Sunday, June 18, 2006

Betrayals by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser's novels keep improving on me. His first and probably best-known work, 1989's The Quincunx, is a dense Victorian pastiche, recalling Dickens and Collins as it charts the rising and falling (but mostly falling) fortunes of an innocent boy and his rather foolish mother as they become entangled in a decades-old conspiracy of hidden wills, secret paternities, shady financial schemes and the occasional murder. The Quincunx is an accomplished novel but also a rather chilly one. Palliser's period recreation is pitch-perfect, but he takes far too much pleasure in educating his readers. A good half of The Quincunx's generous page-count is given over to (admittedly fascinating) lectures about the inner workings of some obscure aspect of life in England in the 19th century--the secret society of sewer-combers, who make their living by sifting offal for discarded cash and valuables; the intricate pecking order that governs the downstairs sections of a grand house; the brutal, almost murderous conditions inflicted on unwanted, illegitimate, or inconvenient children dumped in so-called 'boarding schools' by heartless guardians. More problematic than the frequent info-dumps, however, was Palliser's characterization, or lack thereof. My first reaction when I finished the novel last year was that, having worked so hard to come up with an intricate, fascinating plot, Palliser had quite forgotten to invent interesting characters for it to happen to. The reactions of The Quincunx's narrator to the injustices he witnesses and is subjected to are intriguingly realistic (especially given the novels Palliser is mimicking, which usually feature improbably perfect and saintly protagonists)--he is often selfish, unthinking, and impatient with the frailty of others--but he never exhibits a personality beyond this reactive one. Having done away with the Dickensian stereotype of the scrupulous, decent, affable young hero, Palliser doesn't develop his character beyond establishing his humanity.

All that said, there were some promising hints in The Quincunx of what Palliser might achieve later in his career--primarily in his eagerness to mix the stylistic conventions of the 19th century mystery with a more sophisticated and realistic understanding of human psychology, and with a healthy dollop of moral relativism. My second foray into Palliser's bibliography, his fourth and latest novel, The Unburied, confirmed my suspicions that Palliser was worth a second look. It is a tighter and more elegant mystery than The Quincunx, and pays closer attention to characterization (it also features a touching and thoughtful sub-plot about the lives of homosexuals in the 19th century). In between these two novels, Palliser wrote Betrayals (there's also a second novel, The Sensationalist, which I have yet to read), a playful and puzzling work, and for a while there one of the most delightful novels I had read in quite some time.

Betrayals opens with the obituary of a Scottish physician and expert on poisons. It then segues into a Christie-esque tale about a murder that takes place when a passenger train is halted by a snow-storm. From there we move on to a book review, and then to the bitter rantings of the cast-out former disciple of a half-mad philosopher. The diary of a madman, the letters of a self-important author, the confession of an entirely unrepentant politician-cum-novelist--all in all, ten interlinked stories, each touching on the central theme of betrayal but also on the telling of tales within tales, a satire of the British publishing establishment, literary theory, the rift between 'commercial' and 'artistic' authors, and the intersection between fiction and reality. The latter, in particular, seems to be Palliser's focus--the very human, and very dangerous, tendency to transform real life into fiction, and then to turn around and mistake fiction for the real thing.

Our narrators, naturally enough, are highly unreliable--covering their own tracks, influenced by personal or political considerations, outright lying or downright mad--but through their omissions, slips of tongue and inadvertent truths, we can make some progress towards solving the novel's mysteries. And there are mysteries--who led poor Mrs. Armitage to her death when she was separated from her fellow passengers? Who murdered prostitutes in Glasgow in the 1970s? Was Graham Speculand's attacker acting on behalf of Speculand's former mentor, Henri Galvanauskas, and was that attack related to other assaults on University of Glasgow professors at around the same time?--interspersed between the literary theory and literary satire and literary pastiche that make up the bulk of the novel. Each chapter--and even the appendix and the index of characters--sheds some partial light on the mysteries of the others while also obfuscating other mysteries which may have seemed solved. Betrayals is a puzzle, one whose solution is left largely to the readers to decipher.

In that respect, Palliser's novel puts me very strongly in mind of Mark Z. Danieleski's House of Leaves, a similarly puzzling and experimental novel published in 2000. In its essentials, House of Leaves is a classic ghost story--an estranged couple move into a house in the county with their two children, hoping that the new environment will help heal their marriage. Soon their marital problems are overshadowed by strange occurrences within the house--strange sounds, rooms that appear out of nowhere, moving walls. So far, so simple, but the father in this family is a photojournalist who was chronicling his family's move into their new house, and eventually cut the footage into a film. What we read is a commentary on the film written by a blind old man (assuming that the film ever existed in the first place). Or rather, we read the old man's commentary plus the notes of the man who finds and becomes consumed by the commentary after the old man's death (assuming that the old man ever existed in the first place) plus the notes of the man's editors (assuming that the man ever existed in the first place). Add a boatload of footnotes, and footnotes to some of the footnotes, and bizarre typographic games, and you get a weird, weird, weird book. And, of course, no solution to the central mystery of what, exactly, was in the house, and what happened to the novel's other narrators, the old man and the younger one. As Palliser does in Betrayals, Danielewski leaves the final unraveling of his mystery to his readers, and peppers his narrative with clues that only the most attentive, observant, and obsessed of them will understand or even notice.

