The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories, by Ian Rankin

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Two weeks I was thrilled to hear Ian Rankin speak at my local indie bookstore. He’s been one of my favorite authors ever since the early 1990s when I picked up one of his books at a store in Toronto. I’d seen high praise for his work on DorothyL, a listserv for mystery enthusiasts, but his books were not available where I lived and online bookstores were only just getting started.

Rankin’s books feature John Rebus, following him from his early days as a detective sergeant in Edinburgh as he moves up through the ranks. In the last few years, Rankin has started another series with Inspector Malcolm Fox, but this volume of short stories is all about Rebus.

It’s surprising to me that short story collections are not more popular, especially now when there are so many entertainment options and our attention spans are said to be shrinking. One reason that I sometimes resist short stories is that I find the beginning of a story requires the most concentration. With a novel, the payoff for that investment is much larger than with a short story. However, here the familiar characters and setting make the stories easy to move into.

Putting a story collection together can be tricky. When you put stories written independently next to each other, sometimes unwanted resonances or repetitions might emerge. Not here. The stories are chronological—one of the joys of the Rebus series is that Rankin has the character age in real time—and vary in interesting ways. For example, while all of the stories are in third person, some of them are from the point of view of characters other than Rebus.

We first meet him in his fifties, living alone since his wife left taking their daughter with her. Rebus doesn’t have much of a life outside of the job: just a few friends from work, a broad knowledge of the pubs in Edinburgh, and a love of music. He’s known for going his own way—a trait not valued in a bureaucratic organisation like the police—but also for solving the thorniest crimes. He carries emotional scars from his past, wounds that are chinks in his armor. And, like the best detectives, he has a strong moral code that is constantly being tested.

What I love most in Rankin’s novels are the complex puzzles. The name Rebus itself means a puzzle. In every story, there are multiple strands, later understood to be thematically related, that come together at the end. To my surprise, the stories here are also quite complex despite the smaller playing field.

I also love the huge role played by Edinburgh in Rankin’s work. I feel like I know the city even though I’ve never been there. We endure its weather, spend time in Rebus’s favorite pub, the Oxford Bar, and visit the tourist spots like the Royal Mile and the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. We find ourselves in less savoury parts of town and even explore secret places, like the city below the city. As we follow Rebus in his chase for clues, we start to understand the differences between Edinburgh and other places, such as Glasgow or Fife.

There was standing room only at my local indie bookstore when Ian Rankin spoke. I’m delighted that so many readers have discovered this fabulous author and that he is continuing to give us stories that challenge our minds, enlarge our world, and ask us to look again at our own moral code.

What mystery writers have made your list of favorite authors?

The Courage for Truth: The Letters Of Thomas Merton To Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen

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I’ve been looking to the past for ideas and inspiration about dealing with fascism and totalitarian regimes. I started with books by Dorothy Day, one of my greatest heroes, a woman who truly lived her ideals. From there, I’m moving on to the books that inspired her, by writers such as Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, and Ignazio Silone.

Then Jeremy distracted me with this volume of letters. Of course, I loved reading the descriptions and commentary on his own and others’ works. Merton especially loved the work of writers from Latin America, and there are many here to whom he’s written and whose work I’ll want to look up.

But what fascinated me was a theme that has come up a few times recently. As Christine M. Bochen, the editor of this volume, says in her Introduction, “Merton sensed in writers a hope for the future of mankind. Merton believed, as the title of this volume suggests, that the courage for truth was their special gift.”

In November I attended a writing conference which ended with a workshop led by Donald Maass. He asked us, “How do you want your novel to change the world?”

Don’t laugh. Novels have led to social change. Think of how To Kill a Mockingbird contributed to the Civil Rights Movement or The Handmaid’s Tale to the Women’s Movement. Oliver Twist drew attention to child poverty and All Quiet on the Western Front to the reality of war. Poetry, too, has been a powerful weapon, whether written or sung.

I have for some time been clear about my purpose for writing. I can’t do much that will affect those in power. But I can tell stories, as I did in Innocent, my memoir of my time on welfare. Many people have told me that reading Innocent changed their view of welfare recipients. What I’ve learned in my lifetime is that big social changes happen when the minds and hearts of the people are swayed. And stories are the way to do that.

