I read Satin Island long before it was added to this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist. It was the only longlisted book I’d previously read, and at the time I thought it was the best novel of the year. I still think so. I haven’t had a chance to really write about it—naturally, blogging about books this good is more difficult than complaining about Anne Enright—but I wanted to cover a passage that especially caught my attention when I was flipping through the book again a few days ago.
It’s from the first chapter, section 1.5. Satin Island has fairly traditional-seeming chapters, but it’s actually written in sections similar to a philosophical treatise—or perhaps an essay, report, confession, or manifesto? The narrator, U, is at an airport in Turin, and this section introduces one of the most important elements of the story, insofar as there is one.
Around me and my screen, more screens: of other laptops, mobiles, televisions. These last screens had tickers scrolling across them, text whose subjects included the air delay in which I was caught up. Behind the tickers, news footage was running. One screen showed highlights of a football game. Another showed the aftermath of a marketplace truck bombing somewhere in the Middle East, the type of scene you always see in this kind of report: hysterical, blood-spattered people running about screaming. One of these people, a man who looked straight at the camera as he ran towards it, wore a T-shirt that showed Snoopy lounging on his kennel’s roof, the word Perfection hovering in the air above him. Then the scene gave over to an oil spill that had happened somewhere in the world that morning, or the night before: aerial shots of a stricken offshore platform around which a large, dark waterflower was blooming; white-feathered sea birds, filmed from both air and ground, milling around on pristine, snowy shorelines, unaware of the black tide inching its way towards them; and, villain of the piece, shot by an underwater robot, a broken pipe gushing its endless load into the ocean.
First, I find McCarthy does a rare thing: writes realistically about immediately contemporary technology affecting daily life. I’m fine with novels that prefer to ignore the ubiquity of mobile phones, but it’s certainly interesting to me the extent to which McCarthy nails the experience of all those screens—in an airport especially.
From one perspective, U is multitasking just like any 21st-century business traveler. His eyes are on multiple screens; he’s following multiple storylines. And if the perspective is reversed, we see that each individual story happening around the world has a whole screen devoted to telling it. We’re each living our own singular life, and meanwhile we’re all keeping at least half an eye on dozens of other, just as singular, lives.
The man in the Snoopy T-shirt has also stuck with me for many months. I want to think for a minute about what McCarthy does here. U is watching a screen showing a specific thing: a specific truck bombing in a specific place. But McCarthy describes it generically—as something that everyone knows. You know, a Middle Eastern marketplace bombing. But then he goes for the novelistic detail that will make it real and immediate: the man running toward the camera in an American T-shirt. Which, itself, is completely generic—you’ve seen that too, whether it was Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, or the Chicago Bulls.
The oil spill is described in basically the same way, and the tension between the generic and the specific will follow U throughout the novel. It makes sense, as it’s also exactly what U’s task is. He’s an anthropologist whose whole purpose is to create general narratives based on his observation and study of specific events. Which is, oh yeah, a lot like writing a novel!
This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.
With The Moor’s Account, I not only tackled another Man Booker–longlisted title as part of the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Panel project, but I also finally got around to reading Laila Lalami, who’s been at least vaguely on my list to try for about ten years now.
The Moor’s Account is a frustrating sort of novel for me. I enjoyed reading it. I don’t have much to complain about. But I didn’t pull out a single Post-It flag to mark a single passage in over 300 pages. It’s good historical fiction. The premise in particular is good: Lalami has imagined the story of what was perhaps the first black man to explore North America, a Moroccan slave own by a Castilian nobleman who brought him on an ill-starred journey halfway around the world.
Estebanico, né Mustafa, is the narrator of The Moor’s Account, and he indicates clearly from the outset that he has decided to write his own story, “to correct details of the history that was compiled by my companions, the three Castilian gentlemen known by the names of Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and especially Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who delivered their testimony, what they called the Joint Report, to the Audiencia of Santo Domingo.” Admittedly, Mustafa’s corrections aren’t necessarily the final truth: “Because I have written this narrative long after the events I recount took place, I have had to rely entirely on my memory. It is possible therefore that the distances I cite might be confused or that the dates I give might be inexact, but these are minor errors that are to be expected from such a relation.”
Thus begins a story whose teller is always clearly a storyteller, thinking explicitly about his own stories and those of other people, about how stories affect listeners, and about how history is created. In fact, about how stories are created at all, and what his own role can and should be in the real story of his life.
