Saturday, January 30, 2010

Black & Blue

Black & Blue, by Ian Rankin
1996, 498 pp.

Although “tartan noir” is a genuine, codified genre in its own right, this book may perhaps be best categorized along with The Wire in a sort of “post-industrial sociological realist” vein of crime fiction. Since I still consider The Wire to be the finest work of fiction so far this century in any medium, this is high praise by association, and well warranted. Both David Simon’s work and Ian Rankin’s novels explore the violent intersection of individuals and institutions in the wake of rapid capitalist transformation of older societies. This interaction is mediated by various forces: the geography of a modern city, the effects of immigration and racial stratification in an urban setting, the role of controlled substances in mediated experience. It is something wholly apart from the existential themes of the classical noir, and something more prescient and clear-eyed than standard social criticism. I love this kind of stuff.

Ian Rankin boasts an enormous ouevre, startlingly varied an expansive for a relatively young man. I selected Black & Blue at random, but it appears to have been a serendipitous choice. My copy comes with a 10-year retrospective introduction by the author which helpfully explained that this, the 8th of currently 17 novels featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus, of the Edinburgh police, is a transitional and transformative book in the series. Evidently it was with this book that Rankin decided to branch out from pure police procedural into a wider interrogation of post-industrial society. Black & Blue won a number of awards and inspired a book-long critique of its themes.

The story is enormous convoluted. There are three general strands: the first has to do with the real-life “Bible John” murders, which took place in Scotland in the late 1960s. Rankin posits a follow-up copycat called “Johnny Bible” and introduces Bible John as a character, hunting the killer who has usurped his notoriety. So there’s a serial killer and a real-life serial killer hunting him. Very good. The second strand involves the mysterious death of an oil platform worker and expands out to include a crime family from Glasgow, a drug operation in Aberdeen, corruption of oil interests in the North Sea, and crooked cops. The third strand has to do with a former partner of Rebus’ who recently committed suicide, and who may or may not have framed a suspect named Spaven many years ago as part of the original Bible John case. Spaven became famous in jail and eventually killed himself, protesting his innocence all along. The young Rebus was involved in the cover-up to the possible framing and is now the target of an internal affairs probe and a television crime show. Needless to say, about 500 pages later all of these things turn out to be connected, and it is to Rankin’s credit that once all the pieces are in place, the whole plot does indeed make sense.

Rebus is a solid protagonist. He’s as maverick-y and tenacious as all fictional detectives are required to be, and is frequently persecuted by the police, which happily allows the reader to identify with him as an individual being persecuted by a giant, soulless, powerful institution. This is absolutely necessary in detective fiction. If the protagonist is going to be a cop instead of a private eye, he must be distanced from the police department, lest the reader realize that as a police detective, our hero is an appendage of a giant, powerful, soulless institution which exists to persecute individuals just like the reader. Anyway, Rebus has solid loner, maverick cop credentials. He also has an impressive drinking problem (at one point he has three Laphroaigs at a pub at 6 AM before going to work) and a dark past and a divorce and an estranged daughter. He carries the book well, with lots of stubbornness and wry quips.

As much as I enjoyed the novel and would recommend it and am looking forward to reading the other 16 Rebus books, it is not without problems. There are two major ones: the way Rebus quits drinking about halfway through, and the way the plot is resolved.

The first suffers from comparisons. One of my favorite detective series is by Lawrence Block, about an alcoholic New York detective named Matt Scudder. In that series as well, the middle book is pivotal and signals and expansion of scope into wider societal themes. It is also the point where Scudder quits drinking, but that process accounts for possibly half the book. Scudder manages to string together one or two sober days, sometimes almost a week, but is constantly aware of the struggle and constantly rationalizing himself into having another drink. The torment of the addiction is executed brilliantly, and indeed sticks in the reader’s mind long after the plot has dissipated. Further, I’ve now read several hundred pages of Infinite Jest, which is greatly concerned with addiction and features many very long monologues about AA meetings and the sensations of addiction. This is serious business, but Rebus quits almost casually. I found it simply impossible to believe that a bitter, lonely 55-year-old detective who has three single malts before work could give it up so quickly, particularly concerning the central role that pubs and whiskey play in the lives of people who are unfortunate enough to live on this stupid, rainy island. I just didn’t buy it, and it undermined the emotional gravitas of the Rebus character.

