Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Which dreamed it?

Recently I read two strange detective stories, Flann O'Brien's classic The Third Policeman and Jedediah Berry's newer The Manual of Detection. These were books I expected to love--since starting my job I've been more into crime fiction, and I've always loved modernist and surreal novels. The pedigree of each is impressive--Policeman has garnered comparisons to Ulysses and Alice in Wonderland, as well as being a favorite of a good friend of mine; Jedediah Berry is an editor at the wonderful Small Beer Press, and I attended and enjoyed his reading of Manual, where I bought a copy of the book about...a year and a half ago? I was saving it for a the right time, I suppose.

In short (since I am pretty overworked at the moment), I enjoyed the books, though not as much as I'd expected to. Policeman contains a sort of twist that made it disappointing to me, and way more descriptions of ominous scenery than I really needed. I did love the portrayals of the mysterious policemen the murderer-narrator takes up with, though, in particular the description of the perfectly beautiful small chest one of them created...what could he possibly put inside but another, smaller chest, and another, and another, on down into invisibility and beyond. I also suspect I must credit the book as an inspiration for my purchase of a bicycle last week (more on that later). Bicycles are characters in the story, or characters are bicycles--the policemen have a hypothesis that if people ride their bicycles for too long, they eventually begin to trade characteristics with each other. So one of the policemen locks up his bike so it can't escape and reveal his baser nature; the narrator is seduced, after a fashion, by a getaway vehicle. Alas, my bike is not a femme fatale, but more of the pony persuasion (small and silver, it reminds me of a small Silver I used to know).

Manual takes place not in ominous countryside but in a large city (with its Central Station, museum along the park, and mysterious eight train, surely I can be forgiven for mapping it onto New York). Clerk Unwin is promoted, under mysterious circumstances, to the rank of detective, and tries to figure out just what's going on in the city, as well as uncovering what really happened in the cases he so dutifully recorded while he was a clerk. Who are the sleepwalkers converging on the abandoned estate? Was the Oldest Murdered Man a hoax? And what does the woman in the train station have to do with it all? I liked this one as it gained momentum, but was a bit disappointed since I'd come in expecting a whodunnit and found more atmosphere than plot.

In both books, there's an epic battle between two sides--most broadly, order and chaos, but also heaven and hell, fact and interpretation. And dreaming plays a large role, enmeshing both character and reader in a nebulous third option. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether a sequence is part of the reality of the novel's world, or a fantasy inhabited by a character. Reading only this kind of stuff for a week can be disorienting, and so I was relieved to emerge from these nightmare worlds back into normal life... Well, sort of. The next day I attended 826's pingpong tournament,* featuring, among others, The Strand's Nancy Bass playing Jonathan Safran Foer, and it put me square in the middle of Alice in Wonderland territory.

*It would appear that I'm in some of the photos here.


  1. I love, where by love, I mean, am profoundly disturbed by, The Third Policeman.

    Have you read At Swim-Two-Birds?

  2. I have not! I am considering it.