Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 28 April 2008

Just the facts, ma'am

Just the facts, ma'am. – Sgt Joe Friday, Dragnet

If there was a single thing that persuaded me to buy this book it was the quote by Andrei Codrescu that appears on the front cover: "Petrovich is Beckett's organ." It's a wonderful quote, trying to be profound but ending up just plain rude. It reminded me immediately of Alan Bennett's play, Kafka's Dick and, 'Solid Geometry', a short story by Ian McEwan about a pickled penis. I'm sure there are plenty of other phallic-oriented scraps of literature hanging around but I think I'll leave it there and get on with the review.

I had no idea who Codrescu was but I didn't bother too google him until after I'd read the book the first time. I say 'read' but I didn't really read the book – I drowned in it by about the halfway point. And to be fair I've drowned in quite a few of Beckett's texts over the years, in fact, I never expect to sail through one of his prose pieces without capsizing sooner rather than later.

The Session by Aaron Petrovich is a novella only 59 pages long and that includes 11 appropriately murky monotypes by the Czechoslovakian-born but Brooklyn-based artist Vilem Benes. They don't add a great deal to the text but I actually quite like them. In a way they provided the breaks that the text, a constant flood of dialogue, needs. You can see a slideshow of a few of the plates here.

There have been novels written in dialogue before: Nicholson Baker's Vox springs to mind although it's not completely in dialogue, and there's also Corey Mesler's Talk. The all-dialogue technique was pioneered first by Henry Green and later (and more famously) by William Gaddis, who, in 1975, published J R, a book where it is sometimes difficult to determine which character is speaking other than conversational context, a problem shared at times by The Session. I've personally written two short stories completely in dialogue, 'Just Thinking', which was published in The Ranfurly Review recently and 'Ugly Truths' which is still out there looking for a home. It's quite refreshing actually to be able to forget about those boring descriptive passages. I'm surprised I don't do more of it.

The novella consists largely of an untagged dialogue between two men, both detectives and both named Smith. One is older than the other and I'll help you out by letting you know that the older of the two starts talking first. If you can hang onto that thought then that's a beginning. The book starts off simply enough:

What we're after here is the truth of the situation.
I've got it.
I'm pleased to hear it.
In the palm of my hand.
That's the wrong place for it.
On the edge of my seat?
In anticipation of … ?

… What?
What are you waiting for?
Who says I'm waiting?
You've just done.
I said no such thing.
You are on the edge, young man, of your seat.
But I'm standing.
There are not, even, any seats within this room to sit in.
It's your expression.

Sound familiar? As another reviewer describes it: "Petrovich’s dialogue is linguistically playful, pithy, and flawlessly paced" and I couldn't put it any better; I did try. A much lengthier extract is available here.

One could easily imagine Didi and Gogo or Hamm and Clov having an exchange like that, though, as the piece picks up pace – it is a hard book to read slowly – the banter is more reminiscent of the verbal pyrotechnics of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and in that respect the piece does have a succinctly Beckettian feel. The open nod to 'waiting' evokes Waiting for Godot, and the later exchange

We must go on.
I can't go on.
You must.

obviously tips its hat to The Unnamable and I have no problem with that. The question is, is Petrovich the natural successor to Beckett? If Harold Pinter had made that quote on the cover I might have been more convinced but he doesn't even consider himself the natural successor to Beckett.

This is how the blurb on the back of the book describes it:

Funny, frantic, and with a subversive intelligence, Aaron Petrovich's Keatonesque heroes, Detectives Smith and Smith, stumble upon a bizarre new religion while following the trail of a murdered mathematician's missing organs. Their investigation to discover the truth – about the mathematician, the men and women who may have eaten him and, ultimately, the nature of truth, sanity and identity – leads them into a lunatic asylum that they may never leave.

Written entirely in dialogue, Petrovich's pitch-perfect language, reminiscent of Beckett, Chandler, and Duras, elevates rapid-fire banter to a transformative musical litany. His characters, however, remain tragically and hysterically human.

Beckett and Chandler I know. Marguerite Duras it seems was a French writer and film director. She was a leading writer of the Nouveau Roman movement and tends to get lumped in with other intellectuals of the period although she definitively did not belong to any group and apparently actually disliked Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir. I don't know her work enough to pass comment, however, I've read that there is a moment in La Vie tranquille (1949) when a woman witnesses a man drowning, half aware of the unfolding tragedy, but does nothing to aid him and is subsequently ostracised by villagers for her inexcusable failure to act; this seemingly distils the Duras œuvre: a detached, half-conscious protagonist looks out on to a world that she is ultimately powerless to affect.