It's not at all surprising to discover that House of Leaves has developed a cult following, and that a vibrant online community exists to discuss the novel's themes, ferret out clues and suggest solutions to its mystery. Everyone loves a mystery, and everyone loves being the person who solves the mystery. The emotional kick we get out of advancing even one step closer to a solution outweighs the almost certain knowledge that that solution probably doesn't exist--that Danielewski was more interested in creating the illusion of profundity than in paying off his elaborate setup. Danieleski's chosen genre, however, allows him to play these sorts of games with his readers--the most horrifying revelation possible is, after all, the discovery that there is going to be no revelation. At the core of horror is the recognition that it is possible for ordinary people to stumble obliviously into the middle of some terrible and ancient drama, become inextricably embroiled in it, suffer terribly and perhaps even lose their lives, and never find out why it happened or what it was all about. Terrible things can happen to us for no reason and there is nothing we can do to prevent or stop them--what could be more horrifying than this simple truth?

Betrayals, however, is written as a mystery--several mysteries, as I have said. The rules of this genre are different--almost diametrically opposed to the rules of horror. In mystery fiction, there has to be a reason and a solution. Palliser plays a very dangerous game with Betrayals, undermining his readers' expectations of logical solutions and tied-up loose ends after first building up those very expectations by writing within the conventions of the genre. And as for asking the readers to be their own detectives, while obviously the degree to which one is willing to do so is highly subjective, I think Palliser goes too far. Most readers will eventually be frustrated by the investigation they must complete in order for the novel to come together--if, indeed, such a coming-together is even possible (obviously, I'm writing from personal experience. I came a certain distance towards solving Betrayals' mysteries and then stopped, unwilling to commit more of my time and energy to a task that, I suspect, is not finite. If anyone reading this review has come further and has insights they'd like to share, I would be only too pleased to read them).

Like Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, or the second season of Veronica Mars, Betrayals uses the outer trappings of the mystery genre to do something that is not entirely related to that genre. And like those other works, it is only partially successful. Perhaps more than any other genre, mystery is boxed in by its rules and conventions, and I have yet to encounter a work that managed to break those rules and still succeed as a genre piece. Which may very well be Palliser's topic, and his compensation for readers left without a solution at the novel's end. Those parts of the novel not concerned with laying out mysteries or offering hints towards their solution are for the most part engaged in the discussion of two dichotomies--the rift between commercial and literary fiction, and the difference between mysteries in real life and mysteries in fiction. The former is obviously addressed by the fact that the novel's playful and experimental structure encompasses the most obvious pastiche of early 20th century mystery writers (in both this respect and in the connections that it draws between its disparate chapters, Betrayals is highly reminiscent of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, although again, I think the comparison highlights why combining this style with a mystery story might not be a good idea), the latter by the novel's longest chapter. The chapter is narrated in diary form by Sholto McTweed, a bookstore clerk who doesn't understand why anyone would want to read about something that didn't really happen, and who truly believes that the characters in a television cop show are being murdered in front of him. Sholto strikes up an unlikely friendship with philosophy professor Horatio Quaife, who grades real-life murders based on their literary merit, and objects to the use of poison because Sayers and Christie have done it to death. In the background, a serial murderer is terrorizing Glasgow, and at least two television shows have ongoing mystery plots which Sholto and Horatio try to solve. The point, apparently, is that real-life murders are at the same time more complicated and less elaborate than fictional ones.

It's a point that Palliser makes well and with subtlety, but it is not, in itself, a particularly clever, interesting, or satisfying one. It's all very well to say that a realistic, or a literary (two terms that mean completely different, and often diametrically opposed, things) mystery can't have a plain solution, but once you've made that point, what's left of your novel? In the end, one can't help but wonder whether it is Palliser who is the traitor, although he seems to be betraying himself as well as his readers--in its desire to step out of the bounds of genre, his fiction becomes self-immolating, and after an exciting beginning made up of several cracking good yarns, the novel starts dragging toward the middle and sadly never quite recovers itself. Which is probably a strange preamble to saying that I genuinely enjoyed reading Betrayals, and that I do recommend it. Whether or not the solution exists, Palliser has clearly grasped the key to creating a successful illusion of its existence--there are enough fun details in the novel to at least partially obscure the fact that it doesn't work as a whole. Betrayals is an imperfectly executed but fascinating experiment, and one that I think would benefit from a greater readership (although I wouldn't be surprised to discover that as many readers despise it as love it). There is a small sub-class of novels that work best as a topic of communal discussion. House of Leaves is one of them, and I think Betrayals might be one too (it is the novel's misfortune to have been published in the days of the internet's infancy). In the meantime, I'll keep looking for a novel that truly achieves a blend between the rules of mystery writing and the wider world of literary experimentation, and keep Veronica Mars' first season on hand to keep me company while I look.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great review. I echo most of your comments, but I felt "Betrayals" was a very successful mystery that was well worth the effort I put into it.

When the question of "Who's your favorite author" comes up, without hesitation I say Charles Palliser. I've loved all of his books (but like you haven't read "The Sensationist" and don't really have the urge to track it down). However, having said that, it's been at least a decade since I've read any of his books. Reading your reviews has reminded me of just how much I enjoyed Palliser's books, and how much I've forgotten about them. The time is ripe for a re-read.

I'm currently writing a short story that has turned into something of a Quincunxian sort of multi-layered family history mystery, and I went searching for some Quincunx names to perhaps pay homage to and came across your review.

I look forward to hunting down "House of Leaves" as your description sounds like it's right up my alley.

Take care!

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