The journey Mustafa makes with his Castilian companions—including the three who live but also the hundreds who die along the way—consists of a series of typically small joys and large misfortunes forming a loose trail from Florida to Mexico, and from a historical perspective is great fun. For much of the novel, Mustafa’s story alternates chapters between the story of the American journey and the story of his time before. As he recounts the armada’s landing at Florida, he tells the story of his own birth just outside Azemmur, and the history of Morocco is similarly fascinating.
If there’s anything tiresome in The Moor’s Account, it’s Mustafa’s continual insistence on greed as the root of all evil—at least, of all his problems—sometimes it seems a bit strained. And while the meandering among the Indians doesn’t follow exactly predictable lines, most of it does feel familiar, and this reader found no surprises at all from the time the explorers once again found Europeans until just about the end of the novel. The wrap-up was a bit fast and neat without being totally believable—though of course anything could have happened after Mustafa stopped telling the story, I suppose.
While The Moor’s Account didn’t have half the staleness of Anne Enright’s The Green Road, it also didn’t have half the life of Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings.
This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.
Is it particularly difficult to write about César Aira, or am I just out of practice?
Either way, I’ve been having an exceptionally hard time composing a post on The Hare. But it’s August 31, officially the last day of a Spanish(-Language) Literature Month that was graciously extended by a whole second month, and I need to do it.
My last post on Aira, on his miracle cures, was not so positive. But The Hare is magnificent. Its plot is superficially similar to that of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter: a Romantically educated European goes to South America and wants to see Indians. In this case, the main character is Clarke, a naturalist and geographer, and instead of painting the Indians, he wants to talk to them.
Specifically, he wants to talk to them about the Legibrerian Hare, a leporid that’s very shy, but when it does come out, it can fly. The reality of the Legibrerian Hare—and pretty much everything else in the Huilliche world—is hazy. The picaresque journey Clarke will go on in search of the hare, or the other things he’s seeking, will teach him the ultimate lesson of life for the Huilliche and Voroga, the two warring tribes whose story he’s invaded:
Clarke had never perceived so clearly the need for the novelesque in life: it was the only truly useful thing, precisely because it lent weight to the uselessness of everything.
Clarke’s whole life is later determined to be the “kind of thing [that] only happens in novels…but then, novels only happen in reality.”
There’s a lot of good absurdist stuff in here for me, but also a lot of good normal stuff. Clarke makes a young friend and they talk and have adventures. He experiences growth by confiding in others and exploring the world. People fall in love and find their lost loves and find their lost relations—you know, just like happens in any good novel.
Early in the novel, one of the Indians tells an anecdote about their leader. He ends it with a joke: “And also, to be truly spontaneous, one would have to say ‘spontaniety,’ wouldn’t one?” The narrator notes carefully:
The joke was different in Huilliche, of course, which was the language they were speaking in. But it survives the translation.
Does it? One can only wonder. After all, “[b]ooks should never be adapted. As a reader, you start thinking of all the changes they must have made, and you don’t enjoy the book.” And not only is most of the book not actually written in Huilliche, even though pretty much all the dialogue is spoken in Huilliche, but I also of course read an English translation from the Spanish. What was I saying, again? Something about the absurdity in trying to understand what anyone is really saying?
After all, The Hare is a novel, and novels are a pack of lies.
If you’ve read very much about Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, over the past few months, there’s a good chance you’ve read about how she really didn’t take to editing. The stories seem proud of this—Yanagihara’s editor thought maybe there was too much difficult material in the book, but she wanted to let her readers have it. And look how successful it’s proved! In your face, editor!
I have no opinion on the matter of the allegedly difficult material, because I haven’t gotten to any of it yet. But I have gotten to a lot of material that’s making it a difficult read for me. None of those stories I mentioned above said anything about Yanagihara taking issue with copyediting, but I don’t know what else to think. Pretty much the only passages I have marked in the novel are flagged for clunkiness, general weirdness, or worse. Some examples:
“[T]hey asked for the bill so they could study it and divide it to the dollar.”
It seems to me this is trying to sound extreme, what with the studying, but then dividing it to the dollar doesn’t seem like much of anything at all. What else would they do, divide it to the nearest $10? The bill for a single dish in a dive restaurant?
