Wednesday, June 21, 2017
June 21, 2017: Mysterious Beach Reads: Jonathan Lethem and Tim O’Brien
[For this year’s installment in my annual Beach Reads series, I wanted to focus on mystery authors and novels about which I’ve previously blogged in this space. Leading up a new post and author on Friday, and then one of my favorite crowd-sourced posts of the year—so add your Beach Read suggestions in comments, please!]
On two ground-breaking novels that explore the mysteries of memory.
One of the more interesting, if mostly taken for granted by readers, literary puzzles is the role of first-person narration in mystery fiction. For a century or so the first-person narrator was a friend and confidant of the detective: the unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin stories (which are often seen as originating the genre), Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, and the like; these narrators usually depicted themselves as consciously writing down the detective’s exploits after the fact (which is plausible enough, if of course complicated in that the narrator thus knows the resolution of the mystery throughout the story). With the 20th-century shift to American hard-boiled detective fiction, however, the first-person narrator became more often than not the detective him- (and eventually her-) self, introducing a couple more complicating questions into the mix: when the story is being narrated, as they are written in the past tense and occasionally include a distant perspective on the events being described (“I should have known she was trouble the second she walked into my office,” to cite a particularly stereotypical example), but at the same time often feel as if the events are unfolding in the present; and, if the story is being narrated from some future moment, whether we can necessarily trust the narrator’s memories (especially since most fictional detectives are not nearly as disinterested in their cases and clients as they might pretend).
As far as I know (or at least as far as I have read), the vast majority of first-person detective novels sidestep these questions, and in fact depend on a reader doing the same: that is, if the reader begins to doubt the detective’s memories or reliability as a narrator, the entire premise of the story would pretty quickly fall apart. While of course unreliable first-person narrators are entirely possible as a fictional option, as Edgar Allan Poe himself proves in stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” they would seem antithetical to the goals of mystery fiction, and more exactly to how fully the reader relies on the detective to guide us to the text and mystery’s successful conclusion. But there are a couple of terrific late 20th-century (in fact from the same year, coincidentally) mystery novels that not only acknowledge these issues, but make them central to their literary projects and themes, all without abandoning (revising, to be sure, but still deploying very successfully to my mind) the classic elements of mystery fiction: Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) and Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (1994).
The two novels could not be more distinct in either setting or tone: Lethem’s is a work of satirical and humorous science-fiction, set in a somewhat distant (if certainly recognizably possible) future which includes genetically mutated talking kangaroos and various psychological and medical uses of technology for humans as well; O’Brien’s is a tense psychological and historical thriller, focused on a Vietnam veteran turned politician whose career is destroyed by revelations of a My Lai like incident. O’Brien’s novelist-narrator is not even explicitly a detective, although he certainly has investigated extensively the novel’s central mysteries (which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here!). But what both novels share is a fascinating use of the issue of memory itself to complicate and enrich their mystery plots: in Lethem’s work, a medical procedure that can erase memories and replace them with pre-fabricated narratives becomes both crucial to the detective’s ongoing investigations and instrumental to his narration, as he goes into a six-year cryogenic sleep in the middle of the novel and awakes on the other side of such a procedure; in O’Brien’s, virtually all of the central themes come down to the parallel questions first of the memories of war and their accompanying traumas and aftereffects and second to how much any individual or community can rely on memory to determine the truths of histories and lives.
It feels somewhat strange to link these two texts in this space, since O’Brien’s is deeply concerned with American history and culture and Lethem’s much less so (although it has plenty to say about life in Los Angeles in the late 20th century, as viewed through its futuristic fun-house mirror). If you’ve only got time for one, I recommend O’Brien, for that reason and just because it’s one of the best novels by one of our most important contemporary novelists. But they both rework the mystery genre in very fun and successful ways, and in so doing both have a lot to say about not only such books and their readers, but about the human identities and issues (like memory) to which they always connect. Next mysterious read tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Beach Read nominees, mysterious or otherwise, you’d share?