Monday, June 28, 2010

Scarlett Thomas,
     Dead Clever, 1998.
     In Your Face, 1999.
     Seaside, 1999.

Thomas’s first three books are murder mysteries, with the mostly delightful Lily Pascale as their detective-protagonist.

At the beginning of Dead Clever, Lily, who is not making it as an actress, returns to her mother’s house in Devon—-and finds herself hired as a tutor by the local university. It seems she has an MA in literature, having written about crime fiction, and from this background comes her sneaking suspicion that the skills of a literary critic are the skills of a detective. There's a reason to find her suspicion plausible, as a recently dead and mysteriously beheaded university student had been a student in one of Lily's classes. Other disturbing phenomena occur, and Lily finds herself investigating away. The reader learns a fair bit about organic chemicals of the Ecstasy and similar substances, as well as anti-depressants and so on as Lily sleuths her way through a very different sort of university than the kind at which I studied.

In Your Face sees Lily in London, after an old university chum phones her up after the three subjects of her recent magazine piece on stalking turn up murdered on the same morning. Naturally, there are complications—-romantic, and otherwise.

In Seaside, Lily is hired to figure out which one of a pair of twins is dead—and who killed her. Another couple of deaths and some wacky characters and hijinks follow along.

All in all, they’re decent mysteries. Thomas has a predilection for inserting, in between segments of the narratives of Lily’s investigations, italicised thoughts, plans, and conversations of the guilty parties. The technique lacks the balance it needs: mysteries shouldn’t be solved with deus ex machina revelations, and this technique helps to avoid that—-but the method is uneven in terms of what is and isn’t revealed; we teeter too much over the precipice on both sides of too much and too little shared, and the books feel unstable because of it.

Lily is smart, thinks critically (most of the time), and funny; it’s easy to enjoy her progression through the stories. My problem with the characterisations in the novels has more to do with the minor characters—often introduced, dropped, brought back, ignored without sufficient care. Beth, the girlfriend of Lily’s younger brother is a prime example: other than as an almost-victim, she pops up solely when convenient to advance the plot, and isn’t well integrated into the books as a whole.

The first two of the three are quite worth reading; I’m far less fond of the final entry in the trilogy, which veers from the clever into the trite and formulaic.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Scarlett Thomas, PopCo, 2004.

I have an odd fascination with Thomas’ writing despite its flaws. There’s something deeply attractive that I can’t identify or explain about her writing—and whatever it draws me back to read yet another of her novels—and yet, there are issues that make me frustrated with it at the same time. PopCo is much like her more recent The End of Mr. Y.

PopCo is the fictionalised retelling of Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Alice Butler, who works for the toy company which gives the book its name, attends a product development camp in Devon—and is seconded to a group charged with developing the new viral product for teen girls. In the pseudo-boarding school environment of the camp, there’s sex, suspicion, cliques, games of Go, and interesting food recipes (one for a tasty sounding cake called “Let them eat cake”). This tale is interwoven with that of Alice’s childhood: she was raised by her grandparents (a mathematician and a puzzler) after her father ran off to try to solve a coded treasure map his father-in-law had deciphered. The former set of stories lacks sparkle and teaches too much about advertising and marketing; the second set tries to balance narrative and exposition about code-breaking, without entirely succeeding.

Despite the entirely predictable ending to both sets of stories, there is something deeply endearing about this book. I was captivated by both the stories and what Thomas is trying to teach. And who can dislike a book with a frequency table for how often letters occur in written English? It’s worth reading, especially if you’re a Naomi Klein fan or like your harlequin-esque sex mixed with some decent thinking.