The Post-postmodern Detective: Thoughts on Powell’s first Cori Kiel Story.
By Malcolm Compson
The first thing that strikes a reader of the Cori Kiel mysteries is no doubt that the narrative point of view is just wrong. And that in more ways than one. Because it’s not merely that the genre demands the first-person narrator, but that the third-person narrator of these books is so close to being a first-person narrator that it’s puzzling why Powell didn’t just give in and make the books more marketable, perhaps even more readable.
But he couldn’t. Not and produce the particular ideological effect that is the real power and interest of a book like An Insula Life.
The popular understanding of the postmodern would go something like this: By means of self-referentiality, irony, and the subversion of stable points of view, the postmodern escapes the oppressive trap of monolithic hegemonic ideologies, and reveals the absence of any fixed truth, any supposed “reality,” embracing radical relativism as the final goal of human freedom. Or some such arcane crap.
So the fans of postmodern start to find it everywhere, most of all in the paradigmatic works of high modernism itself, but also in all kinds of pre-modern works, from the Bible to Boethius. Why would this be? Because postmodernism is itself an oppressive hegemonic ideology, which can brook no disagreement and needs to swallow up all possible sources of clear thought and truth in its pure global-capitalist neoliberal ideological project. Or other such arcane crap.
But here’s my point about Powell’s novels. Sure, they are self-referential, and play with the conventions of the detective genre. And they do this far beyond the overt references about what would happen next in a detective novel–the subtle imitations and distortions of the genre run throughout, even in the constant use of flashback and the threat of collapsing into another genre altogether (Coming of age novel? Economic realism?). But they do this with exactly the opposite effect of the postmodern game: to reveal that underneath the apparent confusion of subjective perspectives and beyond the failure of realist narrative it turns out there really is a truth, a causal structure, and we really can get at it…only we no longer want to.
Or, more correctly, we are terrified to.
Powell’s return to the point of view used successfully by Hammett is probably the most telling index of the political and ideological function of these short and easy genre novels. The first-person voice reassures us that all we can hope for is a personal, subjective, understanding of the world. The claustrophobic point of view Powell adopts, like Hammett’s in The Glass Key, functions to allow a critical examination of even that first-person perspective. It allows Powell to examine how the protagonist thinks, and why he thinks that way.
The kinds of explanations Kiel can find for the body he notices on the first page are determined by the way his life experience has constructed his mind. When Kiel looks for an explanation, he looks in all the places we would expect, but unlike the more properly constructed mind, the more conventional mind, he never finds it. For instance:
There is no noble poor, oppressed by an evil and criminal upper class. Pace Chandler, the mild-mannered judge isn’t secretly running the mob while the honest worker gets locked up for his very poverty. The poor Kiel finds are just as ethically bankrupt as the rich, both products of the same system and neither capable of being good.
There are no manipulative evil women at the heart of the crime. The only candidates for femme fatale here turn out to be working openly and honestly for the good of others. To be sure, he plays with the convention, threatens us with the cliche throughout, but only to emphasize its powerful ubiquity in our culture, where it is not only common but almost necessary to any successful narrative.
There finally isn’t any evil plot to oppress anyone at all. The rich and poor alike turn out to be oppressed by the same hegemonic ideology, the same structuring beliefs and desires. And again, we are led along in pursuit of some evil plotting villain, only to remind us that such answers are our way of avoiding the real explanation.
Ultimately, there is no way to read Powell’s novels, they are unreadable, unenjoyable even, unless we understand them as another turn in the genre, as a harbinger, perhaps, of a new possibility for understanding and living in the world that moves us beyond the postmodern.
But in the end, we are left with what I would call an incomplete analysis. Because Kiel has come to recognize the problem, to understand how the social order of twenty-first-century America produces only impossible contradictions and no livable roles in which individuals can live meaningful and productive lives. And as yet, he has no idea what to do about this problem. If the ending is unsatisfactory (and I think it is) this is only because its task is to launch us forward into the unpleasant and frightening work demanded by psychoanalysis. We move forward through successive attempts to fully engage the social, free of illusions that there is a final answer, that there are any states of effortless bliss.
How long will it take our hero to realize that he must find his contentment exactly in effort and negotiation, which is perhaps another way of saying work and love? My hope is that he doesn’t get there too soon. Because the successive iterations, as he struggles with each new death in the slums of the burbs he calls the insulae, are how we as readers can learn to get there ourselves.
The link will only work to take you to the Kindle version–just click the paperback link once you’re there, if you’re interested. There’s also a free preview of the beginning of the novel, if you don’t want to plunk down the cash!