Three detective novels that restore pleasure to reading.

Scrutinizing culture.
March 2 2009 1:55 PM

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.)

Advertisement

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.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.