By the end of the spring semester I’m usually about ready for long distance reading. Usually this means noir, though last year I read China Mieville into Proust. (Proust, oddly enough, relaxes me to no end, and last May I spent three weeks reading him for 4 or so hours a day in the late morning, and then going for a run, and then reading him for another 2 or so hours a day in the evening, until other commitments took me to other books. It was like hanging out in a sauna for six hours a day.)
At the moment, I’m cruising the Richard Stark’s (Donald Westlake) Parker novels, which I got turned onto by Neal Pollack’s review of them in LARB. Parker’s a doofus-y criminal, I imagine him chubby and large and perpetually almost knocking things over, like Pierre in War and Peace, even though he explodes with graceful violence when he needs to, most of the time bluntly, with his hands and knees.
The most interesting tic of the books so far is that Stark is committed to ending chapters at points of high intensity–a man coming through the window, say, or someone being shot in the chest by someone–and then cutting, at the beginning of the next chapter, back to the beginning of the action, or what led up to the action, but from the other side of things. So we see how the man got into the window, or how the shooting was planned. This happens sometimes multiple times in the books. It’s an odd tic, but it works, and reminds me of Auerbach’s description of time in myth (Mimesis)–that in the Odyssey, all stories happen in the present, and when cuts for the sake of back story happen–when Odysseus explains his scar, or tells of his wandering, one is given this information ultimately so the scar is as external and explained as it can possibly be. All information in myth is present and un-mysterious and historical context exists less to present history, but more to present the existence of the present. (Auerbach contrasts this with Abraham and Isaac, showing how reason and information, in the Bible, is often left for God to hide within Him). Interesting to think about this in connection with noir, where so much is or can be hidden. Most of the time what is dredged up is personal history and its puppet-stringing of the present–a man is a bastard, a woman is a prostitute–but in Parker novels the histories that are dredged up are those of action. How does this heist occur? Stark doesn’t want to explain away action through personal, emotional, subjective history–but instead describes action as methodical preparation on the part of thieves. The heist situates action situates character.
Parker himself destroys his background in the first two books–his wife commits suicide and he gets plastic surgery. We judge him through the way he handles things. I’m in the middle of the third book now, The Outfit, and part of the story revolves around the head of The Outfit, who Parker is trying to bring down, trying to find something, anything, any sort of weak-point for Parker (while, at the same time, complaining about his wife, no doubt his own weak-point). One suspects that Parker doesn’t have one. Except for the way he works. How to undercut movement, action, planning as weak-point?