The Intuitionist

My appetite for mystery is what led me to The Intuitionist. Hungry for another mystery, I gobbled up Flavorwire’s list of 50 Essential Mystery Novels That Everyone Should Read. Colson Whitehead’s neo-noir tale sounded so deliciously different, the book soon skyrocketed to the top of my to-read list despite the fact that no one else I knew had ever heard of it.

I imagined it to be a high-minded unraveling of a complicated world that would still keep me rapt in the story, eager to turn each page.

My expectations were wildly off base.

The Intuitionist is more allegory than mystery, more Ralph Ellison than Agatha Christie.

The story takes place in a sort of steampunk, pre-civil rights New York (although it’s never named). There, elevators are not only regulated by the government, but are well-recognized symbols of social mobility—after all, the elevators make the tall, glittering cities of the future possible. Lila Mae Watson is the city’s first black female inspector. She’s also an Intuitionist, a school of inspection looked down upon by the Empiricist majority for the way it relies on psychic sensations rather than tools for its inspections. When one of the elevators Lila’s given her seal of approval suddenly plummets, she becomes determined to figure out who set her up and why.

If this little synopsis has your head spinning, don’t worry—you’re not alone. There’s a lot going on in the world that author Colson Whitehead has built, but it’s really not difficult to fall into.

Slick city streets, dark underbelly politics, and nefarious thugs all have their roles to play while Whitehead toys with concepts of racial identity. He uses the characters’ discussion of “verticality” to force the reader into thinking about the social strata and how racism has shaped it. He then wraps this blatant allegory of the black experience in a dark, noir style that’s more Raymond Chandler than Toni Morrison.

Unfortunately for me, I would generally rather watch noir than read it. There’s an iciness to the language, something almost mechanical, which leaves me feeling detached. Here, it absolutely works to match our aloof protagonist, but I felt like I was being kept at arm’s length in a way that worked against what Whitehead was trying to achieve.

I wanted to feel like I was with Lila every step of they way, not just watching her from afar as in passages like this:

“Her place was as she left it: raped. She pulled her suitcase from under the bed and packed again, this time for a much longer stay. . . . She lingered in the doorway. She thought she had forgotten something. Hadn’t. She did not possess any lucky rabbit’s feet or childhood dolls to ward off the monsters of the adult world. Just clothes.”

It’s hard for me to explain why I don’t connect with this passage. It should be tense, I should feel Lila’s anxiety or her fear, but I just don’t. The text just couldn’t take me there.

Yet I can’t fully blame Whitehead for this failure. My expectations were sky high for this book, I went in with the wrong mindset, and I was ill prepared for the in-your-face nature of its themes.

“White people’s reality is built on that things appear to be—that’s the business of Empiricism. They judge them on how they appear when held up to the light.”

Had I come into the book more prepared, my experience might have been slightly different. I needed an emotional connection to the story, and an allegory was not the place for me to look. As it stands, I still appreciate everything The Intuitionist is trying to accomplish, but when I couldn’t care about it, I realized I didn’t care for it.

The Good Girl

Where do I even begin with Mary Kubica’s debut novel, The Good Girl? Touted in its back-cover copy as written “in the tradition of Gillian Flynn and Tana French,” The Good Girl does bear some similarities to Gone Girl and The Likeness in that it is certainly a book and it certainly is filled with pages.

But that’s about it.

I don’t mean to be glib, though, so let me give you the gist.

The Good Girl is a thriller set in Chicago and centered on the kidnapping of twentysomething school teacher (and daughter of a prominent judge), Mia Dennett. Detective Gabe Hoffman along with Mia’s mother Eve enter into a desperate search to find her. The story is told from alternating points of view, flashing forward and backward in time from chapter to chapter. It attempts to be a type of “whydunnit” in the style of The Secret History, but with the pop-culture feel of Gone Girl.

None of this on its face is a necessarily bad idea. The unique storytelling provides some freshness in what could be a potentially stale or straightforward concept, and the general plot could easily make for an entertaining beach read. But when The Good Girl starts going off the rails, it jumps off the tracks at full speed.

Kubica’s descriptions of Chicago read as if told from a complete outsider’s perspective. I found some of the description tedious, and in one or two cases, just plain incorrect. This would become a kind of running theme with the novel. There are even several excruciating scenes meant to depict a modicum of detective work, but which actually just define basic terms and ideas (i.e. a page-long definition of the word “hypnosis”) at length. More than just uninventive and dull to read, I actually found some of these passages a little insulting to my intelligence. But still, I plugged along.

Unfortunately, The Good Girl became more than just a mediocre story–it morphed into a sludge-like cocktail of sexism and racism. It got to the point that I hated every second I was reading it. I dreaded picking up the book, knowing I would enjoy nothing.

To be clear, I don’t mean to say that the characters in the story were sexist or racist (though that is certainly the case as well). That’s never an inherent problem. A few years ago I read Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, which is from the perspective a completely vile human being. But that character is used to explore the complex realities of post-apartheid South Africa. The novel knows that the racism and violence it depicts is deplorable, and we, as readers, feel this too.

That story, despite being much more graphic, was much easier to stomach than The Good Girl, which is subtly complicit. South Side Chicago neighborhoods and later, the nearby town of Gary, Indiana are consistently disparaged, their large black populations negatively highlighted (as if the mark of a shitty neighborhood were merely the fact that black people lived there), all without any understanding or empathy. And while those areas do indeed suffer from higher rates of poverty and crime and do have a mainly African American population, Kubica treats the issue as if it’s a given that such places would be the only refuge of criminal activity. As if all crime stems from there, and there alone. We never see these neighborhoods from the eyes of their inhabitants, only through the negative judgments of our protagonists.

