16 November 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is focused on crime and detective books—both fiction and nonfiction. First off, we talk (i.e., Chad monologues) about Errol Morris’s “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald” and his recent Twitter fight with Joe McGinniss about this case. Then we move on to talking about Wolf Haas’s “Brenner and God” and what makes this book (and detective books in general) fun to read. Also, Tom acts grumpy.

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16 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote about Wolf Haas’s Brenner and God, which is translated from the German by Annie Janusch and available from Melville House.

This is the first Brenner book to come out in English, but actually the seventh in the series. I believe that Melville House has rights to 2 or 4 more, so there will be more Brenner in the near future . . .

Also, if you’re interested, Tom Roberge and I spent a lot of time talking about this book on this week’s podcast.

Anyway, here’s the opening of my review:

Brenner and God_ is the first book in the “Brenner” series to come out in English, and only the second Wolf Haas title overall. The Weather Fifteen Years Ago came out from Ariadne Press a few years back and blew away the BTBA fiction committee—one reason why I was really excited to pick up this novel.

Unlike Weather, which is a postmodern, playful novel that’s one long interview between a female book reviewer and Wolf Haas, Brenner and God is a fairly straightforward detective novel. It centers around Brenner, a former detective who is now a chauffeur for a two-year-old girl whose father is a “Lion of Construction” responsible for building the controversial MegaLand, and whose mother runs an abortion clinic that is constantly besieged by protestors. So when Helena disappears from the back of Brenner’s car, he has dozens of suspects to investigate . . .

I don’t read a lot of detective novels, so I’m not sure exactly how to categorize this. Tom Roberge and I talked about on our most recent podcast—the difference between crime books that focus on the horrors of the criminal mind, and the ones that function more like a puzzle. In which case, Brenner and God fits more into the second category. There is some violence and gross killing, but the motives of those involved aren’t necessarily psychotic, per se. It’s more about business and politics and sex.

Click here to read the full review.

16 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Brenner and God is the first book in the “Brenner” series to come out in English, and only the second Wolf Haas title overall. The Weather Fifteen Years Ago came out from Ariadne Press a few years back and blew away the BTBA fiction committee—one reason why I was really excited to pick up this novel.

Unlike Weather, which is a postmodern, playful novel that’s one long interview between a female book reviewer and Wolf Haas, Brenner and God is a fairly straightforward detective novel. It centers around Brenner, a former detective who is now a chauffeur for a two-year-old girl whose father is a “Lion of Construction” responsible for building the controversial MegaLand, and whose mother runs an abortion clinic that is constantly besieged by protestors. So when Helena disappears from the back of Brenner’s car, he has dozens of suspects to investigate . . .

I don’t read a lot of detective novels, so I’m not sure exactly how to categorize this. Tom Roberge and I talked about on our most recent podcast—the difference between crime books that focus on the horrors of the criminal mind, and the ones that function more like a puzzle. In which case, Brenner and God fits more into the second category. There is some violence and gross killing, but the motives of those involved aren’t necessarily psychotic, per se. It’s more about business and politics and sex.

In that way, and in terms of the overall tone of the book, it most reminded me of early Echenoz (Cherokee, Double Jeopardy, Big Blondes) and Rubem Fonseca (High Art). (Although to be accurate, Fonesca writes about some totally fucked up characters, especially in our collection The Taker & Other Stories.)

Evaluating this as a detective novel, I found it really satisfying. A lot of “clues” are laid out, and everything unspools and fits together in a way that’s nicely paced and keeps the reader guessing right along with Brenner. It also includes a lot of the necessary tropes: a retired detective called back into service, a slew of dead bodies, clipped conversations, decent sleuthing, tense situations, a car chase, a kidnapping, a hot redhead, and some banging. It’s a very entertaining book to read, and I’m convinced that these books will gain a larger and larger following as more of the titles from the series become available.

Now, onto my issues.

One of the most notable features of this book is the narrator. Rather than being told from a first-person p.o.v. or from an omniscient, distanced p.o.v., the narrator in Brenner and God is also a sort of character—one who is maybe similar to Brenner, but has a distinct personality and is relating this story in a self-aware way that’s only somewhat successful:

My grandmother always used to say to me, when you die, they’re gonna give that mouth of yours its own funeral. So you see, a personal can change. Because today I am the epitome of silence. And it’d take something out of the ordinary to get me started. The days when everything used to set me off are over. Listen, why should every bloodbath wind up in my pint of beer? Like I’ve been saying for some time now, it’s up to the boys to take care of. My motto, as it were.

