Friday, July 2, 2010

"true genius has no self-awareness"

Genius takes so many forms, and in our century we have (slowly) come to appreciate that the transcendence given by a Picasso is potentially found in other, less obvious places. It was that old reliable provocateur, Marcel Duchamp, who showed this when he abandoned object-making, moved to Buenos Aires, and took up chess full-time. . . He is in fact destroying the conventional boundaries of art, arguing that all forms of expression - all of them - are potentially equal. Painting is the same as chess, which is the same as rollerskating, which is the same as standing at your kitchen stove, making soup.

I've long been a fan of Faye Kellerman's Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series. Given up for adoption at birth, Peter was slated to go to a Jewish family but, thanks to a snafu, was raised Southern Baptist in the swamps of redneck Florida. In the very first book, The Ritual Bath (1986), he is assigned to investigate a rape that occurred on the grounds of a local yeshiva. There, he meets Rina Lazarus, recently widowed, and her two boys, who act as the catalysts for Peter's rediscovery of his cultural roots. Since then Faye Kellerman has written eighteen Peter/Rina novels, the most recent being 2009's Blindman's Bluff. Not only are they great whodunits, but the purity and spirituality of Peter and Rina's faith contrasts powerfully with the grittiness of LA crime and gives the series a unique tone. Plus, you will learn A LOT.

I then heard that Faye Kellerman's husband is Jonathan Kellerman, also a bestselling mystery writer. Unfortunately, my reaction to his Alex Delaware series was "meh." I think that was because I generally don't read these particular genres (mystery/detective/crime/thriller) and was attracted to Faye's work primarily because of the intriguing Jewish angle. In fact, with some of the Peter/Rina books I find myself more interested in what's going on with their family than the actual plot. And then my aunt tried to get my mother and me into Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, but we both found One for the Money too utterly inane to finish. The humor was just so . . . dumb.

So when I heard that Faye and Jonathan's son Jesse Kellerman had joined the family trade, I was hopeful but skeptical. Would he take more after his mother or his father, or did he have his own voice? Is he actually a good writer or was he only published because of his parents?

My verdict: Jesse Kellerman's The Genius was AWESOME.

Narrator Ethan Muller, scion of a wealthy American dynasty, is estranged from his father and the family business. He runs his own gallery and hangs with the ultra-trendy, ultra-ironic New York art scene (as satirized in Quim Monzó's Gasoline) where the race is always on to discover the Next Big Thing. Life is a non-stop whirl of money, drugs, publicity, and personality until Muller is contacted one day by the superintendent of a seedy tenement owned by his family's company. Some 135,000 drawings have been discovered in the apartment of one Victor Cracke, a reclusive old man who has recently vanished. Despite his cynicism, Muller recognizes the value of the pieces right away.
I lack the vocabulary to describe to what I saw. Regardless: a dazzling menagerie of figures and faces; angels, rabbits, chickens, elves, butterlies, amorphous beasts, fantastic ten-headed beings of myth, Rube Goldberg machinery with organic parts, all drawn with an exacting hand, tiny and swarming across the page, afire with movement, dancing, running, soaring, eating, eating one another, exacting horrific and bloody tortures, a carnival of lusts and emotions, all the savagery and beauty that life has to offer - but exaggerated, delirious, dense, juvenile, perverse - and cartoonish and buoyant and hysterical - and I felt set upon, mobbed, overcome with the desire to look away as well as the desire to dive into the page.
But then Muller receives a call from a retired NYPD detective who had seen the New York Times review of Crackes' critically-acclaimed showing at Muller's gallery. The three cherubs shown in Panel 1, he explains, are all children who were raped and murdered in the late '50s and early '60s. He was the investigator assigned to the cases, but the killer was never found.

It soon becomes apparent that someone wants Muller to stop selling and exhibiting Cracke's work and may up the ante if he refuses to comply. So who was Cracke? Was he the killer? And why are we being given the complete century-long Muller family history, beginning with Solomon the Jewish-German immigrant peddler?

