Sunday, February 11, 2007

Silence of the Grave, by Arnaldur Indridason

I saw a review of this novel in the New York Times and decided to read it purely out of curiosity about Iceland. This was the first Icelandic novel I had ever seen translated into English, and it received a good review, so I got it from the library. Apparently Indridason (there is an accent on the second d that I don't know how to reproduce) is a sensation in his home country; the back flap tells us that "he and J.K. Rowling are the only authors to simultaneously hold the top three spots on the Icelandic bestseller list."

The mention of Harry Potter should have given me a foretaste of what I was going to get from this novel. For example, here are some of the things I discovered about Iceland from Silence of the Grave. Yellow police tape is used to surround crime scenes. During Christmas, they listen to Bing Crosby sing White Christmas (presumably in English, unless Bing really covered his bases). Their garages are filled with old bikes and barbeque grills. The lead detective is haunted by various mistakes he made in his Past. And when these harried cops are in a rush, they scarf down cheap hamburgers.

The passage of Halley's comet, which figures tangentially in the plot, is linked to ... yes, the death of Mark Twain! He is the only historical figure mentioned in the book. Also, investigations in Iceland seem to proceed much the same way they do in America. At least once during the course of the investigation, a strip club must be visited - also, they must stumble into a seedy bar where "a miserable country singer" performs bad love songs. (What exactly is "country music" in Iceland?) A fortune teller must appear in a crucial moment and make an eerily accurate prediction.

Fifty pages in, around the mention of the BBQ grill, I started to suspect that America had quietly taken over Iceland a few years ago and no one had made much of a fuss about it. Other than the names, the only signs that this was a novel from halfway around the world were the mention of a "traditional Icelandic sweater" and a plot development involving a military base built during WWII, full of British and American troops. Those of us in search of the exotic, it seems, will have to go farther afield than Iceland - or transfer to a genre less constrained by the demands of suspense.

What we are left with, then, is a reasonably well-constructed mystery novel. The book is fairly predictable, except for the fact that the murder took place more than sixty years ago (a body is found when a plot is being excavated for new housing). Such old crimes bring up interesting issues, since it is unlikely that the perpetrator can still be punished. What then is the point of the investigation? Is there such a thing as cosmic justice - does every murder deserve to have its mysteries unraveled, simply because of a strange human feeling that such events deserve explanations? Does truth have a value outside of possible temporal consequences?

These questions are unfortunately more interesting than the book itself, which switches between the investigation and scenes from an unidentified family with an abusive husband. Clearly, then, either the husband or the wife is in that grave. You read on to see exactly how it happened, and for no other reason. Not a lot of brilliant sleuthing is done - mostly red herrings are uncovered, and then someone is found who explains exactly what went down. I wasn't disappointed by the end, but there was none of the intellectual pleasure that comes out of, say, a sturdy P.D. James plot.

I didn't get much else out of this book, unfortunately. There are some hilariously terrible attempts to render slang, which I imagine are the translator's fault. Here is the detective's daughter teenage jive: "Mum threw a wobbler when I said I was coming to see you." (Perhaps in her anger she tossed a frisbee at her?) Also, the book is written in the broken-up "exciting" prose of thrillers. A sample: "He dithered. Caught unawares. Then invited her inside." And. So. On. I hate this kind of writing. It is the literary equivalent of the whipsnap editing and swooping camerawork of bad TV action shows: an attempt to fabricate a dynamism that the narrative is unable to produce on its own.

Anyway, I would never have read this novel if it was just another decent piece of American pulp, but I suppose I'm glad I did. The discovery of nothing is itself a discovery, no? I admit that it is a little depressing, though, that mediocrity appears to basically be the same the world over. Wouldn't it be more interesting if "this book is typical" meant something different in every country?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

My Mortal Enemy, by Willa Cather

I've read three of Willa Cather's books - My Ántonia in middle school, and again recently; A Lost Lady in college; and The Professor's House a few months ago - and liked all of them. They were all basically written at a stretch, it turns out, between 1918 and 1925. I will need to verify this further, but after reading My Mortal Enemy, I suspect that after this period she was lost to art; the shift that takes place is the sort that writers do not recover from.

My Mortal Enemy was written in 1926, a year after The Professor's House, and a few of the elements that appear briefly in that book - a fascination with Catholicism, for example - become the focus of this one. There is also something that I can only call a massive grudge against life as it is actually lived. In The Professor's House, this grudge seemed somehow legitimate - it was a dramatization of the compromises that very few people can avoid without dying young. When I finished the book, I thought of an Empson quote from Some Versions of Pastoral: "the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy."

