‘He left the room and shut the door behind him. No point saying goodbye to a dead man.’
I recently picked up the novel How’s The Pain?, by Pascal Garnier. You know what it’s like. You go to a bookshop with a list of things to buy, but none of them feel right. You end up being guided by your nose. A blackly comic story of the last days of an ageing hitman, How’s The Pain edges into crime but remains on the outskirts, operates through the social without the tendency to preaching or to damn, and offers chilly insights into modern life, without getting bogged down in Hoeullebecqian nastiness. There’s a pleasing cinematic economy at work in the novel: you could almost imagine it as a Jim Jarmusch film. Most of all, I think I liked it because it reminds me of the ideal I had for novels, once upon a time.
In those days, I worked in a library. Sometimes, on my lunch break, I would head up to a vacant office on the first floor. A bare white room, hardly the width of the door. An office chair and a PC facing a window onto a brick wall. I always had a notebook in my back pocket, one of those thin household accounts books, which would end up getting so frayed and ripped, that I bound the cover up in cellotape. I’d spend my lunch breaks writing up notes from these books. Images. Ideas. Insights. Plans for stories or poems, or things that ended up stranded in the halfway house between the two. (I’ve always had something of a taxonomy problem). I tapped away for an hour or so, sometimes a bit longer, if I could pretend to be performing some of the drier tasks of librarianship. I experienced an epiphany in that room. For the first time, I saw the kind of work I should be producing. There’s a quote, somewhere, by John le Carré, about a writer getting an idea of the kind of books that they should write. It is an ideal, an almost tangible mental space. Mine had something to do with the two machines of poetry and crime fiction. Think Denis Johnson’s Angels, Ann Quin’s Berg, Alain Robbe-Grillet The Erasers, or William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. (Very different books, but, as a film historian friend of mine once said when talking about the careers of Tintin and Black Emanuelle, ‘There’s certainly a Venn diagram there.’) I felt at the time, and I still feel, that the very best genre fiction shares with poetry a certain innate self-reflexivity, a homage to the spirit of form, a sense that even though these engines of words have been told before (Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, The Long Goodbye) the writer and reader returns to them with the same kind of heroic longing. And that such a longing is the subject of, well, literature. Whatever that might be.
A few years later, after my first novel had been released, I headed to the bookshop around the corner from where I worked, and found two copies of it on the crime shelf. I found this a surprising development. Yes, I’d worked with genre, but I’d thought I’d moved beyond its more rigid structures to make something else. All those careful ploys don’t amount to much when there’s a shelf that needs to be filled. Jonathan Franzen complained that the critics (the critics!) mistaking his first two novels for genre fiction, too, and I guess I could have followed his solution. If anything represents the limited functionality that is readily associates with genre writing, however, it is the novel (usually the long novel) of middle-class social conditioning. Literature is a genre, after all. Perhaps, I really had written a crime novel. If so, I was in good company with someone like Garnier. I’ll read more of his books.
‘He wasn’t thinking about anything now. It was just nice to dissolve in the water.’