Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book review: Lippman's latest busts through genre to literature

I’d Know You Anywhere,‭ ‬by Laura Lippman‭; ‬384‭ ‬pp.,‭ ‬William Morrow,‭ ‬$25.99.

By Chauncey Mabe

I doubt Laura Lippman would want me to say this out loud,‭ ‬but she’s not a mystery writer anymore.

Oh,‭ ‬sure,‭ ‬the talented Ms.‭ ‬Lippman,‭ ‬a former reporter for the‭ ‬Baltimore Sun,‭ ‬is a mystery writer when she’s producing the popular,‭ ‬award-winning series featuring private eye Tess Monahan.‭ ‬But her stand-alones‭ – ‬there are five of them now‭ – ‬are something else again.

Her latest,‭ ‬I’d Know You Anywhere,‭ ‬doesn’t even stand as a thriller,‭ ‬unless the mere presence of suspense qualifies.‭ ‬Nor is it conventional crime fiction,‭ ‬though crime does figure,‭ ‬and it is,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬fiction.‭ ‬But if‭ ‬I’d Know You Anywhere isn’t a mystery or a crime novel,‭ ‬then what is it‭?

Using Holmesian logic‭ (“‬When you have eliminated the impossible,‭ ‬whatever remains,‭ ‬however improbable,‭ ‬must be the truth‭”) ‬I conclude that any book so utterly lacking in genre convention as‭ ‬I’d Know You Anywhere is,‭ ‬by definition,‭ ‬literary fiction.‭ ‬It is certainly the kind of novel that merrily complicates the eternal debate over the genre divide.

Consider a recent essay in the London‭ ‬Guardian,‭ ‬wherein an acclaimed British novelist named Edward Docx sets out to clear up the genre vs.‭ ‬literary muddle for us once again.‭ ‬After pointing out how lousy Dan Brown or Stieg Larsson actually are,‭ ‬he proceeds to dismantle genre writing as a whole:‭ “[‬E]ven good genre‭ (‬not Larsson or Brown‭) ‬is by definition a constrained form of writing.‭ ‬There are conventions and these limit the material.‭ ‬That's the way writing works,‭ ‬and lots of people who don't write novels don't seem to get this.‭”

This is all nicely elitist,‭ ‬as any argument in favor of the supremacy of literary fiction ought to be.‭ ‬Docx’s bracing corrective presents simple aesthetic truths that,‭ ‬somehow,‭ ‬need to be restated every few years‭ (‬or perhaps weeks‭)‬.‭ ‬In fact,‭ ‬I’ve written similar things in the past,‭ ‬and I find myself nodding in agreement‭ – ‬all the while something inside is furrowing its brow,‭ ‬stammering,‭ “‬And yet,‭ ‬and yet‭…”

And yet no matter how persuasive Docx’s thesis might be,‭ ‬he necessarily carries his truth in a leaky wineskin.‭ ‬The scope of his argument allows no room for some of the distinct virtues of genre fiction‭ – ‬the lurid energy of pulp,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬or the highly useful idea-mongering of science fiction,‭ ‬or for the places Jim Thompson,‭ ‬Eric Ambler,‭ ‬James M.‭ ‬Cain,‭ ‬Charles Willeford‭ (‬to name but a very few‭) ‬take us with ease,‭ ‬but which seem off limits to most literary writers,‭ ‬who have their own constraints,‭ ‬truth be told.

Take‭ ‬The Great Gatsby:‭ ‬Fitzgerald’s depiction of Gatsby as a mobster is the least authentic‭ (‬and also the least important‭) ‬aspect of this otherwise sterling little classic.‭ ‬On the other hand,‭ ‬some few literary writers are quite at home with thrilleresque themes and characters.‭ ‬Hemingway,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬virtually invented gangster-speak in his short story‭ ‬The Killers‭ (‬read this story,‭ ‬then watch any noir film from the‭ ’‬30s or‭ ’‬40s‭)‬,‭ ‬and the pulpiest parts of‭ ‬To Have and Have Not,‭ ‬featuring the smuggler Harry Morgan,‭ ‬are by far the most successful bits of this otherwise failed novel.