The second problem might have something to do with an American/Scottish cross-cultural difference. American detective novels end with cathartic gun battles. The last one I read featured an entire subplot which existed solely to provide a reason for a cathartic gun battle at the end. But while it is easy to believe that heavily armed, trigger-happy American cops do indeed have extensive gunfights with double-digit body counts, police officers in the UK don’t carry guns. There is one gun in all 500 pages of Black & Blue, and it’s used to hit somebody. The Bible John/Johnny Bible plot gets resolved offstage, the really sinister sadist gangster villain gets arrested by somebody else, and people who you want to go to jail do so. But the book ends less with a bang than a whisper, and frankly, despite enjoying the book very much, it left me a bit unfulfilled. It also left me curious to read other installments in the series, to see if either the drinking becomes more of an emotional arc, or if all the books end on a quiet minor key.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens
1857, 820 pp.

I have avoided Charles Dickens for almost a quarter-century. I have never experienced any of his works, with the exception of A Christmas Carol, which I consider to be a tragedy in the genre of Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind: the stages by which an independent will gives way to external compulsion and coercion. I have never seen any of the various films or stage plays based on his books, nor have I ever read any of his many novels, whether in school or otherwise. Until now.

And, startlingly, I really enjoyed it. An 800-page book carries quite a burden of proof, to justify the investment of the reader’s time and attention, and to pay for the opportunity cost of not reading perhaps five other, shorter, books. Dickens manages this here, with dexterity and aplomb. It really is quite a good novel, and the prospect of reading more Dickens no longer fills me with howling dread. I am still leery of his plucky-young-boy novels, but look forward with pleasure to the day I have time to settle down to Our Mutual Friend, Hard Times, Edwin Drood, and Bleak House.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote that Little Dorrit is a more subversive book than Das Kapital. I would argue that he drew a needless distinction: Little Dorrit effectively IS Das Kapital, but with more jokes and better characters. The plot concerns William Dorrit, a goodhearted if overly dignified man who winds up in the Marshalsea debtors prison for so long that he becomes known as “the Father of the Marshalsea.” His youngest daughter, the upright, long-suffering, completely pure Little Dorrit was born in the Marshalsea, and has lived her whole life there, taking care of her father and her wayward siblings. Then there is Arthur Clennam, our hero, recently returned from China, attempting to make his way and start a business in seedy, rainy London. Lurking constantly in the background is the sinister Blandois, a blackguard and murderer with a suspicious moustache and diabolical plans. The plot is hugely elaborate, and studded with subplots and counter-plots too numerous to delve into here. Suffice it to say that the Dorrit family is raised high and then brought low again, as in a similar way is Arthur Clennam. There’s long voyages and illnesses, and in the end everything turns out fairly happily.

The characters are what drive this whole clattering, ramshackle, Rube-Goldberg-device of a plot, and quite memorable characters they are indeed. But really the book hinges on two utterly sublime creations: Mr. Merdle and the Circumlocution Office. Merdle is a captain of industry, a powerful player, a legend of capitalism and financial ingenuity. He has lavish parties at his exquisite mansion, attended by adoring luminaries referred to only by their professions: Law, Bishop, Physician, etc. Also in attendance are members of the omnipresent Barnacle family, who run the vast, impenetrable bureaucracy of the Circumlocution Office. The chapter which introduces the Office and the Barnacles is an exhilarating, hilarious bit of writing which justifies the purchase and time investment of the book all by itself. The purpose of the Office is to ensure that nothing at all gets done, and to that end it employs enormous numbers of people filling out innumerable forms, all of which contradict one another, all of them obstructing any progress anyone anywhere attempts to make in anything. There are whole bodies of self-proclaimed "socialist" thought which display less class consciousness and a weaker grasp of actually-existing political economy.

You can also have my word that the Circumlocution Office is alive and well in London today.

Eventually, after many hundreds of pages of the plot thickening, it finally curdles when it turns out that Mr. Merdle is in fact an 1857 rendition of Bernard Madoff, down virtually to the last detail. I almost howled with delight on the Tube. The passages illustrating the collapse of London finance when his Ponzi scheme comes to light are wonderful, as Dickens spins out an extended metaphor which is equal part Lehman Brothers and Battle of the Nile:

“The Inquest was over, the letter was public, the Bank was broken, the other model structures of straw had taken fire and turned to smoke. The admired piratical ship had blown up, in the midst of a vast fleet of ships of all rates, and boats of all sizes; and on the deep was nothing but ruin; nothing but burning hulls, bursting magazines, great guns self-exploded tearing friends and neighbors to pieces, drowning men clinging to unseaworthy spars and going down every minute, spent swimmers floating dead, and sharks.”

