I’m in my office. I’m frequently here on Sunday afternoons, taking care of odds and ends, because it’s quiet and I can get work done. Typically, I’m the only one in the building.
And so today, but while I know it’s my imagination, the energy in the McClurg Center for Teaching and Learning (Both? In one building?) feels a little different this afternoon. As I noted yesterday, we’ve canceled classes for the first three days of the week, and we on the faculty will do what we have to do to move our classes online, at least for the rest of the month, and (I suspect) for the rest of the term. So today, the feeling reminds of when I worked at Sears many years ago. On the nights I would help close, I would leave anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour after the mall had closed. Walking through the deserted stockrooms and on rare occasions, through the mall proper, my footsteps echoed and I always had the sense that this was not how the space was meant to be experienced. There were supposed to be other people there — coworkers, shoppers, people just hanging around. But (if I wasn’t walking a female coworker out), it was just me.
Likewise, there’s an emptiness on campus this afternoon that doesn’t feel right. There are still some students on campus — international kids or folks who haven’t left yet, or maybe don’t really have a place to go. But there’s a sense — or more accurately, perhaps, I have a sense — that the campus is like those old stockrooms at Sears.
I hope the steps we (and many others) are taking will help abate some of the risks of the weeks to come. Campus shouldn’t feel this way in the middle of March.
I visited a friend I hadn’t heard from in a while yesterday: Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective. A few months ago, I had picked up a copy of his 2003 adventure, Bleeders, but got distracted and set it aside. I remedied the matter yesterday. This one was darker than I remember a lot of them being, but again, that could be because it’s been a few years since I read most of them.
A blackmail case goes pear-shaped, and Nameless — now around 60, with a wife and adoptive daughter — has a very close encounter with violent death. This drives him to unravel a knot of creeps, and the bodies pile up.
Pronzini has been writing these books for decades, of course, and the first-person narrative voice is assured. There’s a nice balance between the crime story and Nameless’s developing role as a family man. In its own way, this raises the stakes for him, and therefore for the readers. It’s a solid, satisfying book, and for me, it’s a nice reminder that I should catch up on the series.
I mentioned El Bee’s sneak preview of Dead Girl Blues at Thursday’s N@tB, and how it left the audience poleaxed when he had finished. As it happens, Mr. Block has a post about the book at Mystery Fanfare, and it’s worth your time. He acknowledges that the book was challenging to write, and that for many people, it will be challenging to read.
He’s right — but I would suggest that it’s challenging in the same manner as Lolita or American Psycho. Yes, the subject matter is vile. The narrator is a horrid person in some very important ways. But at the same time, Block presents him to us in a way that forces us to acknowledge that, misshapen as the protagonist’s soul is, it remains a human one. And that may be the most terrifying aspect of the story.
But for me, one of the most impressive aspects of the book is the fearlessness LB shows as an artist here. We live in an artistic age where epater les bourgeosie is less a credo than a nihilistic cliche, an opportunity to rehash Duchamp’s Fountain with the whore’s bawdy wink at the audience. Being “shocking” is the easiest buck in the world these days.
But being genuinely disturbing without the wink, daring the audience not only to be shocked, but to confront those shocking elements as part of a human condition, and doing so without blinking, even as it discomfits the artist, even as it forces some of the audience to turn away, even as it defies the market? That’s fearless, folks, and its the fearlessness of this book that is one of the things I dearly admire about it, and about its author.
I’ll wrap this one up with a bit of music, as is my habit. The Outsiders (not the Cleveland group that did “Time Won’t Let Me,” terrific as that was) were a Dutch beat/psych group most popular from 1965-67. They never released anything in the U.S., but subsequent listeners and critics have ranked them among the best bands of the period from outside the Anglosphere. They may be best known for their 1966 track “Touch,” which has been enshrined on the Nuggets II boxset, but their final album, CQ (1968), has built a reputation as a psych masterpiece. Here’s a track from that album, which transposes a very familiar chord progression into a minor key, and gives us a charming little story of matrimony and murder. Ah, the things we do for love.
Oh, and by the way — here’s a live version!
See you soon!