I am generally in favor of books that push boundaries and encourage readers to stretch their own notions of genres and types. More often than not, I love those books that are simply impossible to characterize with any accuracy. Here are two novels that do exactly that: although they are probably going to be classified as mysteries, it seems clear to me that their authors had something more in mind than writing (good) genre fiction.
Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection (Penguin, 2009) is a prime example of one of those peculiar and intriguing novels that are showing up with rather more frequency than they used to be. Somehow, Berry’s novel is neither this nor that: the plot is not straightforward (to say the least); the setting is surreal yet oddly familiar; the characters are types (detective, girl Friday, villain) but so individualized that they’re difficult to forget. When you’re talking about books like Berry’s, you find yourself mostly resorting to making comparisons with better-known titles and authors. It’s also true that with books that push against the boundaries of any particular genre (be it literary fiction, fantasy, or mysteries), readers tend to either love them or hate them. I certainly don’t love them all, but I sure enjoyed this one, enormously. Berry’s novel is an amalgam of all of the above – literary fiction, fantasy, and mystery; its pages echo with tributes to the writing of Borges, of Calvino, of some of Paul Auster’s works, and of Kafka. And yet, for all it may resemble, The Manual of Detection is entirely original. In an unknown, somewhat eerie city, in a building known only (and ominously) as The Agency, a finicky, committed-to-following-his-daily-routine clerk named Charles Unwin works for a famous detective named Sivart, writing up Sivart’s cases from the notes he’s made. Then one day everything is thrown into disarray – Watcher Lamech, Sivart’s boss, is murdered, Sivart has disappeared, and Unwin is unwillingly promoted to detective from his lowly position as a clerk (a job he looks forward to every day). The only way he can get his beloved clerkship back is to find Sivart; and while trying to do so, Unwin uncovers the existence of a dastardly plot to take over the world by an organization bent on infiltrating people’s dreams. Can a simple clerk find his famous boss, prevent the worst from taking place, and retain his integrity and what sanity he has? Into a mix that includes a cast of truly evil thugs, an attractive assistant with more than assisting on her mind, a puzzling woman in a plaid coat, and a ventriloquist who’s up to no good (among other one-of-a-kind characters), there’s also a carnival that no longer travels and many thousands of stolen alarm clocks. Try The Manual of Detection. It’s great fun and a marvelous achievement.
Here’s a scene I imagine might have gone through China Miéville’s mind as he was thinking about beginning his newest work of fiction, The City and the City (Del Rey, 2009). He’d just finished his wonderful novel for young people – Un Lun Dun, which posited a London that is quite like and unlike the one we know today. Where to take that idea next, Miéville may have wondered. Brilliant writer that he is, here’s what he came up with: a police procedural set in neighboring, nearly identical cities. The catch is, these cities – Beszel and Ul Qoma – co-exist in the same physical space, and their separation ultimately depends on how well each city’s citizens do in ignoring the existence of the other. Sound a little complicated? Leave it to Miéville to make it work superbly. Police Inspector Tyador Borlú is assigned to find the murderer of student Mahalia Geary. She was a member of an extremist group who believed that there is actually a third city – Orciny – that exists in the interstices of the first two. As more murders occur, Borlú is reluctantly forced to consider that the outlandish views Geary held might actually contain some truth. But with Miéville, weird as the plots of his novels might sound, it’s actually the setting that seems to matter most to him, and, ultimately, the reader. While I was engrossed in this quite compelling mystery, I found myself thinking of the many parallels that Miéville’s notion of separate cities (each with a different currency, economic level, religion, governmental structure, and ways of life) that are separated only by a longstanding habit of belief, have in the modern world. One could (and perhaps should) read this as a parable of segregation reduced to its most elemental form. But Miéville is also a splendid prose stylist – his characters talk the way people really do, with unfinished sentences, hesitations, and many stops and starts. This novel is the sort I happen to really enjoy, in which the author immerses you in an unfamiliar world but makes references to events and people as though you knew exactly what he was talking about (and eventually it all comes together, and you do). You might have to work a bit harder with a book like this – maybe read it more than once – but it’s totally worth it.