I might stray into a few different personas for this review, and wander off on some tangents – which would seem only appropriate.
The first persona is that of someone reviewing a friend’s work. Rubinstein isn’t a friend, but he’s not just a name on the spine of a book: he emailed having read some of my reviews, and asked me to review his e-book. In the exchange of emails he came across as an interesting and nice guy, one who I’d like to encourage (not in a condescending way, however that sentence sounded). And there is much to encourage. Firstly, he can write: he’s deservedly been paid for putting words on a page. Having no idea what I was getting myself in for, it was a relief to find myself engaged with the text early on, and not dragging myself through clumsy expression. He can create decent characters that interact effectively and entertainingly. There are insights here and there, and successful experiments with alternate voices. Coincidentally, I’d just been marking students’ work where they had to write an opening to a story showing an awareness of the conventions of the genre: if Rubinstein was in the class he’d easily stroll off with superlative praise (then again, so he should: professional writer vs. reluctant high schoolers). Moreover I’d want to encourage his discipline and courage: a friend of mine writes with enviable style, yet I doubt he’ll ever complete a novel, let alone be prepared to push it ‘out there’ (I’ve had to prise stuff he has written out of him). Completing and publicising this book is really impressive. I have my own response to the book, but as a friend the overwhelming thing I’d want to communicate is that this is really good, easily professional standard, and a world beyond anything I could produce.
OK, so onto my other personas. These two move between me evaluating how good a book is, and me saying how much I enjoyed a book. Of course there’s crossover, but this book clearly falls into the category of well written books that weren’t really written for me. In this Rubinstein, (and here the style feels a bit ingenuous, because there is every chance that the only person who will read this review is Rubinstein – hi Matt J) may feel some reassurance as he’s in some excellent company (and my reassurance is that I’m pretty sure at least one person will actually read this review). Perhaps the main reason I carped about Dennis Lehane’s sequel to a book I loved, was that it was a serial-killer novel. Yeah, I love a lot of crime fiction, but I can’t think of a serial killer book I’ve enjoyed. Indeed, I tend to hate them. I don’t like deus ex machina at the best of times, but this particular genre seems to live in it. Serial killers, conventional ones anyway, are gods that can effortlessly be anywhere, and know and do anything. They’re like comic book villains, with limitless resources, and they need never justify how they manage to carry out the most ludicrously ornate murders (sculpting bodies into perfect photographic models, for example) without there being a hint of anything untoward happening until they’ve disappeared. Secondly, serial killer novels tend to linger on morbid detail, to revel in gruesomely titillating narration of torture, dabbling in pornography, and often mixing the two – it’s the sort of stuff I’ll deliberately avoid if forewarned, or skim over if it pops up surprisingly. Finally (well, there’s more, but this’ll do for now), serial killer novels treat deaths as merely intriguing clues, parts of a puzzle. I get that its conventional death, not true crime or war history: I can enjoy a nonsense body-count movie, or even give praise to a book where some fantasy hero cleaves his way though countless foes, or, say, a Nero Wolf or Mrs Marple show where it’s foregrounded that the corpse will, of course, pop up and dust themself off once the director calls ‘cut’. But serial killer stories don’t go, “Bang, you’re dead. OK, now it’s my turn.” Rather they linger pruriently over a new atrocity every chapter or two. We’re supposed to enjoy the next bout of voyeurism – maybe we need it regularly to keep our interest. Or to zoom in on how this contributes to the puzzle, with close-up slo-mo violent death as a minor trope. I dare say there is a whole range of quality of serial killer books, and I suspect this would be towards the higher end of the scale. But I don’t ever recall liking one of ‘em.
Alright, a third persona – this time putting aside any personal antipathy I’ve got towards a particular sub-genre, and moving out into evaluation of the self-consciously ‘post-modern’ aspects. There are a few, but perhaps most obviously the foregrounding of form. Hats off to Rubinstein for not merely having a cool idea (not so hard), but actually realising it in a completed, coherent novel (appallingly hard). Most books I’ve read essentially borrow a well established idea (e.g. most genre fiction) and do their version of it. Rubinstein openly (and gleefully) borrows, but his frame is original (or, at least, I haven’t read anyone else using this frame).
