Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Creative analysis - in truth fiction, in fiction truth (Books - The Semantics of Murder by Aifric Campbell)

Irish novelist Aifric Campbell's debut, The Semantics of Murder, was published last year in England and just this month in the U.S. I'm delighted to have been sent a copy so that I might tell you about it. The story is based upon the still unsolved murder of linguist Richard Montague in Beverly Hills in 1971. An erudite scholar and organist, Montague was gay and preferred the company of what is known as rough trade, by whom he was presumed to have been murdered. Montague's chief contribution to linguistics was a method of analyzing language employing mathematical logic that admitted no difference between natural languages like French and artificial languages like those used in programming. An idea whose resonance is felt in Aifric's novel which is centered around two users of language - Montague's (here Robert Hamilton) fictional brother Jay Hamilton, a psychoanalyst living in London - and writer Dana Flynn, Robert Hamilton's biographer. Both create characters based upon the lives of others and perhaps one could look at the analyst's semantics as "natural" and the writer's as "artificial," although nothing is really that simple, where the heck does that leave the biographer?
The neon eye of his sleeping laptop pulsed in the shadowy outreaches of the desk. Jay opened Cora's casebook. during his psychoanalytic training, Metzling had encouraged the class to make detailed notes straight after each session, like how a suicide fantasist sat in a chair, or how a depressive avoided eye contact. Jay used to fill pages with his clients' free associations, tracing the footprints of their childhoods, the forgotten tastes and sensation that lingered between the shadowland of memory and imagination, until he realised the futility of it all, the stunning irrelevance of the truth. After all, even Freud had admitted that it was the imagined past he was seeking, that biographical truth could be left to the historians. These days Jay's notes were outline sketches, a series of fragments, sometimes just single words that blossomed into the stories they might later become. An impressionistic starting point was all he needed to begin. The light sharpened, a plot slowly emerged and then he could stop listening to the client and simply select what suited.
Jay Hamilton, as a psychoanalyst, listens to the associations of others. The hope is to discover the truth (although there could be 100 of them) that lives beneath their words, helping them to frame a coherent narrative - one they can live with - that is the process of a successful psychotherapy. This indeed is an issue of semantics - the study of the meaning of language. Jay Hamilton also creates fictions under a pseudonym that are based upon his more interesting cases - hey, it worked for Freud. The trouble here is that Hamilton has stopped listening for the purpose of treating his patients and now relates to his patients only as fodder for fiction.

Dana Flynn, having earned a reputation for her biography of Alan Turing (another brilliant and complex thinker, who was gay, and whose life ended under suspicious circumstances), has turned his interests to Robert Hamilton (aka Richard Montague). She visits Jay to learn about his brother, exhuming Robert's memory for Jay in a challenging way, one that raises his defenses.
'Sometimes we look for conspiracy theories when we are unwilling or unable to accept the truth. When it is too painful. We rail against the truth when we think it's unfair. A little childish don't you think?' Her mouth stretched into a grim smile. 'You were angry that Turing died young and brilliant. You believed he was betrayed in the end by those who courted him. And now you're angry about Robert, so you want to make his murder more than it is. You want a better story.'
Ain't that just the pot calling the kettle black? Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of psychoanalysing going on in this novel. The story is an intelligent one with both an intellectual and a murder mystery element. There is a well integrated side-plot, in which one of Jay's patient's - Cora, the subject of his latest fiction - acts out in a surprising way. Cora is an analogue of Freud's famous case study 'Dora,' a patient through whom Freud explained some of the more influential of his ideas of repression, hysteria, and transference. This case is one critics point to as illustrative of the fact that Freud insists to strictly upon the objective truth of his analytic interpretation.

Aifric's book is more a contemporary novel with an unsolved crime in its plot than a conventional who-done-it. I have to say, I found the intertwined concepts of narrative identity, personal history, and truth and fiction more compelling than the mystery, which I had figured out fairly early in my reading. Perhaps everyone will not find the secret as obvious as I did, but given that fact, I would have preferred more of Aifric's smart cat and mouse maneouvering between Jay and Dana Flynn in which the reader knows something that one character does not. I think I would have found that more suspenseful than what felt to me like an artificial holding out. I would like to go more into the ways the secret fits well with the book's subject matter, but I feel that would give a little too much away.

Lastly, the theme of life-as-narrative is satisfyingly complemented as well as complicated by the mirror image theme of narrative-as-life. Aifric herself holds a linguistics degree. She has also studied both psychoanalysis and creative writing. If she will indulge me in a little creative analysis, it seems to me that we have in Jay and Dana two stand-ins for Aifric as she deals with the competing drives of the excitement to discover the truth of Montague's murder (semantics of a natural language), and the guilt of raising the dead by probing that history and then creating fiction of it (semantics of the artificial language). But as the truth remains unknown, it can only result in a fiction, and Aifric has created, in The Semantics of Murder, a smart and multi-layered read. And anyway, didn't Montague say that the natural and artificial languages are no different?


Marie Cloutier said...

this sounds like it's right up my alley. and I LOVE the name of your blog! :-)

Ted said...

Thanks Marie, I've enjoyed my visits to your place as well.