On Lispenard Street: “Willem was new enough to the city—he had only lived there a year—to have never heard of the street, which was barely more than an alley, two blocks long and one block south of Canal, and yet JB, who had grown up in Brooklyn, hadn’t heard of it either.”
So, in fact, both Willem and JB are new enough never to have heard of it, because you could live there your whole life and never have heard of it. “And yet” is not the conjunction you were looking for there.
“Willem was liked by everyone and never wanted to make people feel intentionally uncomfortable….”
Intentionally Uncomfortable would be a really good band name.
“(something that, even then, he had only the slightest of interest in)”
I just can’t read “slightest of interest” without my blood pressure going up. Mostly because why? This isn’t expressive of anything, except unprofessionalism. If this is all an artistic statement about the voice of people my own age, in my own socioeconomic class, well, I don’t know what to say other than that I don’t want to read it.
But I don’t think it is that anyway.
The following two quotes appear within two Kindle pageturns of each other:
“[H]e wondered whether they [his mother, grandmother, and aunts] might be condescending to him, or just crazy. Or maybe they had bad taste. How could four women’s judgment differ so profoundly from everyone else’s? Surely the odds of theirs being the correct opinion were not good.
“There’s my brilliant boy,” Yvette would call out whenever he walked into the house.
It had never had to occur to him that she was anything but completely correct.
Now, this could be a radically unreliable form of narration—with free indirect style fluid enough to land on each of several main characters and end up seeming like a genuinely almost-omniscient third person…who then forgot what he told you a minute ago.
But there also isn’t much of anything to make me think it really is that, either. And is that a reason why the narrator would say it “wasn’t so unusual, really” for Willem to wake up alone, and a few short lines later, “[b]ut Jude was always there”? Perhaps that’s just meant to indicate Jude is a sort of background character. Not that he really seems like that.
“Jude was wearing a bright navy sweater that JB could never figure out belonged to him or to Willem….”
See, the reason I said above that I just don’t want to read this is that it clunks. I don’t believe this is the voice of my generation. I believe my generation can hear that clunk. But then I remember this is on the Man Booker long list, which is why I’m reading it.
Add to all this a tendency to have pronouns without actual antecedents that’s just irksome, and my apparently complete inability to put away my mental red pen, and I can’t get anywhere near involved enough in the narrative to actually think much of anything about that, except a general echoing of Lydia Kiesling’s essay in The Millions on the novel. But I share the incredulity some readers seem to have about the big story, even about little bits of the story. If I don’t find the interaction Willem and Jude have with a real estate broker believable, what am I going to think about the abuse later on?
I just don’t know the answer to that question. But I do think an answer is going to have to wait, because there are a lot of novels on this long list and I need to give some others a chance that this one, honestly, might never have with me.
But please, do tell me if you think these are artistic choices. I’m kind of torturing myself over it.
This is the third in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.
Brethren, you can’t write no book ’bout this. Make me get this straight. You writing book ’bout the Singer, the gangs, the peace treaty. A book on the posses? You know, each one of those is a whole book. What you going write about anyway?
It’s a good thing Marlon James doesn’t believe his character, Tristan Phillips, on the limits of the form. A Brief History of Seven Killings is among the better examples of polyphony I’ve read, and James writes an impressive number of limited first-person narrators with significantly and genuinely different voices and dialects, nevermind styles. Not only is it immediately clear which of the dozenish characters available is narrating a chapter, it’s just as clear when one of those characters changes her identity multiple times that it’s still her.
James uses the form to great effect, the plot coming together as each narrator adds a bit of information to the story. One of the narrators, Alex Pierce, is an American journalist who visits Jamaica in the 1970s, hoping to cover the Singer—Bob Marley, that is, who goes almost-unnamed throughout the novel. Eventually, Pierce will uncover a completely different mystery, which just happens to be the mystery of A Brief History of Seven Kilings itself, one in which Bob Marley plays a small yet pervasive role—again, pretty much like he does in A Brief History of Seven Killings itself.
The depth of characterization and strength of the voices cannot be overstated. The mystery is exciting and unraveled excitingly, but the greater pleasure of the novel is simply in listening to Nina Burgess’s thoughts, and Josey Wales’s, and Pierce’s too. Too many to name. James fits them together painstakingly, weaving them around each other to create just the right amount of tension, sadness, and joy.
This is the second in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.
This is the first in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.