It’s a tricky thing, writing around a novel plot device. Plot is often, for me, wildly secondary: as long as it’s basically workable I’m generally reading far more for expression, mood, characters and dialogue (hence I hardly care if Chandler reuses old plot lines – it’s not why I’m there: indeed, I was barely even aware of the plot of ‘The Long Goodbye’, could hardly relate it to you now, but I do know that the hours I spent reading this book were some of my most contented). My favourite use of plot tends to be where you’re not so aware of it, but then some crucial event beautifully ties things together, integrating perfectly with previous ones in a way you never expected (e.g. Ian M. Banks’ ‘Use of Weapons’, Nick Horby’s High Fidelity, or Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency). The main thing is they don’t hinge on plot – all the other elements could stand alone – but the plot becomes an added pleasure, or even enhances the other elements. Hence (I did have a point) the danger of hanging your whole book on a potentially restrictive structure. There are many parallels with music, which illustrates this point: writing, say, to a mathematical formula could be a wonderful discovery (Arvo Pärt’s ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’) – or it could be soulless, mechanical or cacophonic. It can turn into an exercise rather than an opus, or a bunch of in jokes (e.g. I enjoyed David Lodge’s The British Museum is Falling Down less than any of his other books, saying it was “more driven by form than insight”). The aforementioned Banks, one of the writers I most revere, has risked/used this in several books, sometimes more successfully (Feersum Endjinn) than others (Canal Dreams, Inversions), where, despite his prodigious skills I found myself admiring the stories more than enjoying them.
So, does Rubinstein’s structure work for or against him? I think a bit of both. Some of the resonances are cool – such as the ‘sculptor’ parallel: as the detective creates a profile of the murderer by analysing what personal aspect is represented in the ‘art’ of the carefully presented bodies, so we build up a picture of Rubinstein himself because he leaves some ‘fingerprints’ in each of ‘his’ murders – his carefully and artistically recorded murders. The climax of escape through punctuation. We identify the murderer/Rubinstein/Rubinstein’s authorial persona – through his library, his influences. There is some effectiveness in breaking up the ‘main’ story with interweaved other stories, like Tolkien (and a million others) baiting his readers through the pages as they have to keep reading to get back to cliffhangers. Moreover there were pleasures in the whole self-reflexive deal of an author writing about authors. I did enjoy some of the confessional bits about self-doubt, and the central character is well developed. Ooo-er, yes, she’s also stacked and somehow seems to find herself in (or even out of) her underwear, curiously at times in close proximity to another stereotypically hot female cop. Rubinstein tries to be wry rather than juvenile about this – it’s OK, it’s parody, isn’t it? Or is it? This was one of the least satisfying aspects I found about the book. I think Rubinstein kicks around lots of the issues of the responsibilities of the author, the implications of the offensiveness of much of the material, but that’s all he does – he doesn’t seem to have a stinging point. Nor is it clear where he’s criticising, challenging, endorsing, celebrating or just falling back on genre conventions.
This brings me into another postmodern aspect – a postmodern detective novel as a critique of detective novels, and of postmodern critiques. This gets a bit weird: I suspect Rubinstein is smarter than me, and am sure that he is way more across Derrida, Barthes, Foucault and the rest than I am. But as a comment on genre fiction, or the relationship between author, reader and text, or I found this very patchy. Rubinstein seems to want to say something, but I’m not that clear on what it is, and when it seems more clear, I’m unconvinced. He appears to deliberately set up the literary panel as fools, and to set up sympathetic character Rachel as mouthpiece, but for example, I’ve heard writers and critics say this sort of thing before:
‘We writers perform a crucial function,’ she said. ‘Some people think we’re sick. Some say we play on people’s fears, push their buttons, take advantage of their deepest doubts. If so, then someone had certainly had their revenge today.
‘But we are prepared to look into ourselves and admit that what we find there may not be attractive. We pursue the ugliness within, and do not shy away. In this way, we know ourselves and allow our readers to know themselves as well.’
…‘Through horror is salvation,’ she said. ‘The things we fear most must be explored. We must hold them up to each other, wave them dripping before our faces, wring the blood from them. In this way, we teach and learn.’
She saw that she was speaking for the killer. (p47)
Now was he deliberately undermining the sentiments of the previous paragraph with that rejoinder? If so, that’s not at all clear from the rest of the book. I found Ben Elton’s excellent Popcorn way more convincing as a critique: he included aspects of what he was challenging, but also clearly articulated his position, and (generally) effectively used the narrative to clarify his point. If Rubinstein was trying to tell us that the level of depravity in serial killer novels makes authors and readers inexcusably complicit, that was not clear.
