The S Word: Genre-Transcendence Breakdown with Highsmith, Chang and Auster

The fact that some writers have managed to transcend the mystery/thriller genre (or simply do it really well) and make a living without compromising "artistic integrity" is something I find encouraging and intriguing, and it's something I've begun to study without consciously making a decision to do so.  I put that phrase in quotes because it's something that I believe exists but that I believe less and less can or should be intentionally harbored or nurtured.  I think of this integrity as something that is either in someone or not, or that someone makes the decision to use or not, but not something that necessarily is given up or stuck to by the precise nature of any particular project.

Patricia Highsmith, in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, offers demonstrations of various ways to construct stories without necessarily catering to the suspense genre, and in fact mentions that she hopes writers who are not specifically writing in that genre (a label she never intentionally stuck on herself) will read the book.  Saying "suspense fiction" is like saying "salty food."  It has a meaning, but a weak, vague one, and "suspense" is something that to a certain extent should just be in a story.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying a snapshot bit of prose, or a vignette aimed more toward implanting an image in the mind than getting from Point A to Point B, any more than there is in enjoying a piece of fruit by itself.  It's still not dinner, though.

For this reason I feel that the suspense genre has a certain appeal to writers who seek artistic freedom, or who vacillate between the philosophical and sense-oriented.  It's possible to be as deep or shallow as you like, both within the same story if you like.

I finished Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train.  While I've read better Highsmith novels at this point, I enjoyed this early work much in the same way that I enjoyed Nabokov's The Defense (in translation).  Nabokov was also a writer who constructed very definite plots and took advantage of the element of suspense.  Both novels are based on very simple ideas.  The Defense is about a chess player whose obsession with chess begins to eat away at his sanity, and Strangers on a Train unfolds around one scenario supposed to facilitate the perfect murder, or in this case, two perfect murders.  The philosophical intrigue is what sets up and keeps both stories moving, and it's gratifying to see both of these writers working early in their careers on such rudimentary blueprints and to think, "Hmm, so that's how they started doing it."

After finishing Strangers on a Train, I downloaded and read Leonard Chang's Over the Shoulder.  Like yet another book I'm reading at the moment and have mentioned on here, Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, Over the Shoulder is a mystery that engages U.S. race relations as part of its subject matter.  Over the Shoulder is closer to being straight genre fiction than The Intuitionist, but no worse or better for it, just an entirely different type of thing with the one marked similarity.  (More on The Intuitionist once I finish it.)  Chang's novel involves a Korean-American protagonist whose background raises certain questions and issues throughout the book, but the movement of the plot itself helps diffuse and reject any idea that his heritage is the most important factor in the story.  Plot elements that at first seem to suggest a strong racial motivation or connection are later shown to be part of a much more complex history that the main character himself has failed to understand, which could be a profound statement, but at the same time doesn't have to be, and because Over the Shoulder really is a successfully constructed thriller that doesn't stop moving from the moment you pick it up, you don't have time to mull over the social points that could become part of a larger discussion.  The book draws clear boundaries around itself and the character, humanizing their existence and cutting off the intellectual post-reading discussion, which doesn't mean I wouldn't still like to have one with someone. 

It's worth mentioning that Leonard Chang is a writer for the FX show Justified, which goes some way to explaining why that show is so good aside from Timothy Olyphant looking pretty and eating ice cream.

The experience of reading Paul Auster's Hand to Mouth was especially good for me today because it's an autobiographical account of his struggles with money while trying to write, about work and compromise and ideals, and I managed to read just about the entire thing while getting paid during downtime at my job.  There was a certain satisfaction to that.  It also turns out that I do in fact have as much in common with Paul Auster as I always suspected.  We share the same stubborn nature and stupidities, and that, ladies and gentleman, is why I am working a day job and doing this blog while leaving the important business of writing to myself and my free time with no end in sight.  Because I am like Paul Auster, from the completely useless preference for blue-collar work over white-collar compromises to the late nights with a volume of Mallarmé and a dictionary.  He did it first, so I don't have to explain myself.  By the way, if anyone needs some French to English literary translation done, and Paul's ex Lydia Davis already said no, drop me a line.  In the meantime, I'm going to continue working on my own hopefully genre-transcending thriller/mystery/suspense novel with the hopes of doing what the above writers have done, all while keeping in mind that I may still need to sell out simplify, simplify, simplify.

8/12/14 Edit:  I got caught up in writing this entry and completely forgot to connect the Paul Auster bit with the others in terms of the transcendence of genre fiction, silly me.  Hand in Mouth ends with him managing to publish a mystery novel, and it's a form he's worked with in later books, hence the tie-in.