30 June 2010

Ur-Story: A Shot in the Dark—το πεμπτημόριον

(cont'd from previous posts)

Existence precedes essence. All is subjectivity. Reality is fragmented. Open is good; closed fascist. We are all complicit. Crimes are not necessarily crimes. Investigations prove nothing. Authority is suspect. There is no truth. Irony controls our destinies. Or, ironically, doesn't. Humans fail to connect; communication is impossible at the speed of life. All leading to tragic results. It's all on you. So, it's all on you.

An ironic message indeed from a novelist, someone whose business—at least ostensibly—is language and story. To say the least.

But it's not simply ironic. "Screw you guys," Robbe-Grillet seems to be hissing from behind the scrim of his experimental novel The Erasers. "I'm not going to do the work for you. I'll put it out there. I'll give you the pieces. I'll show you what everybody's thinking. But you've got to put the picture together for yourself. If you care."

So, it's all on me: why should I care?

And that's the main question raised by Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers: Why should the reader care?

This isn't about me. Or is it? Robbe-Grillet seems to intimate it is. And he wants me to figure out how and why.

There has to be a difference between a literary work of art (something not necessarily equivalent to a novel) and a dream. There must be some criteria to decide whether something is indeed a novel or a poem or whether it is merely the flow of words and thoughts—however loosely organized around plot or story or character or theme or image, however beautiful—of someone who perhaps should take his problems to a shrink, that is to say, of someone who wants his readers to analyze what he's saying but doesn't necessarily know himself what he wants to say. Or at least if he does he isn't telling.

Or does there?

What if the reader doesn't care to play peek-a-boo with the writer? What if a fine game of spot the allusion is wasted on me? What if the reader doesn't wish to be, say, a Joseph or a Daniel or a Tarot reader or a Freud or a Jung? What then?

What then? We ignore R-G and his feint at a detective book, or at least put it down. And many have.

We've come this far so let's assume, then, there is some critical difference. After all, The Erasers looks like a novel. It reads like a novel, at least on the surface. It has a prologue, an epilogue, and chapters. It was published by an established, though somewhat avant garde, house. On its cover it calls itself 'A Novel.' It has been translated—ably, I assume—by a noted and reputable translator. Hell, as far as I can tell, it's still in print. The academic critical enterprise, the elites, have told us for at least the last half century that R-G's output is worthy of our interest; some have even called The Erasers a modern masterpiece. And, in high French modernist style, it comes with its own explanatory theoretical framework to boot.

Let's assume we should care, or at least pretend we do. Let's assume that in writing this novel R-G has committed to something other than 'It's all nebulous; make of it what you will. Life is meaningless anyway, wide open. An ironic, circular destiny mocks our every move." What is it?

He has committed to a sort of literary Rohrshach, an ink blot, that carries whatever meaning we care to bring to it. [The image of a mirror might work as well here—though, as we shall see, it must of needs be a cracked one.] The book, at least in theory, rewards the effort brought to interpretation.

On the surface, R-G has freighted his story with the structural trappings of the detective story. Just below that surface (that skin), however, he has buried the tragic, mythic structure (the bones) of the ill-fated story of Oedipus. And, as many critics have noted, he has drawn on the nature of chance by alluding throughout to images from the Tarot deck.

This is the modernist synthesis pioneered by Joyce in Ulysses: the mythic underpinnings of the everyday. (Full disclosure: I am not averse to this general ploy. My own as-yet-unagented, unpublished novel, EULOGY, draws for its deep structure on the Orpheus myth, quite possibly the oldest extant Western expression of human myth.)

Yet R-G has blasted apart the detective story and mangled the Oedipus story; he teases us with Tarot: there is one solution, there are many; there is one meaning, there are many; chance guides our fates, our destinies are determined—if not by (terrorist) plots then by the workings of our unconscious, if not by bureaucratic politics then by the circularity of history. Yet, if everything is implied, nothing is.

With The Erasers, then, theme, plot, and structure are somehow there, somewhat unified. Literarily, though, that is not yet content. That is not yet substance. That is not yet essence. Not yet Ur-story.

Structural connections do not a novel make. Neither do thematic contrivances nor parodies of plots.