A young man who wants to be a priest grows up to be a closeted gay man in 1990s New York, friends and lovers dying all around him of AIDS-related illneses. His sister waits for a mammogram and thinks of her children, her husband, her girlfriends, her mother, and how none of them appreciates her. Their brother is an aid worker in Africa, struggling with his white girlfriend-of-convenience over the dog she wants to keep as a pet but which offends their Muslim staff. Their other sister is a depressed new mother hiding her burgeoning alcoholism from her baby’s father.
And then their mother manipulates them all into going home for Christmas, one last time.
This is a perfectly good example of the genre, but I have read this book before. It’s hard to say what particular interest The Green Road has. There’s nothing really wrong with Anne Enright’s novel, though unoriginality could be considered a failing. It’s perfectly well written; there is competence and a sufficient amount of style to the voice. But the writing isn’t special. The setting isn’t special, the characters aren’t particularly special, and its purpose is unclear. Perhaps it is meant to be a novel of the Irish family living through the millennial boom—but that seems a thin thread to hang the whole book on considering how little of it is really spent contemplating rising real estate prices. Enright spends more energy musing on how fat everyone has become since the 80s, strangely not as a symbol of the American-money-fication of Ireland.
And the economic concerns start to feel tacked on in other ways. At Christmas dinner, when Rosaleen explains that she plans to divvy up the proceeds from the sale of her home among her children, who haven’t amounted to much, it’s almost astonishing that they agree with her. Constance, conspicuously unmentioned by the narrator at this point, has in fact been thinking for most of the novel about how “upjumped” her own husband and his family are, and drives a Lexus. The reader may be skeptical, meanwhile, that Emmett—doctor without borders more at home in Africa than at his mother’s dining table—really feels all that guilty about not having a higher net worth. Hanna has mentioned a mortgage, and while it’s sort of believable coming from Dan, he’s also just gotten engaged to his sugar-daddy-turned-true-love.
What comes after this is still more tenous, as Rosaleen has some kind of transformative experience—or something—and everything ends up okay for a while but then worse than ever and then suddenly rather wrapped up and all about Rosaleen, again. Perhaps the novel should be read more Rosaleen-centrically: it begins and ends with powerful interior moments for her. And everything that comes in between comes ultimately from her. But even when she is present, she seems just barely so, and when she’s present only in thought, even less.
I’m left with a family novel, generically peopled, in generic settings, with utterly generic themes—and a confusion about what I might be missing.
In An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, genre is understood as a means to represent the world. Rugendas’s genre is “the physiognomy of nature,” and he believes that if he follows a set of formal rules, his landscape paintings will become accurate representations of the world he observes.
There’s no painting in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, and it may appear at first glance that there’s no art. But attentive readers may remember there is a performance at the end of the novella—and that it’s meant to construct a representation of reality.
The plot of the novella…well, to be honest I am no longer certain. I read Miracle Cures several weeks ago, and I didn’t care for it—unlike An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter before it or The Hare after it. It seems charming enough, and I believe it’s just a quirk of personal distaste. But the plot’s not all that important, because what’s important is what Dr. Aira thinks is happening, and that’s this: he knows the “miracle cure,” the panacea that can save any life, and he’s finally been induced to use it for the first time, after years of theorizing and mockery.
The miracle cure is quite simple. If, in this world, X is going to die, then the miracle “X lives” is excluded by reality. But what if it weren’t? What if, instead, Dr. Aira rounded up every fact about the universe—alles, was der Fall ist, as it were—and then excluded the ones that excluded X’s living?
Just as Dr. Aira’s theories are getting really out there, (not-Dr.) Aira lays this on us:
[I]t was a titanic task, for the listing of the facts was merely the qualifying round before carrying out the operation itself: the selection of the concomitant facts, tose that have to be set aside in order to create a provisional new Universe in which “something else” could happen and not what was upposed to happen. By the way, these exclusions and the resulting formation of a field that would serve as a different niverse had an antecedent: nothing less than the Novel itself.
Oh. Well then.
That’s not quite the end of (Dr.) Aira’s tricks, and he must go on to dance his own alternate universe into reality to enact the cure. He’s developed specific methods of doing this, and the dance is a formal one, however chaotic it may appear to those watching from the outside. Instead of painting he has movement, and instead of the key elements of a landscape he has all the facts in the universe.
