Monday, August 18, 2008
Forgotten books: The Eater of Darkness, Robert M. Coates
There's been a lot of stuff in the blogosphere lately about forgotten books, and my own entry on the subject will be appearing in the series that Patti Abbot is publishing on her blog, pattinase.blogspot.com, But First! as they say on those late-night TV commercials, I have a few thoughts on some other forgotten books that are at least loosely in the crime genre. The first and possibly most forgotten is The Eater of Darkness, by Robert M. Coates, which had a hardback edition in 1929 and a paperback edition in 1959, and that's it. The book has a lot in common with Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, which is often listed by writers and bloggers as a crime novel (more of a ghost story, really, but that's for another time). Both O'Brien's and Coates's novels also have something in common with the estimable Declan Burke's web novel, Gonzo Noir, published on his blog, Crime Always Pays. What they all have in common is literary experimentation based on pulp- and crime-genre themes and tropes. In the case of the earliest of these three, The Eater of Darkness is the story of Charles Dograr, a young American who returns from France to New York and meets a strange old man who has invented a sort of laser-like death ray. The old man tricks Charles into pulling the trigger, after a fantastic description of the ray penetrating buildings and people as it is focused by the old man on his intended target. From there, Charles becomes infatuated with the power of the weapon and helps the old man plan an elaborate bank heist that will use the weapon to remotely kill the armored car guards and bank employees and anyone on the street during the heist. Along the way, Charles becomes involved with a young woman related to Charles's first victim, a beautiful woman who has been watching him from across the street, an elaborate plot twist or two involving the bank job and other things, and the woman he left behind in France. The plot seems to be strictly in parallel with thrillers of the novel's day, and even much crime fiction that has been written since--except that the exposition is wild and unpredictable and the conclusion, while quite different from the famous ending of The Third Policeman (recently endorsed by the TV show Lost), takes the same liberties with a straightforward story. The Eater of Darkness has been called the first Dada novel in English (and it was indeed published with the help of Gertrude Stein)--I wouldn't go that far, but it was decidedly written under the influence of the literary upheavals of the early 20th century. However, Coates was more interested in playing with the conventions of the thriller than with breaking new literary ground (and for that reason resonates with Flann O'Brien's other masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds, another wild comedy). All the twists and turns are impossible to describe, and the literary hijinks are both sophisticated and funny--but one of the most interesting and entertaining aspects of Coates's novel is that the thriller plot works, in a sci-fi, Three Stooges sort of way. When I first read The Eater of Darkness, I made the mistake of trying to make straightforward sense of it--is the story a dream of one of the characters about another, absent one? Is it a fantasy about America, like Kafka's amazing Amerika (another book that The Eater has something in common with)? But it really only works if you disengage the brain and all your tendency to interpret or make sense of it. If you can do that, it's a lot of fun (if you can find a copy--and there are still some floating around that don't require you to rob an armored car to pay for). Coates, by the way, went on to write a pretty good ghost story, Wisteria Cottage, as well as a bohemian novel, Yesterday's Burdens, and other literary books, as well as being the art critic for The New Yorker for a while. In the intro to the paperback edition he seems partly proud and partly embarrassed by the youthful exhuberance of his first novel. But don't let his later credentials or the ambivalence of the adult literateur put you off.