Nor was it clear, conversely, that he was actually running with Rachel’s diatribe – and this excerpt is as clear an articulated position as I can remember in the book. I’ve read arguments like this before, and thought them groundless, melodramatic bs. “Through the exploration of these dark themes we reveal truths’. Authors might claim it, but a claim is not evidence, and I might just as well say, “As he pedalled to school, Fred’s journey explored the deeper regions of what it is to be human.” Sounds all profound, but it’s nonsense. I feel like there’s a lot of this sort of wankery in defences on censorship, whether on-line, film or text. It doesn’t begin to justify the genre staple ghoulish voyeurism and prurience. “Riiiight, your lascivious dwelling on that brutal rape and murder was so we could teach and learn. Gotcha. And aren’t screwball comedies about pooing, farting, spewing and perving so enlightening.” I anachronistically lean towards the line of some judge in the US who (God bless google – Justice Potter Stewart), I believe, has been mocked for decades for his apparently inexcusably vague comment about the line between art and obscenity, here’s wikipedia’s quote:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
But I think there’s a deal of insight there. There are movies that show naked breasts (e.g. Jesus of Montreal), yet the nudity is incidental and/or incorporated into something artful and profound. There are others that might not even show them, but are entirely voyeuristic and gratuitous (e.g. the execrable ‘Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde’ – something inflicted on me when I was stuck on an aeroplane). Some books and movies do go to dark places and make some worthwhile point with it. But that doesn’t mean that every obscenity or atrocity is therefore artistic and valid. Let alone a means of us ‘knowing ourselves’ or ‘teaching and learning’. I find this sort of thing interesting, and suspect Rubinstein would have much worthwhile to offer on the topic – I just didn’t find it clearly articulated in this book.
Sure, you don’t want an author to shove his lecture notes into an unsatisfying and contrived narrative (cf. ‘Sophie’s World’, The Parrot's Theorem), you want the ideal of being taught through entertainment. The aforementioned Lodge manages this more consistently and deliberately than anyone else I can think of at the moment, but part of the reason for this is that in his novels (as opposed, I imagine, to his academic works) the story overwhelmingly comes first. Moreover when he plays with different narrators and forms (after ‘British Museum’ anyway) it’s in service of the story, not just in service of having a novel form (such as the effective faux doco at the end of How Far Can You Go, or the switch to script in Changing Places). But I think Lodge was wise to throw to a different narrator or text type now and then, as it suits him – rather than being restricted to a structure that demanded he do, say, a postcard as every second chapter. I found Rubinstein’s inserted detective vignettes inconsistent – some worked to cleverly integrate with the overstory, others felt more like a mere excuse to set up the next murder (OK, so this author’s going to drown), or like Rubinstein (with impressive discipline) forcing himself (and us) to stick to a form (“Right, now we need another style story) he might no longer have been enjoying.
Clearly Rubinstein was inspired by Italo Calvino’s masterful If On A Winters Night A Traveller, but that does invite the final, and toughest, comparison. Rubinstein does better than some other guys I’ve slammed for referencing superior books. A world better. But (I’m cringing writing this) Calvino soared above mere experimental novelty by writing a dozen story openings that each could stand alone (maddeningly so – of course you, like the hapless ‘reader’ of the book, wanted to to finish them!). It was real genius when they also fed the ‘overstory’, but they didn’t have to. While Rubinstein’s ‘Death of the Author’ is not mere experimental novelty, I didn’t feel all his chapters could stand alone. Some were too clearly serving the form. In others the (capable) narrative voice was too similar to ostensibly that of other authors. Several suffered by having to squeeze a whole story into a chapter (here Calvino’s form freed him from that peril), so some resolutions felt rushed and even silly (I remember being surprised at how suddenly the first chapter fast-forwarded to an unsatisfying end). And some genre-staple annoyances: supposedly smart detectives putting themselves in dangerous situations pointlessly (how many times will they insist on going alone when they realise who the murderer is?); or even in the overstory we find out the murderer is someone we’ve never even heard of, suddenly identified in a few paragraphs about three quarters of the way through.
So, there’s much to enjoy here, particularly if (unlike me) you like serial killer fiction. Rubinstein is a capable writer, he’s professionally realised a cool idea, and there are some clever interactions and resonances, but I think the form ultimately worked at least as much against him as for him.
 Reminds me of that Goodies episode where Graham is going down with his pirate radio ship. Bill is about to step in and save him, but Tim pauses dramatically and says, “No. Leave Him. He (pause) … would have wanted it this way.”
After a beat Bill comes back with some reality: “No he bloody wouldn’t!”