Monday, August 9, 2010

The intriguing case of Caleb Carr

This summer I plucked a book from my shelf that had been there a while, waiting to be read: Caleb Carr's The Alienist, a bestseller from the mid-90s. It came recommended by a friend several years ago, but as with so many books it sat idle while I read other things on my list. It was about time to get to it, I figured, given all the reading in historical fiction I've been up to. I'm glad I did. And not just because it makes an interesting cul-de-sac to the subject I blogged about in my last entry: How historical fiction is both a serious literary form and a pop genre at the same time. The Alienist--let's just start by saying it--is a gem of a book. It's large, both in scope and length, and yet a quick read all the same. As with most quick reads, it becomes an urgent, physical pleasure to get through. And perhaps most interesting of all is how it both is and isn't a pop suspense novel. A group of (mostly) independent investigators carry out a secret investigation into a murder against a backdrop of social unrest and intense, negative police pressure. The investigation turns into a manhunt, with our heroes very nearly losing their lives before they catch their man. Sounds like it could be the plot of a tv PI drama, right?

Well, yes, in fact it could be. Carr doesn't pretend to be writing what isn't a crime thriller. He's well versed in the genre and shows it, occasionally demonstrating the kind of logical snafus that bother me in fiction that is suspense driven, such as when a character fails to figure out what is perfectly obvious to the reader and should be even more obvious to the character, who seems to be perfectly intelligent and, after all, is "living" through the situation. While sometimes they turn out to be only minor annoyances in a novel, episodes like that cause me to lose heart and not a little faith in the author who I fear has given up the simple act of telling a story in favor of using his characters to effect a certain, preplanned and unjustified end: in this case, surprise. An example from the book: At one point in the novel the alienist (i.e. psychologist) Lazlo Kriezler discusses a love interest with the narrator John Moore. It would be obvious to a second grader that Kriezler is referring to the character named Mary, not the one named Sara, as Moore first thinks. And yet the realization, coming to Moore too many minutes late, like a big old failing steam engine, stuns and befuddles him. He subsequently demands an explanation from Kriezler. Clearly, Carr felt he needed the surprise moment in order to get Kriezler to say more, but it comes across as forced, phony, and unfair to Carr's own narrator, the talents and wiles of whom he has steadily revealed over the course of the novel. I tell my students all the time: Stop putting all this writing energy into the big Surprise moment (which rarely is) and instead put that energy into building a good story. In fiction that relies on the last minute twist, the next surprise around the corner--as genre fiction tends to--one is more likely to run into gaffes (at least what I consider gaffes) such as the one I just described, at the expanse of engaging story telling.

But here's the thing. Carr's novel is so much more than a genre book, even while at the same time it remains happily one. It is also a beautiful and eye-opening survey of late 19th century New York, when so much of the technology that we took for granted in the 20th century was just beginning to find purchase and yet so much badly needed social and political reform was still decades away. The novel--the first chapter of which is actually narrated from the vantage point of 1919--looks ahead to much of the history of the next century, including the late 20th century's (and early 21st's) fascination with the serial killer, while at the same time offering an exquisitely detailed picture of Old New York. There is also the fascinating personage of Theodore Roosevelt--not quite as fascinating in the novel as he was in real life but not far off--and that man's semi-tragic political and purely tragic personal history that lingers grayly over the book like a prophet's voice. Finally there is the intriguing figure of the alienist himself, committed to the new science of psychology, including criminal psychology, that nearly the whole world, and certainly the New York police force, regards as hocum and voodoo. And yet, not surprisingly, so much of the gains in the investigation come about just because of that new science.

I guess my point is that the book cannot be tossed away as a mere genre effort, as some have tried to, even while it embraces aspects of the genre itself. It's a fascinating and elucidating study of a period of history; better yet, it's a study occupied by characters that (mostly) manage to avoid the creaky stereotypes that drive me and most other readers mad, and that literary fiction is supposed to offer an escape from. (Supposed to. It doesn't always.) The Alienist is a historical study and a genre book in which you can easily find yourself caring about the people inside it, investing in them and relying on them and in some cases growing wary of them, in the way that one would actual people in one's life. In other words, it's a great book written in the form of a literary historical novel and yet one that grips you as tightly as the biggest potboiler you could wish for. It takes a rare sort of talent, and maybe a rarer background, to write such a novel. Carr clearly has it. I'm thankful that The Alienist found its outlet in him.


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