Not the Usual Suspects
Three detective novels that restore pleasure to reading.
Maybe it has something to do with my recent crusade against The Reader. (I'm taking credit—undue I'm sure—for stopping it from winning best picture; Kate Winslet, I know, was unstoppable.) But I've been thinking about reading a lot these days, perhaps because, for the first time in a long time, I've found myself reading three contemporary novels with enormous pleasure.
Until these three novels—instances of the "genre novels" oft relegated to a secondary place in the canon—rescued me, I thought I'd have to give up on contemporary literary fiction, even at its best. Enough with buying books raved over by the literati only to find I can't get past the first 10 pages without throwing them against the wall. (The books, not the literati.)
Take the example of the late David Foster Wallace. There is no one on the planet who could be a more devoted admirer of his nonfiction, precisely because of the pleasure of his voice and the pleasure of watching his insanely brilliant mind at work. Everything from the well-known cruise ship tour de force (which I used to make the first mandatory assignment when I taught writing at Columbia, NYU, and the University of Chicago) to the more arcane book on the mathematics of infinity. Even though I suspect the despair of staring into infinity's infinitely deepening mysteries may have contributed to his final personal despair. He took it too much to heart. But that's what I loved about his work, his nonfiction, anyway.
But then there's his fiction: the infinitely (to me) disappointing Infinite Jest,which (ironically indeed) is about a work that gives too much pleasure. It's a book whose repertoire of derivative, post-Pynchon, oh-so-tiring tricks made me furious. They diminished DFW. They made it seem that the less talented among the literati had convinced him that fiction was a higher form than the transcendent reinvention of nonfiction he was engaged in, convinced him that he should channel his far-superior talents into an exhausting performance in an exhausted form (the postmodern novel) that was an all-too-sterile strain at profundity that—despite its title—contained not one laugh. This, in contrast to the effortless inimitable joyful comedy of his nonfiction, which surpassed in pleasure (and profundity) many of his contemporaries' novels.
Remember pleasure? The pleasure of reading? Believe me, this is not one of those pleas for "old-fashioned" novels with conventional plots and "characters you can identify with." I hate characters I can identify with. I read to escape myself; I'm tired of my identity.
And this is no plea for novels that aren't "difficult." Pleasure doesn't equate with easiness. The pleasures of Shakespeare, I've argued, are sometimes there on the surface, but always only partially; they always subsist as well on a deeper, more difficult, unfathomable level. Reaching it requires reading and rereading the entire body of work, the whole giving an almost unbearable thrill to the part.
Perhaps more to the point, my two favorite novels of the past half-century are two of the most experimental: Nabokov's Pale Fire and Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. These books aren't good because of their experimental form. They're good because the illusion of difficulty is just that; they are treasures of pure pleasure once you ignore the surface strangeness.
And if we're talking the esthetics of ease, difficulty, and pleasure (and we are), we can't forget Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, which I've often argued renders all of postmodern fiction's desperately frantic antics and self-conscious self-consciousness shamefully or ignorantly derivative, even plagiarized, utterly repetitive and unnecessary, because unlike Shandy, that's all they have to offer.
In part because the voice of Shandy's premodern unreliable narrator is also an irresistible source of pleasure, not a humorless postmodern bore. In 1759 Sterne anticipated and transcended every possible postmodern formal gambit, making them all seem sadly second-rate to anyone who's read T.S. Indeed it drives me crazy that it's somehow regarded as a mark of philistinism, a lower order of artistic virtuosity, to offer pleasure when the true philistinism is the abandonment of the source of literature's primal power for sterile word games.
So pleasure doesn't have to mean book-clubbability to me. It just has to mean that nothing you're doing (alone, anyway) can possibly be as important as getting it done with and getting back to the pages that have you spellbound, rapt, wrapped in their serpentine coils and squeezing you in a way that's pleasurable but somehow threatening as well: Pleasure in literature is not without an aura of danger, like "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," leaving you, when done with you, "alone and palely loitering."
It's all about being put under a seductive spell, an erotics of reading, the pure lust pleasurable books arouse that is like nothing else except perhaps impure lust.
For instance, I can barely stand to continue writing this column because it's taking me away from finishing The Silver Swan, the second novel by "Benjamin Black" (a pseudonym for Irish novelist John Banville) about a Dublin pathologist in the frowsy, drowsy '50s that I swear surpasses Joyce's Dubliners and, aside from certain mad genius patches, Ulysses, too. (Admit it, Stephen Dedalus wore out his welcome in Portrait with his jejune maunderings and appeals only to intellectual adolescents of all ages and is nothing but a bore in Ulysses.)
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.