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Nothing Adds Up Until You Overthrow the System

It’s weird trying to write this today, May 31st, with all that’s going on across the country—and around the world—right now. The images of our overly-militarized, super aggro, disgusting police officers running unarmed people over, throwing women to the ground, shooting teenagers with pepper balls and rubber bullets (that one I saw live, about 20 feet from where I was standing, here in Rochester), is fucking disgusting. And the way in which Trump and his cohort of morons couldn’t manage a proper lockdown response to COVID for MONTHS, but can shut down cities and send in more militarized groups of people is simply appalling, but, I guess, par for the course in this broken country, in these broken times.

That said, this isn’t necessarily the place for a long political rant—especially since I’m gleefully unaware of what it might mean that this is hosted on the University of Rochester server—so I’ll just plant this powerful protest video here and move on to the ideas (not entirely unrelated?) that I’ve been working on for the past few weeks. (And since the rest of Open Letter is on furlough and can’t edit this: ACAB.)

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The original idea for this post came from a line I can half-sort-of-maybe remember from Michel Butor’s Passing Time, which was translated from the French by Jean Stewart back in 1961. (By Simon & Schuster of all presses.) The book is way way out of print, and for the life of me, I can’t remember why we didn’t reissue this at Dalkey Archive when we did Degrees and Mobile. I like all of his books, but there’s something about the tone and “detective story” aspect of Passing Time that comes back to me time and again.

On Passing Time” by Kathleen O’Neill is both very interesting, and an incredible way of jogging my memory, even if the quote I initially was structuring this post around, well, probably doesn’t exist.

The novel is written as a journal—starting in May, but recounting the events from the past October—by Jacques Revel about the year he spends in Bleston (a sort of stand-in for Manchester, England). While he’s in the dark, wet, cold, bleak industrial town, he meets a couple sisters, a potential arsonist, and the author behind the pseudonymously written The Bleston Murder, who survives an attempt on his life. What makes this book really work is that, as Revel rereads his own diary, he sees inaccuracies in his own account of events and essentially becomes a detective in which he discovers that he himself was the criminal (and kind of the victim). It’s a fascinating book that really melds together form and content, and is essentially, a meditation on the relationship between the writer and the reader—or the criminal and the detective.

What I thought I remembered from this book was a quote about how there’s a contract between the writer of a detective novel and the audience in which the author is responsible for creating a world in which all the clues fit together and the audience receives a “satisfactory” resolution in which the criminal is exposed and justice is served.

Although this isn’t quite the same (at all), here’s what I think the actual quote from Passing Time is;

Any detective story, is constructed on two murders of which the first, committed by the criminal, is only the occasion of the second, in which he is the victim of the pure, unpunishable murderer, the detective, who kills him . . . by the explosion of truth.

Both of these quotes (the real and imagined) play nicely off of bits from Franco Moretti’s “Clues” (collected in Signs Taken for Wonders) and his analysis of Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

And detective fiction’s characters are inert indeed: they do not grow. In this way, detective fiction is radically anti-novelistic: the aim of the narration is no longer the character’s development into autonomy, or a change from the initial situation, or the presentation of plot as a conflict and an evolutionary spiral, image of a developing world that it is difficult to draw to a close. On the contrary: detective fiction’s object is to return to the beginning. [. . . ] So it is too with the reader who, attracted precisely by the obsessively repetitive scheme, is “unable’ to stop until the cycle has closed and he has returned to the starting point.

He develops this idea in much greater depth—part of which we’ll come back to later—but this got me thinking about the “detective” books I like the most: ones in which the reader has to sort clue from noise, in which the center doesn’t necessarily hold, and the plot never quite congeals in a reassuring, satisfactory, or, in Moretti terms, bourgeoisie fashion. Books like Case Closed by Patrik Ourednik.

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Originally written in 2006 and translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker in 2010, Case Closed is, ostensibly, a detective novel. But one in which the clues don’t seem to add up, the resolution is unsatisfying by typical standards, and one of the crimes being investigated is never clearly articulated.

We know from the jump that we’re in for some sort of game, given that chapter 1 is a notated chess game:

1 e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Bc4 d6 4. nf3 Bg4 5. O-O Qd7 6. d4 g5 7. c3 Nc6 [. . .] 27. hxg3 hxg3+ 28. Kg1 rgh8 29. Bf3 Qxg4

(I assume this is all accurate and playable, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was at least partially nonsense.)

Then, in chapter 2, we have two major events that more or less drive the book itself. First off, Viktor Dyk (winning dick as in detective?), a retiree and main player in this novel, gives a young woman inaccurate directions to the Academy of Fine Arts (we find out later that she’s raped as a result) and then we hear about Mrs. Horak’s death. Or at least part of it.

“Have you heard? Mrs. Horak was hit by a car.”

“No! Is it serious?”

“Serious or not, she’s dead from it, dead as a doornail. Supposedly she staggered home, opened the door, and bang! She was gone. She couldn’t breathe, poor thing, and her eyes were wide open.”