Worse yet, The Good Girl has only a single non-white character: Dalmar. Dalmar is an African immigrant whose skin is described as “black, like the blackest of black bears, like the blubbery skin of a killer whale, an alpha predator with no predators of their own”–not exactly a flattering portrait. On top of that, he is, of course, also a suspected rapist, a murderer, and the leader of a dangerous crime syndicate. He is given no other qualities.

Again, it isn’t the fact that Dalmar is a villain that’s troublesome. It’s the way the writing ties his blackness to his villainy, and it’s the complete lack of any other non-white character to act as any kind of comparison point that makes this more than just unfortunate, but genuinely upsetting.

In fact, when black people appear in the background of Kubica’s novel, their blackness seems to be the only thing she points out, and it’s pointed out repeatedly. If their skin color is all that matters, how can they even begin to feel like real people? How can they be anything but set decoration for an order-less and violent world? It’s utterly appalling.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

Her treatment of women fares no better.

Every woman (with a substantial role) in the book is a mother. The only women that get empathy are mothers. The only woman consistently described as bitchy is also constantly compared to her father and is childless. Women’s beauty is emphasized and prioritized. In an off-hand comment, Detective Hoffman makes light of the potential abuse of teens by their teacher–regarding it as “complaints by numerous teenyboppers,” which is disgustingly glib.

A chapter-long tirade against abortion even makes its way into the book, which would merely be frustrating to read if it were simply a character’s opinion, but everything in the novel reinforces this belief. The construction of the plot means that we never hear Mia’s point of view until the very end, which means most of this discussion happens without knowing or considering what she wants. I find this extremely problematic, regardless of whether I support a pro-choice agenda or not. What does Mia think and why? Shouldn’t that matter at all? As is, the bulk of the justification for the anti-abortion agenda comes from Mia’s mother, with Mia just sitting along for the ride.

Her kidnapping is also infuriatingly romanticized. At the end, the book takes great pains to insist that she suffered from no stockholm syndrome and that her kidnapper who constantly threatens to murder her and who strikes her repeatedly is “misunderstood,” which ends up making violence against women look like some kind of sick foreplay.

END OF SPOILERS

By the time the mystery is resolved, I couldn’t have cared less. I was fed up with the book and with the sloppy, careless writing.

I don’t demand that a novel reach epic heights of literary greatness to be enjoyable, but I do ask that it contain a basic sense of human decency, that any offensive ideas be written with a purpose. What I cannot tolerate, perhaps even more than thinking that she believes these things, is the thought that the author was merely far too lazy to consider the power of her words.

What a complete waste.

The Good Girl is published by Harlequin and goes on sale July 29.

The Secret History

I don’t quite know why it took me so long to realize it, but I love a good mystery—the subtle sense of danger, the page-turning pace, the questions of how and why. I think for a long time I thought of the Mysteries section at the library the same way I thought about the Romance section and even Fantasy, in that I, as a serious person, read serious books by serious writers and those writers weren’t sent to mingle in such subsections. Serious books were with the rest of the fiction where they’d at least have a chance of sitting on the shelf next to a Hemingway or a Brontë. But as I’ve gotten older, I hold myself to far less rigid standards. Great writing takes all forms. You just have to know where to look.

When it comes to mystery, I think Donna Tartt’s The Secret History might be one such place to start. The story hits you with full force from the very first sentence on the very first page:

“The snow in the mountains was was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

Immediately, we know where we are and begin to see where we are going.

Our protagonist is aimless, small-town boy Richard Papen, whose older, wiser self narrates the story. He tells us of his junior year of college at an elite liberal arts school tucked away in the mountains of Vermont. There, he manages to ingratiate himself with a group of misfit students in an exclusive Greek program. But the more intertwined he becomes in the lives of the others, the more things start to unravel.

The Secret History does not feel like a beach read. It does not read breezily. Instead, it is a book to bury yourself in. It’s a book suited for the dead of winter, and it’s the book I read throughout back-to-back polar vortexes. With the first page telling us the “who” and some chapters later giving us the “why” the central interest in The Secret History comes from our need to see the full picture. How is this resolved? Where do these characters end up?

That said, it was missing some of the immediacy I’ve come to love when reading mysteries. While I was eager to see where the story would go, I didn’t fly through the novel. Thoughts of it didn’t dominate my mind, and it was easy to set it down for a day before picking it back up again.

I admit, I was a little disappointed at this, though I don’t really blame the book. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but my expectations got in the way. It was hard to adjust to a book that felt more like the literary fiction I was intending to take a break from than the lightning quick read I thought I was about to get.

Overall, some sections moved a bit slower than other, but nothing really felt superfluous. The book’s language is rich and packed with Greek literary allusion (which I am not ashamed to admit regularly flew over my head). The characters are largely all terribly unlikeable people who do unspeakable things. There is, quite simply, a lot going on in it, and I think a second read might do me good on this one.

Even though it’s not quite what I expected, I’m glad I read this before trying The Goldfinch. If you walk into it prepared for its intricate language and a somewhat slower than rapid fire pace, I think you’ll be as happy as I was.