March 31, 2009

The Manual of Detection.

Judging by the wave of genre-bending noir fiction apparent in book shops, a hunt for reality is on.  Or, perhaps, unreality.  Many of these books have more in common with magic realism than hardboiled mystery fiction.  It's inspired less by Latin American precursors (Allende, Cortázar, Garcia Marquéz, for instance) than by the science fiction, fantasy, and comic books its authours grew up with.  A fantasy fiction addled more by romantic, middle-aged white males attempting to find their place in reality, than talking dragons, flaming swords, and sermonising elves.

These novels, brimming with exceptional coincidences and eccentric characters, revolving round protagonists looking in from the outside, are frequently interpreted as allegories of the Western world - and white peoples in particular - by reviewers perpetually enthusiastic to flex their grasp of existentialist metaphors.  Though The New Yorker dismissed Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection as a novel striving to strike coin from tragedies recently visited on New York, it could equally well be described as the latest contribution to this resurgence of a genre that never quite went out of fashion.  Comparisons from Kafka to Chandler abound, but Berry's closer to the much more playful Michael Ende than parochial American magazines are aware.

The action in The Manual is largely confined to an anonymous, slightly oppressive, and permanently overcast metropolis, the bowels of which were apparently inspired by German Expressionist film.  The sleep of its residents is ostensibly safeguarded by the big-brotherly eye of a strictly herarchical agency of oneiric detectives; spying on dreams, even dreams within dreams, detecting dreams of crime, effectively deconstructing themselves in the process.  That is, until the Agency misplaces its most celebrated detective.

Enter Charles Unwin, the poached rather than hardboiled Agency clerk responsible for filing the missing detective's cases.  Content with his lot, admiringly collating fact, compiling exploits of derring-do, contributing directly to another's fame, Unwin has no ambition to experience field work.  Yet he seems to harbour a secret desire for change, for something new - as most other residents of the city appear to do.  Unwin finds this desire abruptly rewarded as he's promoted to detective, accused of murder, charged with locating the missing sleuth, and solving a case involving somnambulists and missing alarm clocks.

Stumbling through a city where people take refuge in sleep, following the advice of the manual entrusted to him in his new role, Unwin delves first into other people's dreams, then into his own.  Every clue appears to lead unequivocally towards the diabolical meddling of Caligari's Travels-No-More-Carnival - the main blight on the cityscape and safe haven for the Agency's arch-nemesis.  As he progresses (curiously, many of Unwin's movements are vertical, climbing stairs, riding escalators, elevators, up towards enlightenment, down into dreams), Unwin gradually transforms from bland and boring to vivid and spontanoeus.

Corpses were nothing new to Unwin.  Hundreds of them populated the reports entrusted to his care over the years, reports in which no details were spared [...] Whole indices, in fact, were organized according to cause of death, and Unwin himself had from time to time contributed new headings and subheadings when an innovative murder necessitated an addition or expansion: "strangulation, unattended boa snake," was one of his, as was "muffins, poisonous berry."

The deeper he delves into the fate of his predecessor, the clerk filling the detective's shoes turns more alike the scoundrels he's trailing than the predictable and efficient Agency employe he used to be.  Unwin's lack of skill, or any clue as to what he's doing, seems to be precisely what allows him to avoid his opponents, as he gradually discovers that neither the city nor the Agency is functioning in the entirely healthy fashion he was led to believe.  Forced to wake up from these misapprehensions, he learns that not only a famous detective, but a certain intangible, intuitive vitality has been lost.

Given Jedediah Berry's position as assistant editor with Small Beer Press it's tempting to seek similarities between the authour and Unwin, a fellow editor of sorts, although one that seems to have stepped out from a Magritte painting.  Berry's background certainly is evident in his language, which is both precise, lyrical, and quite clever, utilising every detective story trope to pull the reader into familiar territory only to gently tug the rug from underneath to reveal the existential rabbit hole.  Occasionally it's almost too clever; naming the villainous carnival after Caligari practically unravels the riddle for those familiar with Robert Wiene's 1920 movie.

