Sunday, May 20, 2007

Playing in the Sandbox

Bookstores are ghettoized into genre sections for profit and convenience. People who read one police procedural or romance novel are likely to be interested in another; making it easier to find more books to buy makes sense for everyone. Meanwhile, the austere wall of novels labeled simply “Fiction” wraps around the perimeter of the store, surrounding and somehow looking down upon the separate shtetls of lesser work.

Newspaper book review sections are similarly divided. Science Fiction and Crime novels get their own page of capsule reviews in the New York Times on alternate Sundays. Other genres are beneath the paper-of-record’s notice. Literature gets the front page essays and the respect. The rare items of literature that cross over into general popularity – Cold Mountain or The Lovely Bones – stand as the Holy Grail of publishing. The rules are clear: literature is character driven, infused with original language, concerned with significant personal, cultural and political themes. Genre fiction is plot- driven, utilitarian in its prose, and concerned with little beyond what happens next.

Are these distinctions absolute? Or is there some space between the categories where a lively weed of narrative art might push its way into the light? Because the difficulty persists: much literary fiction is insufferably tedious, while genre fiction is actually fun to read. And that is the key word, the culprit, the dangerous, derided syllable at the heart of the conflict: fun.

Centuries of academic tradition have taught us that serious works of fiction are meant to be difficult. They refuse to pander. They don’t traffic in the vulgarities of mere entertainment. If a book fails to inflict a soul-sapping struggle, there’s something wrong with it. Up to a point, it’s true: some books reward the exhausting effort you put into them: Don Quixote, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses. Much genre writing is bad, the cheapest kind of tooth-rotting candy for the mind. But even a cursory stroll through a used bookshop reveals hundreds of novels published as short a time ago as the nineteen forties and fifties, praised as great art (if the pull-quotes on their dust-jackets can be trusted), now unread, unknown, lost to an merciless oblivion among the cobwebs and dust bunnies. The tinny praise of another era haunts any writer with the immanence of his own demise: “The Black Antipodes surpasses even North to Tarbunda to stand as Edith Platt McCucheon’s masterpiece,” raves the Washington Post Book World from the balmy post-war summer of 1947. And you stand daunted, holding Edith Platt McCutcheon’s book in your hand, pondering extinction. For Ms. McCutcheon’s work is indeed extinct, vanished from the earth as absolutely the dwarf hippopotamus or the Irish Elk.

Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury was also published in 1947.

No one called it a masterpiece; but it’s still in print.
The trick for me is finding the middle ground. Literature can be entertaining – the books themselves have been proving that from Persuasion and Anna Karenina to Atonement and The Corrections -- and those books are my Holy Grail: great literature that’s fun to read. But approaching the question from the other side is more difficult. Can genre fiction aspire to literature? Can a police procedural be written so well that becomes a work of art? The issue is central to me, because that’s what I’m striving for in my own writing. Mickey Spillane is no help to me in this quest: his books are hard-boiled unredeemed trash and that was just the way he liked it. “No one ever read a mystery to get to the middle,” he remarked once, in his usual blunt manner. He thought of his readers as customers and he gave them the product they wanted. Where I’m going I’ll have to leave him behind, along with his modern counterparts like James Patterson and John Grisham. They’re not trying to expand their genre, let alone escape it. I need more ambitious guides.

I chose two for this post: Michael Connelly and Michael Chabon.

Chabon, an unapologetic lover of pulp fiction and comic books (He dedicated The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay to Jack Kirby), has been poking and elbowing the boundary lines for years. His new book crosses over triumphantly and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is the paradigm for everything I want to accomplish with my own work. Such a transcendent leap requires three qualities from the writer: intention, commitment and talent.

Michael Connelly lacks the first two, and talent alone isn’t enough. In fact it’s moot. So he falls just short of the requirements, like a rocket that cannot quite achieve escape velocity. He inevitably plunges back to earth, but the taste of that gloriously thin air and the brief satellite view of our science-class globe, blue and green, alive and spinning in its own miasma of carbon and cloud, is worth the fatal parabola of the doomed attempt.

So, how does Connelly fail exactly?
And what does he achieve along the way?