Alongside this sense of loss, though, there was a deeply unforgiving strain that I felt entered Cather's work for the first time. I wrote down a long passage from the section narrated by Tom Outland, the book's unspoiled ideal of life as it ought to be lived. He remains pure to the end because he gets killed in WWI (don't worry, I am giving nothing away) before he has to muddy his hands with marriage and moneymaking and other such messy realities.

When he is walking around Washington, D.C. (my former home) he rents a room from a low-level bureaucrat and his wife. Here are some representative passages: "How it did use to depress me," he writes, "to see all the hundreds of clerks come pouring out of that big building at sunset! Their lives seemed to me so petty, so slavish." And later: "Thousands of them, all more or less like the couple I lived with. They seemed to me like people in slavery, who ought to be free..."

Now, these passages struck rather deep, because I have been one of that mob and felt, as who does not, what a poor sort of life it is. But I also wanted to protest, because there was more to my life than Tom is willing to grant - and more to the lives of pretty much everyone else I knew who succumbed to that routine. Outland portrays the couple he lived with as concerned only with money and maintaining their wretched social status. How does this boy - depicted elsewhere as so generous - decide that these other clerks are "all more or less like" them? This thought clearly belonged to Cather more than Tom, and it is an unfair one.

A realistic novelist, I think, has to at least make an attempt to see people as they see themselves, and none was made here. Part of these passages' power comes, I suppose, from their unwillingness to see the entire truth - it is the rare novel that is fair to everyone that walks through its pages. In any case, Cather wisely understands that she has no real interest in these people, and focuses on the ones whose virtues she can see; the clerks take up only a few pages. Which is why The Professor's House is still a great book. In My Mortal Enemy, on the other hand, this bitter side of Cather's worldview has taken over, and instead of the simple, heroic human virtues that she once wrote about, there is only a vague longing for the spiritual communion found in the Catholic church.

The book is a portrait of a long marriage - one something like the couple that she depicted in the Outland story - with every drop of joy taken out of it. The husband works all his life to support his wife, Myra, and she gives up her inheritance and her rich uncle to marry him - and for reasons that are never clear she later wishes that she had not done so. They are never truly happy, and at the end of the book she says that her husband has been, in a way, her mortal enemy.

Why? I don't know. Maybe because when Myra left everything behind for her husband she started to expect more than he could ever give her. But Myra also seems to have voluntarily and inexplicably poisoned her marriage with unfounded jealousy and needless hate. Cather seems to believe that this is somehow the hidden truth of all marriages. At the end, the narrator says that whenever she sees "the bright beginning of a love story" or "a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination" (the emphasis is mine) she remembers Myra's words about her husband.

God help someone that feels this when they see a young couple in love. Maybe our philosopher is right to be suspicious of such emotions, but I would recommend that she stop writing novels. The real problem is not that this observation is useless or necessarily false - I suppose I could see a poisonous but still honest novel built around it - but Cather has failed to produce anything like a flesh-and-blood marriage to dramatize her observation. The book is still as well-written as the books of hers that I love, and as well put together, but it is all in the service of an inhuman - anti-human - argument.

When I finished the book, I started to wonder: what is it about an attraction to Catholicism that brings out such a bitter view of human nature? You would think that the religion would foster kindness and forgiveness, and it seems to actually produce the opposite - at least in prose writers like Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene. (Who else? Burgess, maybe?) Maybe people who already have an intensely pessimistic outlook are drawn to religion, since only a god could redeem a world that looked so horrible. In any case, I can admire the craft shown in Greene and O'Connor's books (and in this one as well) and still feel a profound revulsion for them. They strike me somehow as the products of diseased imaginations.

The B Side

I was doing a search for Solomon Burke, whose new albumI am enjoying a great deal, and I stumbled upon this wonderful website. Its creator appears to own rooms full of old singles, and each post centers around an underappreciated B-side (which you can listen to, static and all) along with incredibly detailed biographies of the artist, someone associated with the creation of the music, or a summary of the state of the genre when the single was recorded.

His loves are primarily 60s soul, old school hip hop, and early funk (I wholeheartedly share the first) but it's never easy to say where one genre ends and another begins. He also has less extensive sites devoted to A sides, old gospel, and extremely obscure soul. God bless obsessives! Each post overflows with enthusiasm for its subject and is filled with information that I at least find fascinating (Bobby Byrd's contribution to the James Brown sound! The origin of the term R&B!) It is also one of the few personal sites on the Web in which vanity appears to play a negligible role. Good for him. I would love to know this much about anything.