Monday, May 4, 2009

The Book of Murder, Guillermo Martínez

Martínez, you may have noticed, had a story in a recent New Yorker; I read it, liked it, and was in the library a couple of days later scanning the New Book shelves when I ran across this. It's great and even occasionally fantastic, especially if you're not tired of Bolaño yet. That's a backhanded compliment, I guess, and therefore a little unintentionally dissuasive (I do want to recommend the book, after all), but on the other hand, it does give a pretty good idea of what you'll be getting yourself into. Martínez is richly and eclectically allusive, describes violence with a kind of forensic intensity that can make the simple act of holding the book feel suddenly uncomfortable, and the characters are all defined by their relationship to authorship. The themes—fate/chance, evil, literature—are your standard Bolaño obsessions.

But unlike Bolaño, Martínez is marketed—in translation at least—as a crime writer (though maybe that will change if his publishers take this New Yorker spot and run with it), as a kind of Hispanic Matthew Pearl. So it's not surprising but nonetheless kind of disappointing that a blurb like the following will show up on the back cover: "This is a clever, chilling novel that takes crime writing to a new level." You'd never see something like that on Distant Star or 2666, now would you?

I think it's interesting to poke a little bit at this splinter of genial/genteel condescension, as a comparison of these two writers may bring to the surface a few of my frustrations with the ways by which "genre fiction" gets defended as "intellectually serious." For the record, I don't disagree with that contention, but I find its articulation to be often wanting.

For one thing, there's often a kind of agreement between the defenders and the condescenders to focus on the intellectual aspirations of a book rather than its execution. What, in the eyes of its condescenders, lifts this one example of genre fiction above the rest, is basically the same thing that, in the eyes of its defenders, demonstrates the arbitrariness of genre distinctions—the fact that genre authors are often transparently trying to be smart, that they are exceptionally eager to show you how committed they are to ideas. Taking on big, philosophically rich and thorny themes—chance and evil in this book—is considered an achievement in itself, as if authorship consisted entirely in ambitions. (This is certainly the case in the reviewing of first novels as well, a genre in itself for sure.)

Similarly, the quality of name-drops is almost always noted—as if that proved something about the book, other than that its author is, again, committed to ideas and is trying to be smart. There's a sort of credit given for the transparency of the book's intellectual ostentation. One of the most hyperbolic instances I've run across occurred this year in the Tournament of Books, when a commentator stated proudly about a YA novel whose place in the tournament was questioned: "any book that name-checks Foucault and has a running metaphor on the Panopticon isn’t spending all its time in the shallow end." He's not alone: check out the novel's Goodreads page, where people say very similar things: "let's face it, how many other YA novels are going to cite P.G. Wodehouse and Michel Foucault?"

The focus on ambition is handy for both the condescenders and the defenders: by shifting the terms from the limitations and achievements of the book at hand to the possibilities and capabilities of the author, you have a readymade argument either for the exceptional intelligence of this one figure (as opposed to his or her fellow genre hacks) or for the idea that any truly creative writer can work with any material and produce something of value, that genre no more constrains authorial energy and genius than her physical mode of writing (typewriter, word processor, pen/paper). (FWIW, I give a lot of credence to this latter argument—the proof is just too abundant.)

I suppose I just don't like this ambiguity—the grounds for evaluating fiction classified as genre should not so easily produce conflicting arguments.

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