We should start with the achievements Over fourteen novels he has developed and explored the character of LAPD homicide detective Hieronymous (Harry) Bosch to an extraordinary level of depth and refinement. Harry is as real, as troubled, as respectable and reckless as any character in literature. He can stand proud beside Konstantin Levin, Jay Gatsby and Alden Pyle. To my mind he dwarfs many of his detective colleagues. in complexity, torment and simple humanity. Porfiry Petrovitch, Sherlock Holmes and even Philip Marlowe all pale beside Bosch’s, tormented humanity. Tolstoy, Fitzgerald and Dostoevsky were obviously far greater writers, with scope, passion and vision far beyond Connelly’s; Graham Greene brought a much finer sensibility, an acid cynicism tempered by religious faith, that Connelly can’t touch. As for Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler – they defined the two extremes of the crime fiction genre, one with the most memorable and often-copied sleuth in modern literature and the other with a moral vision and uniquely vivid prose style (“He was about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a piece of angel food”) that remain fresh and striking sixty years later.

But the fact remains: judging these characters apart from their authors’ reputations and even the books that contain them, seeing them on their own as troubling and confounding individuals, matching them up one on one, Bosch is the best in his class. And he makes a shockingly strong showing among the higher class of characters who would never expect to mingle with a hard-boiled hero. (Though I’m certain Levin would like him; and Gatsby would be shrewd enough to be nervous).

Bosch is an orphan, a tunnel rat in Viet Nam, an “institutional man”, the product of foster homes, the military and the police He’s a loner still in love with his ex-wife, a jazz buff who has Hopper’s Nighthawks hanging on his wall, a cop who treats his mission with an almost religious intensity. His motto: “Everyone matters or no one matters.” He speaks for the dead. He also takes no crap from anyone, which at the beginning of The Last Coyote, has gotten him into some serious trouble.

He’s under suspension for throwing his commanding officer through a plate glass window. Without badge or gun, trying to prove his sanity and stability to a police psychiatrist, Bosch starts to investigate the ‘cold case’ of his mother’s murder, thirty years before.
As it turns out, most of the major players in that long elapsed drama are still alive and Bosch’s investigation takes him into the middle of a current scandal involving the same people. The plot is inventive, twisting, unpredictable … and central, both to Connelly and Bosch. This is both the book’s strength -- and its weakness, at least when viewed as literature.

Plot seems to mark a novel, in the class structure of literature, like the wrong accent at an English race-track. But many great novels have plots, so it’s obviously not that simple. I think the real issue is where the plot stands in the axis of author, reader and character. If it weighs too heavily on all of those points, we can’t take the book seriously as literature. In Connelly’s case the plot is all-important to Bosch. But it’s equally vital to Connelly. It’s the pulse of his story. The reader, exposed to this, contagion gets swept along to the shocking finale … not the middle, as Spillane points out. Bosch as a character, fascinating and richly conceived, is incidental to this overwhelming momentum … except for those parts of him, his relentless curiosity and sense of outrage, which keep the pistons of the plot pumping. So the force of sheer narrative takes over and the other aspects of literature -- the interior life of the characters, the unique sensibility expressed in descriptions of the outside world, the vital connection to large social and political realities -- fall away. For example, the interior life (As Bosch contemplates actually opening the investigation into his mother’s death):

What had happened to his mother helped define everything he did after. And it was always there in the dark recesses of his mind. A promise to find out. A promise to avenge. It was never anything that had been spoken aloud or even thought about with much focus. For to do that was to plan and this was no part of a grand agenda. Still, he was crowded with the feeling that what he was doing was inevitable, something scheduled by an unseen hand long ago.

Or the exterior world, as he crashes party:

Bosch fastened his top button and pulled his tie back in place as he walked up the driveway. He passed a small army of men in red vests, and as he came all the way up past the limousines, a startling view of the lighted city came into view. He stopped and just looked for a moment. He could see from the moonlit Pacific in one direction to the towers of downtown in the other. The view alone was worth the price of the house, no matter how many millions that was.

This is perfectly good writing, sturdy and serviceable, doing its job under the the whip hand of a taskmaster plot. But it doesn’t soar. Bosch’s obsession and the view of Los Angeles are deployed, not enjoyed for their own sake. Bosch’s tormented connection to his mother’s death is a motivation; L.A. at night glimpsed from above is a setting, nothing more. And the world beyond Bosch’s purview – apart from being corrupt and treacherous – Connelly scarcely mentions.

