by David Peace
Cultivated Hysteria: The Noir Novels of David Peace
A review by Evelyn Toynton
David Peace's first books, set in his native Yorkshire during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the notorious Yorkshire Ripper was at large, were fairly straightforward crime fiction, though of a distinctive and -- for Britain -- radically new kind. Nor was it only Peace's terse, rat-a-tat prose, full of incomplete sentences and one-sentence paragraphs ("Radio on: alive with death./Stereo: car and walkie-talkie both:/Proceeding to Soldier's Field./Noble's voice from another car") that led to comparisons with James Ellroy. Traditionally, the British crime novel had concentrated on the character of the detective, and though these were no longer charming amateur sleuths like Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey, there was still a whiff of gentility about the most famous of them -- the opera-loving Morse, the poetry-writing Dalgliesh. Above all, the policemen created by such writers as P. D. James and Colin Dexter and Ruth Rendell were always, reliably, figures of honor. Rendell's Inspector Wexford, with his solid middle-class values and solid middle-class life, may not be as elegant as Morse or Dalgliesh; Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus may be surly, alcoholic, and steeped in general Scottish gloom; but they, too, in their different ways, are fundamentally moral men, pitting themselves heroically against the malefactors. They reassure us that however much wickedness there may be in the world, the forces of decency are indomitable.
The cops in Peace's Yorkshire novels -- four books known as the Red Riding Quartet -- are too busy raping and torturing and killing to go in for much actual detection. Their greatest ingenuity is reserved for framing the innocent in order to protect the vicious: the corrupt businessmen and unscrupulous politicians and pedophiliac clergymen with whom they are in league. There is much horrific violence in these books, much brutal and exploitative sex, and precious little kindness or love, although sexual obsession is sometimes part of the mix, conveyed in the repetitive, incantatory prose that is emblematic of Peace's other trademark style, the one he adopts to render his characters' inner -- and mostly highly disturbed -- states:
I was thinking of her, thinking of her, thinking of her, praying Carol stayed gone, thinking of her hair, thinking of her ears, thinking of her eyes, praying Carol stayed gone, thinking of her lips, thinking of her teeth, thinking of her tongue, praying Carol stayed gone, thinking of her neck, thinking of her collarbone, thinking of her shoulders, praying Carol stayed gone, thinking of her breasts, thinking of the skin, thinking of her nipples, praying Carol stayed gone, thinking of her stomach, thinking of her belly, thinking of her womb, praying Carol stayed gone, thinking of her thighs, thinking of the skin, thinking of the hair, praying Carol stayed gone, thinking of her piss, thinking of her shit...praying Carol stayed gone...
Reading such a passage, you just know that the narrator is unlikely to wind up living happily ever after with the object of his desire -- who may or may not be a prostitute he raped and beat and sodomized. For that matter, none of Peace's characters wind up living happily ever after, except for a few smooth-talking psychopaths who manage to hang on to their power till the last page. The view of the world presented in these novels seems more akin to that of certain contemporary Swedish crime writers than to Ellroy's; the stench of decay, the despairing bleakness, is reminiscent of the novels of Henning Mankell. Instead of Ellroy's anarchic glee, and the underlying romanticism of his early books, there is a feeling of nausea and disgust with the sheer iniquity of the world. And the portrait of pervasive corruption is not so different from that of Stieg Larsson's posthumously published Millennium Trilogy.
Like the novels of Larsson, who was a crusading left-wing journalist, Peace's books are fueled by political passion -- specifically, a ferocious rage at the culture of greed and ruthlessness that destroyed any sense of community. If the Red Riding Quartet depicted police complicity with rapacious capitalists, his next novel was a full-scale indictment of British society. The central subject of GB84 was what Terry Eagleton, in his admiring review of the book, called "the last epic battle of the British class struggle" -- the bloody and disastrous miners' strike of that year, when Margaret Thatcher in effect broke the unions once and for all, with the help of what Peace depicts as a calculated P.R. campaign to demonize the strikers and manipulate the general public.
The book also represented a technical advance for Peace, not so much a departure from the Red Riding Quartet as a logical development from it. Rather than offering a single narrative, the story of the strike is told from many juxtaposed perspectives -- that of an embattled union leader, of a politician referred to only as "the Jew," of some neo-Nazis, of some scabs, of some crooked cops. The sentences, again, are mostly very terse and lean, stripped of dependent clauses and even of verbs; there are, again, many one-sentence paragraphs; yet there is also more incantatory repetition than ever. Finally, each chapter -- there are fifty-three, one for each week the strike lasted -- contains a stream-of-consciousness passage expressing the rage and anguish of the picketing miners, which sometimes transcends the merely personal to become quasi-mystical, if a bit portentous:
The dead brood under Britain. We whisper. We echo. The emanation of Giant Albion. . . . There will be no spring. There can be no morning -- There will be only winter. There can be only night. Lord, please open the eyes and ears of the people of England. But the people of England are blind and deaf -- the Armies of the Night. The Armies of the Right.
