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.