Wednesday, February 9, 2011

'Christine Falls': Irish Quincy and Slumming Literary Lions

Years ago, when I worked regularly with lots of different lawyers, I started to notice interesting speech patterns in members of legal-support staff who frequently interacted with the same people. When we'd talk about certain advocates, the words "lawyer" and "attorney" would be used along a spectrum of professional and ethical probity. A lawyer was just some viper that an asshole plaintiff hired to sue over an orange tree dropping unwanted fruit over a shared fence. An attorney was a serious person, something even the constitution said you had an inviolable right to speak to.

There were exceptions to this pattern, of course; I even heard more than a few people make a similar argument with terms reversed. But I found myself adopting this distinction. Lawyers are the sharks that boorish people tell you you'll be getting a call from. Attorneys are the urbane guys, too reserved and confident to be ashamed of still carrying around leather valises with buckles on them, the sorts of people your granddad would sit in wing-backed chairs with and talk about Korea. If I used the term "lawyer" and spoke of someone I esteemed, I almost always prefaced it with his type of practice. "Oh, he's an appellate lawyer; he fights cigarette companies through the appeals process." I believe lawyers buy into this denominational barrier, too. There's got to be a reason why the most predatory and shameless of their ilk officiously refer to themselves as "Personal Injury Attorneys."

For me at least, this same linguistic separation carries over to the field of writing. Practically anyone can be an author; the ability to string together a narrative from A to B to C is something within most people's wheelhouse. That's just relating data, basic structural stuff that we intrinsically learn from our parents' teaching us, from overheard conversations, from all kinds of entertainment, religion and reporting. But just as the term "attorney" seems to signify that, beyond structural talent, an intellectual and ethical light is on and somebody is at home, there is something more important to the term "writer." (Of course, people have made the inverse of this argument, too. Quick joke: what's the difference between an author and a writer? An author is someone people will actually pay to read.) It bespeaks some artisanal distinction, some craft and spiritual intent that transcends the sum of all the data and incidents in a story.

Just pages into Benjamin Black's Christine Falls, it becomes very noticeable that a writer is involved. It opens efficiently with a crime and the murky atmosphere of a drunken evening, in which we meet the main character, Quirke, and one of his main antagonists, his brother. Booze, brothers, betrayal: in this respect, it's little different than a dozen other noir novels you might have read. Yet the shadows seem murkier; a lamp's amber oval spilling over a desk seems more lonely and more nakedly revealing, and Quirke seems instantly more real. Far from just being a part of process, of the establishing shot, it's clear that a light is on, and someone is at home. There's an artist working here.

That artist is actually Booker Prize-winner John Banville, writing under a pseudonym — a fact that, when I discovered it, had an effect like watching an overturned table, spilled egg and a puddle of orange juice speckled with an archipelago of shattered glass suddenly coalesce and vomit upward until it rearranged itself into This Nutritious Breakfast. For a few minutes, before thinking to flip through the front and back of the book for a biographical blurb, I felt like I'd secretly discovered the greatest detective fiction writer alive. The rest of the world somehow hadn't noticed. Sure, reviewers had gushed on both covers, but this was something everybody would know, right?

Banville himself would totally disagree, which makes for two interesting results. First, he's dismissive of his detective fiction. Although for me it falls so plainly on the "literary effort" side of the divide between merely effective detective fiction and genuinely superior writing within the detective genre, Banville writes it all off as "cheap fiction." That might not be the most telling condemnation, though; Banville is one of those artists who dreads everything he writes, looking back on his works and finding disappointments, missed opportunities, embarrassments committed by youthful enthusiasm or arrogance. He's so consistently displeased with himself and so evidently talented outside the detective genre that his throwing Christine Falls into the critical toilet practically gives it an endorsement on par with The Book of Evidence, which nearly won the Booker Prize and which he also thinks partially sucks. (It also has certain crime elements to it, which narrows the distance between it and Falls.)

The second interesting result of this "cheap fiction" is that it seems to solve the problems of his serious fiction. Years back, I picked up The Sea — the book which finally won him the Booker Prize — and I found it beautifully ponderous but ponderous nevertheless. I instantly had that reaction that many serious readers seem to have to modern novels that win prestigious awards: "Yeah. This is definitely a book that would win the Booker Prize." Its prose was rich, sharply written, observant and ostensibly not really about anything, save perhaps an observance of itself. The book offers disjointed conversations about a few things that eventually reveal a single conversation about one thing. The process of discovering that one thing includes a captivating voice confronting and eluding itself, but, once the narrative is reordered chronologically, it's still about relatively little.

You can imagine, then, what a happy marriage Christine Falls presents between a genre that demands beats, beatings, deaths and more hysterical displays from the human animal, and a writer whose talent lies in creating layered and dense atmosphere and memorable characters knocking about their own heads uncomfortably. Far from being "cheap fiction," Christine Falls likely solves problems of accessibility for Banville's fiction, spurring it to accept a more intense degree of story while still meeting the writer's terms for character and observation.

Unfortunately, to share any more than a little of the plot ruins it, but Banville's strength in characterization makes his protagonist so gruffly charming that meeting him is almost enough. Quirke is the pathologist at Dublin's Holy Family Hospital in the 1950s. As a widower, he has only an ex-life: ex-happiness and ex-companionship, but he has moved on to ex-fall-down-drunk and into the sort of roguishly distant and semi-drunk that works so well in noir fiction or on young girls in college. At the beginning of the book, he discovers his brother, Mal, forging the case file of a woman named Christine Falls, who died in their hospital. It's her death that leads Quirke to suspect his brother, search for a possibly kidnaped baby and for its sire, who had clearly used some influence to remove Falls from prying eyes in life and death.