A little of this, you might think, is already too much (Peace is strangely lacking in that sense of irony that is usually the hallmark of the British writer), especially when a strained analogy is made between the miners and Holocaust victims: "And they shave our heads. Send us to the showers -- Put us on their trains." Yet the nightmarish urgency of some of these passages can be effective, given the horrors that Peace has been describing. One feels that Peace has earned his hysteria; one might even say that, like Baudelaire, he has cultivated it.
Now Peace has turned his attention to Tokyo, where he lived from 1994 until last year. Occupied City is the second volume in a projected trilogy depicting the years immediately following Japan's defeat in the Second World War. As in his previous novels, Peace is working with meticulously researched factual material, in this instance a notorious 1948 crime in Tokyo: a man posing as a public-health official entered a bank and announced that he had been sent to inoculate the staff against the dysentery to which, he claimed, they had recently been exposed. The "medicine" he administered to the employees (as well as to the two children of the caretaker) was poison, and, as the man walked off with a modest portion of the bank's deposits, twelve of the sixteen victims died on the spot. Arrested for the crime was a well-respected watercolor artist, deeply in debt, who confessed to the murders but later recanted his confession. Although he was sentenced to death by a Japanese court, there was so much doubt about his guilt (for one thing, the survivors of the poisoning insisted he was not the man who had walked into the bank) that he was never executed. He died in prison nearly forty years later, and to this day there is an effort to clear his name.
Peace's mistrust-unto-loathing of those in positions of power is very much in evidence in Occupied City -- the Japanese police in the book are almost as corrupt as their British counterparts in his earlier work; the occupying Americans are arrogant, racist thugs -- and, in keeping with Peace's general view that the supposed guardians of society are its ultimate criminals, his own "solution" to the mystery connects the murder of the bank's employees to a set of sinister government experiments during the war years. (This theory, it should be said, is not original to Peace; others who have written about the crime have also argued for it.)
But Occupied City is so far from being a traditional whodunit that the identity of the murderer is really a secondary consideration, almost an afterthought; the puzzles with which Peace presents us go well beyond the question of who killed whom, or even why. An homage to Ryunosuke Akutagawa's stories Rashomon and "In a Grove," on which Kurosawa's film was based, the novel is narrated in many different voices -- thirteen in all. Of these, twelve -- among them the collective voice of the victims, the voice of a survivor, of a journalist, of the suspect, of the actual murderer, of a police detective -- are channeled through a medium engaged in a traditional Japanese storytelling ritual: after each tale is told, one of twelve candles in the medium's room is snuffed out. The thirteenth voice (though, perhaps fortunately, it never takes over for long) is that of a writer struggling to make sense of the story.
Very few passages offer straightforward accounts of the crime or the investigation that follows; instead, they tend to be jumbled outpourings of terror and guilt and desperation and wrath, stream-of-consciousness riffs with occasional mystical overtones (and, again, much obsessive repetition). The reader cannot expect any mercy from Peace. Not only are we deprived of the reassuring figure of the detective; we are even, at times, denied the comfort of knowing what the hell is going on. In place of suspense, we get confusion.
A whole section of the novel is told in the deranged voice of a second detective assigned to the case, a man sickened by the corruption and humiliating obsequiousness he sees all around him and consumed by the paranoid fear that his own wife is betraying him with an American. (Tokyo Year Zero, the first novel in Peace's Tokyo trilogy, is narrated entirely in a similar though slightly less crazed voice, that of an adulterous, drug-addicted, war-haunted police detective investigating the murders of four geisha in 1946.) To convey the man's disjointed consciousness, Peace uses three different typefaces throughout:
I turn the corner into my street what fine men, straight as trees I CAN HEAR HER VOICE, I CAN READ HER THOUGHTS I see my wife, her child strapped to her back, standing with her friend that one gave you a very friendly eye HER LASCIVIOUS VOICE, HER WANTON THOUGHTS . . . that child is not your child SKIN UPON SKIN, FLESH INTO FLESH What are you doing here, she asks, shouldn't you be at work mist rises from under the ground, black smoke from their American ovens NOT SPEAKING, BUT MOANING I say, I was in the neighborhood, why their fog follows me, follows me to work, follows me back home AMERICAN SKIN UPON JAPANESE SKIN, AMERICAN FLESH INTO JAPANESE FLESH . . . The more things change, the more they stay the same on two legs, on all fours THE DWARF WHOSE HEART IS TOO BIG FOR HIS BODY Tell that to our former prime minister, I say animals are men, men are animals THE GIANT WHOSE HEART IS TOO SMALL FOR HIS BODY . . . I wait in our room for her to return, but the child keeps crying did the world make you sad, or do you make the world sad HOW MUCH FOR A KNIFE I watch for her from the window, but the child keeps crying did the world hurt you, or do you hurt the world TO CUT MY OWN THROAT I pick it up, but the child keeps crying did the world make you cry, or do you make the world cry
What may seem at first like a gimmick turns into a surprisingly powerful means of getting across the experience of madness, when thinking itself has become a torment, and the shriek and echo of unanswerable questions threaten to drown out everything else. After a while, the effect is genuinely hypnotic. Although some British critics have attacked Peace for what they regard as the pretentiousness and self-indulgence of Occupied City, in passages like this Peace's incantations seem to me to achieve exactly the kind of urgency and intensity he is aiming for.