Personally, I prefer to look on the positive side of life these days. Not just Murder He Wrote all the time, and who-got-who with a bullet, a knife, and extension cord, or what all else I don’t know.

As a sort of companion through Brenner’s complicated affair, this narratorial voice works pretty well. It helps to create a sort of fun, almost jokey tone that elevates this from being a horrifying book about a child kidnapping into something that’s more literary, almost a reflexive look at what makes detective novels detective novels. (Which brings to mind Butor’s Passing Time, a truly amazing book that should definitely be reprinted by Dalkey or New Directions or Alma Books or Open Letter or someone.)

This narratorial technique also allows for shifts in scenes and perspectives in a way that feels more conversational than contrived—a line that a lot of detective books have to walk. It also allows for Haas to call attention to particular bits, either as a way of generating tension and readerly interest via heavy-handed foreshadowing (the constant references to the “five deaths” and how the city will be torn apart at the end of the book), or of distracting the reader from some other potentially useful detail.

My problem with the narratorial voice is pretty specific. First off, the sort of intentional heavy-handedness comes off as a bit condescending to me. I swear, the phrase “pay attention” appears at least 400 times every chapter1 and becomes the most irritating of authorial tics.

Pay attention: Natalie was the clinic’s psychologist, because a pregnancy’s never terminated without psychological counseling. [. . .]

Pay attention. Brenner was thinking to himself, _Milan will definitely know someone who can unlock Knoll’s phone for me, the sort of thing someone at a gas station knows. [. . .]

And I’ve got to say, Brenner had seldom been so right. Within just a few hours he would become all too conscious of just what little clue he truly had at that moment.

But for now, pay attention.

More befuddling are these two references to the reader (I assume):

My dear swan, Brenner hadn’t been in a funk like this in a long time. [. . .]

My dear swan, Knoll, the congressman, and the two bully-boys . . .

“Swan”?!? I assume I’m just not getting something here and am more than willing to own up to my ignorance. But still. It’s weird and disruptive to me as a reader.

There’s also a certain habit of Haas’s/Janusch’s of ending sentences with a comma (or “because”) followed by a clipped sort of explanation. This will make more sense in the examples below. At first, I thought this style was kind of cool, and very fitting for a detective book—there’s something stark about it, almost puzzle-like in how the “explanation” phrase fits into place. But by the end it felt more like a crutch than a technique. As if this was the only way the narrator could talk to convey his personality.

But Brenner’s shadower was bald in such an old-fashioned way, with a wreath of hair around his head, i.e., the worst kind in the rain, because the raindrops hammer way at the unprotected bald part, and regardless, wet hair. [. . .]

But now, either on account of the pills or the nonalcoholic beer or quite simply from age, or a rusty brain, or withering horomones—in all events, no line. [. . .]

Because one thing’s clear: when you’ve come as far as [SPOILER] has, you don’t waste any time coddling your witnesses, no, you mop them up like fly droppings because—no sentimentality.

Anyway, that’s probably a personal quirk that exposes more about my reading likes and dislikes than the book itself. And overall, I think this is really fun and will be greatly enjoyed by scads of readers. As a detective book, I think it’s really solid. As a work of translated fiction, I’d give it a 6.5 out of 10.

1 Slight exaggeration.

2 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next fourteen days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas. Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen. (Austria, Ariadne)

Wolf Haas’s The Weather Fifteen Years Ago has the dual distinction of being the most obscure title on this year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist and also the most formally experimental. Although before you run away and hide, I should say right now and here that this is also one of the most readable and engaging titles on the longlist—despite its formalist tendencies.

Which, given Haas’s background, makes a bit of sense. Haas is most famous in Austria for his “Detective Brenner” crime novels that “present the exploits of a cantankerous ex-cop plagued by migraines” (according to Thomas S. Hansen’s afterword). The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, originally published in German in 2006, may be his first non-thriller, but the way in which the reader pieces together the plot from the five-day long interview between Wolf Haas and an anonymous female book reviewer, functions sort of like a mystery.

In the novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, Wolf Haas is being interviewed about a book he wrote with the same title that is more or less a prolonged story of unrequited love. The novel inside the novel revolves around one Vittorio Kowalski, who appears on a game show to show off his ability to remember what the weather was like in a particular small village in the Austrian Alps every day for the past fifteen years. In and of itself, this is a pretty remarkable, but the Haas of the novel knows that there’s something more to the story . . . Why would a man memorize the weather every day for some podunk town where his family once vacationed? (A: A girl. It’s always a girl.)

