Sunday, August 17, 2008

Jim Thompson: Disappointed!

Just finished reading Jim Thompson's crime classic The Killer Inside Me. I found it rather disappointing, specially after reading all the comments on the blurb. One of them says that "if Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich would come together in an ungodly union, the result would be Jim Thompson." The other calls him "hardboiled Dante" and "dimestore Dostoevsky" and proclaims, "read Thompson and take a tour of hell." No less figure than Stanley Kubrick himself says that the book is "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered." Thompson also wrote the screenplay of The Killing and Paths of Glory, two of his best films in my opinion.

As must be evident from the blog, I don't get to read genre-fiction at all. It is not really a matter of bias, snobbery or any such thing. There are just too many other books to read which feel more "essential" and more deserving of the limited time and effort that I have to spent on reading. (I really need to read Henry James for example.)

I think there are two problems which I have with these kinds of books. The first is that they are full of dialogues and superficial action, which somehow makes for a tedious reading. I start thinking that I should rather be watching a movie, which is a much more economical, powerful and effective medium when it comes to depicting these elements of storytelling. For example I am a huge fan of the Poirot TV series (with David Suchet) but the Agatha Christie books don't excite me at all. Many of these classic crime novels were adapted into great classic movies (like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Midred Pierce) which I love very much, though again I don't feel excited enough to pick up the original books.

The other reason is that the book didn't really feel "dark" enough to me, specially after reading all those quotes on the blurb, and this is linked to the reason I mentioned above. There is too much reliance on external action and superficial behaviour and not enough ideas or introspective probing into the dark unconscious, and worse of all the flat and functional language devoid of all style. Specially for someone who has already read Dostoevsky, Robert Musil, Celine, Thomas Bernhard, Michel Houellebecq, Thompson's world will feel entirely made up and totally artificial - some sort of kiddie nihilism full of affectation. You just have to compare it with "Stavrogin's Confession" chapter from The Possessed or even Notes from Underground or the chapter from The Man Without Qualities in which Musil introduces the psychopathic serial killer Moosbrugger or in Confusions of Young Torless where Torless analyses the ethical issues of sadistic torture of one his classmates. All these are much more disturbing because they capture the workings of the warped minds and in some way shows them to be "understandable", which is the reason why reading them is so much more unsettling.

A good article on film adaptations of Jim Thompson's novels from the moving image website. I have only seen Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon, loosely based on his novel Pop. 1280, which is absolutely brilliant. Very dark, disturbing and even funny in a farcical way.


Madhuri said...

So you didn't like it because it was not dark enough for you? What is the world coming to ? Whatever happened to sunshine reading?! :)

Alok said...

hehe...but that's what all those quotes led me to believe..."read it and take a tour of hell", this hell was quite boring in fact.

Life affirming sunshine literature is hard to find... most great minds it seems are interested in exploring dark and tragic aspects of human experience... :)

Kubla Khan said...

Have you read Poe?

Alok said...

No, I have not read anything by Poe though I am familiar with the plot of some of his stories like The Black Cat for example. He is also on my to-read list.

Cheshire Cat said...

Somehow, when I think of limited time and effort, Henry James is not the first option that comes to mind :)

Alok said...

yes i know that's the reason why one has to be strict in choosing what to read :)

Kubla Khan said...

Hi again.

it is my firm belief that a well written crime or detective story is intellect in action. to compare a badly written one or prefer your Musil to one is beside the point.

Sherlock Holmes stories or the sacred canon and much before him, Monsieur Lupin and Poe's detective and crime stories are classic examples of the great intellectual activity this genre demands. in this same are, i w'd include Father Brown stories too. And some great stories written by O Henry.

I am not talking of gory crime but one that demands an intellectual effort on the part of the reader too. the language in these books is never far short of brilliant and at times is purely mesmerising eg Poe. in the detective genre, in a story where a murder has been committed in a room locked from inside, in such claustrophobic settings, it is only the dark psychological inroads that the writer has made for himself that can liberate the reader too.

another evidence from mainstream literature is one that I has written upon last year, by the latin american Mempo Giardenelli or Manuel puig for eg. in some of their books, it is only through the medium of crime or detection that a great novel was penned. there are many numerous examples. i w'd include the aesthetically rebellious stories of Bolano ultimately to a kind of detection too( i will explain in some detail sometime)

i am not sure whether your Musil example is relevant.

Alok said...

Hi Kubla, Yes this is a contentious topic. I hope I didnt sound too categorical...

I was only thinking aloud about why the long descriptions of character's external behaviour, external action, short dialogues, all of these leave me cold, even bore me. On the other hand complex ideas, thoughts or rather the process of thought, the internal monologue - these things excite me a lot in fiction. That's why I mentioned Musil. This is of course a personal preference and is not meant as an objective evaluation. Fiction has different uses for different people and one needs to respect that.

talking of Henry James, i am a huge fan of The Turn of the Screw which is a ghost story, though a mind-bogglingly dense and complex one.

btw, I got Senselessness. I am reading it now.

Kubla Khan said...

Conan Doyle laid great emphasis on external behaviour and could give you your profession based on the clothes you wore! of course those were class distictive times. the pursuit of medical signs for diagnosing medical conditions is not unlike detection. for eg yellow eyes for liver diseases and so on.

external signs are however misleading in this are too. of course, i understand your Dostoevsky example and Musil too. then there is personal preference too.

i hope you like Senselessness. i w'd feel responsible for wasting your time and money! do let me know.

Alok said...

No need to worry Kubla... There is no better way to spend time and money than on books!! about 3-40 pages still left, will do and post a response here. So far it has been exceptional as promised.

praymont said...

alok -- I was disappointed by Thompson's POP 1280, and by Cornell Woolrich. I like your point along the lines of "Why not just make a movie instead?" It's like painters who stopped focusing on realistic portraits after the camera was invented and explored more abstract kinds of painting.

Alok said...

I thought the french film "Coup De Torchon" which is an adaptation of Pop 1280 was quite good, though it changes the setting to french colonial Africa.

What I found particularly disappointing was that these crime writers never really get the *idea* of a crime. their nihilism is all about action and external effect and not something that resides inside the soul or consciousness of the character, unlike, say, writers like Dostoevsky or Musil.

And that's a great analogy about painting and photography. I totally agree.