Everybody loves stories about crime, particularly murder, and the uncanny rituals and oddities that go along with any profane act. It’s so effective as source material that most books or shows don’t bother to play with the form itself at all—it’s enough to just have a dead white girl show up in a field somewhere and let the thing play itself out.
But for me, the central act is never as compelling as all the arcana and the twists hidden in the form. I would prefer to take the infernal kernel and let that be a conduit rather than a question asking to be solved.
Below are some recently released books that in some way poise themselves as crime-related and yet go all kinds of different places from the holes where they began.
Cartilage and Skin by Michael James Rizza
This is easily one of the more creepy novels I’ve read in a few years, even though almost nothing traditionally “creepy” ever actually happens. Like most of the greatest examples of true terror, what’s so unnerving here comes from the perspective and the tone, carried in the strange dictation of the narrator, who is the archetypal model for a “creeper.” The narrator lives alone; stalks his reclusive neighbor, who may or may not star in fetish porn online; fixates on a homeless boy who hangs around outside his building in the street and who eventually goes missing; and each day orchestrates his way into unnecessary interactions with total strangers just to spend time near them. Rizza has a mesmerizing ability to get into the brain of an Asperger’s-ridden loner who may or may not be giving us the whole story about his intentions and his past, which makes even the most banal and everyday actions and descriptions carry a tense, compacting weight.
What’s even more disturbing is how the narrator doesn’t seem aware of the entirety of the story he’s telling. At sudden points, the meticulous and driving prose of the narrator’s monologue will shift, opening the story into passages that seem disassociated from the present. Stories within stories read as if the narrator is making a puppet of himself, a truly psychotic-seeming dose of brutal fantasy, which, when buried in the regular narrative, takes on a meta-sense of something wrong. As we continue alongside the narrator while he fumbles to maintain the guise of a normal life both for himself and those around him, that sense of something wrong slowly grows, and the gap between what we know and what we don’t know tightens, like a clamp around the neck.
Rizzo is so good at layering the voice with logic, justification, and an almost unconscious sense of vengeance on the part of the loser, that by the time you begin to feel it aching it’s too late. If you ever wanted to walk around in the head of that weird, white-van-driving neighbor on your street whom you just know has something buried in his backyard, this novel is your ticket.
Brief by Alexandra Chasin
A counterpoint to the sociopath genre, Brief takes on a wholly different kind of criminal mindset—that of the intellectual criminal, one who knows precisely he or she is doing and does it to prove a point. In this case, the crime is vandalism of a famous work of art. The narration here takes on the form of a legal plea, offering a lengthy and rigorous social justification for why our protagonist decided to go into a museum with a can of spray paint and, copycatting Tony Shafrazi’s defacing of Picasso’s Guernica, writes “KILL LIES ALL” across a painting, left unnamed.
The result is a magnificently intuitive and conceptual negotiation of art’s place in history and its influence on the brains of the people it surrounds. Each paragraph here is stuffed with a collage-like ream of related facts, including prior acts of vandalism as well as works of art that take defacing as their base, such as Rauschenberg’s Erased DeKooning Drawing. But also: the Cold War, Elvis Presely, the KGB, violence on television, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Walter Cronkite, and endless points of cultural influence, all together barraging the reader with context upon context framing the world in which we live. Like Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana, one of my favorite novels of the last 20 years, Chasin’s ability to synthesize so many historical factors into a relentless voice quickly takes on a monolithic sort of stature, the kind of book that you can get something from just by opening it and reading any page.
What’s maybe even more impressive is how strong a sense of self the narrator is able to establish among the noise. Wired alongside the gamut of cultural references are miniature recollections of the narrator’s own life, from remembering the smell of baby powder to walking in on parents having sex. The reams of information intertwine so causally, and so explicitly, that it is almost as if there’s no way to keep the world of art and war separate from the world of a child. The book seems to be awake and refuses to stop mutating. All in all, it’s a high-level act, and one that bears multiple readings almost immediately.
Expectation by Jeffrey Deshell
Perhaps one of the most under-accessed ways a text can take on the feel of the meticulousness of a certain kind of crime is to have the form of the book do as much work as the words themselves. You see so much fetishization of the maniacal rituals often associated with crimes like serial murder, but so often works of art made in their image lack any kind of meticulous artifice themselves, relying instead on gore and putridity to drive the feeling home.
While Jeffrey Deshell’s Expectation is presented up front as a murder mystery, the matter itself is a shell for the author’s predilection for totally reconfiguring the possibilities of what a form can be. This time, Deshell chooses to mate detective fiction with Austrian expressionist composer Arnold Schoenberg. The formal constraint breaks the proceeding investigation into riffs, so that layer by layer we are led into a search that seems to be going nowhere. Crime scenes bleed into dossiers bleed into conversations, sending the plot of the book inward as if on a search for itself. The deeper we get, and the more the avenues of investigation are folded over onto one another, the more different sorts of windows are opened up.
Left Hand by Paul Curran
Easily the grossest of this list, Left Hand immediately brings the reader into its damage by giving him no choice but to interact. Opening to the first page, we find what looks like a set of instructions, spelled out as commands:
(a) Perch with your feet on either side of the bathtub.
(b) Stare at your cock getting hard through the rising steam.
(c) Hear your lungs sucking in the most air they can.
(d) Exhale and then thrust your mouth down at your cock.
(e) Slip under the water hitting your head and pass out.
The text goes on like this from there, leading you block by block through scenes of very gruesome abuse and sexual machination, like some kind of roleplaying game penned by Sade.
Then, interrupting the lists of commands, longer text blocks appear, which seem to open the book into the room behind the room, into the mouth of the programmer. Suddenly we seem to be alongside the one directing all the hell. “To stop this novel occurring from this motel room is impossible,” the first non-command sentence states. The narrator appears to be at war with the thing he’s been designated to create, taking part in real-life scenes as close to those we’ve been commanded to perform. It is almost as if the narrator has been enslaved to his creation, forced to recreate things that should have never had a life. By the end, everything is so fucked it doesn’t even feel fucked anymore, and the private life of the narrator doesn’t seem strange either. It creates a truly terrifying feeling—recognizing that you’ve forgotten not to relate to what the book would have you do, which is maybe the rarest sort of power.
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