The withering, all-encompassing contempt Dickens pours upon the wealthy and the powerful is truly one of the most entertaining, gratifying, and inspiring spectacles in all of literature. I wish I had read this book as a small boy so that, when called upon in class to say what I wanted to be when I grew up, I could reply: “One day I want to ridicule someone as well as Charles Dickens ridiculed the bourgeoisie.” His scorn takes in Parliament, the bureaucracy, Big Business, finance, the establishment of various professions, and self-aggrandizing philanthropists. His invective is never less than elegant and convoluted, and there were large passages I was tempted to memorize so that I could spit them at the drones of Finance I see on the Underground every morning. The so-called "populist rage" which greeted the events of 2007 was the petulant fist-waving of a child compared to Dickens' hilarious outpouring of ridicule. Granted, one is never far from the knowledge that Dickens was paid by the word, but he is such a virtuoso at spinning out metaphors and sentences longer than any reasonable human could be expected to sustain such verbal ingenuity that he is a delight to read. Yes, a suspicious number of his characters have wordy verbal mannerisms, and yes, he does present conversations which circle and circle longer than necessary. But this gives us both a sense of the characters and of actual-existing life. It adds to the sense of the novel being a world which you wrap yourself up in and get pleasantly lost. And it prefigures some important literary developments, since the run-on ramblings of Flora Finchley effectively prefigure Molly Bloom's monologue. It also speaks less to Dickens’ financial needs and more to his great energy, and as far as I’m concerned, its his energy and his verbal dexterity which pull the whole enterprise off. He really is the sort of writer who could make the back of a cereal box entertaining, and I must report that I thoroughly enjoyed all 820 pages.

Avanti II: Night of the Living Avanti

I began the Avanti Book Review a year ago with the stated intention of reviewing every book I read. This I did without fail for 10 months, with the one exception of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, for which I wrote a compelling 2500-word review which was promptly lost in a power outage. I reviewed 74 books, totalling 23,737 pages. Then in late October I stopped. I stopped not because the workload of getting a master’s degree was too much, but because undertaking a degree at the London School of Economics is the opposite of thinking. My mind had grown fat and disgusting, and I was ceasing to have interesting things to say about the books I was reading. I was also finding that I read too many books which elicited too little response: I neither loved them nor hated them, and while reading them may have enhanced my cultural and intellectual capital, they left my life no richer. The first book I read and did not review was G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. When I finished it, I took a long walk to mentally compose the review, as is my habit. Despite walking for some time, I found I could only generate a paragraph, and that bland at best. Following that was The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, sometimes considered a fine bit of modernism. I discovered I lacked the energy to sift through its levels of irony and unreliable narration. I found most of my reactions to the books I was reading could be expressed with a shrug. What did I think of John Banville’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea? I thought it was predictable. What about Witold Gombrowicz’s long-suppressed modernist fable Ferdydurke? I didn’t get it. If you want greater detail, you are welcome to ask me sometime, over a dram of single malt. The point is that I sort of lost interest.

Since then I have read 38 books: 23 fiction and 15 nonfiction. I have also read approximately 85 scholarly journal articles, which average 25 pages each, which is an additional 2500-odd pages of dense nonfiction that should be taken into consideration. For my dissertation I have read large pieces, running into many hundreds of pages, of a further 19 books, but since I did not read them cover-to-cover, I leave them off my official tally. At the time of this writing, I am 900 pages into Ulysses, about 500 into Infinite Jest, and am reading a handful of other books besides. So there’s been a lot of reading going on à chez moi. I estimate I’ve processed well over 12,000 pages since the last review. Since the previous year’s reviewing covered 74 books, to catch you guys up would entail about half a year’s work, and let’s face it, that time would be better spent reading.

But! I have nevertheless revived the moribund corpse of the Avanti Book Review. I do this mainly for the pleasure of reading, and I do it not with the purpose of reviewing every book I read, but instead the ones I want to review. Mainly these will be positive reviews, of books I am enthusiastic about but which I think for some reason you are unlikely to read. Perhaps they are too long. Perhaps the genre is too obscure. Perhaps they are unfairly neglected or utterly unknown. Therefore these reviews should probably be taken less in the sense of a reasoned critical opinion, but instead in the sense of a friend urging you to check out this good book.

Those aficionados of my invective-studded evisceration of some books should not lose heart. I will continue to angrily review books which either a) I expect to like and then don’t, or b) are so pungent with scrofulous moral decrepitude that I feel it an intellectual duty to demolish them. Instead of two or three reviews a week, there will probably be more like three or four a month. I shall write not as a theorist but as a connoisseur. I hope that these new reviews may cause in some reader a few moments of happy contemplation.