To give you a real sense of the whiplash-inducing, playful tone of this book, here’s a bit from the same chapter about Viktor Dyk:

Dyk had a habit of pulling pronouncements out of his noggin and dressing them up with fraudulent, usually biblical, sources. Long ago he had come to realize that repeating what someone else had once said was considered the utmost expression of intelligence in his country. At one time, in the days when he still collected beetles, he used to declare ownership of his pronouncements (“as I always say”), but he never got any response except an awkward smile. Until one day it occurred to him to add “Book of Ruth 6:4″—and lo and behold, eyes lighted up all around, women’s in appreciation, men’s in envy. Since then, he had done so every time.

Fast-forward to chapter 6, and we maybe get introduced to the mystery that Inspector Lebeda (introduced in chapter 8) is going to be investigating.

Mrs. Horak’s death wasn’t a result of the accident. The car was innocent. It barely grazed her. Mrs. Horak fell down, banged her knee, tore her stocking. Ranting and limping, she made her way home. Once there, she turned on the gas, opened the oven, and stuck her head in. They say that women, particularly in old age, rarely resort to suicide, and when they do, they think long and hard about their decision and as a rule they choose less radical means than men do. But statistics provide only an imperfect picture of an individual’s life: in this respect Mrs. Horak defied sexual categorization. She’d had enough, she’d had it up to here. [. . .]

We shall see later whether and to what extent these statistical incongruities influence the course of our story and the fates of our other protagonists. In any case it spurred the firemen to call the police without delay. Which they would have done regardless; this, however, enables us to evoke a promising atmosphere of tension, thereby strengthening the dramatic line. The firemen may not give a damn, but our readers certainly do.

One of the difficulties in describing this incredibly fun, somewhat enigmatic book is that it is like a chess game. There are so many people, so many moves, so many positions on the board. For instance, Lebeda’s main case at the start of the book is called “Damage of Advertising Surfaces in Public Spaces,” in which he’s trying to figure out which groups are defiling the “city’s metro and streetside postering surfaces [. . .] with signs of an active anticapitalist, anti-advertising campaign—whole posters x’d out in black, as well as graffiti both general (Down with advertising, Ads lie, Citizen, don’t be an ass, Pay the unemployed) and specific (Women are not goods, This washer will wash your brain, Bud won’t make you wiser) [. . .]” The interpretation of these “defacings” (and, given the current situation, livI’m ALL FOR some anti-capitalist, anti-racist graffiti) is either a key to untangling the mysteries of this book, or a total red herring.

And suddenly, I’ve returned to the beginning of my take on this book: Detective novels in which the clues are misleading, maybe not actually clues at all, contradictory, and filled with digressions are exactly the sort of detective novels I am drawn to. Post-modern puzzle books are totally my jam. But what is the function of these sorts of books versus “traditional” (Sherlock Holmes era) detective novels?

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I feel like I should be more embarrassed about this next statement than I actually am: I LOVE Riverdale. Especially season four. The show runs at 150% crazy at all moments in time, but season four is the most Lynchian—by way of The Secret History—show I’ve ever seen. It’s a masterclass in how you’re not supposed to write television. Instead of an A-plot that lasts for a few episodes with B-plots moving along secondary characters, every episode of Riverdale has A through Z plots for EVERY character, and moves at breakneck speed, changing the overall “game” of the show CONSTANTLY. Every scene either kicks off a whole new plot that would constitute a season on a “normal” show, or ends the plot that was just kicked off. I can only assume that watching Riverdale is like snorting LSD off of a tab of meth.

Anyway, by the middle of season four, at least half of the characters on this show—and yes, this features all the Archie-Betty-Veronica comic book characters—have either murdered someone or disposed of someone who has been murdered. It’s insane how many crimes go unpunished in this town. A character gets out of jail and is, instantly—in the same episode—elected mayor. The police chief rehides a body he buried in season 2 (?) with the help of an FBI agent (?). I want to say that this show is off the rails, but it’s a show in which the original “rails” look like a Jackson Pollack painting.

Every season of this show is centered around one mystery (or one hundred), but the resolution of that mystery is irrelevant from the start. For Riverdale to work, we have to suspect everyone—easy to do since they’ve all either taken a life or disposed of a dead body or done a shitton of jingle jangle—and know that nothing is permanent. Nothing is off the board.

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The Moretti idea that this entire post is based around is that the function of detective fiction is to “return to the beginning” in order to ensure that the values of society at large are reconfirmed at the expense of individuality.

The difference between innocence and guilt returns as the opposition between stereotype and individual. Innocence is conformity; individuality, guilt. It is, in fact, something irreducibly personal that betrays the individual: traces, signs that only he could have left behind. The perfect crime—the nightmare of detective fiction—is the featureless, deindividualized crime that anyone could have committed because at this point everyone is the same.

A criminal transgresses, affirming their individuality by violating a social norm; a detective uncovers their identity; they are brought to justice for said transgression. (Unless you’re an American cop . . .) A detective novel, in its purest sense, is a confirmation that what we “all” believe in is preferred with the detective capable of reaffirming the status quo. The core of Moretti’s idea is that by transgressing, you become an individual, and it’s the detective’s purpose to reestablish the order of society as a whole. It’s not OK to murder your co-worker, and by being found out and jailed, we all are reminded what is acceptable. 

