Thursday, October 12, 2006

wilkie collins and the rest is history

Not long ago a young man asked me, "So, what was so great about Truman Capote's In Cold Blood anyhow?"

Even though I mumbled something about true crime and suspense and popular modernism, I didn't really have the kind of answer he was looking for because I hadn't read it since high school - before I watched a Thin Blue Line and before I read narrative film theory and maybe just at the moment that Pulp Fiction came out - but it is certainly a book that if one had read it oneself one might not ask this question because it is just so creepy and delightful. But that is no kind of answer.

So here are my thoughts on all kinds of spooky:

The book (I read then and reread now a hardcover 1965 edition) is divided into sections - "The Last to See Them Alive," "Persons Unknown," "Answer" and "The Corner" - I would guess the sections appeared in the same order in the New Yorker because they are, in some respects, chronological. The titles suggest this, with "The Last to See Them Alive" being accounts from friends and employees of the family and other community members of the afternoon before the murders and "The Corner" being accounts of Dick and Perry on death row. And because the sections are a serial, like ye olde serials Middlemarch and Dickens and Wilkie Collins, they have cliffhanger endings to each section. Here suspense is about information suspended, a delay in a linear narrative.

But there's also a kind of telescoping structure to the suspense. Sometimes the reader is waiting for Dick and Perry to reach Mexico, sometimes she is waiting for them to be caught. Sometimes she is waiting for them to be tried, or the trial to reach a verdict. Sometimes she is waiting for them to die. And, unless one is made of absolute stone, the reader feels her sympathies or empathies moving quickly one way and then the next . . . There is always a new event that being delayed about which the reader has more or less certainty that it will happen, and more or less desire that it will.

More or less certainty is key. Because the sections were also written and published as a book, that is, all the sections were written (or revised) after Dick and Perry were identified, if not arrested, if not tried, if not convicted, if not killed. So from the very first section, the identity of the killers is not withheld. The details of the crime are disclosed in the first section too, but through the eyes of the detectives, who don't know Dick and Perry as well the reader does. Lots of definitions of suspense (including Hitchcock's, for instance) explain that when a "spectator" knows more than the characters (here, the detectives, or the community of Holcomb as a whole) this produces suspense (as opposed to not a spectator or reader being kept entirely in the dark). Basically, as a reader/spectator, you're waiting for something to jump out at them.

But that's not all, really. Because of the serial publication combined with the "after the fact" knowledge of the writer, lots of information gets repeated from one section to another. So the sections are not just chronological accounts, but achronological accounts, that is, repeating accounts of the same events from various perspectives. Capote has the same information disclosed through or by various situations or characters. This repetition, which makes nearly each section intelligble on its own, is unsettling when read all at once. Have I heard that before? Which version is true? How do they fit together? And being disoriented in a book full of violence is scary.

Not only that but then too, why is certain information being obsessively repeated? Is Capote trying to call our attention to clues? Why is this information important? Will this explain everything? Will we finally understand the killers' psychologies?

Finally, the very elaborate manipulations of suspense - the delays, the information not withheld, the temporal and symapathetic disorientations, the obsessively repeated information all create one last mystery - who is behind all this? How did Capote get his information? When did he conduct his interviews? Who actually told him what?

I don't have Wilkie Collins The Moonstone in a vintage hardcover edition in front of me (that's no excuse, zp, here, now, read - I borrowed it from the library), but a similar analysis could be done of that books complicated structures of suspense, knowledge, sympathy and temporal disruptions. Except, I think, alongside the various accounts, there is yet another layer, a narrator who is not the author (whereas Capote is, finally, both). And I think the competing, shared, various narratives thing is central to any good mystery story, though I'm afraid the structure, particularly as it manipulates time, has become associated with postmodernism. But that's clearly a big fat lie of periodization.

Now, that's not all that really compels one in The Moonstone. What with the juggling (which is a suggestive term now that we've looked at the narrative structure, no?) and the cultural patrimony - if you pay $3 you can read Kwame Anthony Appiah's argument, in the Feb 9, 2006 New York Review of Books, for why anyone should be able to steal anything . . . the short history of juggling is free. Still on the tip of the iceberg. Capote leans on a kind of Robin Wood "American Nightmare" horror structure in In Cold Blood and Wilkie Collins exploits a Brit fascination with the "domesticated foreigner" as Gopnik put it . . .

I took some notes on Appiah's essay in the spring (if you want 'em) but had to let The Moonstone and In Cold Blood marinate, so to speak, for a few months.

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2 Comments:

Blogger the chocolate lady said...

How do you think all of this (especially the suspense bit) applies to the story from 10/09 about the North Dakota convict who keeps escaping. There's even a movie.
Here's the quote from the NYer's link to the video:
video
Having watched it now more than twenty times, I find myself at moments talking back to the screen (“Hey! Carl! Eye on the ball!”) while inclined toward sympathy for Bordelon. Even more, I marvel at McNair’s ability to stay in character.”

2:04 AM  
Blogger zp said...

Well, chocolate lady, I just don't know. You tell me.

It's an interesting video (your link didn't work for me, but it's easy to find) . . . and I read the New Yorker article just a few days after I finished ICB. I was struck by many similiarities . . .

Before watching the video, I would have been tempted to say it's the classic Hitchcock thing; the writer as the spectator knows more than the detective and he sympathizes with the detective and wants him to see what he, the knowing spectator sees, a criminal.

But after watching it I think one of the key elements of the con is not just that McNair is a convincing actor, or "stays in character" or whatever. The information he gives is truly outrageously vague and contradictory. I think he makes the policeman think that he, the policeman, is the smartest and most powerful man in the conversation. The way that he acts - dumb - somewhat accounts for the vagueness of his answers but also allows the policeman to go through his little rituals of power, the call, the banter, etc. The emotions at work in the video seemed more complicated and subtle than the emotions the NYer author described . . . flattery is at work.

I think the most interesting thing in the NYer article was the emphasis on McNair's attention to probabilities; places he's unlikely to be able to escape from, places he's unlikely to be recognized, the strange equation that led him to that community in Canada . . .

I actually didn't think it was carefully written enough. I could hardly follow the information I felt the author expected or wanted me to.

11:26 AM  

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