In fact, reading any fiction opens your heart and mind to the lives of others. Studies such as the ones described in this article have shown the neurobiological basis for how reading builds empathy. The same areas of the brain are used when we read about a character’s experiences as when we experience something in real life. It only makes sense. When we read a novel, we see the world through someone else’s eyes. Once we experience what life is like for them, once it has become our life too, our intolerance and prejudices fade.

In a letter to José Coromel Urtecho dated 15 March 1964, Merton writes:

. . . the poets remain almost the only ones who have anything to say . . . They have the courage to disbelieve what is shouted with the greatest amount of noise from every loudspeaker, and it is this courage that is most necessary today. A courage not to rebel, for rebellion itself tends to substitute another and louder noise from the noise that already deafens everyone, but an independence, a personal and spiritual liberty which is above noise and outside it and which can unite men in a solidarity which noise and terror cannot penetrate.

Of course, Merton recognises that there are risks involved when you take on the power structure. Still, in a letter to Boris Pasternak dated 23 October 1958, he says: “Both works (Dr. Zhivago and Vladimir Soloviev’s Meaning of Love) remind us to fight our way out of complacency and realize that all our work remains yet to be done, the work of transformation which is the work of love, and love alone.”

What novel or poem can you think of that has contributed to social change?

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

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You’ve probably heard about Yanagihara’s novel. It’s won prestigious awards, been the finalist for others, and garnered mostly rave reviews. You’ve probably heard that it’s about four men, close friends, just out of college and ready to take on the world, starting with New York City in the 1990s.

It’s not. It starts out that way, but quickly focuses on one of the men, the mysterious Jude. While Jude works as a lawyer, Willem, his roommate in both college and their new ratty apartment, wants to make it as an actor. Jean-Batiste, known as JB, is an artist, while Malcolm has started on his architect career.

Only Malcolm comes from a wealthy family, but all quickly become successful, in the sense of being fabulously wealthy and/or famous. That, combined with their not having children, or in some cases spouses, put them for me in the realm of television soap opera. Yes, of course, such lives exist, but that all four should have such over-the-top success strained my credulity.

Of course, there’s plenty of unhappiness to go around. Let no one tell you this is an easy book to read. I often had to put it down and go off and read something else. Despite the glitter and the sustaining friendships, I found the misery so profound that I had to get away.

While three of the friends have their troubles with lovers or drugs, it is Jude whose suffering dominates the book. We learn early on that there is some trauma in his past that has left him with a serious limp and so much pain that he cuts himself regularly. It is the mystery of Jude’s past that keeps us reading. Yanagihara drops bits of information like breadcrumbs leading us ever deeper into the story.

The scenes of Jude cutting his own flesh are almost intolerable. While most of the book is written in an immersive point of view (POV), in those scenes Yanagihara draws back a little, pulling out of the deep dive into Jude’s emotions and instead simply shows his actions leading up to the moment. Then she allows Jude to describe what he is doing with almost clinical detachment.

Immersive POV has become popular in today’s fiction. Whether using first person (“I”) or third person (“he, she”), the author can modulate how deeply to go into the character’s thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. In a blog post, Donald Maass describes the importance of using immersion a tool in service of the story, as well as the danger of overusing it. He cautions: “Overloading the reader with a POV character’s mental and emotional state takes not only page time, but room in the reader’s imagination. Readers need space. Force feed them everything there is to experience about a character and readers may, paradoxically, experience little.”

By modulating this distance, Yanagihara keeps the reader from being completely overwhelmed. For example, compare these three passages, all from Jude’s POV:

A year ago, he had begun working on a defense for a gigantic pharmaceutical company called Malgrave and Baskett whose board of directors was being sued by a group of the shareholders for malfeasance, incompetence, and neglect of their fiduciary duties.

There were two ways of forgetting. For many years, he had envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of day, e would gather the images and sequences and words that he didn’t want to think about again and open the heavy steel door only enough to hurry them inside, closing it quickly and tightly.

He felt a pull of regret after talking to both of them, but he was determined. He was no good for them, anyway; he was only an extravagant collection of problems, nothing more. Unless he stopped himself, he would consume them with his needs. He would take and take and take from them until he had chewed away their every bit of flesh . . .

You can see how these passages progressively go deeper into Jude’s emotions. It’s up to the author to find the right balance for the story.

