blog about it.

All best,
Jeff Turrentine
Los Angeles, USA