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Literature

Bust out, Mr. Berry

Manual doesn’t quite capitalize on its author’s creativity

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Brian Francis Slattery

Using the detective story to make a philosophical or cultural inquiry and get weird at the same time is a venerable tradition, handed down from Poe, Borges and Kafka to Chabon, Lethem and Auster. Jedediah Berry’s debut novel, The Manual of Detection, borrows much from that lineage, yet the experience of reading it, to me, was less literary than cinematic; chapter by chapter, scene by scene, it felt like a lost collaboration between the Barton Fink-era Coen brothers and David Lynch while he was collecting his thoughts for the first half of Lost Highway. Which is to say that Berry has written an eerie and unusual delight, employing the conventions and plotting of mystery novels in ways that are resonant of many predecessors, but haven’t been done quite like this before.

The plot follows Charles Unwin, a clerk at a detective agency known simply as the Agency, who—at first unwittingly and in some ways unwillingly—finds himself investigating the disappearance of his immediate superior, star detective Travis Sivart. His search leads him to re-examine Sivart cases he thought were closed and to dig deeper into what makes his perennially rain-soaked city tick: its many-tentacled underworld, the carnival that came to town years ago and never left, the vast and powerful Agency itself, the literal dreams of its sleeping inhabitants. It’s a story about knowledge—who knows what when, you know—but also about how slippery it can be and how deadly, when wielded with precision.

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The Manual of Detection
Three stars
Jedediah Berry
Penguin Press, $26.
Beyond the Weekly
Amazon: The Manual of Detection

As I said before, Coenesque and Lynchian touches abound: Unwin as a man way out of his depth; macabre slapstick with corpses; an interloper who narrates Unwin’s thoughts and actions into a telephone and denies to Unwin that he is doing so, even as he’s doing it; ever-so-slightly askew conversations detailing how to ride a bicycle while holding an umbrella. But Berry’s own hand asserts itself more and more as the book progresses, in a poker game in which knowledge is the currency, a parade of sleepwalkers in the rain with pillowcases full of alarm clocks slung over their shoulders and, at last, for a couple of exhilarating chapters, the infiltration into people’s dreams while they’re sleeping. Unlike some of his predecessors, however, Berry never feels the need to explode the genre he’s working in; even the book’s most surreal (and, to this reader, captivating) passages Berry keeps in the service of his fast-paced detective story, and he pulls off an impressive feat of literary prestidigitation in ranging so far yet sticking his story’s landing, ending it the way every good detective story ought to end: with everyone pointing guns at each other.

That said, at times the story seems a bit too small for Berry’s imagination; one gets the sense that Berry has it in him to do something astounding. The Manual of Detection offers much to thrill and intrigue; it is also poignant and sad in the best way, in that you don’t see it coming but realize you wanted it when it arrives. But I’m most excited for the Berry I haven’t seen yet. If he sticks to working with genres, we may get our next Unforgiven or Mystic River, which used their respective genres to create modern-day legends of such resonance and precision that the general public swooned while the eggheads stood back in awe. Or we may get something else entirely, possibly singular enough to start a tradition all its own.

Novelist Brian Francis Slattery wrote Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America and Spaceman Blues.

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