A Book I Fucking Hate : Night Train (Guest Post)
Last week, the author of Last of the Independents, Invisible Dead and Cut You Down Sam Wiebe dropped by to talk about Lawrence Block's short story Batman's Helpers, which blurred the lines between genre and literary. Today, he's doing the opposite: he'll tell you about a literary author who clumsily and condescendingly tried his hand at detective fiction and, of course, failed.
by Sam Wiebe
Iain Banks wrote a great essay called Science Fiction is No Place For Dabblers, chiding mainstream writers for jumping into genre without an appreciation or understanding of its archetypes, themes, tropes and clichés.
[S]cience fiction is a dialogue, a process. All writing is, in a sense…Science fiction has its own history, its own legacy of what's been done, what's been superseded, what's so much part of the furniture it's practically part of the fabric now, what's become no more than a joke… Science fiction can never be a closed shop where only those already steeped in its culture are allowed to practise, but, as with most subjects, if you're going to enter the dialogue it does help to know at least a little of what you're talking about…
I think you can tell when a writer genuinely enjoys what they’re writing. When Craig Davidson writes horror novels as Nick Cutter, you can tell there’s a love of Stephen King there. Same with Joyce Carol Oates—her short novel Zombie is a unique (and fucking terrifying) riff on serial killers. I’m reading Nathan Ripley’s Find You in the Dark, and the same thing stands—skilled genre fiction is just skilled fiction by someone who understands the genre.
I don’t know if John Banville/Benjamin Black’s mystery novels got better after the first one, which was competent but uninspired. For Irish crime fiction I’d much rather read Adrian McKinty or Tana French or Ken Bruen. And Ursula K LeGuin’s fans probably wouldn’t trade her works for one of Margaret Atwood’s latest forays into dystopia.
These distinctions are rough, and I can’t trust myself to be entirely fair. I like what I like.
But I fucking hate Martin Amis’s Night Train.
Amis is a writer with a lot of virtues, but also an arrogance, especially towards working and middle class people. He can’t write about them with anything other than contempt. His novel Lionel Asbo should be called Filthy Stinking Poor—like Schitt’s Creek, the detestable Canadian sitcom, it derives most of its humor from “what if I had to spend time with, ugh, poor people” scenarios.
Night Train is about a female recovering alcoholic detective named Mike who’s investigating the apparent suicide of a bright student who seemed to have everything going for her.
Now, if you hated mystery novels and wanted to come up with a pure fuck you of a solution, and you thought you were smarter than you actually were, you’d probably come up with what Amis did. What if the student’s apparent suicide…actually WAS a suicide? She suffers from everything’s-too-perfect syndrome (or whatever) and offed herself. Mike, baffled at this solution, slinks off to drink herself to death.
Why does this suck so bad? Why, fifteen years after reading it, do I still fervently hate it? It’s not dumb, it’s not poorly written, and the solution is functional and relatively novel. But it’s condescending as shit.
Mike isn’t a character—she’s a gender-flipped cliché (which of course is in itself a cliché). And the ending, which on the surface seems so subversive, upholds the status quo more than the laziest nosy-dowager-in-the-vicarage cozy. And Mike’s implied death? Original if you’ve never read a word of Jim Thompson or David Goodis (or glanced at a writer’s biography).
It’s not just an inadvertent stumbling into clichés, or a lack of appreciation of the form—it’s self-gratifying condescension, a smugness that rewards itself for not buying into its own story.
Genres are built of beloved archetypes and tolerated clichés. I love that every British detective novel is about a fortyish Inspector who drinks too much and has a bad relationship with his daughter. There’s something comforting about that, the way the snare drum on a Motown song is comforting.
Playing with clichés, subverting them, is also comforting. Half the reading public can think Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is brilliantly original, and the other half can think it’s a retread of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent… and they can all be right. Clichés and archetypes survive through reinvention. In any case, engagement with those story elements can yield interesting results.
What’s not interesting is listening to someone point out that the clichés he’s created are clichés, as if this is some revelation to the audience. It’s the equivalent of the asshole who goes to a pro wrestling show and tells fans, “You know wrestling is fake, right?”
I like wrestling. And yes I know it’s fake. Just like I know Orson Welles in a cardboard Statue of Liberty crown isn’t really Macbeth. And that Lew Archer and Kinsey Milhone and the Dublin Murder Squad are ultimately just lines on a page.
But by willing suspension of disbelief, what wonders are wrought.
What Lawrence Block does in Batman’s Helpers is put a well-written character (who’s both archetypal and fiercely unique) into a situation that’s slightly askew, and then faithfully record how Scudder deals with it. What Martin Amis does in Night Train is throw a cliché at you, and subvert it with what he doesn’t realize is another, then pat himself on the back for his own ignorant cleverness.
You tell me which fits your definition of literary.