Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Postmodern Mystery: Concept or Enchantment?

Whether or not you agree with Ted Gioia’s take on the postmodern mystery--what it is, where it came from, and whether it even exists--the author has obviously put a lot of thought and time into his site, Postmodern Mystery, and what he’s talking about there is some pretty interesting stuff:
What do postmodern writers have against the mystery novel? For reasons that perhaps only a Lacan or Derrida could deconstruct, they have turned to it again and again, wreaking havoc with its rules and formulas, and transforming the conventional whodunit into a playground for the most experimental tendencies and avant-garde techniques. The culprits: Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, Alain Robbe-Grillet and a host of other literary hit men and hit women.
See? This is the part I’m not sure about. Well, one of the parts. While I’ve read and enjoyed many of the books on Postmodern Mystery’s list of 50 essential works, I’m not totally convinced that they need to be singled out of the herd in this way: for being “postmodern.” (Or even if they come close to my own understanding of the term.)

The titles on this list that I have read are just singularly terrific books; a few are among my personal favorites. Good ideas, brilliantly wrought. Is Gioia saying that a novel of crime has to be literary in nature to be considered postmodern? Or is it the other way around? I would argue that time and talent are having a sharp impact on the mystery novel as we know and love it, and that the evolution we’re watching is both natural and somewhat beautiful. But Gioia has thought this part through, as well:
In the process, they have created an entirely new genre: the postmodern mystery. These books possess a paradoxical beauty, both celebrating and undermining the precepts of crime fiction. To some degree, these are the emblematic books of our time. They recognize our desire for the certainty and affirmation of order epitomized by the traditional mystery story, yet they also play on our desire to reject formulas and move beyond the constraints of the past. We want to savor this reassuring heritage, with its neat and tidy solutions to all problems, even while enjoying the fun of toppling it over and watching the pieces fall where they may.
To my mind, here Gioia is describing the recipe for really good books. Not just good books, which are actually getting to be pretty common. But really heart-stoppingly awesome books. The kind that keep us from sleep and bring laughter and tears. Sometimes both at the same time and, always, while on the edge of our seats. Great books, is what I’m saying. Really super-duper good books that push at the boundaries of what we have come to think of as the conventions of mystery, while surprising and delighting us along the way.

But what the hell do I know? If either of us has the creds for looking at stuff and knowing that it’s cool (or hip or on point), it’s Gioia. While this cat clearly digs mystery, the author is a noted music historian and his area of expertise is jazz. Gioia is the author of The Birth (and Death) of the Cool and The History of Jazz, among other related titles. So, obviously, when it comes to recognizing cool, if I’m competing with this guy, I am going to get thoroughly trounced.

At the same time--and despite this--I’m reluctant to just give myself up to the idea of yet another aspect of genre. A ghetto within the ghetto, if you will. And even as I write these words I prepare myself for an onslaught of disagreement. And yet, look at the list: Gioia’s essentials. There are titles there that no one should miss. Well, at least I think so. Gioia does not. He cautions potential readers to prepare for disappointment and warns that “fans of conventional whodunits may do well to steer clear of these books, which will thwart their expectations, mess with their minds, and possibly undermine their faith in the triumph of law and order.”

I would argue that the contemporary reader of mysteries is a little more sophisticated than Gioia suspects. And his list? Well, it’s a good one, sure. But I think it’s incomplete. What titles would you add?


michael said...

I'd add Jasper Fforde.

But I don't see the point. Why do we need another sub-genre, especially one so hard to understand?

Instead of using a blog post to gather together some books for the only purpose of giving them another label, I'd rather read a blog post about each book and what makes it special and worth reading.

John said...

I'm with michael I don't see the point of this. Plus I intensely dislike the term postmodern. It's thrown about and slapped on anything the intelligentsia have embraced as their own. Most of what Gioia is talking about is genre blending: Lethem, Douglas Adams, Bester, Mieville. Some of the authors I would never even think of classifying as crime writers per se (Auster, Kafka, Murakami). They are novelists first and foremost. Why bother adding them to a list of crime writers? I think Patricia Highsmith would scoff at being called postmodern. I don't find anything particularly postmodern about Ripley at all. And Gioia's review doesn't shed any new light on this well known work nor convince me that it's postmodern. The only new thing I learned after reading his review was the link at the bottom of the page to leads to a MySpace page for Tom Ripley. Yikes. There's something postmodern for you - pages for fictional characters on social networking sites. Do other fictional characters "friend" them? Who's on Ripley's friends list? Bruno Anthony? Norman Bates? I'll stop.