Berry found inspiration for the stern descriptions of the Agency and the city in the soundtrack music of David Byrne and Michael Nyman, while the Carnival, and quite a few other settings, was inspired by the rattling sounds of Tom Waits.  Even Berry admits there's enough Waits in The Manual to provide for a good scavenger hunt.  The cover is quite handsome and eye-catching, issued with fine, illustrated boards without a dust jacket.  For a manual it's a bit on the large side to fit a detective's inner pocket, but it could slip unnoticed into the briefcase of an aspiring clerk.

It could simply be read as a peculiar detective story, pondering the relationship between perception and reality.  Or yet another metaphorical opposition of methodology and creativity.  Or the conscious and the subconscious.  Or order and chaos.  Or logic and imagination.  Or the interdependence of the law enforcer and the criminal.  Probably all of the above.  The perpetual struggle for ascendancy never grant either of the opposing entities permanent dominance, and the protagonist - as well as the reader - just happen to get caught in the wake of their continuos shift of balance, and the upheaval it entails.  Though detecting in the world Berry conjures isn't so much a job as an approach to life; mysteries must be solved in order to discern truth from illusion.

Even Berry's diabolical masterminds consider their calling a form of art, a mission to change the world.  The struggle between detectives and criminals becomes a metaphysical battle for dominance, a clash of philosophical positions, fought like game of chess, with everyone kept and keeping one another in check.  Its sudden ending not unlike that of an intense dream that somehow seems a lot less powerful and convincing when awake.  A promising debut, it's a fine example of surreal fiction that manages to complement its existential airs with a fairly meaty plot, inviting almost instant re-reading.  Which, for a detective story, is quite unusual.

March 25, 2009

Hear Again: The Raw & the Cooked.

The Fine Young Cannibals second and last original album, published twenty years ago, rapidly rips through four decades of pop - from the unmistakable funky groove of their greatest hit, She Drives Me Crazy, through American soul and British pop to modern European dance music. By far their most popular work, topping charts on both sides of the Atlantic, its title appears to reference Le Cru et le cuit, the first volume of centenarian French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss' Mythologiques, published in 1964.

Though apart from cataloguing the trappings of dance music trends, there's little anthropology present. The title simply seems to reference the manner in which the album was assembled. Rather than recorded in one dedicated session, it was compiled from a number of them spanning almost five years - explaining the contrast between its raw, retro-soul and "well done," mechanised pop.

New recordings mix with tracks recorded for Barry Levinson's 1987 movie Tin Men, while an alternate cut of the Buzzcocks' 1978 hit Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've), originally recorded by the FYC for Jonathan Demme's 1986 movie Something Wild, appends the album. However, if one considers, in the manner of the practically mythical monsieur Lévi-Strauss, myth to be a manner of legér de main, propping up a specific illusion or belief, then the title is quite apt. For though The Raw & the Cooked has sold in excess of 2 million copies worldwide, it's not widely considered an electronic pop album. Which is precisely what it is.

Though a thoroughly contemporary band, the FYC were steeped in myth, their music evoking bygone times as much as their name (inspired by All the Fine Young Cannibals, Michael Anderson's 1960 film adaptation of Rosamond Marshall's novel The Bixby Girls.) The Tin Men tracks - Good Thing, Tell Me What, As Hard As It Is - in particular emulating the dizzy heights of early 1960s pop charts, what with the film being somewhat of a period piece in which the FYC appear as a nightclub act. But regardless of how attuned to the past this album sounds, it was arranged and recorded in a manner typical of 1980s electronic pop albums.

Take the aforementioned She Drives Me Crazy. Its signature snare drum sound was created from two different sources: one was the processed sound of an actual snare whacked with a wooden ruler, the other a drum machine sample. Their combined sound was fed through a speaker placed on a snare drum, with a microphone picking up the rattle to provide further ambiance, the result recorded and processed further. An unconventional method, at the time more commonly associated with bands like Depeche Mode, yielding a unique and instantly recognisable sound.

The track's guitar parts received a similar treatment, with single staccato notes layered as many as six times, recorded then triggered manually from a sampler during playback and mixing. Some parts were even fed through an underwater pool speaker, lending them a muted quality no conventional processing unit could provide. Such an approach to recording may seem highly artificial, yet it produced efficient and precise music of handcrafted intricacy, requiring levels of skill and imagination too often lacking in more traditional musical production.

