Monday, 30 March 2009

Karen Jay Fowler, The Case of the Imaginary Detective (2008)

This is neat, and nice, work. Amazon quotes Publisher's Weekly:
At the start of this quietly funny, slightly mysterious novel of discovering one's roots, 29-year-old Rima Lanisell visits her estranged godmother, Addison Early, in Addison's house by the sea, Wit's End, in storied Santa Cruz, Calif. Addison, the wildly successful but cautiously private author of the Maxwell Lane mysteries, was once the girlfriend of Rima's recently deceased father, Bim, for whom a character in the series is named. For each novel, Addison first constructs a dollhouse diorama that depicts what will be the principal murder scene, but her upcoming novel and its dollhouse are uncharacteristically delayed. By weeding through decades-old correspondence with eccentric fans and the contemporary channels of online forums, Rima slowly discovers the truth behind Addison's novels and that Rima herself is a topic of interest among Maxwell Lane devotees. As Fowler analyzes our modern-day relationship to novels and writers' relationship to their readers, the line between fiction and reality blurs--real people become characters in another's blog as fictional characters become real to the fans that fetishize them.
Amazon also quotes a Seattle Times blurb that was presumably the work of coffee-overfuelled office bravado ('I wager you'll not fit the word venturesome into a legit review, Marjorie'; 'I accept your wager, Lemuel, and shall undertake not only to do so but also to include a Hungarian surname as well!' 'Do it in under ten words, Marjorie, and dinner at my club shall be yours! I say club. Obviously we live in Seattle and there are no clubs. But I'll certainly stand you a coffee.'):
“[A] Rubik’s cube of a book ... this is venturesome work.”
OK. Let me say something about the shaping, or perhaps distorting, power of readerly expectations. I read The Case of the Imaginary Detective because Niall Harrison asked me to do so for a Torque Control exchange that, in the end, never happened. As I picked it up my thought was: 'yeah, this is The Jane Austen Book Club author, isn't it'. I'll confess I've not read that novel, and nor have I seen the film, partly because having small children means I only ever go to the cinema to see kids' films, and partly because I assumed it was a chick-flick. Not to denigrate an entire genre, but if I'm going to the cinema I'd rather see The Dark Knight than Sex and the City. Beyond that I knew nothing about the novel.

The point of this preamble is that I started reading The Case of the Imaginary Detective with preconceptions: and foremost amongst those was that it would be intelligent (because that was the vibe I got about The Jane Austen Book Club) chick-lit (because that's how I'd pegged her as a writer) with an sfnal edge, and I thought this last because Niall had asked me to read it to contribute to a discussion about it on a sfnal 'bsite. And, expecting that, that's what I found. Which is to say, I decided that it was chick lit insofar as it's a story about relationships, a toothsome and eligible female heroine, eccentric bit-part players and a possible Mr Right (Martin). As I neared the end I found myself thinking: but where's the sf? And because I was looking for that, because my preconceptions had geared me that way, I found the sf in the second part of chapter 27, where Addison reveals that her 'doll-house' for her new book is a virtual environment rather than an actual doll's-house. It's the Matrix, I thought: Rima isn't real: she's Mr A.I.! It's a twist ending, with the whole thing having been revealed retrospectively to have been elaborate computer simulation ... that's why she's the only person to see the clown, etc etc. Ahah!

Holding horses for a sec: on reflection I don't think so. Actually I don't think it's a story about the path of true love not running smooth: I don't think the relationship between Rima and Martin is about that ('true love') at all. It's about family. And I don't think the whole thing happened inside an AI. But I'll come to that in a minute.

What happened next is that I bumped into Niall at a publisher's party and chatting to him I said I'd read The Case of the Imaginary Detective but not 'her earlier novel'. 'But she's written many prior things,' Niall replied, from his lofty position near the ceiling. And then I realised: but of course I knew Karen Joy Fowler, and knew her in an sfnal context. (Specifically: I haven't read Sarah Canary, but I have read several of her SF short stories ... 'Game Night at the Fox and Goose' and 'The Lake was Filled With Artificial Things', both very good ... and I know that she was the third editor of the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction with Ursula Le Guin and Brian Attebury, but that Norton bumped her from the cover because they thought three editors was too many (she gets an 'associate editor' billing on the inside, I think). Suddenly I had a sense of the sort of author she was not from second-guessing the fact that a chick-flick had been made from one of her books, but from a sense of the stuff she actually writes. So for instance I don't think she'd play this sort of rabbit-from-hat Sixth-Sense twist ending game. In other words paradoxically, positioning Fowler as an author within the mental map of Genre I carry about (rumpled and incomplete; not at all like the map in Time Bandits) in my head made me less likely to read the book as SF. I looked at it again and thought: it's a very engaging and winning story about the fictions we construct about our own lives and their relationship to reality; it's about 'private life' and 'public life' and the misconstruction of the former as hermetic selfishness; it's about family and it's not sf at all. Not a problem, this last, but that's where I end up.