Quirke's relationship with Mal is one of the early elements distinguishing the novel as exceptionally well-written for the genre. From the beginning and sprinkled throughout the rest, Quirke's bitter wit returns to inwardly dissect his brother and find his innards wanting:
Mal pinched his lower lip between a finger and thumb; it was another thing he did, had always done, since childhood, along with the fingering of his spectacles, the twitching of the nostrils, the loud cracking of the knuckles. He was, Quirke reflected, a living caricature of himself. (20-1)

Mal crossed the room and spoke to Phoebe in an undertone, but she turned aside from him as if he were not there. He hesitated a moment, clenching his fists—Mal was, Quirke thought, the kind of man who really does clench his fists—then whirled about and bore down grimly on Quirke.... (38)
The disdain builds until reaching an inwardly unburdening frustration and pity, at just the moment he's been asked to relate an emotionally serious confession to Mal on another's behalf. He asks Mal out to a fancy lunch, in hopes that the pleasant surroundings might subdue his tediously businesslike demeanor:
Quirke chose an expensive claret and made an ostentatious show of swirling a splash of it in his glass, sniffing, and frowning in approval to the wine waiter, while Mal looked away, controlling his impatience. He would not take even a glass of the wine, saying he had work to do in the afternoon. "Fine," Quirke snapped. "All the more for me, then." The elderly waiter in his shiny black tailcoat tended them with the unctuous solemnity of an usher at a funeral service. After Quirke had ordered salmon in aspic and a roasted grouse, Mal asked for chicken soup and a plain omelette. "For God's sake, Mal," Quirke said under his breath.

Their conversation was even more strained than usual..... They talked desultorily of hospital matters. Quirke's jaws ached from the effort of not yawning, and presently his mind too began to ache. He was both impressed and irritated by Mal's capacity to be engrossed, or at least to give a convincing impression of being engrossed, in the minutiae of the administration of the Holy Family Hospital, even the name of which, in all its bathos, always provoked in Quirke a shudder of embarrassment and loathing. Listening to Mal stolidly expounding on what he kept referring to as the hospital's overall financial position, he asked himself if he were lacking in an essential seriousness: but he knew, of course, that by asking this he was really only congratulating himself for not being dull and dogged like his brother-in-law. He found Mal to be a continuing mystery, but thereby impressive. Mal was for Quirke a version of the Sphinx: high, unavoidable, and monumentally ridiculous. (70-1)
Passages like this above exemplify the real pleasure to be had in reading Christine Falls. All great noir heroes are masters of the one-liner, the gut-punch description that destroys another character and elevates the wiseguy narrator in our esteem. But those wiseguys often fire indiscriminate shots: they pigeonhole everyone, and they flatten other characters to pressboard dimensions. The fun of Banville's writing is that he still writes the delicious zinger but does it within the confines of only a few characters intimately related to Quirke. It gives both Quirke and them a depth that someone like Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther will never have. When Quirke describes a drunk friend whose jokes are now all secondhand, he realizes, "He's Falstaff grown inconvenient," then reminds himself that knowing Falstaff does not make himself Prince Hal.

There are other intelligent elements to the book, but discussing them with any seriousness runs the risk of revealing too much of them. The book meditates on the looming, parasitic role of the Roman Catholic Church in Irish life, as well as the lives of Irish Catholic immigrants in the Boston area. Naturally, it also discusses the role of immigration in Irish and Irish-American society, as well as the desired disposability of unmarried pregnant women and the role of lying-in hospitals and orphanages. Some of these themes are familiar, and to be sure they aren't fully explored. But they're a far more intelligent and compelling backdrop than is common in most noir, sensibly matching narration and a main character of almost lush dimensions.

Banville's book is not perfect. Were one to think of it purely as literature and outside the scope of the genre it's playing around in, some moments would feel too melodramatic, too momentous for real life. And while it has things to say about topics like the church and its treatment of single mothers, I'm not sure that it says as much as it should. Then again, serious literature is perfectly content to cite these things and wrestle with them irresolutely and even flippantly, and critics are perfectly content to cite that indeterminate psychological walkabout as evidence of a moral breadth of feeling. Perhaps the delight in a novel like Christine Falls is that it wanders about these topics as much as an inward-focused first-person narrative but at least has the decency to give the audience the sense that it's doing so while accomplishing something.

That merging of the terms of two types of fiction style has at least one concrete appeal: when goons stomp the hell out of someone in Banville's noir world, that someone actually gets significantly injured. Even if you wouldn't consider the rest of the book literature — and you would be mistaken — just that one detail shows a maturity and knowledge of middle-school biology impossibly complex for most detective fiction. Violence has consequences: broken people aren't just a device for theatrically speaking in epigrams. Often, broken people simply stay that way.

Rating: 4.5
This rating reflects the book on a popular-fiction scale, where it stands as a piece from the detective genre. As pure a literary attempt, I don't think it could quite achieve this much distinction, again owing to those melodramatic moments and arguable engagement with the bigger ideas it references. Still, as detective fiction, it's first-rate and exactly the sort of novel I'd recommend to anyone, regardless of their personal investment in detective fiction. Banville's created an appealing anti-hero in Quirke — the raffish semi-drunk professional one occasionally takes in, to take care of him, because he's too much of a mess to leave to his own devices but too much of a mess to invite fully into one's life. The principle Irish characters are all well-drawn and emotionally resonant; if there's a weak link in characterization, it comes in the people met overseas, in Boston. If nothing else, the book provides an excellent example of the kind of argument one can have over the literary bona fides of excellently conceived and executed genre fiction. (I include the other two books mentioned solely for convenience. I just got a copy of The Book of Evidence, and I haven't looked at The Sea in ages. I don't feel comfortable commenting further on either.)