Again we ask, why play the game?

Just because you can take something apart, breaking it down into elemental units, and put it together again in a new way doesn't mean you comprehend the coherence of the whole you've destroyed.

The new synthesis—le nouveau roman—is no synthesis at all. It just is this fragmentation. It just is these contradictions, albeit tricked out in some sort of theoretical unity.

Abdicating authorial responsibility, throwing up your hands and walking away—however artfully—does not seem to be a helpful gesture. It seems almost bureaucratic. Insouciant.

Robbe-Grillet's authorial laissez faire here—challenging the old order in the manner of a petulant child without either comprehending the function of "story" within the novel or, if he does (and there's no evidence R-G does), compensating for its loss—is frustrating for the reader. Or at least me. And, after all, I'm the one who counts—at least theoretically.

When there is a crime, I want there to be punishment. Guilt. Retribution. Cause and effect. Rationality. Plot. That does not make me a fascist. Openness, meaninglessness, is not a necessary novelistic synechdoche for freedom.

Anyway, there's none of that here, not even of Wallas when he kills Dupont. Maybe that's all a cliche, and R-G is too high-handed to condescend to such. But saying that a plot in a novel is a cliche is like saying a nose on a face is a cliche—wait, didn't Picasso have something to say about that?

Certainly, it might pass as "art" or make for a good MFA thesis. But I'm not sure that's enough.

(to be continued)

24 June 2010

Ur-Story: A Shot in the Dark—Part Cat

(cont'd from previous post)

Is it possible that a single leitmotif is sufficient to carry the weight of the novel's meaning? UPDATE: I speak, of course, of Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers.

Let's return to that consummate jokester Roland Barthes who suggests it just might be:
"In the entire published work of this author [Robbe-Grillet], I can think of only one metaphor, a single adjective suggesting substance rather than superficies, and applied, moreover, to the only psychoanalytic object in his repertoire: the softness of erasers ("I want a very soft eraser"). Except for this unique tactile qualification, more or less called for by the peculiar gratuitousness of the object for which The Erasers is so scandalously or so enigmatically named, the work of Robbe-Grillet is susceptible to no thematic index whatsoever: the visual apprehension which entirely permeates his writing cannot establish metaphorical correspondences, or even institute reductions of qualities to some common symbol; it can, in fact, propose only symmetries." Introduction to Two Novels. (15-16)
From his pursuit of evidence, Wallas takes off on a frolic and detour to try to find a certain very specific type of eraser he remembers seeing some months earlier. Any writer who has searched stationery shops for just the right pen or the exact Moleskine will understand this urge. Any student of Freudian analysis will recognize in this the working of the unconscious. And many careful readers of detective fiction will see this as Wallas having picked up on a minute hint of a clue proffered off-handedly by Laurent. Notwithstanding, Wallas wants that eraser. He allows himself to be distracted from the main stream of his professional investigations. Yet, in his orthogonal pursuit he quite possibly stumbles onto a certain truth about himself and very nearly comes face to face with one of the criminals—who, apparently, looks quite a lot like Wallas.

Let's take a look at this 'scandalous' 'thematic index' shall we?

By my count there are only about a half-dozen mentions of erasers in the entire novel that goes by that name. So everyone's on the same page, I'll simply quote them here [with a bit of exegesis below].
"Noticing an open stationery shop, Wallas walks in for no particular reason. A young girl who had been sitting behind the counter stands up to wait on him.


She has a pretty, slightly sullen face and blond hair.

'I'd like a very soft gum eraser, for drawing.'

'Certainly, Monsieur.'

She turns back toward the drawers that line the wall. Her hair, combed straight up from the back of her neck, makes her look older, seen from behind. She searches through one of the drawers and sets down in front of Wallas a yellow eraser with beveled edges, longer than it is wide, an ordinary article for schoolchildren. He asks:

'Haven't you any supplies just for drawing?'

'This is a drawing eraser, Monsieur.'

She encourages him with a half-smile. Wallas picks up the eraser to examine it more carefully; then he looks at the young girl, her eyes, her fleshy, half-parted lips. He smiles in turn.

