Monthly Archives: May 2009

Private Midnight, A Novel by Kris Saknussemm

I requested a review copy of this after reading an interesting-sounding solicitation from a PR outfit. Now, I have to read a lot of things. It’s important to understand this. I have muscles for reading that many people don’t have. I am also a completist and a serialist. If I start something, I finish it; and I read it straight through. I don’t read anywhere near as fast as this mutant; in fact, I think I may read fiction considerably slower than the average person. Not only do I give authors the benefit of the doubt, I assume that they are infinitely clever. Omniscient. Inerrant. That everything will come together in ways that I can only begin to anticipate.

Some books reward this approach. If you are primarily a student of modernism and its heirs, a certain amount of this studied credulousness, if I can call it that, is probably necessary. When authors, however, are manifestly not capable of maintaining the internal logic of their creations, it requires exceptional patience and discipline to defer my skepticism and impatience to make it through to the end of the book. What’s especially frustrating is when an author like Gene Wolfe, several of whose works do in fact demand to be read this way (Fifth Head, New Sun, much of the short fiction), writes something that appears to deserve such consideration when it fact it does not.

The premise of Private Midnight is that a noir-stock detective, one Birch Ritter, who remembers “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” from high school, meets an Ayesha somewhere on the job in the Los Angeles conurbation, one Genevieve Wyvern (this last name is not left alone, by the way, by any stretch of the imagination), and becomes ensqualmed. (If you’ve read Rhialto the Marvellous, you know what I mean. Otherwise, he becomes a woman.) Much of this process involves psychic theater of The Magus type, except that Genevieve is in fact a supernatural ageless creature, which the protagonist aspires to emulate at the end. Considerable prurient detail is involved. I wonder what Wayne Booth would have made of the discussion questions supplied in the solicitation email:

“Is every woman a dominatrix? Examining the ‘Dominant Woman’ ideal.

We all pay for sex: What are some of the ways we each ‘pay’ for our intimate physical relationships? “

The novel begins with an epigraph from Murder in the Cathedral, and Joseph Conrad is also quoted. There are references to alchemy and occultism, unsurprisingly, and Genevieve’s conversation also includes a reference to Riemannian spacetime. (I wonder how I’d spend my time if I were immortal. Universal knowledge would be a worthy goal, but it’s quite possible that Lady Wyvern’s other obligations have interfered.)

My impatience with this book was probably heightened by having recently read a skillful noir parody by Denis Johnson, who’s a formidable writer even when overtly pot-boiling. The author clearly identified a topic of interest in the role of gender in the noir genre, and I held out hope throughout that the supernaturalist affectations were a subtle product of the protagonist’s delusions, which, while not novel, would at least aspire to a type of subtlety and coherence that the surface plot seemed desperately to lack. I could not defer my skepticism in this, however. At various points while reading, I asked myself why I disliked it so much, and I suppose it was the inability of the author to resist the overt intellectualizing of a subject matter that does not lend itself to writerly self-reflection.

That’s not a full exploration of the problem, which I originally thought was of theoretical interest when I began this post. More could be said about the the use of gender theory and commercial sociobiology in the book, which is sociologically interesting. The Overlook Press also publishes Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance, a great book that will test your serialism and completism, if you think you share those qualities.

Study Guides for Contemporary British Literature, ca. 1921

Specialists may recognize John Matthews Manly’s and Edith Rickert’s Contemporary British Literature: Bibliographies and Study Guides from Harcourt Brace, 1921. It refers to Joyce as a defrocked priest, for example, and sees fit to mention about Woolf only the apparently inexplicable fact that she is the daughter of Leslie Stephen. In spite of this, I found the most amusing entry to be devoted to Ralph Hodgson:

Born in Yorkshire, 1872.

[. . .] Is a leading authority in England on bull terriers. His favorite poet is Shelley.


1. Note that the extreme thinness of his work gives opportunity to study it from every angle and to decide why it has made him a name. [. . .]