And what,‭ ‬Mr.Docx,‭ ‬are we to make of writers the likes of Joyce Carol Oates,‭ ‬Richard Price,‭ ‬Albert Camus,‭ ‬Barbara Vine,‭ ‬Dan Choan,‭ ‬Elmore Leonard,‭ ‬Denis Johnson,‭ ‬Len Deighton,‭ ‬Graham Greene,‭ ‬Somerset Maugham,‭ ‬Stephen King,‭ ‬Kate Atkinson,‭ ‬and innumerable others,‭ ‬some coming from the literary side,‭ ‬some from the genre side,‭ ‬and all meeting in that portion of the Venn diagram where fascination with crime and morbid psychology shade into writerly excellence‭?

In truth,‭ ‬much more intercourse takes place between literary and genre fiction than critics like Docx care to acknowledge.‭ ‬And Lippman’s‭ ‬I’d Know You Anywhere is a brilliant example of the kind of novel that snaps Docx’s rule in half.‭ ‬Focusing on Eliza Benedict,‭ ‬an affluent stay-at-home mom‭ (‬with a secret‭!) ‬in Bethesda,‭ ‬Md.,‭ ‬the novel thwarts genre expectation at every turn.

Married to a former journalist who has gone over to corporate communications,‭ ‬Eliza and her family have returned from nearly two decades in England.‭ ‬She’s just settling in to her new surroundings when she gets an unwanted letter from an old acquaintance,‭ ‬Walter Bowman,‭ ‬who has seen her picture in a society magazine.‭ “‬Of course you are an older woman now,‭” ‬Bowman writes from Virginia’s death row.‭ “‬Still,‭ ‬I’d know you anywhere.‭”

When Eliza was‭ ‬15,‭ ‬it quickly transpires,‭ ‬Bowman,‭ ‬a serial rapist who murdered his victims,‭ ‬kidnapped her when she came upon him burying a body in the woods.‭ ‬He forced her to travel with him for six weeks,‭ ‬until he kidnapped and killed another girl,‭ ‬and was finally caught.

Against her better judgment,‭ ‬Eliza eventually decides to correspond with Walter,‭ ‬who claims to be a changed man in search of forgiveness.‭ ‬He also promises to reveal the location of more bodies for the benefit of families still grieving in uncertainty.‭ ‬But Eliza also has unresolved conflicts about why Walter did not kill her,‭ ‬and why she did not try to escape when he left her unwatched.

Every major character is fully drawn,‭ ‬and most minor ones‭ (‬Eliza’s husband is the sole cipher,‭ ‬but he doesn’t matter much‭)‬.‭ ‬These include not only Eliza and Walter‭ – ‬a wonderful creation,‭ ‬full of cunning and self-deceit‭ – ‬but also an unstable prisoner’s advocate,‭ ‬and the embittered mother of a victim who blames Eliza for her daughter’s murder.

Lippman toggles neatly between the present and‭ ‬1985,‭ ‬when Eliza was a plain,‭ ‬Madonna-obsessed girl in the shadow of a more brilliant sister.‭ ‬She knows she wasn’t,‭ ‬as some critics claim,‭ ‬Walter’s girlfriend.‭ ‬But why,‭ ‬then,‭ ‬did he let her live‭? ‬Why was she so passive‭? ‬What hold does he still have over her‭? ‬And ultimately,‭ ‬will she join the effort to get his death sentence commuted to life in prison‭?

The psychological and emotional richness of‭ ‬I’d Know You Anywhere is its secret narrative engine.‭ ‬Eliza is an imperfect heroine,‭ ‬yet she’s all the more believable for her weaknesses.‭ ‬And the resolution,‭ ‬as suppressed memories rise to the forefront of Eliza’s mind,‭ ‬is also more satisfying for being both hard-earned and exactly life-sized.

Chauncey Mabe is the former books editor of the Sun-Sentinel.‭ ‬He can be reached at cmabe55‭@‬

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