'What I wanted...'

She tilts her head slightly, as though to pay special attention to what he is going to say.

'...was something more crumbly.'

'Really, Monsieur, I can assure you this is a very good pencil eraser. All our customers are satisfied with it.'

'All right,' Wallas says, 'I'll try it. How much is it?'

He pays and leaves the store. She accompanies him to the door. No, she's no longer a child: her hips, her slow gait are almost a woman's.

Once out in the street, Wallas mechanically fingers the little eraser; it is obvious from the way it feels that it is no good at all. It would have been surprising, really, for it to be otherwise in so modest a shop. ... That girl was nice. ... He rubs his thumb across the end of the eraser. It is not at all what he is looking for." (61-62)
[Here we have desire and the frustration of that desire and rationalization, or settling.]
"By shifting the dossiers on top of his desk, Laurent covers up the little piece of eraser. Wallas finishes his remarks:

'In short, you haven't found much.'

'You might say nothing,' the chief commissioner answers.

'And what do you intend to do now?'

'Nothing, since it isn't my case any more!'

Commissioner Laurent accompanies these words with an ironically brokenhearted smile." (62)


"In making room for his ledgers, the commissioner has shifted the dossiers that cover his desk, thereby causing the piece of grayish eraser to reappear, an ink eraser probably, whose poor quality is betrayed by several worn, slightly shiny places." (72)

[These two form the frame for part 4 of chapter 1 wherein Wallas and Laurent confront each other with their respective roles and the state of evidence in the case and some theories about what might have happened. Laurent throws up his hands in a bureaucrat's 'Not my job' gesture. An eraser plays peek-a-boo behind some case files.]
"Already the saleswoman is looking at him with a professionally friendly expression of interrogation. 'Can I help you?'

'I'd like an eraser,' Wallas says.

'Yes. What kind of eraser?'

That's just the whole point, and Wallas once again begins describing what he is looking for: a soft, crumbly gum eraser that friction does not twist but reduces to dust; an eraser that cuts easily and whose cut surface is shiny and smooth, like mother-of-pearl. He has seen once such, a few months ago, at a friend's but the friend could not tell him where it came from. He thought he could find himself one of the same kind without difficulty, but he's been searching in vain ever since. It looked like a yellowish cube, about an inch or two long, with the corners slightly rounded—maybe by use. The manufacturer's brand was printed on one side, but was too worn to be legible any more: only two of the middle letters were still clear: 'di'; there must have been at least two letters before and perhaps two or three after.

The young woman tries to complete the name, but without success. She shows him, with mounting discouragement, all the erasers in the shop—and she has, in fact, a splendid stock—whose respective merits she warmly extols. But they are all either too soft or too hard: 'breadcrumb' erasers, as easily kneaded as modeling clay, or else dry and grayish substances which abrade the paper—good at best for getting rid of ink blots; the rest are pencil erasers of the usual kind, more or less elongated rectangles of more or less white rubber." (126)
[On his way to interview Dr. Juard, a key witness, Wallas hops the wrong streetcar and disembarks near the center of the town. He starts toward the police commissioner's office but notices a sign advertising, nay promising, inter alia drawing supplies. The shop window at the Victor Hugo Stationery Shop, where the above interchange takes place has a cliched mannequin {"dummy"} of an artist painting a picture, a landscape of Thebes (home, by the way, of Oe-'di'-pus) it turns out. But the panoramic vista he is studying and attempting to replicate is an enlarged photograph of the house in which the alleged murder Wallas is investigating has supposedly taken place. He describes the impossible eraser but, once again, settles for another inferior eraser and a postcard of the photograph of the house. Get it? The saleswoman, as we shall shortly discover, is the divorced wife of Daniel Dupont.]
"He decides to go into a shop to ask the way to the Rue de Corinthe. It is a small bookstore that also sells stationery, pencils, and paints for children. The saleswoman stands up to wait on him:


'I'd like a avery soft gum eraser, for drawing.'