The Science of Personality Psychology

Appendix A. Status manipulation
High status condition: male (female) versions
The person that you are about to listen to is a law student. His (her) grade point average is 3.8, and he (she) is the president of the pre-law association and is an honor student. He (she) lives in his own apartment and owns his (her) own car that he (she) uses to commute to and from school. His (her) father is a successful CEO in a Fortune 500 company, and his (her) mother is a lawyer.

Low status condition: male (female) versions

The person that you are about to listen to is a college student with an undecided major. His (her) grade point average is 2.1. For some time he (she) thought of joining the military to support his (her) studies, but he (she) decided to apply for financial aid to help pay his tuition. He (she) rents a house with two other roommates. He (she) doesn’t have a car, and rides a bike to school every day. He (she) works as a cashier in a grocery store. His(her) father works as a mechanic, and his (her) mother works as a waitress.

From this exciting research.

Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move

I’ve looked around a bit at some of the reviews that’ve been posted of this to date, and not many of them, as I remember, invoked Already Dead as the most likely ancestor of this material, though that book is far denser and perhaps as strange as this. The style of Jesus’ Son, which I’ve always guessed–without having any real evidence—to be the most influential of American books published in the 90s in the workshop is on display here as well, though in a looser form. None of the characters have the capacity for heightened perception that the protagonist of that book does, so it’s not necessary a flaw in art.

“Blockhead” concerns and even inevitable-seeming comparisons with Sanctuary have been made in the press I’ve read, which is even more predictable if you know that Nobody Move was serialized in Playboy for what I suppose was a handsome fee. The book is yet more subtle than it might appear to be. I don’t think it’s an accident that the Feather River, site of a disappointing Gold Rush, features so prominently, for example. Luntz’s gambling addiction both causes him considerable trouble and elevates him at the end. Anita is referred to by Luntz himself and others as being a “different class of person” several times. Were it not for his decisions to engage in uncharacteristic violence—dangerous gambits all—he would have met an anonymous fate.

So we have a stupid, impulsive man, whose impulsivity overcomes his innate cowardice and leads him to what I read, though there’s some ambiguity of circumstance at the end, to a type of redemption. It’s not a deviation from noir-type at all, and Johnson has a Coen Brothers-like delight in the poetics of everyday stupidity which is evident throughout. The Judge, in his Lebowski-Chandler wheelchair, has his colostomy bag splattered over his face and reacts with a pragmatic stoicism, asking the obviously insane criminals at one point if this is a “terminal situation” they were in.

Anita Desilvera’s ethnicity—she’s Native American—also doesn’t escape what seems to be a more serious comment. Her actions are not the noir femme fatale stereotype of enlightened or cynical self-interest; she seems motivated by a wounded pride that seems to extend into historical consciousness. If treated ponderously, this would quickly become bathetic; but Johnson is uniquely skilled as a writer in creating moments of unsought clarity in characters who are unable to articulate their experience. Witness Anita’s talk of the “devils,” for instance.

The Giraffe

We took Henry to the local zoo today. At one year of age, he seems to have no instinctive fear of snakes, large carnivores, or even baleful maras (“Patagonian cavies,” according to the plaque, which also amusingly suggested that they could run at over 65 mph for an hour. They very much had the aspect of creatures who wouldn’t hop a yard to piss on you if you were on fire, as the saying goes, but who am I to judge?)

I suppose I haven’t seen a giraffe in person since I was eight or nine years old, and I had forgotten just how improbable they are. I half-expected an automaton of Jean-Baptiste to pop out, as in Wolfe’s “House of Ancestors,” and explain incremental stretching’s effect on the germ plasm. The gracile, almost dainty, beast several times stretched its head plaintively to the shorn branches of the elms in its temple. Of all the ruminants, I can most easily imagine worshipping the giraffe. It has the half-mad mien I would associate with an early fertility cultus. I also can’t imagine how one could kick without falling over, but several lionesses have undoubtedly met a quick end this way (if WIGWAM isn’t betraying me). Livingstone, quoted in OED, informs us that seeing a giraffe means water within seven or eight miles.