Thursday, June 21, 2012

Not dead

... just working a lot and traveling. Occasionally tweeting. I took a test and discovered that I am a creature of routine and an introvert, and also very much like Johnny Depp. And Mary Poppins. Other than that, not much news.

I hope to resume some form of regular blogging next week.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Mystery novels and the mystery of death

I expect to return many times to this nearly twenty-year-old interview with Don DeLillo in The Paris Review. It basically answers all my questions about writing and validates what I thought were some of my worst tendencies, especially in relation to character. So it's awesome!

But today I want to dwell on this almost throw-away insight DeLillo offers about mystery novels:

When I think of highly plotted novels I think of detective fiction or mystery fiction, the kind of work that always produces a few dead bodies. But these bodies are basically plot points, not worked-out characters. The book’s plot either moves inexorably toward a dead body or flows directly from it, and the more artificial the situation the better. Readers can play off their fears by encountering the death experience in a superficial way. A mystery novel localizes the awesome force of the real death outside the book, winds it tightly in a plot, makes it less fearful by containing it in a kind of game format.

For a long time I've wondered how and why mystery fiction transforms murder into a form of amusement. How does that dynamic operate? How does it make murder appealing rather than merely appalling? What makes us accept that the satisfaction of solving the crime seems to justify its occurrence, at least in fiction?

Well, of course. The tightly woven plot is a containment strategy. Part of the pleasure we derive from such stories is in experiencing that containment, that transformation. Murder and death become artifacts through the evident artifice of these plots.

In other words, the murder mystery is a proxy for the mystery of death itself. What happens, really? And why must it happen? By the strict terms of the human condition, we can't have these answers. But we can have more practical answers about death in a murder story: we can use our minds to discover who did it, and why. The criminal's motive replaces God's and/or the universe's. If we can't understand death in general, at least we can understand a particular death.

All of which suggests the mystery novel as a kind of ritual or amulet or charm against death, which goes a long way to explaining its appeal. And a character like Sherlock Holmes, a master at comprehending murder mysteries, becomes a kind of priest.