The book I really want to (and must) read this summer is Theodore Dreiser’s The Genius, a work that was grudgingly released by its publisher in censored form and which has now been re-issued and reassembled from the original, unexpurgated manuscript. If I wasn’t going to be busy finishing my dissertation I’d love to read Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate and Jonathan Litell’s The Kindly Ones— both novels about WWII which are appropriately epic in scope.
In the gap between the last weeks of the semester and posting grades I did manage to chow down a few shorter works, however, including Massimo Carlotto’s The Goodbye Kiss, probably the best crime novel I’ve read since Edward Bunker’s No Beast So Fierce. The Goodbye Kiss is absolutely hard-boiled and features a charming, psychopathic protagonist. Critics have likened Carlotto’s style to that of classic roman noir writer James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, etc.) though the main character of The Goodbye Kiss isn’t driven so much by brutal passions as by cold calculation. As with any good crime novel, Carlotto is concerned with social critique, and The Goodbye Kiss examines not only the failure of the Red Brigades-style militant leftism of the 1970s but the parallels between contemporary business and crime. One implication of his work, particularly in subsequent books such as Poisonville, is an emphasis on the fact that there is virtually no daylight between corporate capitalism and organized crime. In this sense he underscores Bertolt Brecht’s famous question: What is robbing a bank compared to founding one?
I also went on a sci-fi spree, reading Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit. Priest’s novel could function rather neatly as an allegory for the ideology of Progress. A city which perpetually rolls along tracks built by its inhabitants struggles forward to reach “Optimum,” desperate not to fall behind and be crushed by the strange gravitational forces of the lower latitudes. (The space of the city itself reminded me a bit of China Mieville’s stupendous The City and the City, a book I really recommend as well.) The Chrysalids is just as strange as Inverted World despite operating in the familiar terrain of a post-apocalyptic society. Increasing mutations (presumably from nuclear fallout) in the population have led the dogmatically evangelical survivors to enact controls against “Blasphemies”– i.e. humans who deviate from the prescribed physical norms. Holmqvist’s novel also takes the human body as its subject, though in this case citizens who have been deemed “Dispensable” are compelled to submit themselves to medical experiments and organ donations in the service of the “Indispensables,” those who are economically productive. There’s an echo of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake here, I think, in the book’s emphasis on narrowly utilitarian thinking, and as with Atwood the dystopia in question is not Orwellian– that is to say Stalinist– but neoliberal.
Finally, I followed up a little on the work of Friedrich Durrenmatt, who is known primarily for his plays (The Physicists, The Visit, etc.). Like The Assignment, his mystery novels tend to be intriguing and cryptic, particularly his Inspector Barlach series (The Judge and the Hangman, Suspicion) which combines alienation with a distinctively philosophical subtext. I’ve always thought crime and philosophy belong together in that both of these domains of human experience are concerned, in their own ways, with transgression, and are (ask a philosopher!) even a matter of life and death. See too his remarkable The Pledge, which self-consciously violates the conventions of the thriller genre in order to revive it.