'Yes of course, Monsieur.'" (168)
[While shopping for his ideal eraser at yet another little shop, Wallas recalls the stationery shop with the model painter in the window painting the ruins of Thebes while staring at a panoramic picture of the scene of the crime and begins to wonder why the shop owner has such a huge picture of that particular house. "His wife? That would be strange. Didn't Laurent say she was running a shop now? Around fifteen years younger than her husband...dark, with black eyes...that's who it is!" {169} Did he just buy an eraser from Dupont's divorced wife? He then returns to the Victor Hugo stationery shop and interviews the woman about the plausibility of Laurent's suicide theory. Another red herring.]

The next mention of an eraser is a real puzzler. Wallas is sitting in the back of the Victor Hugo Stationery Shop waiting to continue his interview with Wallas's former wife. He then realizes that she has nothing for him and wonders why he came there in the first place. Then he notices something:
"On the chest opposite him, on either side of a porcelain figurine of stylized gallantry, is a pair of portraits. The one on the left shows the stern face of a middle-aged man; he is seen in three-quarters, almost in profile, and seems to be observing the statuette out of the corner of his eye—unless he is looking at the second photograph, older than the first, as the yellowing of the paper and the old-fashioned clothes of the people shown in it indicate. A little boy in a communion suit is looking up toward a tall woman wearing the ruffled dress and plumed hat fashionable in the last century. It is probably his mother, an extremely young mother whom the child looks up at with rather perplexed admiration—as far as can be judged from this faded snapshot, where the features have lost a good deal of their actuality. This lady must also be the mother of the stationery seller; the severe gentleman may be Dupont. Wallas does not even know what the dead man looks like. ...

The young woman appears in the doorway: 'I haven't kept you waiting too long, have I?' she asks in her throaty voice.

'No, not at all,' Wallas answers; 'but I'll have to be running along now.'

She stops him with a gesture:

'Wait just a minute! You know what he bought? Guess!'


The customer, of course. And he has bought an eraser, of course. What does she think is so surprising about that?

'You know, the customer who just left!'

'I don't know,' Wallas says.

'The postcard!' the young woman exclaims. 'He bought the post card showing the house, the one you bought from me yourself this morning!'

This time the throaty laugh continues indefinitely." (179-80)
[Are we meant to infer that the little boy in the photo portrait is Wallas, along with his mother? And that Wallas is the son of Dupont? And this young woman whom Wallas admires is his step-mother? Robbe-Grillet laughs throatily. From Dupont's former wife, Wallas learns that Dupont was not the sort of person to have committed suicide.]

After recalling that the first time he came to this town was with his mother in search of his long-lost father, Wallas once again goes hunting erasers:
"Wallas steps into a crowded, dusty shop that seems intended for the storage of merchandise rather than its retail sale. At the rear, a man in an apron is nailing shut a crate. He stops pounding to try to understand what kind of eraser Wallas wants. He nods several times during the course of the explanation as if he knew what Wallas meant. Then, without saying a word, he walks toward the other side of the shop; he is obliged to shift a large number of objects on his way in order to reach his goal. He opens and closes several drawers, one after the other, thinks for a minute, climbs up a ladder, begins searching again, without any more success.

He comes back toward his client: he no longer has the item. He still had some not long ago—a lot left over from before the war; they must have sold the last one—unless it's been put away somewhere else: 'There are so many things here that you can never find anything.'

Wallas dives back into the night." (231-32)
Erasers provide a thread to follow themes woven into the fabric of the novel. If you pull on one of them, the novel unravels. Erasers after the war. A man who could be Wallas's double buying the same post card Wallas bought in the Victor Hugo Stationery Store. Victor Hugo, the great classical novelist, who tidily tied up the loose ends of his novels. The search for the father and the Oedipus/Thebes undergirding. The problem of identity and culpability. The doppelganger. Destiny. Desire and frustration. &c., &c.

But is a such a frippery, a leitmotif such as this rubbery McGuffin, sufficient to sustain the meaning of a novel? Certainly, it points us to themes and ideas the author wanted to work into his novel—it is, as Barthes indicated, a thematic index. But is there more to a novel than its intellectual themes? Its referential puzzle? Its allusiveness?

