Saturday, August 23, 2008

Something under the Bed is Drooling

I'm coming down off a serious book high (the adjective attaches to the books, not to the high). I've gone back and forth since I was old enough to remember, periodically falling off the wagon of normal-person-hood into the muck of great (or at least pretentious) literature, then laboriously climbing back aboard. My serious book benders last a year or two, and usually coincide with periods in my life when I think things are possible: change, accomplishment, serendipity. I stop reading serious books when I feel beaten down.

Just because I've given up literature, though, doesn't mean I can give up books. Reading is, for better or for worse, my cross to bear, and when I can't bear much of anything else, I read detective novels. Currently I'm about four novels into a series by Chicago writer Sara Parketsky in which female P.I. V.I. Warshawski routinely gets clubbed, kicked, slapped, crushed, and otherwise battered prior to being left for dead.

I don't read the series for the violence, though, or even particularly for the mystery. I read it for the in-between parts, when V.I. eats tortilla soup or goes for a run or takes a shower or gets some coffee. I find the recounting of V.I.'s daily routines indescribably soothing. You can't get this kind of thing in literature. In literature, every word counts. The boring, the everyday, the drab: all these are excised to make way for artistry. In Paretsky's novels, in contrast, the boring and the everyday and drab act like swaddling, blunting the edges of the clubbings and kickings and crushings and fear and pain.

It's a trick the cleverest non-literary writers and cultural brokers know how to use, and do. I'm thinking of the gay sidekick in every romantic comedy, of the friendly black kid in every teen drama. I'm thinking of the humor used to leaven the otherwise indigestible street violence of The Wire, of the Sopranos organizing hits from the comfort of their suburban kitchens. I'm thinking about how every American politician arranges to have himself photographed eating lunch, playing golf, or talking to his kids before and after he expounds on what we have to fear.

We like to see our fears demystified. Queerness, blackness, political power, violence, urban blight: we like to get a handle on these things, to drag the monsters out from under the bed and examine them with the lights on until we feel comfortable enough to go back to sleep.

Today I got up. I went for a run and checked out some bookshelves at a garage sale and went down the street for a cup of coffee. I took a shower. I ate an avocado and finished Hard Time, in which V.I. investigates for-profit-prisons and eats a number of lunches on the run. There's Joyce on my bookshelf, and more Woolf, but I may need a couple more months with the lights on, first.

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