Another tool Yanagihara uses is changing the verb tense. At certain points in the story while we are in Jude’s POV (with one exception when we are in Willem’s), she shifts into using the present tense, providing a sense of immediacy and upping the tension. Then she falls back into past tense, either with a flashback or by starting a new section. She also moves occasionally into first person POV, always using the same character as narrator, one whose identity only gradually becomes apparent. This, too, changes the emotional intensity.

While I can appreciate how Yanagihara carefully modulates the verb tense changes, POV, and the degree of immersion, I still felt overwhelmed emotionally, if not intellectually. As a writer, I learned from reading this book that a good reason to pull back from immersion is if your story is so disturbing that the reader needs a bit more distance.

I found it a challenging book to read, partly because of the emotional overload and partly because of its length (814 pages in my paperback). Still, I learned a lot about using immersive POV, first versus third person POV, and verb tense changes effectively.

Have you read a novel where you felt immersed in the protagonist’s thoughts, experiences, and emotions? Did you feel there was too little immersion, too much, or just the right amount?

The Grandmothers, by Doris Lessing

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My friend Jill recommended this collection of four short novels. This book was new to me, though I’ve read a number of Lessing’s books, including a reread of The Golden Notebook and Lessing’s autobiography. In these stories, as in much of her work, Lessing examines unusual relationships with a piercing honesty and deep understanding of human nature.

You won’t find a typical boy-meets-girl story here. It’s one of the things I love about her work. I’ve always objected to the idea—less prevalent these days but not gone entirely—that a woman’s only story is about love and marriage. How many movie versions of books have you seen that have been Hollywood-ized by the addition of a love interest? Even nonfiction gets distorted this way. I’m thinking of Under the Tuscan Sun, though I heard recently that there were attempts to add a love affair to the recent film about mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

By going at relationships from an odd angle, Lessing brings a freshness to weary tropes and produces startling insights.

At first I thought Jill was recommending the book because of the title story, since we’d just been talking about grandparenting. Lessing’s grandmothers are two longtime close friends who live across the road from each other in a small, southern, seaside town far from England. The story follows Roz and Lily as their marriages founder, their sons Tom and Ian, and eventually the women their sons marry and their daughters. I don’t want to give away too much, but their is a quirk in this seemingly normal setup that will make you think about family interactions and what we mean to each other in ways you never have before.

The second novel, “Victoria and the Staveneys”, looks at a mother and daughter and the child’s father. It’s about dreams and talismans and the pressures of society. Each character, even the secondary characters, is so fully realized that you will find yourself inhabiting lives you never imagined.

The final novel shows us quiet Jimmy Reid from his youth, as he introduced by his outgoing friend Donald to a socialist summer school where Jimmy is “dazzled by this largesse of new ideas, faces, friends.” It follows him through World War II and beyond, but this is not a story about battles and bloodshed. It is about one person with a goal, a fantasy perhaps, and how he pursues it. I have rarely read a story so emotionally vibrant. The places and people, the events and motivations, if not what I expected, still ring so true.

As it turns out, Jill encouraged me to read the book because of the third novel, “The Reason for It”, an extraordinarily prescient look at the last days of an imagined culture. It is narrated by the last of the Twelve, appointed as Guardians of the people by Destra, a ruler already old when our narrator was born. Following the reign of her husband, a cruel tyrant, Destra initiated an age of peace and prosperity, an age of stories and songs. Destra selected twelve children to be educated in her house along with her adopted son DeRod, with the understanding that at some point they would elect among themselves a ruler and the remaining twelve would become a council.

Although it was not required, when they were fifteen, they elected DeRod as the ruler. Since then their culture has gradually dissolved.

I would like to have the time to write down the wealth of tales and stories that seem to have been lost. How could they have been lost? I have lived now for nearly a hundred years. For at least half that time the tales and songs were on everybody’s lips. And yet now only old people—my son can be described as old—remember them.

Without memories of the past, what is left is entertainment, insolence and casual violence. Festivals of songs and stories have been replaced by military festivals of army exercises and fighting. DeRod has become obsessed with a new building project, excavating an ancient city.

As in the other stories, Lessing brings these people and their culture to life. With none of his companions to turn to, the narrator sets out to understand what has happened and what, if anything, he can do about it. The first step must be to delve into DeRod’s behavior and choices and see this man clearly for the first time.

To me, the great joy and gift of reading is to inhabit other lives and experience other worlds. Lessing’s stories challenged me and changed me in subtle ways.

What fiction have you read that seems to shed light on our own time?