One might have thought the space of representation at his disposal was going to get overcrowded, that it was going to start to get difficult to keep inserting more screens. But this didn’t happen because the space wasn’t exactly the one of the representation but rather of reality itself. In this way, miniaturization led to its own amplification. Like in an individual big bang, space was being created, not getting filled, through the process, hence within each pom-pom an entire Universe was being formed.
(Pom-pom? What? I know.)
There’s too much to really explain here, and explaining it would just be like explaining a joke anyway, and the whole small book is not much more than that (but a pretty elaborate one). And with that out of the way I can start thinking about The Hare instead.
I am way behind the times in reading César Aira. I could have worked through a (tiny) shelf of his tiny novellas by now, and perhaps should have considering my love of the form. But I have finaly got under way, with An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.
The landscape painter, Johann Moritz Rugendas, is a genre painter. His genre is the landscape, more specifically, “the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. As you can see from the Wikipedia link above, this part is “real.” Humboldt, of course, is also real, perhaps real-er—Aira has not latched on to his life, requiring of it an episode fit for a novella. I have not read every bit of writing on An Episode in the Life by any means, but I’ve been surprised not to see any of Rugendas’s paintings reproduced elsewhere. Both of these depict Brazil as opposed to Argentina, where An Episode in the Life is set, but one does include Native Americans, others of whom are significant in the novella.
Back to genre. Aira gives a simple and brief disquisition on the value of genre itself as Rugendas and his fellow artist and friend Krause are discussing history and art.
He suggested, hypothetically, that, were all the storytellers to fall silent, nothing would be lost, since the present generation, or those of the future, could experience the events of the past without needing to be told about them, simply by recombining or yielding to the available facts, although, in either case, such action could only be born of a deliberate resolution. And it was even possible that the repetition would be more authentic in the absence of stories. The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead, a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. According to this theory, then, art was more useful than discourse.
Useful, that is, in “understanding how things were made,” which is, for Rugendas, the purpose of stories.
I don’t know why, but it always seems a bit uncomfortable when writers so successfully meta-analyze not only what they’re doing, but also what the reader is doing. Of course, whether this passage is actually relevant to Aira’s project (whatever that might be—I certainly do not know yet) or only to Rugendas’s remains a mystery to me.
Soon after this, Rugendas has a bit of really terrible luck that will leave him severely disfigured. Essentially, his face is torn up and tentatively pieced back together, resulting in a grotesquerie of misfiring nerves and uncontrolled muscle spasms. Krause cares for him studiously, but has difficulty looking at his face, not because it is ugly but because the tools of Rugendas’s face—the features, the planes, the muscles, the expressions they come together to create—are broken.
To create a story, choose some available facts, follow a few rules about how they can be put together, et voilà. Replace the facts with nonsense and break all the rules, and you are left with a man whose speech does not match his expressions, whose feelings do not match his face. His life is based on the ultimate faithfulness of representing landscapes according to their physiognomy, but his own physiognomy has been altered to make him unreadable.
“I could see this book working for you. Ignore the hideous blurbs.” It doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but coming from Tom, a tip like that can get a book to my house, into my hands, and finished* within five days of ever hearing of it. And thus did Nicole read Kathleen Founds’s debut novel (don’t listen to the descriptions [or hideous blurbs] that say it’s a short story collection!), When Mystical Creaures Attack!
“I bought it because it has a recipe for Broccomole Dip. But I think you would enjoy it for other reasons,” he went on to say. Well, yes. (I’m a little concerned about whether he actually ate the broccomole dip.) And what’s not to enjoy? First, we have a Leonard Cohen quote for an epigraph. And then, the first chapter: essays written by a class of schoolchildren to the prompt, “Write a one-page story in which your favorite mystical creature resolves the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time.”
If the prompt itself sounds ridiculous, imagine the treatment it gets from a class full of—is it high school seniors? Could be juniors. But this is more than just silliness. How many things are established in this first “chapter”?
- The cast of characters
- The major themes, of interpersonal harms, forgiveness, love, hate, and longing for death/happiness
- The possibility that the English teacher is not quite right
- The English teacher’s overwhelming concern with major sociopolitical problems
- The way her concern with said problems plays out as the themes mentioned above
- A good idea of the structure of the novel, which is a polyphonic narrative that could be very loosely described as epistolary, and includes all sorts of documents
Pretty good for a journaling prompt, no?
