Regular readers, if I have any left after my ridiculously long hiatus, will remember that at the beginning of June I attended the Toronto launch of Terry Griggs’ Thought You Were Dead. I began reading it on the subway home that evening, though I admit that Grigg’s dense prose was difficult to concentrate on against the noise and crowd of the train. Griggs’ novel has been called both a detective story and a satire of a detective story, though strictly speaking, I don’t think it’s either. It follows a path similar to the standard detective novel, in which the natural/social order is violently disrupted, and a character who is an outcast or otherwise on the fringes of society must solve puzzles and overcome other obstacles to reassert that order. In most of the detective fiction I’ve read, this path is ususally a tragic one, but Griggs doesn’t seem built that way. Thought You Were Dead is definitely in the comic tradition. I’ve lately been thinking that detective fiction might exist in some middle space between tragedy and comedy, since it offers neither the optimism of something like Much Ado About Nothing nor the complete apocalyptic reboot of the full Macbeth. (I know tragedy and comedy are broader than that, but I’m with Harold Bloom in believing that there’s no aspect of the human condition you can explore that Shakespeare didn’t get to first.)
Anyway, Thought You Were Dead isn’t really a detective novel. The death that opens the book isn’t really the driving force of the narrative (it drives chunks of the plot, but the plot itself is more a vehicle for gentle satire and character development than being the backbone of the novel as it would be in a pure detective story), and indeed it’s forgotten about for much of the book. Instead Griggs gives us a (startlingly accurate, at least given my own experiences) dissection of a broken man’s relationship with women, and in particular with the woman who did the bulk of the breaking. I was quite impressed by how well drawn Chellis Beith is; I often get a bit twitchy when I read novels by women that feature male protagonists (I read Larry’s Party and was left to wonder what Larry was, as he was certainly not anything I would recognize as a man), no doubt the same sort of twitchy some female readers may get when they read novels written by men with female protagonists. My only real complaint with how Griggs handles the characters is with Elaine Champion’s vanilla-pudding of a husband, whose name I can’t even begin to recall and am too lazy to look up. Like the husband in Sarah Dearing’s Courage My Love, whose name I am equally incapable of remembering, Elaine’s beau is a prop, a marionette performing a necessary narrative function, and nothing more. I sometimes think that when a writer is setting up a relationship as a roadblock for their protagonist, a pairing that is supposed to appear wrong in the eyes of the reader, they go overboard, making the relationship too poor a match, and I’m left wondering how they managed to get to the point of exchanging vows, never mind making a life afterward. (Julian Barnes’ Talking it Over and Love, Etc. are almost the only two novels I’ve read that pull off that kind of relationship with any believabilty.) I can be thrown out of the world of the novel by watching those puppets bump up against the “real” characters. Griggs’ prose is so—I want to say self-conscious, but that’s obviously not correct—so packed with metaphors and puns and linguistic gamesmanship that full immersion is often not really possible. In fact it can sometimes be a little overwhelming, but to Griggs’ credit, she was always able to ratchet it down enough at the right moments so that I never quite lost my emotional connection with the characters. Griggs’ voice is incredibly distinct, and while I had a good time with Thought You Were Dead, I think it fits her short fiction better.
Another thing that places Thought You Were Dead closer to the category of comic novel than traditional detective story is the lack of emphasis on work. Nearly every single work of crime/detective fiction I’ve read (and indeed, even the non-fiction) has focused almost obsessively on people at work. Nearly all of Griggs’ characters have jobs that allow them to work strange hours, in strange places, or often skip work altogether for long periods. This allows otherwise functional adults to be at home in the middle of the afternoon or skulking about aimlessly at ten in the morning, and is a pretty common trope for literary novels, but not at all in keeping with the detective tradition, where the protagonist is on the job for virtually every minute of the story, from beginning to end. The detective story is perhaps the last and truest place to find the working man (or woman) in contemporary literature.
I had hoped to say more about comic novels and some interesting parallels that I see between Chellis Beith and David Duchovny’s Hank Moody on Californication, but I’m afraid that I ran out of time more than an hour ago, and am far enough behind schedule as it is, with at least ten more reviews to go before I’m caught up. Next up is Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler.