So how ’bout that ending?



Up until I read the last thirty pages of Assumption, my plan for this response was to talk about how Ogden Walker and his approach to detection subvert or reaffirm Raymond Chandler’s conception of detective fiction as laid out in “The Simple Art of Murder.” I suppose I still could. Ogden is simultaneously a man who, as Chandler says, “talks as the man of his age talks” and certainly appears to not be the kind of person who would despoil a virgin; nonetheless, he is not impressively heroic, nor does a figure like him present a model for the creation of a better world—quite the opposite, actually. Perhaps that’s as far as that discussion can go although one might consider what Everett is saying about the type of the detective when it turns out that our intrepid hero takes the line between criminal and detective that most gumshoes straddle and obliterates it.

So much for that. Now, back to the ending.

It obliquely reminds me of Herbert Quain’s The God of the Labyrinth, especially the phrase about chess players that signals to the reader that the crime’s solution is wrong, and thus an “unquiet reader rereads the pertinent chapters and discovers another solution, the true one” (Borges 74). Almost immediately after finishing the novel and taking a few seconds to mouth the words “What the hell?” once or twice, I flipped through the earlier sections of the novel to try and discover if something else was amiss, now fully aware that neither Ogden nor the narrator can be trusted. I congratulated myself on figuring out that Wally Yates was a figment of Ogden’s imagination, but like Ogden upset about missing out on earlier clues, I let my skepticism run wild. “Interesting that there was only one set of footprints in the snow leading up to Mrs. Bickers’s house,” I murmured with an air of erudition, “and wasn’t there supposed to be much more money stolen from One Hand than twelve-thousand dollars? Where did the rest go?” I started to wonder if my own search was, as Ogden so flatly puts it, “some ego thing, or, worse, some macho thing” (150).

Like Quain’s novel, Assumption thrusts the burden of detection onto the reader. However, a true resolution in Assumption is doubtful. It is very difficult to pin down when or exactly why Ogden might have lost his grip on reality; perhaps it did not occur until the third section of the novel, and the inconsistencies early on are just that. It likely occured somewhere in the gaps between cases in the novel. Perhaps his racial background or attitude about authority or persistent loneliness all contribute to his break with reality. One wonders if, as a detective, the reader reaches the same conclusion Ogden does: “Nothing makes sense and that’s the only wat that any of it can make sense” (225).

I wonder if Assumption—which is not exactly metaphysical, so please bear with me here—might be doing some of what Michael Holquist claims postmodern detective fiction does, which is “dramatiz[ing] the void” and revealing that it is not death that requires a solution but that “in the new metaphysical detective story it is life which must be solved” (155). If so, then what is the solution to life that Assumption proposes? Distrust the mind? Distrust everything and everyone, including those you think you can trust the most, whether they are your good friend or an authoritative narrator? Distrust all your assumptions? That last one was groanworthy. I apologize.

Speaking of groans and crimes:

Cosmic Mind Detective

10/15 Fields, Positions, and Dispositions…Also, Ghosts

As I was reading Pierre Bourdieu’s piece, two thoughts came to mind. The first was that, having experienced his challenging syntax, I would do well to keep my use of parenthetical and prepositional phrases in check from now on. The second, more fruitful idea was that it would be interesting to apply his rigorous method of literary field analysis to Sayers and get a better sense of where she stands in relation to the other agents in her field.

Then, I remembered something in Robinson Crusoe about the folly of starting something without counting the costs.

Bourdieu does not make implementing his analysis easy. As covered in Cohen’s article earlier this semester and reiterated on page 31 of Bourdieu, it is difficult to reproduce the “spaces of original possibles” because some of an era’s problematics became extinct or were not commented upon at all. Furthermore, Bourdieu seems mostly occupied with the avant-garde and with oppositions to bourgeois culture within autonomous subfields; popular writing figures little in his discussion. This limitation, in turn, prompts some more questions. How do we classify Sayers? Where does she fall in relation to the three competing principles of legitimacy? How does whatever position she takes in her literary subfield displace other positions and struggle with avant-garde or “consecrated” writers?

