Monday, August 3, 2009

The mystery of other people's dreams redux (Books - The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry)

I have added a P.S. to this post as I have now finished The Manual of Detection.

The pickin's have been slim here lately, I know. I have my first comprehensive exam to prepare for and most of my reading has been on experimental design and analysis. I am nearly done with Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection which I have heretofore described as a kind of surrealist Encyclopedia Brown. In it a lowly clerk with an empty life living in an unnamed city is suddenly promoted to detective. Its tone is YA. Nerdy, smart YA. Berry knows how to have fun with language, having all the detectives speak or write in a mock Chandlerese. It's a cute joke of which there are many in this book.
I left with her and let the others clean up. They're a decent bunch of yahoos, and none of them tried to stop me. I walked her to Central Terminal. We had pretzels on the way, just like old times, except we didn't have any old times, so we had to make them up. The whole town had gone mad, but the trains were still running. I paid for her ticket, one way, and we stood together awhile down on the platform. I wont' tell you what we talked about. I won't tell you what happened just before I put her on the train. What business is it of yours, what we said?

I watched the train until the tunnel ate it.

Now I'm in my office. It's dark in here, and I'm choking on my own smoke. I'm starting to wonder about early reitrement. I was wrong about her, clerk. As per usual. All wrong.
I love the fact that when this former detective - Sivart, now missing - wrote his reports that he dictated them as direct-address to his clerk and that that clerk, Unwin, typed them up preserving this personal address as the form of the report. Unwin, by the way, is the anti-hero of the book - our clerk-turned-detective.

Berry is a funny guy, he just doesn't seem to know when to stop telling jokes and get on with the story. The book has a desultory energy. It jumps from episode to episode, from joke to joke, but it takes until page 200 for it all to really hang together as a linear narrative with a force driving through it. I was more than 100 pages into the book and still having trouble keeping the character names straight.

What Berry seems to want to do in telling this story, is to play with its themes of reality and unreality, deception and truth, mystery and solution to and tell a larger story about life's mysteries, life's deception:
"Real and unreal, actual and imagined. Our failure to distinguish one from the other, or rather our willingness to believe they may be one and the same, is the chink through which the Agency operatives conduct their work."
Unwin was a perfect clerk, too perfect, and now as a most imperfect rooky detective he is suffering the consequences of that perfection:
He went alone into the dark. The passage sloped downward and curved to the left, tracing a spiral through the earth. Sometimes he kep his eyes open and sometimes he shut them; it made little difference. Miss Burgrave had been right about him: he left matters where no doubt could touch them. But that had been his flaw, to bind mystery so tightly, to obscure his detective's missteps with perfect files. Somehow Unwin had made false things true.

"You're awfully worried about getting everything right. I've seen what you've done to my reports. I've read the files. You edit out the good parts. All you care about are the details, and clues, and who did what and why. But I'm telling you, Unwin, there's more to it than that. There's a...I don't know" - he waved his cigar in the air - "there's a spirit to the whole enterprise. There's mystery. The worse it gets, the btter it is. It's like falling in love. Or falling out of love, I forget which..."

Ok, Stanislavski, we get it. Berry's tone seems to grasp a little too desperately at profundity and then, as if he fears just that, he has to crack a joke. As a result this book is neither profound nor funny, it rarely rises above cute.

The one creative stroke of genius in this book, in my opinion, is a triumvarate of archives nested in the bowels of Unwin's agency. For one of them, The Archive of Solutions, Berry has created a nifty device - it is physically record-like (that's LP, vinyl, for those of you born after 1980 it's a pre CD, pre casette tape device on which music was recorded and commercially sold) but it is really more of a virtual reality device. When playing it, the listener is transported to a full body experience of the contents of someone else's dreams. This is a tightly imagined section of the book - full of fantasy, tension, and narrative drive. It explains all the narcolepsy and alarm clocks (I won't go into it). This seems to be the idea around which this entire book was written. It's a pity Berry was unable to bring the entire narrative more of these qualities. I'll probably finish up the book tonight and if I change my mind on it, I'll let you know.

Now it's off to the lab for me.

P.S. finished now and my thoughts on this book stand. My first post compared it to Thirteen, while there are some similarities, Thirteen is both a more skillfully written narrative and manages to cop together existential mystery with compelling fiction in a way this book never quite does. My other posts on The Manual of Detection are here and here.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Ted said...

I always appreciate a comment and a visit - welcome!