I can see why the guy writing the blurb might reference her but Chandler not so much. I'm a little surprised that he didn't think to name-drop Pinget here because his novel Passacaglia (you can read my review on Goodreads) also has the flavour of a detective novel, is equally esoteric and much closer to Beckett's style than The Session. Pinget, incidentally, was also involved with the Nouveau Roman movement. Hardcore mystery readers will probably not appreciate either of these books since their emphasis is on language rather than action and there are certainly no platinum blondes or hills of beans.

Smith and Smith could never be described as half-conscious although one – God alone knows which one but I think it's the older one – may doze off at the end of the book leaving the other to deliver a fairly lengthy monologue in much the same way as Vladimir gets to do near the end of Act II of Waiting for Godot. Vladimir muses about the brevity of human existence; Smith waxes lyrical about what the author refers to in an audio introduction to the book as "sunfall" and how it affects him. You can hear his remarks along with some of that final monologue here.

Detectives are interested in facts normally but these two appear preoccupied with truth:

There are truths and there are facts and then there are those rarely encountered truths that act on us as though they are facts over which we have no control.
Regardless of our participation in them?
And freed from the constraints of the manner we've used to procure them.
This, then, is an implicit truth?
Not precisely.
Is it, then, an inherent truth?
Not precisely.
Is it not, then, an essential truth?

I've noticed that I keep feeling the need to include words like 'seems' and 'appears' in this review and that's because, when you're reading this book, it is hard to be certain about anything.

As the dialogue continues, we find ourselves faced with two quite distinct personalities though. The older Smith takes the lead and parries happily with the younger man. The other is not so sure of himself and is prone to flights of fantasy. It’s as if they’re drawn from competing yet complimentary regions of one mind and it's quite possible to draw the conclusion that there is only one Smith and the verbal battle is taking place within his skull, a particularly Beckettian concept if you consider the set design for Endgame.

A third character appears briefly, the Doctor. This, understandably, is the hardest part of the book to make sense of since we have three voices on the go as in this section. The first voice here is the doctor's:

I see. And are you also finding my patience amusing?
They’re funny, yeah.
My patience.
If a bit bug-eyed, if you know what I mean.
Little bit round the bend.
On the brink.
But a real laugh-riot, in a sort of daffy sort of duck sort of way.
I said my patience.
Yeah, I heard you the first time, Caligari….
Are you understanding the difference between my patience and my

At one point the Doctor attempts to alienate the detectives from one another and in doing so he leaves us the reader a vital clue:

…while I should not have wanted to interrupt your soliloquy, it is time, now, to mediate upon what differences have arisen between you in the condition of your bereavement.

Is the expression "soliloquy" a slip of the tongue or are these detectives truly of one mind? We know that the younger Smith was present at the Mathematician's lecture but it appears he was transfixed by the sun while the man was brutally eviscerated by his "entire attendant audience" seemingly on his own instigation. (See what I mean about the 'seems' and 'appears'?)

Asylums were, of course, a subject of some fascination to Beckett and they crop up now and again in his writing (Watt spends some time in one, Hamm recalls visiting a man in one, Murphy ends his days in one) and it has to be said that the aforesaid Murphy would have been especially taken with the Mathematician's theories on "the Elusive Precepts of Essencism" when he was alive.

Petrovich has described the book as "a piece of art … that needs to be seen to be believed" which I think is a bit pompous but it is a nice book – it feels good in your hand with its textured cover and its yellowed pages; I think that's important and one thing you'll never get from a Kindle.

Bottom line: if you can find a cheap copy (I paid £2.00 plus postage for mine, mean bugger that you know me to be) and you've read everything Beckett has ever written, of which I am guilty as charged, then go for it; it's certainly not worth the cover price of $10.95 but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed struggling with reading it. Sure I got mixed up here and there especially when the doctor turns up but that is absolutely the author's intention.