Yet there are some things Peace can't bring off, such as writing in a normal, ordinary human voice. Only when they are hysterical, half-crazy, teetering on the brink of revelation, do his characters sound real and alive. Another section of the novel consists of the reports and letters home of an American scientist who has been sent to investigate the Japanese army's experiments with biological warfare only to find himself the dupe of both his military superiors and the Japanese scientists. His letters to his wife are so flat and lifeless, so full of dutiful expressions of generic emotion, that at first it seems as though Peace is deliberately parodying a particular type of -cliché-ridden, wooden American speech ("HOW MUCH DO YOU HATE AMERICA" is one of the questions the Japanese detective asks himself in his monologue, and one suspects that Peace, with his hostility to capitalism, might hate it quite a bit himself):
My dearest Peggy, I hope you and the children are all well and that you were able to enjoy a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.... To be honest, these past few weeks have not been easy ones and I have now been forced to take matters into my own hands in regard to my work. I did so only after much thought and soul searching but in the sincere hope that I would be able to bring matters here to a head and a swift conclusion would follow. I am still hopeful that this will prove to be the case.
But when we come to the diary of a Soviet military interrogator sent on a similar mission, the voice is just as zombielike ("I believe that it would be expedient to take preliminary measures preventing the spreading of information concerning this investigation") . . . until the Russian begins to crack up, to see visions and pray to Jesus for forgiveness, at which point the language takes on life again ("Imagine if we could never forget the dead, imagine if we were always mourning . . ."), though of a rather melodramatic kind.
Peace's politics also can be tiresomely simplistic: as in his Red Riding Quartet, the underlying assumption in Occupied City, never questioned or given any nuance, never even inflected with irony, is that anyone in power, anyone with money, is necessarily a monster. At times, his solemn riffs on these subjects, given to various characters throughout the book, sound like nothing so much as a knee-jerk lefty's caricatures of The Man:
In a backroom, I am a politician. I wake. I rise. Floor by floor. I buy. I sell. I buy people and I sell people. I buy votes and I sell votes. I make deals and I sell deals. . . . In my department stores and in my advertisements, in my newspaper columns and in my television shows, in my education acts and in my sound-trucks, in the history I teach you and the news I give you, in every piece of legislation, from every loudspeaker, I lie to you and I laugh at you, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha --
For my War Machine rolls on, never stopping, never resting, never sleeping, always rising, always consuming, always devouring.
Nor does Peace seem very interested in the evocation of physical place -- you will not see the sights of Tokyo through his eyes or those of his characters. But if this novel could almost be about any "occupied city," if its dramatis personae sometimes seem like mere illustrations of Peace's political themes, we nonetheless get a vivid sense of the emotional atmosphere of defeat: the bewilderment, the desolation, the frantic scramble to survive in a world where every certainty has vanished and the only constant is humiliation. There are even similarities between this Japan and the England of Peace's earlier novels -- two formerly hierarchical societies where the social structures have crumbled and the old codes of loyalty have collapsed.
But Peace seems to have a great deal more compassion for his Japanese characters than for his British ones. Either that or he has become more compassionate in general (perhaps he has mellowed with age). Whereas the Red Riding Quartet, with its uniformly nasty and brutish characters, contained much rage but little grief, Occupied City is relentless with grief, giving us character after character broken by circumstance and cast adrift in a new order where all the allegiances and connections that once glued things together have been rendered meaningless. This is a novel as much about the sadness of the world as about the ugliness of the world -- a specifically modern sadness, rooted as it is in a terrifying loneliness. It's no wonder that several British critics have compared its mood to Eliot's The Waste Land. At its most successful, Occupied City moves beyond the accusatory politics of Peace's previous books to explore the real heart of darkness.
Evelyn Toynton's most recent essay for Harper's Magazine, on Jean Rhys, appeared in the June 2009 issue.
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