Two for the new year … woof!

greek dog
Two novels that arrived in the mail made me think, almost instantly, of the oddest pairing:

  • Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
  • Carolyn Parkhurst’s Dogs of Babel.

To be honest, it’s not the canine connection that made me pair these two books. It’s something else: the fact that both freshen the sometimes very stuffy genre of mystery by placing clues and answers into the hands of unexpected characters: a dog in Parkhurst’s book; in Haddon’s, a teen on the autism spectrum.

The obvious obstacles to communication created by these situations turn up the heat … and the suspense.

Such information obstacles are also at the heart of the above-mentioned new arrivals in my mailbox: Clemens Setz’s Indigo (Liveright/W.W. Norton) and Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera (Penguin Press).

Setz tells his tale using a mosaic — a collection of reports, articles, and accounts, hearsay and ambiguous events … a style used and perfected by Pynchon, who’s clearly the presiding deity of this superbly complex novel by a writer acclaimed and celebrated in his native Germany.

setz coverSetz’s narrative approach is what you often find in stories of a son or daughter reconstructing the hidden corners of a dead parent’s life, a parent they thought they knew. Bits and pieces gradually coalesce. But here, in Setz’s handling, he deploys it to tell a story of the unexplained disappearances of children with a condition referred to as “Indigo.”

Gaps and small abysses abound in this novel. It takes an enormous imaginative faculty to make sure the pieces of the mosaic cohere, something Setz deftly achieves as we follow his alter ego, also named Setz (there, you see? another Pynchonesque homage), in the search to understand what has happened to these children.

galera coverThe same kinds of obstacles to our understanding abound in Galera’s novel for another reason: his narrator, an unnamed young man searching for answers to his uncle’s murder in a small fishing village in a South American country (probably Brazil, which is the author’s home), suffers from prosopagnosia.

Keep that one for your next Scrabble tournament. It’s a condition which undermines facial recognition. A person with this condition (which Oliver Sacks, unsurprisingly, knows plenty about) can’t recognize the faces of other people or, when he glances in the mirror, himself. When an author gives this condition to a character on a detective’s mission, you can see the enormous challenges to that mission …and how intriguing this is for a reader who doesn’t have to negotiate the same identity hurdles in his or her daily life.

***

What I offer, my beloved friends, along with the usual recommendation to read each of these books, is that each also offers provocations and stimulations for your own writing projects.  The undermining of a conventional narrative, especially in Galera’s hands, raises the concept of an unreliable narrator to the Nth degree … and all of it should make for some fresh, and refreshing, grist in your own fiction mill.

Keep on with your work, and ever upward.

2 responses

  1. Both novels sound fascinating, Nick. Thanks for continuing to sift the haystacks for us all! I was mildly astonished to learn from one of O Sacks’s books that he himself suffers from prose…proso… well anyway, he needs to have his secretary slip him the name of his next patient, even if it’s someone he’s been seeing for years. Talk about a life spent dissembling.
    I suspect Setz may have been at least as much ‘invaded’ (cf your post in November on reading while revising, and the value of imitation in general) by W.G. Sebald as by Pynchon. ‘Austerlitz’ and other Sebald novels that build on ‘documents’ found or invented have had enormous impact in the Germano-sphere…

    Kai

  2. You’re totally right, Kai, about the Sebald — I missed that connection, but now that you mention it, I can see it. Especially considering Setz and Sebald are from the same place!

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