Himes and the Absurd

Johnathan Eburne’s take on Chester Himes is useful in the way that it maps both the author’s biography and development as an artist, but I was particularly struck by the middle ground that Himes seems to occupy within the genre of detective fiction in Eburne’s understanding: his detective novels are neither in the realm of “social realism,” nor “existentialism” (807). Rather, they occupy “absurdity” as “both a social condition and a narrative apparatus” (807). This is especially interesting if we consider this distinction in the larger scope of the course. We have often wrestled with the question of realism in detective fiction (with Sayers in particular), and just last week we were confronted with the existential (metaphysical, if we trust Holquist) detective stories of Borges. What then does it mean for Himes to occupy this middle ground?   

I’m particularly concerned with how Himes’ position relates to the generic codes of detective fiction, especially as there have been several prescriptive accounts of what makes a detective novel a detective novel. A dead body, clues, a logical conclusion, a lack of mystical intervention all seem to be a part of what makes good detective fiction (if we’re meeting the London Detection Club’s standards). Sayers must meet these standards if she wants to maintain the veneer of realism; Borges must include them if he wants to show their failings, thus creating a postmodern experience for the reader. Certainly, Himes’ works meet these rules. Yet his novels and their position in the world of the absurd make these rules less of a focal point. Himes is not writing for the pleasures of ratiocination, nor is he attempting something metaphysical. Instead, Himes is “abandon[ing] any such coherent philosophical position, seeking instead a ‘handle’ on absurdity as a way of describing how racism operates in the American imaginary” (825). There is something larger at stake for Himes, something that can only be communicated via the realm of the absurd: a critique of racism in America.

Why is the detective novel, then, Himes’ modus operandi? The absurd could certainly exist in other genres. Here, I would like to consider Eburne’s careful attention to the language of Himes’ works. He opens his argument by describing the “indecipherable language” of Harlem jazz in Cotton Comes to Harlem, quickly tying it to the language of the novel: “This painful, paradoxical understanding of the world as language not only frustrates the two detectives but also characterizes the narrative logic of Himes’s detective fiction” (806). This frustration could quite possibly be problematic because it goes precisely against what is expected of a detective novel. If the detectives are confused by the language of the world, then the reader is certainly lost. Indeed, this, for Eburne, is what Himes intended: “[his] fiction refuses to relinquish this indecipherability, insisting on, even celebrating, its value as an impediment to idealized solutions to the world’s injustice (807). Himes wants to leave us in an unsolvable world, so that we will be faced with the vicious realities of racism, without the option of escape. Why is this something that is ideally communicated through the detective novel? Is it because we expect authors and detectives to follow the rules of “the game” that we are shocked and confused when the language does not allow us a logical conclusion?