(to be continued)

21 June 2010

Ur-Story: A Shot in the Dark—Part the Third

(cont'd from previous posts)

[Major Spoiler Alert] All you need to know about The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet can be summed up in the following: Inspector Wallas kills Professor Daniel Dupont in a fit of jealous rage once he, Wallas, discovers that Dupont is having an affair with his (Dupont's) near-deaf maid, only to realize too late—that is, only after Wallas has consummated his love for the maid—that Dupont is his long, lost father and that the maid is really his mother. Wallas spends practically the entire novel wandering the streets of the town trying to imagine plausible scenaria that might explain the killing to the local police and the federal ministry for which he works and trying to cover up his shame. Ultimately, he plucks his eyes out and jumps into the river and drowns.

Full stop.

How, you might ask (especially if you've read or 're-read' the book), does this cockamamie synopsis even remotely sum up the novel?

Fair question.

Robbe-Grillet attempted to create an art form that is radically open. As the author he refuses to provide the reader with a clean solution—murder, culprit, motive, investigation, solution, etc.—or a clear picture of the objective reality of the world of the novel he has created.

As a result of this abdication, any interpretation, any hypothesis as to what may or may not have happened, is (or at least should be) equally justified—however facacta. But that simply isn't the case.

The text is the limit case. Any plausible hypothesis, or interpretation, must answer to the evidence in the text, the limits of which were prescribed, managed (manged?) by the author. The author is not dead so much as he's playin' 'possum, as folks say down here in the sunny South.

This author, Robbe-Grillet, seems to have an overarching metaphysical concern here: how might reality be grasped? Or, how is it that reality might be missed? And this concern points us to one of the weaknesses of the novel.

The detective novel is traditionally considered the acme of a certain form of "realism"—grit, noir, street, etc.

R-G undermines this conception. Reality—what happened, who did it, how, etc.—to the extent it can be known is not known other than subjectively. All is subjectivity. Realism is a sham. The traditional, realistic detective novel is an artifice. The wrapping-up, the tying up of loose ends, is an authorial intervention. Too pat.

What happens, R-G asks, when radical doubt is the order of the day? When the reality of the realistic novel has been shown to be constructed?

The whole premise of the investigation (and thus the novel and thus the genre) is that a murder has been committed. In The Erasers, this premise is called into question, subverted, transgressed, sent up—deconstructed as it were. And only once it becomes clear (to the reader at least) that the premise has been undercut, a murder, or at least a killing, does indeed occur.

In The Erasers, I think it is fair to say, reality is beyond the human condition to grasp. Laurent, the local police commissioner, surmises the truth (to wit: "If the murderer's trail has not been picked up, it is because Daniel Dupont has not been murdered; yet it is impossible to reconstruct his suicide in any coherent way....Laurent rubs his hands together faster....And what if Dupont weren't dead?" (237)), but can do nothing about it sitting at his desk. He tries but fails to communicate his revelation to Wallas. And this has, as we all know, tragic consequences.

(to be cont'd)

15 June 2010

Ur-Story: A Shot in the Dark—Part Deux

(cont'd from previous post)

The Erasers, by Alain Robbe-Grillet, consists of five chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. The ostensible structure is much like a classic tragedy, and much has been made of the novel's debt to Oedipus.

(This novel is over a half-century old, so I will assume you've had a chance to read it. That is to say, what follows will be chock-a-block with spoilers. That being said, it's important to note that The Erasers is one of those novels that requires multiple readings; a knowledge of the ending informs the (re-)reading of the text.)

The book begins and ends in the Cafe des Allies with and from the point of view of the manager:
"In the dimness of the cafe, the manager is arranging the tables and chairs, the ashtrays, the siphons of soda water; it is six in the morning.

He has no need to see distinctly, he does not even know what he is doing. He is still asleep. Very ancient laws rule every detail of his gestures, saved for once from the uncertainty of human intentions; each second marks a pure movement: a side-step, the chair eleven inches out from the table, three wipes of the rag, half-turn to the right, two steps forward, each second marks, perfect even, unblurred. Thirty-one. Thirty-two. Thirty-three. Thirty-four. Thirty-five. Thirty-six. Thirty-seven. Each second in its exact place.

