Canon fodderAn interview with Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan, an English private detective, lives with his wife, Sarah, and their young daughter in an unnamed eastern European city. Sarah and Jonathan go to couples therapy several times a week, trying to right the sinking ship of their marriage. But Jonathan remains concerned that Sarah might be having an affair with his colleague.
Jonathan’s work is not particularly taxing, and music seems to be the only real passion in his rather listless existence. He spends much of his time sitting in cafes and walking the streets in a city that, with its murky river, pastry shops and gothic buildings, is reminiscent of contemporary Budapest.
Things begin to change, however, when into his office comes a peasant couple looking for their daughter, Petra, who vanished a dozen years earlier. It’s this “wandering daughter job” that drags Jonathan out of his malaise.
The Drowned Detective is Irish author Neil Jordan’s sixth novel. His earliest works – the short-story collection Night in Tunisia (1976; winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize) and his first novel The Past (1980) – were largely concerned with the arcana of mysterious Irish families. Sexuality, decadence and hints of the supernatural were imbued in his tales.
Turning to film in the early ’80s, Jordan had considerable success, often with similar themes, writing and/or directing movies including Angel (1982), Mona Lisa (1986), The Crying Game (1992) and, his biggest commercial triumph, Interview With the Vampire (1994). In 2005, Jordan returned to writing fiction with Shade. Ghosts, vampires, doubles and murder were recurring motifs, as they would be in his 2011 novel, the accomplished Dublin-set Mistaken.
Jordan is on safe territory when writing about Dublin, but is less assured when patrolling The Drowned Detective’s fictional city. He borrows ideas from Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera, but lacks their oddness. Not that Jordan doesn’t try to be offbeat. In an unusual approach for a missing-persons case, Jonathan takes a polaroid of Petra to his friend Gertrude, a noted psychic. She places the polaroid on a map of the city and declares that Petra is locked in a room located in the burned bit at the edge of the map. Jonathan laconically wonders if Gertrude’s powers also work with Google Maps. She assures him – in one of the book’s rare moments of wit – that her ability is analog only.
Rather than rushing out to save Petra, Jonathan lingers with his psychic friend while she stares at him like a jaded “Marlene Dietrich [gazing] through a wisp of curling smoke at the sagging hulk that was Orson Welles”. Ostensibly it’s a reference to the 1958 film Touch of Evil, but it’s not as clever a description as hoped. Welles wore a fat suit and a lot of make-up to play a character that had gone to seed. This is one of several observations in which Jordan could have been sharper.
The Drowned Detective is a novel of recurrence, music and ghosts. There is a repeated scene in which Jonathan jumps into the river to save a young suicidal cellist with whom he subsequently becomes involved. We see it from several angles at different points in the story and, as in a Mozart composition, the repetition is very effective, enriching the work’s main motifs.
This is a mystery novel of sorts, and, as with all great detective stories, the protagonist mustn’t just solve the case. The case must also solve the detective. Jordan takes this trope and runs with it, and his explorations of Jonathan’s foibles and weaknesses are often intriguing. But The Drowned Detective is not as complete an achievement as Jordan’s previous novels. Perhaps writing economically for film has led him too far back the other way, into a convoluted and ornate literary style. One is reminded of Katherine Mansfield’s critique of EM Forster: “[He] never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.”
As the novel progresses, its focus drifts subtly to Jonathan’s daughter, Jenny, and the world she has created for her dolls and imaginary friends. Those familiar with the ghost–horror genre won’t be entirely surprised by what transpires; nevertheless the tone of this development is pleasingly understated. Jonathan is disturbed by the forces Jenny seems to be dragging up. As Gertrude the psychic tells him, “There’s something dying inside you … Or something dead. Something has died. Present or past tense, I do not know.”
“You do not deal in tenses?” he asks.
“No, time is fluid with these things.”
Indeed this mutability of time becomes more apparent, and Jonathan falls into a version of Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film about a young English couple recovering in Venice after the drowning death of their daughter. Jonathan’s numbness stems not from something horrific that happened in his past but, rather, from what may yet happen.
The Drowned Detective is not without merit, but it continually reminds one of better novels: Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn and China Miéville’s The City and the City. The latter in particular shows how brilliant such a book can be. The City and the City is also a detective novel set in a Budapest of the imagination: the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. These cities share much of the same topography, but travel from one to the other is utterly forbidden. From a very young age, children are trained to “unsee” vehicles and people in the other city.
Jordan’s novel, while engaging, has none of this invention. Perhaps returning to Ireland for his next book will allow him to draw again from a deeper well.
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