Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Self-reference that makes you scream (or smile)

I must not be a post-modern type of guy because I don't generally like self-reference, and I hate self-reference that compounds the sin by referring to its own self-referentiality.

I don’t like wiseacre private eyes in detective stories who say things like “What do you think this is, a detective story?” I don’t like it when a character says, “You watch too much television,” and I hated it when a tough quipster of a fictional private eye said to another character, “You don’t watch enough television.” You want to pay tribute to or poke fun at a genre, be my guest. Just don’t hit me over the head with it.

Thus, the following, from Michael Dibdin’s Back to Bologna, made me wince from beginning to end, which probably made it more of a scowl than a wince:

“He knew that he had fired his current girlfriend, but only because he did that to whoever happened to occupy that position on the last day of each month. Private eyes couldn’t have stable, long-term affairs. They were complex, alienated loners who had to walk the mean streets of the big city, men who might be flawed but were neither tarnished not afraid. Above all, they had to suffer.”
The first sentence is funny because it’s unexpected. The second is a warning. The rest is cliché, more grating, not less because the author calls the reader’s attention to his awareness that it’s cliché. “Mean streets.” Heh-heh. Good one, Michael. I get the Chandler joke.

And now, readers, you have the floor: Give some clever examples of self-reference, or some examples that drove you nuts.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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9 Comments:

Anonymous Michael Walters said...

It's a while since I read 'Back to Bologna' but my recollection is that the character in question is an incompetent private eye who's trying to live out a Chandler fantasy. In fairness, therefore, the clichés are the character's rather than Dibdin's. But even so you're right that the joke's a pretty thin one. 'Back to Bologna' seems to divide Dibdin's fans - I generally enjoyed its playfulness, but others, perhaps rightly, thought it suggested he was getting bored with the constraints of the Zen series (though he seemed to have returned to it, reinvigorated, prior to his untimely death). On the whole, I'm a fan of Dibdin's teasing of the genre - 'The Last Sherlock Holmes Story' and his Agatha Christie spoof, 'The Dying of the Light' - though I think they're lightweight compared with his best books. As a principle, though, my view is that the self-referential stuff rarely works - it pulls you self-consciously out of the narrative so that at best you end up with either a lame joke or a rather dull post-modernist 'statement' about fiction and reality or somesuch.

October 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comment, and you're right about the character. I think you're letting Dibdin off the hook too easily, though. Even if the book plays with post-modern literary theory, the clichés are Dibdin's. No death-of-the-author here. In any case, it's not the character's traits that bother me, but Dibdin arch, stiff way of portraying them. Dibdin could have made the character ridiculous without self-conscious clichés.

I've read a bit more of the book since I posted the comment, and it's obvious that Dibdin was out to lampoon just about everything. The conflict between the celebrity chef and the Umberto Eco figure looks like fun, though how all this will play against Zen's melancholy remains to be seen.

Dibdin is about the cleverest crime-fiction author I've ever written. When he was on, he was just brilliant, as in Cosi Fan Tutti and Dirty Tricks. I'm no author, but I'd say that if an author is going to create wild conceits, such as opera plots and self-referentially incompetent dicks, he's better not err even slighly. Here, i think, he did. I think that in its weak moments, the novel will fall into the trap you mentioned.

Dibdin's near-ripoff of Chandler's famous (and itself sententious) "mean streets" pronouncement pulled me right out of the narrative. If not for that and the too-clever toilet joke that introduces the detective in question, I might have liked the character. I still might, actually, but Dibdin makes the job harder than it should be.

October 17, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Yes, you're probably right that I'm being too generous to Dibdin here. I'm a big admirer of his work generally, but Homer's definitely nodding a little in 'Back to Bologna'. I think one of the reasons why his fans have difficulty with this book (compared with his other pastiches) is that they've grown to know Aurelio Zen as a fully-rounded character while 'Back to Bologna' keeps reminding us that he's just a fictional creation. On that note, I remember now that there's an even more self-referential in-joke towards the end of the book, which I won't spoil for you.

October 17, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

At times you think the whole hardboiled genre is only about nods. But in recent years there's been a lot of authors who have brought new blood to the genre.

Don't really remember any quotable nods. There are usually some in Finnish novels of this genre, which is unfortunately a playground for bad jokers. In Finland, that is. I'm reading a new Finnish novel that's labeled "neonoir hardboiled", but it's way too knowing.

October 17, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I did use the title "Mean Streets Mean Scrums" for a recent post but it was very relevant. Two Dulwich College men in the England rugby scrum which destroyed Australia, and the schools continued resistance to admitting Raymond Chandler is the most famous Old Alleynian.
My own years at Dulwich in the 1950s could definitely be described as neonoir hardboiled.

October 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Yikes! First of all, sorry for those glitches in my previous comment. That should be "Dibdin's arch ... " in the first paragraph and "cleverest crime-fiction author I've ever read" in the third. I could use a good copy editor sometimes.

Juri, without getting too deeply into tiresome literary theory, the very concept of genre implies nods on the author's part and comparisons on the reader's. Such nods are usually not quotable, I think. Rather, they're matter of a feeling that pervades a novel or a character's makeup. Ken Bruen and even Peter Temple, if one considers him hard-boiled, come immediately to mind as authors who have brought new blood to the genre. Even such a novel as Declan Burke's first, Eightball Boogie, adds something, though its author may think of it as a Chandler parody/tribute. Its plotting is tighter than that of the master, for instance.

There's nothing wrong with nods, but there is with bad, obvious jokes that are no less bad because the author recognizes them as bad and obvious.

October 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Interesting comment about Zen's being a full-blooded character, Michael. He seems so in the early chapters of Back to Bologna, which is jarring set against the jokey self-reference of much of the rest of the early part of the novel. I wonder how this will play out.

Uriah, you were too early to be neo-noir hardboiled. You were more likely proto-neo or pre-neo noir hardboiled. Down these mean teeth a dentist must drill who is not himself mean ...

October 17, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

Hey, this is a bit earlier. I read some years ago a pulp crime story by Russell Branch who's virtually unknown. He wrote some pretty good PI stories, though, in the early to mid-fifties. In one of his stories, the PI, tells the client thay he should hire a better detective, "Ray Schindler, for example". Now, that strikes me as pretty clever - remember that this was the time when nods to other novels were not so common as they are now. And it's funny to think this as a metafictional element with which Branch is commenting on his own role as a writer of crime fiction.

October 19, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for that example, Juri. It's especially interesting because it's so early, probably one of the earlier metafictional elements in popular fiction.

By odd coincidence, I came across an especially mischievous or weird example of self-reference last night that I may post about in the next day or two, so this issue is not dead.

October 19, 2007  

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