Book Log II: The Murder Room, Sourcery and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Murder mystery this time around, chums! Then we have a detour into packed magical theory, and a trip into a post 9/11 world.

The Murder Room
PD James, 2003

It’s strange how interior the works of PD James are, when the characters all have the same thoughts and anxieties at their cores: that they simply cannot relate to one another. Surprisingly, the book comes to a head with this throwaway line between the Inspector Dalgliesh and the murderer in question:

And then it seemed that [the murderer’s] face softened and became touched with sadness. [The murderer] said, “We can never really know each other, you and I, Commander Dalgliesh.”
At the door, Dalgliesh turned again to face [the murderer]. “No,” he said, “We can’t. But does that make us different from any other two people?”

I’m getting ahead of myself. PD James strikes me as a formidable woman, still writing at the age of 88. The Murder Room is the book of her 83rd year, and twelfth in the Adam Dalgliesh series. While Dalgliesh is James’ most frequently written character, she’s also taken time out from her busy murder schedule to write the amazing dystopian novel The Children of Men, which was itself the seed for the entirely different film Children of Men. Despite the disconnect that all of the characters feel from one another, it’s difficult not to like James.

The Murder Room follows Death in Holy Orders, the only other Dalgliesh novel that I have read thus far, and continues the romance that began in earnest at that mystery’s confusion. A week after Dalgliesh visits a museum devoted to the interwar years, one of its trustees winds up dead. He was, quite conveniently, the one trustee who wished to see the museum dissolved. Somewhere in the background is the continuation of that romance, quite rightly sidelined by the mounting body count.

In reality, I have not read a lot of murder fiction. I recall that I was not particularly pleased with the outcome of Death in Holy Orders, simply because the murderer seemed rather a tacked on character. This is not a problem in The Murder Room because we get such an interior sense of most all of the characters, despite their intense unwillingness to reveal themselves to one another. James writes from a knowing yet unobtrusive perspective, and proves herself a mistress of detail. I don’t particularly care for specific descriptions of rooms, but I can see that there is a place for them. The paradoxically sympathetic nature of The Murder Room, along with a sensical solution (albeit one that draws to heavily on one of my own personal murder cliché), makes it a fine read indeed.

Terry Pratchett, 1988

Sourcery is the fifth Discworld book and the third Rincewind book. Rincewind had a brief cameo in Mort (although, strangely enough, not in Equal Rites – which was largely set at Unseen University), and here Pratchett gets to further explain what he has been doing since he saved the Disc from cultists and powermongers. Fresh off featuring Death so prominently in Mort, the Grim Reaper effectively serves as the introduction to Ipslore the Red, who flavours the book. When it comes to Discworld novels, it might be easier to quote the blurb to explain what’s going on, because Pratchett wrote them himself and doesn’t like giving everything away:

There was an eighth son of an eighth son. He was, quite naturally, a wizard. And there it should have ended. However (for reasons we’d better not go into), he had seven sons. And then he had an eight son … a wizard squared … a source of magic … a Sourcerer.
Sourcery sees the return of Rincewind and The Luggage as the Discworld faces its greatest – and funniest – challenge yet.

Sourcery, while an enjoyable book, suffers from one of the aspects of early Discworld that irks me: the constant use of real world analogy. It bugs me to have to read sentences like “if skateboarding had existed on the Disc, then Cutangle would have …” and so forth. Admittedly that paraphrase is from Mort, but this book mentions hedgehogs on high ways. Not so much “if [x]”, but certainly a lot of things that would make no sense to a citizen of the Disc if they were to read the books. In modern times, Pratchett is “accused of literature”, so the Discworld is certainly more self-contained. Such sentences take one out of the book and make it clear that one is reading a silly story in which silly things happen to silly people.

But that’s not that huge a problem. Sourcery is also from the age before Unseen University calmed down, with one or more new Arch Chancellors offered in each story dealing with the institution. Here we have the interestingly named Virrid Wayzygoose very quickly despatched, before he even has the chance to be placed in the seat of power. Perhaps the most enduring crop of the university are referred to by their positions rather than names because Pratchett got sick of having to come up with these things all the time. There’s also the possibility that the Dean, bedecked in a “LIVE FATS DIE YO GNU” jacket, probably would not wear such a name quite so well.

Anyway, Sourcery deals with magic as it’s not supposed to be: not as something that draws on existence, but as something that creates. The kitchen staff of Unseen University all have to leave because the wizards make their own food out of nothing but magic. The introduction of this concept is when one wizard produces “the kind of pie piglets hope to be when they grow up”. This is what sourcery introduces to the world: an influx of magic so unnatural that I simply will not hold with it. One cannot simply produce a pig out of nothingness, and Pratchett knows it – this is precisely why Coin has to be stopped.

Sourcery lays some good groundwork down, giving the Librarian more of an important role than simply being an orangutan paid in bananas. It’s also notable in that it begins Rincewind’s further, and persistent, torturous regime – and introduces the idea of viziers being uniformly evil (again, briefly touched on in Mort). This is closer to essence of Discworld but is still not quite there. This is a point at which Pratchett seemed to think that having a generic busty woman in Rincewind’s party is quite enough to sustain character requirements – and it’s not quite enough. It’s enough to make you think that the cover in which a book is wrapped can transform it – you’ll notice that things took a very distinct turn when Josh Kirby died and Paul Kidby took over the artistry.

The quest for discovering the truth of Discworld continues unabated; I know it’s ridiculous to suggest that any one text embodies the spirit of an entire canon – indeed, any one text can only, by definition, represent a fraction – but it’s a fun journey nonetheless.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer, 2005

I wrote myself a brief note to remember what to say here:

Incomplete, but how could it be finished?

An unsurprising literary development of the last few years is that of the post-September 11 novel. I know that you could argue that all novels written post-September 11 are post-September 11 novels, but don’t get smart with me: there are stories that are very explicitly affected by the events of “the worst day”. Nine year old Oskar Schell’s father died in the World Trade Center. Two years after his father’s death, Oskar finds a key in an envelope labeled Black. He decides that he has to discover what the key unlocks, and he embarks on a journey across the five boroughs of New York.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has three story threads, all told in first person: Oskar’s search for the lock, letters that his Grandmother has written to him explaining the nature of her failed marriage, and letters Oskar’s grandfather wrote to his son but never sent in his absence. It takes a while to find one’s bearings because a nine year old is understandably breathless in his narration, and this particular one is more than a little messed up. There’s something missing from Oskar, and you can tell that it’s probably never going to be quite right (you can tell me that I’m wrong, I’m not schooled in massive grief inflicted at an early age). He tries for optimism, though, and so all of the conflicting emotions within him allow the story to be poignant.

I’m not quite so sure what to say about the other two thirds of the book, though; the grievances aired there are altogether more grown up, but are not borne from a “normal” response to the horrors that the characters have been subjected to. Given the context of the grandmother’s letters, the level of information divulged seems rather inappropriate. We know for a fact that Thomas Schell the elder’s letters were never sent, so perhaps Grandma Schell’s letters serve the same purpose. It’s rather difficult to estimate.

Despite this, the whole project is intriguing and, strangely, filled with photographs and strange formatting of pages. Several pages are even printed in full colour, and some of the letters have words circled or underlined in red. I’m not certain why this struck me so, but it’s certainly not something that I am accustomed to seeing in the novels that I read. I’ll conclude the way I started: it’s not complete, but it can’t be. There’s something missing in Oskar’s life that’s never going to return to him; all we can really observe is how the quest has affected him, for better and for worse. It works out both neatly and loosely, and is definitely worthwhile even if you can’t stand precocious children.

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