More than anything, though, I am interested in how Sayers’s disposition—is she daring, conventional, desperate, or out to make a buck? —shapes what position she might be taking. She does not seem to be striving for the post of poet or “pure” artist, so to consider what she is striving for requires one to consider the “social direction” that guides he towards her goals. We can consider that social factors are “the basis of the astonishingly close correspondence that is found between positions and dispositions, between the social characteristic of ‘posts’ and the social characteristics of the agents who fill them” (Bourdieu 64). We could consider how her need to make a living would perhaps push her far away from the “art for art’s sake” crowd, which as Bourdieu points out, might be composed of the guardians of truth and justice who are “explicitly defined as such in opposition to the constraints and seductions of economic and political life” (54). We can also consider how structural time-scales of the literary field of the novel shape Sayers’s position-taking. The novel goes through changes more rapidly than theater but less so than poetry if Bourdieu is to be believed (52), and the detective novel, as a popular form closely attached to the market, must undergo changes even more rapidly. Do the rapidly changing aesthetics of the detective novel make it hard for Sayers to challenge an established antagonistic position or even to fend off newly arising forms?

There is a lot to consider. The rigorous demands of Bourdieu’s method, the nature of which are not-so-succinctly described on page 65, seem to be raising more questions now than answering.

Bonus: I couldn’t help but think that the séance in Strong Poison was a dig at Conan Doyle for believing in fairies and ghosts. With that being said, please enjoy this recording of Conan Doyle’s ghost recorded at a séance in 1934.

Blog Post for 9/18

When John Frow states that a more productive view of genre is to understand it not as strict classification but as “a more reflexive model in which texts are thought to use or to perform the genres by which they are shaped” and as a model that prioritizes “participation without belonging” (25), he immediately prompts me to think of new ways to analyze critical consensus when it comes to genre. What makes some works better participants in a genre than other texts?

For example, one can say that a text that passively replicates the conventions of a genre is less dynamic—even less good, if one is inclined to make judgments—than a text that participates in multiple genres or challenges and perhaps even changes the parameters of the genre with which it is interacting.  By this metric, True Detective’s first season, which dabbles in philosophy and cosmic horror tropes while nodding to established detective fiction conventions and commenting on religious mores, is a more dynamic text than, say, Law and Order, which follows a set pattern and does not do much to reinvent what police dramas can do. To Law and Order’s credit, it admirably performs the traits of the genre in which it participates: there is little chance of tuning into an episode and mistaking what is on the screen for science fiction. Thus, Law and Order may be the stronger detective show. Or not. Upon further reflection, then, I realize Frow’s definition of genre might not work best as an evaluative measure and works better as a method for describing texts and their relationships to each other. That is just fine because too much of a thought process that pits texts’ performances against each other leads to someone asking how well a text belongs to a genre, and then suddenly everyone is back to rigid categories.  Still, I do wonder how much of a factor a text’s ability to move beyond or between genres plays in determining how “good” it is. Should it even be a factor?

In addition to contemplating the critical possibilities of Frow’s definitions, I would like to consider his clever illustration of genre cues. Genre cues “act rather like context-sensitive drop-down menus in a computer program, directing [a reader] to the layers and sub-layers of information” that correspond to what an addresser and an addressee are trying to accomplish (84). His comparison lets the reader partake in the very process Frow is describing. The reader, who presumably has used a computer before, learns by doing and activates (or awakens) what Walter Kintsch might call a knowledge node upon mentally visualizing a dropdown menu. Having called upon that activated node of computer knowledge, the reader applies existing context to understand Frow’s term and thus alter the mutable “background of encyclopaedic knowledge and beliefs” that helps readers form new associations (85). Fortunately, Frow picked an accessible knowledge framework. Had he picked anything substantially more complex than a dropdown menu, his point might have been lost on me.