When you compare The Last Coyote to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union these weaknesses stand out like the stress lines on a building’s foundation after an earthquake. Chabon shakes things up. His novel conforms to the conventions of the genre, but plot is central neither to him nor to Myer Landsman, his hero …. And thus, not to the reader either. Landsman is investigating the death of his neighbor in the flophouse where he’s living after his divorce. The story takes place in Sitka Alaska, in an alternative universe where Roosevelt set up a Jewish homeland in the far reaches of North America. It was a temporary arrangement, and its 60-year expiration date is fast approaching. The book unfolds in the shadow of the Reversion. This imaginary district is so vivid that, as Terrence Rafferty memorably pointed out in his New York Times review, “You need a down parka and a prayer shawl just to turn the page.” The bum next door turns out to be the proto-messiah. Powerful people in government and the rabbinate, in Sitka and Washington D.C. have been trying to use the hapless young man for devious and diabolical ends, plots which result, among other things, in the death of Landsman beloved sister and the destruction of the Mosque standing on the original site of the Temple of Jerusalem. It’s quite a tangle, but Chabon unties it with breezy aplomb, like a stoned boy scout showing off his merit badges.

The key to this effervescent disregard for the primary structural support of his mystery novel lies in an essay he wrote, introducing McSweeny’s “Astonishing Stories” issue:

Many of the finest “genre writers” working today derive their power and their entertainment value from a fruitful self-consciousness about the conventions of their chosen genre, a heightened awareness of its history, of the cycle of innovation, exhaustion and replenishment. When it comes to conventions, their central impulse is not to flout or follow them, but flouting or following, to play.

In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, this playfulness extends beyond the rules of story telling into every aspect of Chabon’s writing. Each moment, setting, thought and action are celebrated and presented as delightful little gems, quite apart from their utility to the larger narrative. It’s like Christmas morning: every sentence is like unwrapping another present.

Compare this aerial description (Landsman is approaching by plane) of a gracious rehab center in the wilds of southern Alaska to Connelly’s pragmatic glimpse of L.A. at night:

A badge of grass, a green brooch pinned at the collarbone of a mountain to a vast black cloak of trees. At the center of the clearing, a handful of buildings clad in brown shakes radiate from a circular fountain, linked by paths and separated by quilted patches of lawn and gravel. A pitch at the far end, chalked for soccer, ringed by an oval track. The place has the feel of a boarding school, a backwoods academy for wayward young wealth. Half a dozen men circle the track in shorts and hooded sweatshirts. Others sit or lie prone in the center of the field, stretching before exercise, leg and arms, angles on the ground. An alphabet of men scattered on a green page.

This beautiful prose seems to flood out of him like bird-song He can’t help it. Fat “applauds” in the fryolator; a woodpecker “rattles its cup of dice”.

And then this writing expands into the shimmering paragraphs that have always marked Chabon’s work as extraordinary This moment, for instance, as Landsman crashes a funeral. The northern Hasids are mourning the death of their Tzaddik Ha-Dor – the man who might have been the Messiah for their generation:

They smell of lamentation, these yids, long underwear, tobacco smoke on wet overcoats, mud. They’re praying like they’re going to faint, fainting like it’s a kind of observance. Weeping women cling to each other and break open their throats. They aren’t mourning Mendel Shpilman, they can’t be. It’s something else they feel has gone out of the world, the shadow of a shadow, the hope of a hope. This half-island they have come to love as home is being taken from them. They are like goldfish in a bag, about to be dumped back into the big black lake of Diaspora. But that’s too much to think about. So instead, they lament the loss of a lucky break they never got, a chance that was no chance at all, a king who was never going to come in the first place, even without a jacketed slug in the brainpan. Landsman puts his shoulder to them and mutters “Pardon me”

The urge to make this a 409 page post and just quote everything, rises up in me with a mad cackle. But I will control it. If I had to pick one passage( and I clearly do), this funeral description is a nicely representative choice: it shows Landsman’s mind working, the details of daily life in this mundane and inconceivable place … and then makes that effortless leap to the Diaspora which is (and always has been) Chabon’s central theme.

In fairness, let me say, Connelly is not even interested in such acrobatics, and should not be blamed for failing to do what he never attempted. But Connelly, much as I love his work, much as I have learned from it in frequent re-readings, is the straw man in this post, let’s face it. I set him up to knock him down, but I think I played fair because he is so good, and his work comes so close to being good enough.

But these posts are finally about me, my work, my craft, my goals and aspirations. Simply put, I want to do what Chabon does. I have the intention and the commitment. Whether I have the talent or not remains to be seen.

It’s a tough little sandbox up there in Sitka; only the best and smartest kids get to play.