Those documents include writing assignments, actual letters, emails, second-person narrations, short stories written by characters in the novel, reality-show transcripts, agony aunt letters, insane asylum writing exercise, and, yes, recipes. A chapter of recipes. A list like that makes it sound sprawling, or at least messy, and that impression would be wrong. This is a lean little book, and all of this multitude of little items contributes meaningfully to the plot, character development, themes, and overall ambience of the novel. E pluribus unum, right here, and no joke.
The writing is funny, the story is funny, the story is painful, the story is joyous (the story is life). It eventually clearly settles around three major characters, with the English teacher, Ms. Freedman, arguably the primary one. Ms. Freedman’s mother hanged herself when her daughter was four years old, and Ms. Freedman is pretty sure she’s on her way to the same fate. Was what her mother did a choice? Is there another option open to the daughter? Founds doesn’t dance around things here; Freedman is not well, her life is not a nice place to live, and there’s no attempt to leave questions unanswered or rely on any kind of ineffable mystery or half-baked magical realism to wrap up the story. From beginning to end the narrative is a well-oiled machine.
There’s not much more to say, at least not yet, but I haven’t let you know what Founds’s “luminous” writing is like. Spoiler alert: it does not, in fact, glow. The best sample I can give you is also a testament to the tightness of When Mystical Creatures Attack! In what amounts to the second paragraph of the novel, Founds already has a remarkable microcosm of the whole.
How the Unicorn Stabbed Danny Ramirez in the Heart Seven Times, Which Is What He Deserves, for Breaking Up with Me Like That
by Andrea Shylomar
I don’t believe in anything mystical, Ms. Freedman. Not even God. You made us build that diorama of Mount Olympus, and you made us paint that mural with unicorns and butcher birds and sand toads. You said it was to show that boks transport us to different worlds, where there are different rules, and there’s magic in everything. Well what you forgot, Ms. Freedman, is that when you shut the book, you’re back in this world, and the bell is ringing, and wadded up paper is thrown at your head, and Phil Gasher is poking at your crotch with a broken pencil, and Kristi Colimote’s bitchy flunkies climb into your bathroom stall and threaten you with scissors. What you need is a book that takes you out of this world permanently. Which is called a gun, I think.
*And now, officially, written about as well. Although that took a sixth day.
I discovered Gilbert Adair because he wrote a series of parody-mysteries of famous Agatha Christie works, for example, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which, I should say, is hilarious and clever and a toy made to the exact specifications of a locked-room mystery lover with a sense of humor.
But I didn’t realize The Death of the Author would be basically the same kind of mystery. Not a locked-room one, I don’t mean, at least not in the physical sense. But an impossible-murder mystery, of which the locked-room variety is but a subtype.
The novella opens with a meeting between the narrator, Leo Sfax, and a young woman named Astrid. He agrees to something she wants to do, she leaves, and he sits at his computer and begins to type, and tells the reader that at that point, he typed out the four pages she has just read.
The Sfax goes on to narrate his life story starting in childhood, which was spent in pre-War France. During the German occupation, Sfax kept his head down, and he emigrated to the US a few years into the peace. There, he went from shelving and selling books in Greenwich Village to writing them in a fictional New Haven, becoming the darling of elite comparative literature departments throughout the English-speaking world. We find out that Astrid was a graduate student at his university, and that he was not her director but worked closely with her, she falling in love with his Theory—which is, by the way, the Death of the Author. Astrid has recently called a meeting with him, whose purpose he does not know. She proposes writing a biography of Sfax. He agrees, she leaves, and he sits at his computer and begins to type, and tells the reader that at that point, he typed out the forty-one pages she has just read.
One more time. But this time, Sfax says he’s been lying. That stuff about what happened in France, it was a it more unsavory than he’d like anyone to believe. He’s built his life in America, deliciously, propounding a theory that he hopes to use to exculpate himself from authorship of Nazi-tinted writings during his collaborative period. And even more deliciously, the more he tried, with efforts at obscurity, to kill that author, the more he exposed himself to eventual exposure.
The dramatic and literary climax of the novella has, I think, at least two “collapses” that I won’t outline, maybe more. A precious postmodern puzzle-piece, The Death of the Author gave me at least one thing other than the pure pleasure I take in reading such mysteries: the realization that perhaps I like them so much because they are mysteries, just like my beloved Agatha Christies and Dorothy Sayers are mysteries, and like my big book of locked-room mysteries is full of mysteries. Not because of anything profound or fashionable (or fashionably unfashionable?), but for the fun of the puzzle.