Benjamin Black's Christine Falls.

Reading between the lines.
March 12 2007 2:11 PM

Mysteries of Identity

John Banville's alter ego.

(Continued from Page 1)

But it would be more accurate to say that Banville has done almost the opposite: The violent, pared-down (by Banville's standards) Christine Falls not only allows for a possibility of justice, but has room for a much-wider range of emotion than both a roman durs and his own previous books. The psychopath-stylists who narrated those books are all descendants of Humbert Humbert: Narcissistic wrongdoers, they lack the imagination required for sympathy or guilt. Their silver-tongued testimony tries to seduce our forgiveness. Morrow, the narrator of Athena, even calls our attention to that "orotund quality that sets in when I begin consciously to dissemble." Freddie Montgomery, the lovable lunatic on trial for murder in The Book of Evidence, freely loses himself "in a welter of words." Words, he writes, "are a form of luxury, of sensuousness, they are all we have been allowed to keep of the rich, wasteful world from which we are shut away." He is being both literal—he writes from prison—and figurative: He tries to insulate himself from reality in a thick wadding of prose. At the same time—it is a formal requirement of this unreliable-narrator genre—his elaborate rhetoric is designed (not entirely successfully, of course) to conceal truths from both himself and the reader. These narrators of Banville's fear that if they stopped talking for even one moment—if they listened to the sounds of the "rich, wasteful world"—they might succumb to feelings of remorse and terror. They might, that is to say, more closely resemble the tormented characters in Christine Falls.

Enter Benjamin Black. Moving on into genre fiction, and half-changing his identity in doing so, was a brilliant strategy for an author whose last book tried to include a wider emotional range than his familiar narcissistic-poet was capable of experiencing: The narrator of The Sea, try as he might, could not escape from his own coils of language. The scaffolds of genre have considerably lightened Banville's burden and given him new ways to write about regret and sadness. In The Sea, for example, Max Morden can't quite make his guilt about his wife's death feel real. He even goes so far as to beg for a ghost: "Torment me, if you like. Rattle your chains, drag your cerements across the floor, keen like a banshee, anything." But authentic desperation eludes him. What truly sad or guilty person pauses long enough to reach for a word like "cerements"? Black, by contrast, has a much more relaxed grip on language, going so far as to repeat words: "Chinks" of light appear twice, two different characters "sidle" up to something, some conversation and then some rain are both "desultory," and that rain "stipples" at least three things.

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The linguistic differences between the "two" writers herald more important atmospheric ones. The minatory ambience of a noir novel just won't permit Max Morden's kind of evasive nonsense: There are no ghosts, but there is plenty of earthly torment. This was the great insight of Eric Ambler, who invented this genre in its modern form: You discover a lot about the conscience of ordinary people when you subject them to ominous climates. As Black, Banville uses this convention of vague menace to externalize his characters' fear and shame, and thus frees them up to experience a broader range of emotion. We get the sense, early in Christine Falls, that Quirke, who has also lost his wife, is as haunted as Morden was. But Quirke, unlike Morden, is forced into feelings of vulnerability by his encounter with crime. Christine Falls is dead and Quirke finds himself compelled to investigate why. Once he has an unpleasant run-in with some hired goons, Quirke can no longer avoid asking himself where, exactly, this vague sense of duty comes from. This line of inquiry leads back to Delia and finally allows him to begin working through long-delayed reactions to her death.

The result is a different kind of case study than Banville is used to, and Quirke in turn seems more alive than any of his protagonists since The Untouchable's Victor Maskell. Christine Falls, despite an ultimately less-than-believable resolution, is a delight in itself, and it's also a promising experiment. The book fuels the best kind of suspense, not just about Quirke's future adventures but about the effects of the crafty Benjamin Black on John Banville's art.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus has written for the New York Times Book Review, The Nation, and Bookforum.

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