Thursday, December 27, 2007

It's a Mystery to Me

Like a well-loved restaurant or the evocation of a particular flow of music, the one story we return to again and again, whether we know it or not, is the mystery.

We do not return to find out who killed whom or why, because in some almost mystical sense we already know those answers; we return for the same reason we return to lake or sea side. We return for the tidal pull at the heart of our being. Had we evolved on a different planet, we should perhaps treasure hunting sagas or epics of armed clashes that would put The Iliad to shame; we should perhaps return to the saga or the romance or the fantasy. But we are humans of this planet. No known surge protector insulates us from the crackle of inner conflict arcing across the electrodes of the primal self. And if we cannot live in accord with our primal self, how then are we to live on this planet as it moves about this sun, orbiting every known dichotomy and, indeed, those not yet discovered? Our creation myths abound in mystery, transubstantiation, and apocalypse. Our secular bibles, left in motel rooms, not by the Gideons but rather by lonely missionaries of another sort, are mysteries with fallen women on their covers, hopelessly yearned for by men who have fallen even farther and deeper, taking such comfort as they can from the belief that for a time they can find a place somewhere in which they can lead an exemplary life if not an Edenic one simply by placing hubris and ambition aside.

Some of the great mysteries of our planet include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which rewards personal integrity in the face of the unknown, and which we see all too rarely in a world embellished with executive inducements; and that splendid tale of redemption, The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which Michael Henchard learns in plausible fashion the potential for repairing an heinous crime (also one of the great opening chapters of the English language).

As we have done by adding mayonnaise to so many things, as well we have done in this country to the mystery by adding the very thing mayonnaise has come to represent, the Middle Class. My own favorites among the early generation of mysteries are the nearly forgotten Hammett venture, The Glass Key, all of the Chandler output, and two others who have veered off into the shadowy sidelines, Norbert Davis, and Peter Ruric. Eric Knight, who was known for quite another type of story, wrote a classic in 1938, You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, as the title suggests, a hardboiled response to life, and as the text suggests, a
stylized retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice.

All choice reading, as indeed one of my great favorites and, in its way, the thrust of this entry-cum-challenge. In 1999, Jonathan Lethem published that great existential joy of a mystery, Motherless Brooklyn, featuring Lionel Essrog, a private detective with not only a life-defining mission (to track down the killer of his mentor) but as well a life-affecting martyrdom to Tourette's Syndrome.

Talk about taking on challenges and clients. We need--no, I need, my own Lionel Essrog, a character yanked right out of the gof bag of my psyche, who has a mission and some actually physical or psychical miss-wiring, a character who will be forced to compete with a strong opponent as well as a strong impediment. My characters like to get out and mess about, so no sense making the problem agoraphobia. Drugs have been done to death, Nero Wolfe has more or less retired the bulky detective, thanks to Joe Hansen, David Branstetter has pretty well made gayness in an investigator a non-event; Lew Archer's intelligent musings remove that aspect of things, and maybe, oh, please, there's some ray of hope in the lovely material TIV has posted about OCD. My client, Allen Sidle, a Jungian psychiatrist, has already grabbed the notion of a Jungian "on-call" for a Freudian buddy in a mystery, and at the moment, a PI with a need to handle arson-related cases seems as managed as a Hillary or Mitt campaign event.

The notion of a man or woman having to deal first and foremost with some physical or emotional hang-up, each time he or she heads out the door is warmly enticing. Donald Westlake, writing as Tucker Coe, has it pretty well nailed with Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, in which former cop Mitch Tobin is held in thrall by that great chain of guilt. Tobin got his partner to cover for him while sneaking in a little romance. Trouble was, the partner needed back-up and Mitch wasn't there. And because of that
absence, partner was ambushed and killed. Yep, guilt works, and we can all of us relate to it.

Grief? Nah. Revenge? nope.

What's out there, calling the Siren's song?


R.L. Bourges said...

shelly: this is maybe more up the individual voice's alley but since you mention Lionel Essrog, I found this fascinating tidbit concerning the kabbalistic meaning of the character's last name thanks to google:

" In the novel this reading is possibly sustained by an otherwise inexplicable scene towards the end (in a chapter entitled "Good Sandwiches"), where Lionel expresses a previously unknown craving for kosher kebab, singling out one of the food franchises at JFK airport ("Mushy’s, run by a family of Israelis" (310)) as his new favourite restaurant. This progression from his previous favourite food, White Castle burgers, to kosher kebab could be a teasing final clue to the reader, that the Tourettic detective is about to come home, at least culinarily speaking."

The article is called "Narratives of Disorder-Disorders of Narrative". The author is Bent Soerensen. And it's in something called " PSYART an online journal for the psychological study of the arts"

reference here:

Thought your other readers might like to know.

R.L. Bourges said...

Second take, here - in the realm of unexplored angles: what does the word "transsubstantiation" conjure up for you?

Anonymous said...

Almost anything by Graham Greene is, to me, something to return to. Not just for the quality of the writing but the quality of the grief that is there in everyday life.