Wednesday, December 16, 2009
philosophical noir by Aifric Campbell
Irish-born Aifric Campbell based her novel The Semantics of Murder on the life and death of Berkeley logician-philosopher Richard Montague (re-named Robert Hamilton), seen through the lens of his younger brother Jay, a psychoanalist who has relocated his practice from California to England. The name that kept occurring to me while reading The Semantics of Murder, though, was Nabokov: the novel shares with that Russian-American writer (who after all also wrote several books that could be called crime novels) a distrust of psychoanalysis but substitutes a fascination with semantics for Nabokov's fascinations with chess and butterflies (the latter are mentioned in a way that suggests that Campbell is acknowledging her relation to Nabokov). The story has the strict structure of a one-act play, with frequent and lengthy asides: Jay is expecting a visit from Dana Flynn, a writer who is working on a new biography of Robert, and structurally the novel's present tense progresses through the various meetings over 2 days between Jay and Dana, but the possibility of a biography of his brother raises numerous opportunities for Jay to remember his past, reminiscenses told in the 3rd person in a complex, allusive language that reveals the truths of Jay's life only gradually, in layers. The reader moves from a disinterested acquaintance with the psychoanalyst toward a certain respect for him and into increasing levels of distaste, as the story moves from family history to murder to hatred and despair. The "mystery" of the murder is increasingly easy to guess, but the point is not the mystery but the significance of the event for Jay and everyone in his personal and professional life. Another element that is introduced well into the novel also relates to Nabokov and to the metafictional preoccupations of much of 20th century literary fiction: Jay is also a respected author, writing under a pseudonym that conceals the fact that he has been stealing his patient's lives for his fiction. the biggest surprise of the novel derives from that literary career (and I'll get to that in a minute, after a spoiler warning). The central irony of the novel is that Jay's life turns on a psychoanalytic truism regarding a mother's love and the consequences of the absence of love. The threads of the present, the past, psychoanalysis, science, linguistics, crime and criminals in California, and literature twine around the reader, trapping him or her in fascination that begins in a "cool," literary mode, moves through a "hot" crime fiction mode, and ends in a philosophical dream-state, before shifting once more in the Appendix, which reproduces Jay's final manuscript as a writer (and here's the spoiler alert). That appendix shifts everything that has gone before into a comic perspective, because we've been led to believe that Jay is a brilliant writer, even as we've watched his career as a brilliant psychoanalyst melt away: the climax of the novel as a whole comes with Dana's discovery of this manuscript on Jay's desk, revealing a coincidence, prediction, or even criminal conspiracy on Jay's part regarding a disturbed patient. But the manuscript, when we get to see it in the appendix, is terrible: it's badly written, poorly constructed, and without literary, psychoanalytic, or crime-fiction interest. So Jay and the narrator have misled us about one of the central aspects of his life, after all the other aspects have already been undermined in the novel itself as Jay's life is gradually opened up for inspection. The final manuscript is a slap in the reader's face, a shock. One of the most Nabokovian passages of the novel, in which Jay belittles Dana as a writer because she isn't "bewitched by language," isn't "enthralled by linguistic propagation," leading us to assume that Jay does fulfill those requirements as a writer: then when he exhibits no skill with language, not even much interest in language, in the appendix, the contrast between Robert and Jay, between two intellects, shifts into another mode entirely, that between a genius and a fool (and it's the fool's eyes that we have been looking through). It's a neat trick, and adds a final layer to a complex but accessible novel that combines the thriller and philosophy (another neat trick). The Semantics of Murder was slow reaching the U.S., but we can hope that her new book, The Loss Adjuster, which promises to be equally interesting, arrives here sooner.