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.

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