14 September 2011

Fictional shorts

When I first picked up Hold Still, Nina LaCour's novel of depression and recovery, I didn't realize it was written for the teen market--but when I figured that out, it didn't keep me from finishing the book. It's funny--when I was in high school, I devoured Dostoevsky, Koestler, Theodore Roszak, Norbert Wiener...and now, forty years later (that's right, I'm just now missing my fortieth reunion at Evanston Township High School), I like nothing better than to read a good novel about high school life.

For one thing, I don't remember having a "life" in high school, so it's great to borrow someone else's. I read about social anxieties, rivalries, boy-girl agonies, dances and parties, and all those other details of high school life in part to fill in huge gaps in my own experience. I kept a daily diary starting halfway through my freshman year, but that doesn't help me figure out what a "normal" high school life might have been. In those years, my home life was one crisis after another, with both my parents drinking, and the older of my two sisters repeatedly running away from home, eventually committed to a mental institution from which she escaped, only to be murdered on the streets of Chicago before her fifteenth birthday.

For me, during those years, school was my refuge--the classroom and the library, specifically. The fewer friends, the better--that way I didn't have to explain stuff. (A couple of my teachers, and a couple of guidance counselors, knew a bit of the picture, and in my last year I was blessed with two good friends as well. In a wonderful burst of insight, a librarian whose name is recorded in my diary--Willett?--gave a book of Langston Hughes' poetry to the school library in my sister's memory.)

Hold Still's heroine Caitlin becomes socially paralyzed when her best friend Ingrid commits suicide. Her burrowing into safe anonymity reminded me of my more or less permanent determination in high school to be anonymous to all but a select few. There are lots of differences in our two stories (aside from mine not being fiction!)--her immobility follows a specific trauma, whereas I hid as a matter of general policy, and was actually happy most of the time. She's not particularly ashamed of her parents, but mine drank constantly and fought constantly. But there was a moment of instant connection between our two stories--when Caitlin's friend Taylor asked her how Ingrid killed herself. My version of this story came on the first school day after Ellen's death. I was sitting in a phys ed class assembly--a lecture on not doing drugs--and more or less drifting along in my own world, when I heard the coach talking about an Evanston Township High School girl who'd been found murdered in Chicago. I felt the instant gut-wrenching imperative to interrupt him and tell everyone she was my sister before the coach made connections in his sermon that he had no right to make. I hated being that exposed, but had no choice.

Caitlin wrestles with guilt over not having revealed the fact that Ingrid cut herself even to the point of carving words on her stomach. Here too I have a point of contact, being aware that people I liked (from a distance) were clearly becoming alcoholics; I had no idea what to do about it. I loved Caitlin's and Ingrid's involvement in their photography class ("hold still"); for me, a class in television production in my senior year was my first peek into the world of creativity beyond text. The birth and growth of new friendships for Caitlin in the novel were believable; I'm grateful to have had some of the same experiences before my high school years ended.

Of all the books "for young readers" I've read in recent years, trying to fill in that gap in my own life, nothing has yet moved me as much as Dicey's Song. This was my first exposure to the world created by author Cynthia Voigt, and, to tell you the truth, this was the one book of hers I didn't actually read; we listened to it as an audio book on a family car trip. Never have I so wanted a trip to last long enough to get us to the end of the recording! In fact, I think we circled the last few blocks near our home in Richmond, Indiana, at the time, because we couldn't bear to interrupt the reading.

Since then I've gone on to read the first book in Dicey's series, Homecoming, and many other books by this author, whose ability to convey unsentimental truths in realistic kindness and love is almost unique. My own mother's mental illness and its devastating impact on our family made me ready to learn how another group of young people met a similar challenge. And, along the way, Dicey and her family also managed to fill me in on some of the "normalcy" of growing up that I don't remember experiencing for myself.

