Friday, May 11, 2007

BOOK: "Christine Falls," by Benjamin Black (a k a John Banville)

I was a fan of John Banville's Man Booker Prize-winning book, The Sea, but for all its wondrous description, it was a little too solitary and introspective of a read. Banville's new book takes on a new pen name, that of Benjamin Black, and a new genre, although not really a new style. Just as Cormac McCarthy is a master of pared-down refinements of genres, and Paul Auster brings a sense of mysterious and metafictional coincidence to all his novels, Banville's latest, Christine Falls, is a bulked-up crime novel, with the same wistful yet playful tone of his other tales.

When I say bulked up, I do not mean that Christine Falls is a hulking read: it's actually a slender three-hundred-odd pages. But those pages are pure muscle, full of sinewed lines, insinuating plots, and sinuous ideas (not to mention pure old infallible sin). The text is filled with the classic and contradictory phrases of those who see the double-sided truth of a man who is "menacingly jovial," but the metaphors are stronger ("The baby was trying out a few exploratory squeaks that sounded ... like the sounds a blind man would make feeling at something shiny with his fingertips...") and the absence of libido in the protagonist, Quirke, keeps the novel from being distracted from deeper significance by shallow pleasures.

Actually, for the first sixty or so pages, Christine Falls is more of a family drama than a mystery. Quirke, being a mortician, is used to being around dead bodies, and the only reason he pursues the titular corpse is because he catches his estranged half-brother, Malachy Griffin, tampering with the records. This hook is the perfect excuse for Banville to explore Quirke's tenuous relationship with Mal, not to mention Mal's wife, Sarah, with whom he is still in love. To make things more intriguing, Quirke turns out to have been married to Sarah's sister, Delia, who died in a failed childbirth that turned him into a charming drunkard. As if that wasn't enough drama, Sarah has a daughter, Phoebe, who is just old enough to be sexually rebellious (the novel takes place in Ireland, in the 50s, which makes her around 20 years old), and some of Banville's best moments are playing the loose Phoebe against the malleable Quirke.

However, while the mystery serves Banville's writing -- forcing it out into the open and propelling it onward -- the actual plot is weak. The second part of the book introduces two new characters, half a world away in Boston. Claire is a sweetheart, and Andy is a hard, philandering drunk, and the two are stereotypes that, while fleshed out, lack any charm or conviction. It's simply another way for Banville to avoid dealing with the shallow mystery, as he explores the traditional "marriage in trouble."

The effect is more thrilling than the mystery, and at times, the characters. The third-person narration, when focused on Quirke, is excellent, and his scenes are handled with an efficient, economic grace (even as they cram a ton of references between moments):
Barney told the barman to leave the bottle. He said "I'd rather a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy," and gave Quirke a quick, shy, sideways glance; by now all Barney's jokes were secondhand. The thought came to Quirke: He's Falstaff grown inconvenient, which did not, he knew make himself the king. He ordered what was called a coffee: hot water and a dollop of tarry syrup from a square bottle: Irel, the Irish Coffee! He stirred into the brew three heaping spoonfuls of sugar. What am I doing here? he asked himself, and Barney, as if he had read his mind, turned on him a quizzical eye and said, in his Donnybrook voice: "Bit out of your depth here, aren't you, Quirke?"
However, at other moments, it seems as if Banville's made a choice to write in a particularly "peculiar awkwardness," that gives life to sentences like "It was not the dead that seemed to Quirke uncanny but the living." Commas aren't always indulged, and because Banville is the sort of writer who makes his readers work (unlike the traditional pulp of this genre), some of the descriptions yield their treasures only after a few reads.
Outside, the already darkening afternoon was dense with frost smoke, and the ornamental gardens were hidden under snow and the ocean was a leaden line in front of a bank of lavender-tinted fog. Now and then a pane-sized square of snow would slide from the roof and burst into powder and cascade in an eerie silence down the glass wall and disappear into the drifts that had already built up at the edges of the lawn, white into white.
There are no detectives featured in this story--the characters are victims enough of their circumstances: missed romantic opportunities, failing marriages, old battles with alcoholism. There hardly needs to be an actual Christine Falls to deal with, and this becomes clear in the swift third act, an anticlimactic slice of life that is effective only because of how unusual it is to find in this breed of book. If you're simply seeking mindless escapism with a procedural ending, this isn't the novel for you. But if you're looking to explore the possibilities of a hybrid between genre and literature, look no further than passages like the following, which use the morbid fascination of the former's type of prose to delve into the soul-seeking truth of the latter's.
It sometimes seemed to [Quirke] that he favored dead bodies over living ones. Yes, he harbored a sort of admiration for cadavers, these wax-skinned, soft, suddenly ceased machines. They were perfected in their way, no matter how damaged or decayed, and fully as impressive as any ancient marble. He suspected, too, that he was becoming more and more like them, that he was even in some way becoming one of them. He would stare at his hands and they would seem to have the same texture, inert, malleable, porous, as the corpses that he worked on, as if something of their substance were seeping into him by slow but steady degrees. Yes, he was fascinated by the mute mysteriousness of the dead. Each corpse carried its unique secret--the precise cause of death--a secret that it was his task to uncover. For him, the spark of death was fully as vital as the spark of life.
For me, the two halves of this novel are the yin and yang of modern fiction, and even the bold failures in this novel are fully vital toward the advancement of writing in general: it's a spark of life, at last, in a repetitious genre.

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