So. What's the point of classifications like 'science fiction', or 'chick-lit'? It's a question often asked, I know, and several answers immediately present themselves. One would be: 'because structuralist and formalist critics find it satisfying to classify literature along such lines ... which is to say, for professional taxonomic reasons'. I'm almost entirely uninterested in that notion. Another would be: 'it's a mere shorthand, to facilitate sf fans from finding the sorts of books they're likely to like, and to prevent them wasting time or money on books they are unlike to like.' Lots of problems there, of course (we should all expose ourselves to stuff we're not sure we're going to like, or our minds will roll down a single deadening groove all its weary life), but there are reasons of convenience on its side.

But there's a third answer, which has to do with shaping our expectations of a novel even before we have picked it up. My experience was that because, rather foolishly, I was expecting the novel to be one sort of thing, I was baffled not to find it that thing; puzzled that the novel seemed recalcitrant about revealing its true nature. The temptation is to blame a book for being stubborn like that. The result was I got much less from the novel, I think, than I might have done if I hadn't turned to chapter one without that particular preconception. It's nobody's fault but mine that I did, since I'm in charge of how a read a novel; but it meant that I missed or, no: better say didn't take the full force of the specific excellencies of Fowler's writing, and kept trying to force its struggling legs into a procrustan bed of my own making.

So: here are two genres, SFF and Crime, and they’re the two boss genres today (bigger and, I’d say, more significant than the nearest other genre ‘literary fiction’, and much more important than Westerns or Romances). SF authors sometimes get given a hard time by fans for wanting to jump ship, sometimes from SFF to Literary Fiction but just as often from SFF to Crime (lots of writers, from Asimov to McAuley, have undertaken that knight's move); although the prejudice that Crime is a more grown-up genre than SF—which may be part of its appeal—-is surely only a veiled statement of the fact that Crime tends to be read by older people rather than younger. Since older people tend to have more money (and, when retired, more time) there’s probably more money in Crime, which may also be an incentive.

The Case of the Imaginary Detective, of course, is metacrime; a commentary upon crime fiction rather than a straightforward example of crime fiction, although of course providing some of the satisfactions of crime fiction. But I liked it better than I like most crime ... and for reasons I won’t go into here, I’ve read a very large amount of crime fiction in my time. It's a genre, generally speaking, where for me problems gnaw at satisfactions.

If someone put a sawn-off in my ear and insisted I articulate my premier dissatisfaction with crime as a genre I would, amongst various harrumphing caveats about the dangers of making sweeping generalisations and complaints about the gunmetal in my lug, say this: crime is a genre predicated upon the notion not only that somebody is to blame, but that blame can be neatly apportioned. So, crime deals with violent disruptions to peoples’ lives, and with death, and these are important aspects of human existence; but it deals with them in a particular way that seems to me mendacious. It says: these things are horrible, but somebody is responsible for them and we can identify who. In life, I’d say, it’s rarely the case that somebody is responsible for our feelings of grief and pain (though it’s an insidiously appealing idea that somebody is) and it’s never the case that ‘identifying (or misidentifying) who’ will make us feel better. My life isn’t what it could be; I fall upon the thorns of life and bleed, but the fault lies with: the butler; my ex-wife; the Government; Al-Qaeda; the Jews, etc. etc. I’m being a little idiosyncratic, here, I know; but bear with me. One of the things I love about the best SF is that it doesn’t tell its readers this: or, more precisely, it rarely does. E E ‘Doc’ Smith and his ilk may be in imaginative hock to conspiracy theories on the grandest scale, but the best SF apprehends a less humanocentric cosmos. Sense of wonder, you know.

My point is this: The Case of the Imaginary Detective is precisely about the problematic of attributing the fault for the things in our life that have gone wrong, or that distress us, to other people. It’s too clever to suggest that there is a single culprit. One of its pleasures is the (deliberately) slightly evasive complexity of its account of causes and consequences.

This makes it a slipperier-than-usual crime story; a double-hyphenated term I mean as unambiguous praise. It is also a novel that is, strictly speaking, modular (which is how Samuel Delany characterises SF). Literature builds models of reality, but the models SF builds are particularly intricate and involving. There’s something batty about Addison’s dolls’ houses but something well-done about them too. Fowler know enough about writing modular fiction to understand both the appeal and the limitations. Or to put it another way, in a modular literature it is those places where the model misfits reality that can be the most telling. In science fiction, where our textual models have a particularly distanciated relationship to reality, this is more obviously true. But it’s true, too, of Fowler’s novel. This is what’s behind one of my favourite sentences in the novel, sentences I’m here identifying--idiosyncratically, but for reasons I hope I’m making plain--as science fiction. These two, right from the beginning. ‘There was something so creepy about little Mr Brown. He wore a hat you couldn’t take off.’ [5] Lovely, that.


rowrbazzle said...

You should try "Sarah Canary". Fowler called this one "stealth science fiction". Its setting was historical and the sf element could be completely overlooked by the casual reader. The next two books were historical as well, with intimations of fantasy and one member of the Jane Austen Book Club (book and film) is a science fiction fan.

Adam Roberts said...

re: Sarah Canary ... I will. Thanks.