Writer as detective

by Suspended Reason

There’s an old Italian phrase, Traduttore, traditore. Translator as traitor. The ethnographer is always a sort of translator, structurally transforming a foreign culture’s logic of practice into a conceptual logic comprehensible to his own culture. And the fiction writer frequently traffics in covert ethnography. Riffing off some ideas @RIPDCB and I worked on in a recent Cleveland Review of Books interview, I’d like to talk about the upstream end of the rigorizing pipeline.

The detective has become a classic literary and cinematic trope the past two centuries for good reason. Partly it’s an elegant plot structure, a way to present audiences with a satisfying puzzle, Chekhov’s smoking gun made full-fledged genre. But artists choose their topos in large part because it’s interesting and relatable to them, personally—hence the endless string of movies about making movies—and the detective serves as a metatextual metaphor for exploring the role of the writer (or filmmaker etc).

As GK Chesterton on city-as-semiotic-environ writes:

…there is no stone in the street and no brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol—a message from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a postcard. The narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention, the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Every brick has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of Babylon; every slate on the roof is as educational a document as if it were a slate covered with addition and subtraction sums.

The city speaks, sound and lightwaves rippling and reverberating off its surfaces, testifying to a thousand truths—some obvious, some subtle; some banal, some paradigm-shifting. The city is a dense field of communication, individuals constantly sending intentional and unintentional messages across the airwaves. We read the city and its occupants as we read a novel, and the writer or filmmaker is a subcreator” (cf. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories”) charged with creating a world rich with this meaning.

But the writer is also frequently a reporter and analyst (the world’s antennae” Pound called artists). He reads the chaos of the city and presents a compressive narrative to his audience. Perhaps he denaturalizes his own perspective in order to see more clearly the world around him (as Jane Austen must have, in depicting her social world). Or perhaps he seeks out and enters foreign cliques and cultures, investigating and reporting on them. The writer-as-detective’s charge is to enter a scene and situation, and to get to the bottom of it” (as in katabasis, or free diving)—to get past surface appearances and comprehend its deeper structure—then model that structure as narrative.

We see this orientation—towards a detection-of-messages-hidden, a novel narrative re-compression of reality—in party reports and investigative journalism, in the documentaries of Adam Curtis and the discourse around Mike Crumps’s Dimes Square dispatches. We see it in The Wire and True Detective and a thousand other undercover-cop shows. DFW alludes to a similar idea of writer-as-voyeur in E Unibus Pluram,” and voyeurism more broadly is a stock literary/filmic motif (Rear Window, Robbe-Grillet). We see it in Gossip Girl—with Dan Humphrey the writer hacking through the jungle of the Upper East Side—and in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the middle-class doctor masquerading as a secret society member to get a glimpse at the truth. (Often the writer is middle class and either slumming it with working & underclasses—as in Orwell, Sinclair, & Vollmann—or else investigating and critiquing upper classes—as in Fitzgerald.) We see writer-as-detective all across Pynchon’s novels, as well as the stoned detective” variant of Inherent Vice. We even see something like it in the famous opening minutes of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, the angels floating through rooms and human scenes, observing and commenting.

Part of this is the legacy of romantic picaresque, where a protagonist might wander or quest across worlds, an adventurer unmoored by social systems or familial attachments. He necessarily needs free time and free space to do his wandering, and his reflections from the road may resemble ethnography. Almost by definition, he has either been excluded from existing social systems (cf Pynchon’s preterite”), or else found them somehow lacking or dissatisfying. (Otherwise, why would the hero wander?) This is a different narrative structure than the classic hero’s journey, where the protagonist specifically sets out looking for a specific something beyond the borders of his garden, which will restore his disrupted homeland to equilibrium.