It's a process that ultimately saved this particular track, originally titled She's My Baby, from being discarded. The FYC were not particularly pleased with it, and it was only at the insistence of producer David "Z" Rivkin - who upon hearing the demo couldn't get the melody out of his head - that they set about rewriting it. Once Z had initiated the session in his usual manner, by setting up a basic groove on a drum machine, the tight electro funk counterpointed by edgy, rock guitars and Roland Gift's precisely placed falsetto scats fell into place all by itself.

Z's encouragement was precisely what the band needed. Having relocated from their native Birmingham to London, they were taking their time recording the follow-up to their eponymous, 1985 debut. Having requested that Prince produce it, and been told he wasn't into that kind of thing, they finally settled for their label's offer to work with Z - older brother of Bobby Z, drummer in Prince's band - who had produced the demo that initiated the career of the diminutive artiste. The deal also forced the FYC to relocate to Minneapolis, where there's little to do in wintertime except work, much to their label's delight.

The formula of tight electronic grooves overlaid with minimal electric guitar motifs and other acoustic scats was one guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele had employed since their days with The Beat, the 2 Tone Ska revival band they helped form almost exactly 30 years ago. They perfected it with the 1987 single Tired of Getting Pushed Around, released under the wordy moniker 2 Men A Drum Machine & A Trumpet. A singular effort echoed by the FYC's Pull the Sucker Off, which accompanied the single release of She Drives Me Crazy.

Lyrically, the songs on the album lament love tried by a life in which the weekends are too short and too far apart - appropriate enough for the eras the music attempts to approximate. But the cautious kind of social commentary many British pop acts of the 1980s dabbled in occasionally bleeds through the shiny surface. For example in Don't Let It Get You Down (one of the more worthwhile examples of Acid House, next to Paul Rutherford's ABC-penned Get Real), where Gift vents his frustration with Britain's rampant institutionalised racism:

There's a club / I can't get in
Every week / it's the same damn thing
I get mad / I want to cry
It's my skin / they don't like

Another example would be Social Security, recorded for the Tin Men movie and tucked away on the Good Thing single, perhaps the only ballad ever dedicated to a social insurance scheme. Vocally the greatest surprise comes in As Hard As It Is, where Gift drops his falsetto in favour of a remarkable baritone - a revelation rivaling the modal performance of Bronski Beat's Junk by Jimmy Sommerville, perhaps the most famous falsetto of 1980s pop.

The artwork features a composite image, created by Richard Baker with Quantel's Paintbox system - fashionable in a time before Photoshop, framed by Keith Breeden
's distinct, bold graphics. A classic example of its era, it hardly betrays the cryptic puzzle hiding within: an inner sleeve which reads like a map legend, presenting information in a manner that not only strains the inquisitive listeners patience, but also risks creating misconceptions. Like the one that Jerry Harrison co-produced the album.

While the former Talking Heads guitarist and keyboardist did in fact co-produce the FYC 's recording of Ever Fallen In Love, the version included on The Raw & the Cooked was remixed by Julian Mendelsohn. A fact that likely reduces Harrison's input to roughly one-fourtieth of the entire album. The same is true of practically every other contributor listed; like former Squeeze pianist Julian "Jools" Holland, let loose on Good Thing, they're mostly bit players.

Though the band's gratitude mightn't have been misplaced, and even the most minute effort may very well have deserved mention - including those of the directors of the films the album's tracks appeared in - Breeden's design suggests a myriad of people apart from the core trio were involved in crafting the music. Which really wasn't the case. It was mostly just Cox, Gift, Steele, and a drum machine.

March 23, 2009

Tuulikki Pietilä, 1917-2009.

The Finnish graphic artist Tuulikki Tooti Pietilä has passed away. Born in Seattle, Pietilä studied art in Turku, Helsinki, Stockholm, and Paris. Though an established artist and professor in her own right, she is perhaps best remembered for inspiring the feisty character Tooticky in her life partner Tove Jansson's series of Moomin books and comic strip.


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