Books and Culture recently published, and made available online, an absorbing article by Joseph Bottum on "God and the Detectives." He estimates that, of the thousands of detective and crime novels published each year, at least 200 have an explicitly religious dimension. There are so many that we can identify subgenres--Anglican women clergy detectives, for example, or crime novels set in medieval times. Bottum discusses the critera for a genuine religious detective story, and what might be the self-limiting factors built into the genre that prevent crime novels from reaching the level of truly unforgettable literature.

When the Adam Dalgliesh novels of P.D. James were serialized and presented on television, I remember that the American packaging of those stories by WGBH Boston included brief comments from the author herself. She said in one episode (I'm going from memory here) that the attraction of the murder mystery is the restoration of the moral order. Creation has been wrenched out of order by the commission of murder, and we derive satisfaction from a resolution that puts it right again. If I remember correctly, Dalgliesh was himself an agnostic, but that doesn't mean he couldn't be used as an agent of Godly justice.

Along those same lines, I'm reflecting on why I found the two novels I've recently read by Jo Nesbø, Nemesis and The Snowman, so satisfying. I don't think in fact that P.D. James's thesis works for me here. I want the crimes to be solved, of course--but it's mostly because I like the hero and don't want him to fail. There's a conflict driving the narrative, and I want my guy to prevail. But that's almost a side issue. In The Snowman, the plot is so intricate that I often lost track of details and plunged on anyway, trusting that things would make sense in the end. (The story chains together several candidate villains, and I think that is all I want to reveal here.) The real attraction of the novel is the recovering/relapsing alcoholic and workaholic Harry Hole.

Bottum's essay in Books and Culture considers W.H. Auden's commentary on detective fiction. "In Auden's reading, mysteries are essentially theological, for they concern, at root, innocence and guilt as states of being—as metaphysical realities." Bottum assesses Auden's commentary and finds it wanting, basically because there is no primordially innocent stage upon which the drama of violation, guilt, and justice play out as the detective narrative progresses from murder to investigation to arrest and trial and--presumably--a classic execution by hanging. For me, that stage is actually inside Harry Hole's head. The main drama is his reflections on his own cynicism, addictions, betrayals, and central values. Much of this drama is surprisingly biblical, considering the near absence of actual religious language. All of this intimate drama serves to increase the reader's investment in a successful outcome, even though we know that, to Hole, all satisfactions are fragile and temporary.

More righteous links:

(After September 11) "The silence of Holy Saturday."

Where is Senator Hatfield when we need him? "To Pray or Not to Pray? Civil Religion and the 9/11 Memorial Service."

Damaris Zehner: "Anger at the poor."

The Academic Forum for Peace: Eastern Orthodox Archbishop Kallistos Ware is one of the Golden Jubilee medal winners.

Education and character: "What if the secret to success is failure?"

"Plain Text/Information Density"--the sheer efficiency of the humble word.

Permit us a long-distance boast: "Multnomah County Library is number two in the nation."

"Arctic ice coverage shrinks to near record low--Russian meteorologists."

Several commenters mention that Windows 8 looks a lot like Ubuntu Linux's Unity desktop. Here's more about what's coming up for Ubuntu and Unity (beta available now).

More from Charlie Musselwhite:


Jeremy Mott said...

Charlie Musselwhite is magnificent as usual. I don't know of a better blues harpist. Thank you, Johan.
Nearby on Youtube are some tracks of Sunny Girl, a blues singer and harpist from Ann Arbor, who is (or was) only about 10 years old. Check her out, she's really good.
Jeremy Mott

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Jeremy. I'll go find those clips.

Anonymous said...

In my mind, a crime novel at its best is a narrative Christian anthropology. God said "Thou shalt not kill" and created almost all of us with a strong aversion to killing and death. And yet some among us kill... How can that be? What causes us to violate that taboo? A good murder mystery echoes the mystery of the act of murder, and the detective in the story is like my alter ego who pursues the mystery for me. It helps me understand the mystery of what it means to be human, somehow.

Johan Maurer said...

Susanne, this is a crucial element of my own experience that I completely left out of my comments. Depending on the detective and the context, I experience him or her as my alter ego or my partner. In the case of Harry Hole, I don't experience exactly the same binge and remorse cycle, but I do have very similar internal conversations.