I normally whinge about texts where the meaning is not clear and yet I love Beckett. Why? Because, like all things, there is an art to being vague and in that regard I think Petrovich manages to pull it off. The book is full of clues very much like Beckett's radio play All That Fall though not clues to the case in hand, the murder of the Mathematician (which might be helpful), but rather the existential problem of who Smith and Smith really are.

Released by Akashic Books, The Session, is the debut publication of Hotel St. George Press, a literary art press that, according to its mission statement, weds "the formal novelty of children’s books to the content of sophisticated mature fiction." Their website is quite beautiful though because it is so graphic intense it can be a bit slow to load. Petrovich has this to say:

Writing is – with the exception of one other – the most intimate of experiences, for me at least, and reading comes a close, um, third. There are expanding circles of intimacy in the making and selling of books independently that maintain that sense of intimacy. Those mass-corporate publishers and sellers that compose, in part, Manhattan, are a bit LIKE Manhattan – while they are likely to produce works of great beauty, they still leave me feeling a little less then human. It’s no wonder we are seeing so many great books coming out of independent publishers in Brooklyn. It’s just close enough to Manhattan not to get consumed by it.

Aaron Petrovich is a writer of fiction and theatre living in Brooklyn. He is a regular contributor to the Exquisite Corpse and an associate editor at Akashic Books. His theatrical works have appeared in the Midtown International Theatre Festival; Manhattan Theatre Source; Improvised and Otherwise, a festival of sound and form, and the Estrogenius Festival.


Ken Armstrong said...

Interesting Jim. I think it's the kind of book one would have to actually read in order to fully appreciate the review of it. (Hell, maybe all books should be this way)

I mostly just wanted to say that I enjoyed your mention of how the book felt in your hand, really. I find this tactile/sensual (steady) aspect to be a relevant part of book enjoyment and I feel quite vindicated that you mentioned it, even if you're not a crazy as I am!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Ken, and I do agree. I read a number of other reviews of the book before I set about writing mine because I didn't want to simply replicate what was already available and they all had that one particular failing.

The note I left on Goodreads basically said, "If you've read everything by Beckett then give it a go," and that's why I bought it and when I started it I wondered what the hell I'd wasted my money on but at the same time I was drawn in by this banter. It's quite compelling but it does require a bit of concentration once you get going.

As for the feel of the book... Oh, yes, that is important. I love books for both their look and their feel. Were I stinking rich I would seriously wander around Waterstones and pick up what looked and felt nice. It's something I've just mentioned in the blog I'm working on right now, the feel of a book in the hand. It's the one real downside of ordering on-line but one has to be practical.

Dave King said...

Hi Jim,
Think I agree with ken that perhaps one ought to read the book first, and your review afterwards. One thing I appreciate about your posts, though, is that they so often give me a strong desire to read some book or author that I have never heard of before. That can only be good. As for this post, I have actually read Vox!- but that's it.
Thanks for stirring up my interest once more.

Jim Murdoch said...

Appreciate the kind words, Dave. I thought quite a bit about how to go about reviewing this book. I had the same problem here as with Gold and Fresh because both books have rather striking punch lines that I was desperate to talk about but that would ruin the experience.

I don't mind not having a clue what's going on in a book until the end when I expect everything to be pulled together but occasionally I don't mind being left with the puzzle. At the moment ITV4 is repeating The Prisoner and even though I own the boxed set I've been watching it faithfully and loving it all over again even though I know that nothing will be really explained at the end.

My intent is only to do reviews for books I would want people to read. Sometimes it will only be a few of my friends that will appreciate a particular book – and The Session is one of them – but when the right book lands in the hands of the right reader, well, you'll know what that feels like I am sure.

Anonymous said...

Another tremendous post Jim, I really appreciate your seriousness and effort. Did you consider an option of making of the book of essays out of your blog, I think it would be a real hit.

Jim Murdoch said...

That's a nice thing to say, Jasko, but the blogs are heavily hyperlinked and I really don't know how I could translate this to text besides these posts are give-aways really, my way of building credibility with my audience as a writer, which – hopefully – will cause them to be curious enough to look at my writing once I get round to promoting it. And that's coming very soon. In about four blogs' time to be precise – so watch this space.

J. C. said...

Hi Jim, this is not really a comment but an invitation for you to guest post on my blog. I would be honored if you accept. As you know my blog is preferring literature and life experience stories. Thanks so much and I will understand if you are too busy or not in the mood for it.

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