Soon unfortunately time will no longer be master. Wrapped in their aura of doubt and error, this day's events, however insignificant they may be, will in a few seconds begin their task, gradually encroaching upon the ideal order, cunningly introducing an occasional inversion, a discrepancy, a confusion, a warp, in order to accomplish their work: a day in early winter without plan, without direction, incomprehensible and monstrous." (7)


"'All right, let me speak to the manager.'

'I'm the manager.'

'Oh, it was you! You're the one who told that nonsense about the fictitious son of Professor Dupont.?'

'I didn't say anything.'

'Did you say he had a son?'

'I don't even know whether he had any. All I said was that young people of all ages came in here.'

'You're the one who told that nonsense, or was it the manager?'

'I'm the manager.'

'You're the one, young people nonsense, professor at the bar?'

'I'm the manger!'

'All right. Let me certainly have a son, a long time ago, fictitious young died so strangely. ...'

'I'm the manager. I'm the manager. The manager. I'm the manager ... the manager ... the manager ...'

In the troubled water of the aquarium, furtive shadows pass. The manager is motionless at his post. His massive body leans on his outspread arms; his hands grip the edge of the bar; his head hangs down, almost threatening, the mouth somewhat twisted, the gaze blank. Around him the familiar specters dance their waltz, like moths circling a lampshade and bumping into it, like dust in the sun, like little boats lost at sea, lulling to the sea's rhythm their delicate cargo, the old casks, the dead fish, the rigging, and tackle, the buoys, the stale bread, the knives and the men." (256)
From those two snippets we can pretty much derive the theoretical sense of the novel.

Roland Barthes pronounced "The Death of the Author" in 1967, but here, a decade earlier, Robbe-Grillet relegates him to a sideline role. The manager opens and closes the text. In effect he embodies R-G's conception of the author: he doesn't give meaning to the story, but he sets the table and allows things to happen, permitting meaning to come forward.

This circularity—beginning and ending with the manager of the Cafe—is a thematic artifice of the story (to which I shall return), though the plot unfolds linearly over the course of roughly twenty-four hours.

The outline of the plot is uncomplicated, reasonably standard for a crime novel: Wallas, an investigator with the Ministry of the Interior, arrives in an unnamed, but atmospheric Northern European town to investigate reports of the murder of a professor of political economics named Daniel Dumont which may or may not have been part of an ongoing series of murders—or assassinations—of a political nature around the country. Wallas strolls the streets of the town which seems vaguely familiar to him seeking clues and interviewing people with knowledge of the alleged crime.

What's complicated is the telling of the story: R-G does not use a central, omniscient voice. Nor does he employ a single point-of-view character with whom the reader can identify. The story, rather, is told from multiple, fragmented points of view, each with partial knowledge of the facts, and none of whom has the entire picture.

The reader is called upon to put the puzzle together for herself. At times it is not readily evident in whose POV a given section is being presented. Further, the various POVs speculate about what might or might not have transpired, so that the reader thinks she is being given an authorial truth only to discover later on that she is not. This is the source of much confusion among readers who are forced by R-G to work to sort out facts from speculation and determine whose POV is being represented and what is the state of their rather imperfect knowledge.

Further complicating matters is R-G's attempt to play around with the genre rules. Contra Todorov: The Erasers does not begin with a real murder and ends without an identification of the culprit. By my count, R-G violates at least twelve of van Dine's Twenty Rules: 1 (reader has a better opportunity to suss out the crime), 4 (the detective discovers that he ultimately is the culprit),6 (the detective does not solve anything), 7 (no corpse), 9 (two detectives working independently), 10 (the culprit of the alleged murder that sets off the action is a bumbling servant), 13 (a secret cabal remains undiscovered), 15 (truth is never really apparent), 16 (much of the book is given over to description of atmospheric street scenes), 17 (professional criminals committed the alleged murder), 18 (the real crime here is an accident, a mistake, and has nothing to do with the plot other than to close it), 19 (there are no motives, as implied by the manager's prologue).

R-G has turned the traditional detective story on its head. Thinking back to Todorov's classification, The Erasers inverts the genre model: the story of the "crime" (the one that actually gets committed) is the plot (as it turns out) and the story of the investigation is a fable (known through its absence). The story of the crime (the death of Dumont which has not yet happened) is told going forward, whereas the story of the investigation is undermined and ultimately resolves nothing.