My fellow book blogger Jill reviewed Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses a couple months ago and included excerpts from an interview Rankin had done for a German paper. In our culture, the first question went, there is no distinction between literary and crime fiction. So what's the deal with the English-speaking market? It's complicated, Ranking explained, but,
. . . When crime fiction started in England it was very much seen as being literature. [Charles] Dickens used elements of the crime novel in “Bleak House.” His very good friend Wilkie Collins basically invented the English crime novel with “The Moonstone.”

But then writers started to use amateur detectives, and started to have very outlandish plots, and to have lots of fun with obscure poisons and such. And suddenly it drifted away from the realm of literature.

Crime fiction as a genre grew up with the growth in the lower middle classes, and also with the growth in travel. People were commuting to work on buses and trains; they needed things to read and crime fiction gave them a nice easy read while they were traveling. So there was this distinction.

I thought about this a lot as I was reading The Genius, especially since Kellerman's story centers on these very issues of what constitutes art and what human activities can be elevated to the status of genius. My initial reaction to this book was that it was just too good to be "low-brow" genre fiction. In addition to tackling the complex themes of art, madness, and brilliance, Kellerman also employs advanced literary techniques such as irony, stream of consciousness, metafiction, and pastiche (the Muller family flashbacks are reminiscent of Gothic literature and the historical saga). In terms of satire, Kellerman's portrayal of the New York art scene blows away the more "literary" Quim Monzó. When a whack to the head lands Ethan Muller a prescription for Oxycontin, he decides he will give the drugs to his girlfriend, a prominent art dealer, to pass it out as party favors.

But above all, The Genius is a mystery novel that it never forgets its original purpose. The plot twists, turns, and thickens and gives us a vivid portrait of New York City along the way, from its centers of power and wealth to its courts and cops to its most marginalized denizens. Indeed, if true genius and true art are those human creations that are unconscious and unintentional, then what is New York's "savage garden"? The sprawling oeuvre of Victor Cracke, in all its vivid and multifarious contradiction, is the world he occupied in mind and body. And as Ethan reminds us several times, he, our narrator, is the star of a real-life detective story and here's how it compares to your typical book of the genre.

At this point, I suppose I could make an underhanded compliment and say that it's a shame The Genius has been relegated to the paperback section at your local CVS. Except that would be to miss the whole point. I don't know if Jesse Kellerman is a genius or not (although he certainly outdoes both his parents) but I hope anyone looking for a good, solid, entertaining read will consider checking him out. I definitely look forward to more Faye and Jesse in the future. Sorry, Jonathan.

See also: Kinkade and Saintcrow: Peas in a Pod

The fictional character Victor Cracke is clearly based on Harvey Darger, whose 15,145-page illustrated manuscript, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, was discovered by his landlords shortly before his death. Like Cracke, Darger was non-neurotypical, had a history of institutionalization, lived by a rigid routine (including daily Mass), and was initially inspired by a photo of a murdered child.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I had no idea about Jesse, although I actually have to write down Faye/Peter Drecker because I keep forgetting at the library sale! They always have lots of Faye and Jonathans up for grabs. And the Harvey Darger thing is totally fascinating. I pulled up the Wikipedia entry and am off to go read it. (And I appreciate your calling me a fellow blogger instead of "the person whose addictions I enable...." LOL)

the_young_dude said...

I literally ADORE Darger. I've been a big fan since I saw the documentary (the realms of the unreal) dedicated to his works. What an incredible character.. I had no idea he has inspired a novelist, although it makes a lot of sense that he did because his story is compelling...

E. L. Fay said...

Jill: We have a library sale coming up soon too! I just donated an Ian Rankin book I accidentally won and could never get into. Incidentally, it was also about art - forgot the title.

Young Dude: I saw part of that documentary too - didn't Dakota Fanning read from his manuscript? I should watch the whole thing.

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