From this seemingly innocent, yet oddly compelling story, a whole world unfolds, one that’s both intricate in terms of its plot (there’s a lot more to this little summer love than one initially expects) and in terms of how the interviewer talks with (fictional) Haas about the way the (imaginary) book is written.

I know that sounds confusing, but here’s the opening page just to give you a sense of how easy it is to fall into this book and how many levels this works on:

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Haas, I’ve been going back and forth for a long time about where I should start.

WOLF HAAS: So have I.

BOOK REVIEW: Unlike you, though, I don’t want to start at the end. Actually—

WOLF HAAS: Strictly speaking, I don’t start at the end either. I start with the first kiss.

BOOK REVIEW: But in a way that’s the whole point of the story you’re telling. Or, the way I see it, the goal toward which everything moves. Speaking strictly chronologically, it belongs at the end of the story. Your hero has been working toward this kiss for fifteen years, and in the end he finally gets it, but you don’t describe this scene at the end. Instead, you prefer to put it right at the opening.

WOLF HAAS: There were actually a few openings I liked better. My problem wasn’t so much the beginning, or how I should start, but where to put the kiss. You can’t just stick it at the end, where it belongs, so to speak. But that would be intolerable. When someone has been waiting for, or as you say, working toward, a kiss for fifteen years, and hten he finally gets it, how are you supposed to describe that?

BOOK REVIEW: While I was reading, I wondered if you were declaring war on the reviewer by moving the conclusion to the first page.

WOLF HAAS: That would have been pushing it too far.

This infamous kiss—described so precisely, clinically in Haas’s imaginary book—is what the Book Reviewer and (fictional) Haas then build to in their interview, and by the time you as a reader actually get there, the weight of the moment is incredible . . .

It’s a lot of fun to puzzle out the various plot points of the imaginary book under discussion, and I’d be interested in hearing from other readers as to whether they think the imaginary book is supposed to be all that well written. The Book Reviewer seems to have a lot of respect for it, and for (fictional) Haas’s writing, but at the same time, there are scenes she describes that seem interminably dry:

BOOK REVIEW: When you read this passage, it’s almost maddening how you describe the wedding guests in such a detailed way. Here, of all places, when all you want to know is if, and how, Vittorio Kowalski escapes, you lose yourself in the artistry of describing Anni’s wedding dress. When it first appeared three days ago, Anni called the color “vanilla.”

WOLF HAAS: Three days and seven hours ago, yes.

BOOK REVIEW: And now it says it was by no means vanilla. And then there follow some digressions about vanilla ice cream at the swimming pool and you even give the price of a scoop of vanilla ice cream at that time.

That’s what makes this book a lot of fun: to imagine the imaginary literary work behind all these allusions and discussions. And (the real) Haas does a marvelous job of making this feel like a genuine conversation. Sure, belief is suspended when you consider the idea of a book reviewer spending five days talking to an author about a single book (not to mention the implausibility of just how precisely she seems to know the book . . .), but still, the conversation flows and as the book progresses, it gets more and more engaging. The “metafictional” frame never distracts from the story. And speaking of the “metafictional” element, I’ll end with a long quote from Hansen’s afterword about this:

All metafiction confronts readers with clearly playful literary experiences. Haas chooses to do more than interrupt a plot line with meta-narrative or digression; he presents the whole narrative in this form. The result produces some intriguing puzzles to engage readers in constructing their own interpretations and even alternative story lines. The often argumentative conversation between the fictional author and the interviewer, in which they disagree about interpretation and even plot, establishes the unreliability of any narrative point of view. “Haas” claims to tell Vittorio Kowalski’s quest for love, and in doing so, he betrays an identification with his character so close that at one point the third person and first person pronouns merge: the narrator’s “he” (describing Kowalski) slips into “I.” To add to this shifting point of view, the time levels in the tale are also porous. The narrated sequence of events does not unfold chronologically but emerges according to the associative vagaries of interviewer and author—and both comment on this fact. Time is almost an exercise in praeteritio, which is driven by disclaimers like “we won’t mention the fact that . . .” or “I’ve cut a certain passage.” These strategies themselves generate new content and propel the reader through various associative digressions toward the dramatic climax.

Definitely worth reading.

....
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