Book Simple: In Avoidance of Classics [Last Night A Murder Mystery Saved My Life]
Despite my general dislike of new year’s resolutions – winters are hard enough without February being riddled with disappointment and moralistic shame along with seasonal affective disorder – I have made one every year since I graduated from college. It is: finish the Guardian’s 100 Best Books and the BBC’s Big Read booklist. There’s another list floating around Facebook as well.
This seems like a no-brainer. I love lists; I read a lot, obviously. My tolerance for boredom is bigger than the average bear’s – see: my doctoral dissertation. Why is it that I just can’t cross off the final ten-or-so classics that would free me from my yearly guilt? It comes down to three problems: War and Peace, Ulysses and On the Road. These three books, and yes, I’ve tried to read all of them, create a sensation not just of boredom, but rather the feeling of time slowing to a standstill. At least Joyce is doing it on purpose – what’s Kerouac’s excuse? Knowing that that these three books must be read to complete the lists sucks away all the sense of accomplishment finishing another one from the list might give me. Struggling through Infinite Jest only to have to battle another behemoth of western literature seems too grim to imagine.
So, as ever, I turn to murder mysteries. This week’s – Jar City, by Arnaldur Indridason – is set in Reykjavik, where Detective Erlendur, divorced, worried about his daughter’s addiction, must explain a note left on the brutalized body of a 70-year-old man. “Isn’t this your typical Icelandic murder?” the detective asks, “Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence.”
The connected unexplained death of a little girl brings Erlendur to the Jar City of the title, where an eerie scientist collects the organs of the dead for study. “People die in hospitals. They’re given autopsies. The organs are examined. They’re not always returned….”
The name of the novel didn’t appeal widely, I gather from Wikipedia, and was changed to Tainted Blood in subsequent editions. The new title makes explicit what was a rather lovely metaphor within the novel. How much of who we are comes from our genetics? Is there more to us than what can be contained within scientific explanations? Can children escape their parents’ history?
I was lucky enough this weekend to attend a celebration with some of my family, and reading Jar City on my flight up to Boston made me particularly grateful for the people I share genetic material with (and also the family I don’t). Besides the warm fuzzy feeling I got about my clan, the novel made the hours of waiting that air travel brings us speed by. I’ll probably try again this year to scale my personal literary Everest, but all these years of failure have taught me one thing at least. Never try to read a masterwork in an airport or a jury room; boredom joined by a difficult book will ruin your resolution every time.