Sunday, May 9, 2010

Book Review: One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

“One Good Turn,” the latest tour de force from Kate Atkinson, raises some interesting questions both about fictional genre and structure.

First of all there is the question of just what exactly is it. Pity the poor bookseller that has to decide in what company to shelve the novel with: mysteries and thrillers or fiction. In its subject matter the book would seem to belong with the genre titles. On the other hand, in the way it treats that subject matter, literary fiction would seem more appropriate. More often than not, genre fiction–mystery, romance, oater–tends to the formulaic, the stereotyped and the conventional. Readers have certain expectations and the genre writer is honor bound to meet those expectations. Every once in awhile an author comes along and uses the substance of the genre, but eschews the formula, indeed, takes the reader’s expectations and turns them on their head, in effect using the genre to critique (as one of Atkinson’s characters critiques her mother’s dinner) itself.

“One Good Turn” has much of the same kind of murder and mayhem that fills the pages of the conventional thriller. It has many of the same character types: a hulking neanderthal goon, a wily hit man, a persistent ex cop-ex detective with a yen for police work, a mysterious foreign beauty, a crooked real estate tycoon. It begins with an enigmatic act of road rage that balloons into a succession of seemingly random complications that eventually turn out to be not quite as random as one might have thought. But then along with these more or less conventional elements, there are characters like the wife of the unscrupulous builder who is developed well beyond the type. She is a woman who seems to have “gone from youth to old age and had somehow managed to omit the good bit in between.” Her life was a “series of rooms that she walked into when every one else had just left.” She bakes Christmas logs that no one else will eat. She likes to bid on eBay and be in at the end of the sale. She makes her own chutney from gooseberries she picked herself. There is the mystery writer whose “life had been lived in some kind of neutral gear. . . .He had never strived for greatness, and his reward had been a small life.” Unmarried, he daydreams of a wife and family out of the forties. He is prissy in his personal habits, doesn’t smoke, drink or eat meat. These kinds of character details do not normally make it into genre fiction, yet they are the kinds of details that bring a character to life. Moreover these are not incidental characters. They are central to the novel, as significant, if not more so, than their counterparts in more conventional fiction. Even the more typical of Atkinson’s creations are not quite drawn to type. Her ex-detective is tough and smart, but not quite tough enough and not always as smart as he needs to be. There is a bright female police inspector who is the unwed mother of a fourteen year old shop lifter. In general her characters have a rounded lifelike quality that distances from the norm of the generic mystery.

In a kind of meta- critical fashion, Atkinson has Martin Canning, her “small lived” mystery writer is constantly complaining about the junk he is writing, even including puerile passages by way of illustration. Nina Riley, the heroine of his series provides a solution to the crime: “So you see, Bertie, the murder weapon that killed the laird was actually an icicle taken from the overhang on the dovecote. The murderer simply threw it in the kitchen stove once he had used it–that’s why the police have been unable to find it..” When in a jam: “Well, Bertie, this is quite a scrape we’ve got ourselves into here, isn’t it?” Canning wants to write something where every page is a “dialectic between passion and reason.” He wants to write something that goes beyond mere escapist entertainment. Now while the portrait of the successful writer of popular fiction who wants to chuck it all and write serious literature is not particularly novel in itself, it does highlight the differences between the conventional genre and the work we are in the process of reading. Well, Bertie, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

These differences are further highlighted by the structure of the novel, a structure conveniently symbolized in the story itself by the recurrent image of the Russian nesting dolls which Martin had purchased on a trip to the Soviet Union: “But mostly there were dolls, thousands of dolls, legions upon legions of matryoshka, not just the ones you could see but also the ones you couldn’t–dolls within dolls, endlessly replicating and diminishing, like an infinite series of mirrors. Martin imagined writing a story, a Borges-like construction where each story contained the kernel of the next and so on. Not Nina Riley, obviously–linear narratives were as much as she could cope with–but rather something with intellectual cachet (something good).” What is being described here is, in fact, a paradigm for the structure of “One Good Turn,” where what we have are stories containing the kernels of other stories, where we are not immediately privy to the connections.

Atkinson presents the reader with a series of characters who seem to have little to do with one another, only to gradually reveal deeper and more significant relationships. Some might argue that what she provides is merely a series of coincidences, but she is prepared for that. Coincidences, one of he characters asserts, are merely events waiting for an explanation. There are no coincidences; there are connections. We may not always see the connections between events, but those connections are always there. In effect this is a philosophy of coincidence. One is reminded of the nineteenth century historian and social critic, Thomas Carlyle, who argued that all human activity is connected, that every action of every being has its effect on everything else, were we but able to see it. The advantage of the novelist is that she can show these connections, these dolls nesting within dolls.

The structure of “One Good Turn” reminds me most of last years’s Academy Award winning film, “Crash.” A diverse group of seemingly unrelated characters are spotlighted in separate scenes. The film moves back and forth between these sets of characters, until gradually relationships begin to unfold, relationships that become more and more significant the more we learn.

“One Good Turn” is set in Edinburgh during the height of the end of summer tourist season. It is the time of the Edinburgh Festival, the Fringe Festival, the Book Festival as well as the Royal Tattoo. Crowds of people jam the streets and the hotels. But while Atkinson is herself a resident of Scotland, her picture of Edinburgh and its festivals is anything but flattering. The Tattoo is a charade for the tourists. The Fringe is as often as not characterized by pretentious work in shabby venues, second rate has beens, disgruntled American high school students “playing The Caucasian Chalk Circle to an audience of two men. . . .” Up and down the Royal Mile from Holyrood to the Castle, she presents little to warm the hearts of the local Chamber of Commerce (if they have such organizations in Scotland). The Edinburgh she describes is not the most charming of places.

Her prose is rich in irony and allusion. Of a patient in a coma, his wife muses about the possibility of “recycling” his body parts. Fellatio sounds like an Italian musical term. Children go to school in the late summer heat because in the sixteenth century John Knox “saw a kid bowling along the street with a hoop. . ., and he thought, that child should be suffering in a hot, airless classroom in a uniform theat makes him ridiculous.” She fills her pages with references to both high culture and pop, the classic and the contemporary: The Cowboy Junkies and the Goldberg Variations, Ozymandias and Harry Potter, The Twilight Zone and William Blake, MTV and Agatha Christie. Her prose is lively and contemporary, never banal.

“One Good Turn” is a book filled with turns and surprises. It will keep you turning pages, and it will get you thinking–surely the best of two worlds. More than likely it will get you, as it got me, itching to get a look at the rest of Kate Atkinson’s work.

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