Neither Case Closed, nor Riverdale entertain this idea for a second. In Case Closed, it’s all about providing too many clues, too many crimes, too many iterations to establish a single, widely accepted, “wrong” thing that deserves to be put back in line. Was the transgression Mrs. Horak’s suicide and what went on in that building? What societal norms need to be restored? The disdain Viktor Dyk has for his countrymen? If anything, this is a detective novel about violence against women, but even that’s not addressed in a satisfactory manner. Case Closed is an incredibly fun book that points out how non-totalizing detective narratives are in real life. There’s no single, simple solution. Such is baseball, such is life.

Riverdale can’t have agreed upon societal norms. Full stop. If everyone in Riverdale agreed on the same set of principles the world would fall apart. That show only works by knowing that it’s all subjective and wild AF. Instead of sending one character off the edge and exploring that, break the town. Totally. There’s never a resolution to anything because any resolution would kill the very engine of this show, which is the wild individuality each character asserts over and over again. Sure, Archie is always dumb and making the wrong choices, but his bad decisions are what make him a unique character. All resolutions in Riverdale (the arrest of the Black Hood, the discovery of who killed Jason Blossom, Jughead’s death) is erased immediately in order to allow for the character to transgress again and set off a new storyline. It’s totally daytime soap opera shit run through the mind of David Lynch and Michael Bay.

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Immediately after reading Moretti’s “Clues,” I picked up Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad, translated from the Norwegian by Agnes Scott Langeland and published by New Directions. Been meaning to read this for a while, but, given just how perfectly it fit in with Moretti’s ideas, I’m really glad I waited.

This is billed as an “existential mystery” centering around Pål Andersen’s decision not to report a murder he thinks he’s witnessed. It’s a novel of inaction and indecision, one that directly responds to Moretti’s ideas about the sociology of detective novels.

Everything’s set in motion on Christmas Eve, when Professor Andersen sees a man strangle a woman in the apartment building directly across from his:

[. . .] he reared back in horror as the man whom he had declared with such immediate certainty to be young put his hands around the woman’s neck and squeezed. She flailed her arms about, Professor Andersen noticed, her body jerked, he observed, before she all at once became completely still beneath the man’s hands and went limp. [. . .]

“I must call the police,” he thought. He went over to the telephone, but did not lift the receiver. “It was murder. I must call the police,” he thought, but still did not lift the receiver. Instead he went back to the window.

Days pass, and he does nothing until he shows up an hour early for a dinner party with the plan of filling the host in on what he saw and asking his advice. But he doesn’t do that, either. Instead, over the course of the dinner, he thinks about how they all used to be at the cutting edge, the rebellious youth who opposed the system and loved avant-garde poetry, but that now, well, they were the establishment.

They were strongly disinclined to regard themselves as pillars of society. Because they didn’t feel they conformed: not to the authority, or rather duties, which they enacted, nor to the social group to which they belonged. They denied being what they were. [. . .] They continued to be against authority, deep inside they were in opposition, even though they were now, in fact, pillars of society who carried out the State’s orders, and no one besides themselves (and old photographs from the year 2020) could perceive that they were anything other than State officials, part of the State fabric, and the fact that most of them voted in elections for the ruling party would hardly surprise anyone other than themselves, but they, on the other hand, would argue that they didn’t want to throw away their own vote and by so doing bring the right-wingers into power.

His desire to return to some earlier place, where his beliefs and actions were more radical, more “meaningful” actions is the engine of the rest of this book. Through the lens of Moretti, he asserts his individuality by not serving the role of the detective, refusing to allow society to reassert its moral viewpoint.

This isn’t to say that what he did was right. I mean, I hope I don’t have to say this, but please report any and all acts of domestic violence (and police violence). And believe women. But, in the context of this novel—in which there are many hints that this “murder” might not have actually taken place—the crime serves as the catalyst to allow Pål to explore the relationship of the individual to society, especially a society that’s built on historical beliefs or rituals that modern people don’t necessarily connect with. This is also reflected in his ambivalence over teaching Ibsen, since he doesn’t feel the same jolt reading him nowadays, and the vast majority of his students don’t feel it either.

His sin of omission couldn’t be defended. Every civilization is built on such actions being indefensible. That goes without saying. In all circumstances. When he didn’t report it, he had become and outcast, along with the murderer. An outcast in his own eyes, along with the murderer. And he deserved this. And behind it all was God. As the ultimate reason why breaking this natural order was a taboo which no living person can explain, touch, or wipe from their memory.

The idea of detective fiction as a conflict between the individual and a monolithic society is fascinating to me in part because I don’t think it holds anymore. It made sense back in Sherlock Holmes times, and into the 1930s, but post-WWII, the idea of a “monolithic set of societal mores” feels . . . naive? We don’t agree on anything anymore. We have a president who won’t protect his citizens, ennobles fascists to be more fascist, and plays a victim role like a sniveling punk in hopes of further fracturing the American people. So, again, please report domestic abuse, but maybe assert your individuality by not reporting fellow protestors and standing up for the values that we should all agree on. Like justice. And defunding the police.



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