(to be continued)

09 June 2010

Ur-Story: A Shot in the Dark

Last month Dan Green challenged us [qua Stephen Marche] "to re-read Robbe Grillet's fiction, especially those novels written before the publication of For a New Novel, and try to make a case that any of these points [to wit: his novels "applied rules and regulations, opposed subjectivity and tried to dissolve plot and character into description"] can be sustained."

As one of my current projects involves aspects of the traditional (think Oedipus cycle, Hamlet) genre of detective fiction and even thriller, I felt compelled to (re-)read Alain Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers (1953, trans. 1964 by Richard Howard), ostensibly a detective novel for myself.

First, let's get our bearings straight.

There are five basic elements of crime fiction: atmosphere, victim, culprit, suspects, and detective. Fair enough.

Tzvetan Todorov, in The Poetics of Prose (1971), tells us that crime fiction is comprised of two stories: the story of the crime ("fable") and the story of the investigation ("plot") which, in a sense, resolves the crime morally. It begins with a real murder (victim) and ends with a symbolic, retributive murder (the identification of the culprit). The story of the crime, which has already happened and is thus absent (i.e, the "fable" in Todorov's terms, after Lessing), is told in reverse and is unraveled, or made whole, as the story of the investigation (the "plot") moves forward.

Todorov also points us to S.S. van Dine's 20 rules for writing detective fiction:
THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience. To wit:
  •    1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
  •    2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
  •    3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
  •    4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses.
  •    5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
  •    6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
  •    7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
  •    8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se'ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
  •    9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his codeductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
  •    10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.
  •    11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion.
  •    12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
  •    13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.
  •    14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
  •    15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.
  •    16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.
  •    17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
  •    18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.
  •    19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
  •    20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth."
From my own point of view, the entire genre of detective fiction is a reasonable literary move within the scope of what I have termed the Ur-story. There is a death; it is impactful; and there is an attempt to deal with it albeit in a rational, superficial mode. Solving the murder does not resolve the crisis of our mortality, but it provides a temporary fix. And sometimes that is all we require of literature.

[Updated to correct spelling. Sorry, Dan. Thanks, Dog]

(to be continued)

06 June 2010


"All that implies Titan is a dynamic place where organic chemistry is happening now."

Maybe there is some hope! Evidence appears to imply that a methane-based life form may be active on Saturn's moon Titan. How cool is that?

"Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.

But mankind wasn't always so lucky. Less than a century ago men and women did not have easy access to the puzzle boxes within them.

They could not name even one of the fifty-three portals to the soul.

Gimcrack religions were big business.

Mankind, ignorant of the truths that lie within every human being, looked outward—pushed ever outward. What mankind hoped to learn in its outward push was who was actually in charge of all creation, and what all creation was all about.

Mankind flung its advance agents ever outward, ever outward. Eventually it flung them out into space, into the colorless, tasteless, weightless sea of outwardness without end.

It flung them like stones.

These unhappy agents found what had already been found in abundance on Earth—a nightmare of meaninglessness without end. The bounties of space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.

Outwardness lost, at last, its imagined attractions.

Only inwardness remained to be explored.

Only the human soul remained terra incognita.

This was the beginning of goodness and wisdom.

What were people like in olden times, with their souls as yet unexplored?

The following is a true story from the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression."


"What's Pardise like?" said Constant.

"Everybody's happy there forever," said Stony, "or as long as the bloody Universe holds together. Get in, Unk. Beatrice is already there, waiting for you."

"Beatrice?" said Unk, getting into the space ship.

Stony closed the airlocks, pressed the on button.

"We're—we're going to Paradise now?" said Constant. "I—I'm going to get into Paradise?"

"Don't ask me why, old sport," said Stony, "but somebody up there likes you."

Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan

03 June 2010

Nothing to Say

Sometimes words simply
cannot penetrate the depths
of my dark feelings.

WoW will be on a bit of hiatus till I can get a handle on things. Sorry.

Jim H.