Friday, October 01, 2010

Ex Libris: Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection

If I could be glib, I could say that Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection is the Inception of surrealism/magic realism novels. But then I'd just be joking since I never got a chance to watch the movie. (Yes, alas.)

And really, it would be unfair to compare the Christopher Nolan-helmed movie to Berry's work as it would give mismatched expectations. Instead, I'll just say that Berry's debut novel is an outstanding work for a newcomer-- but I'll also explain in a bit why the need for such a comparison.

There is a sense that Berry's unnamed city where his protagonist, Charles Unwin, lives and work, is every city and none-- a city that is in every person's dream. But this is not a dream as Unwin, being a clerk in a large detective agency and working for a legendary sleuth named Travis T. Sivart, knows.

Unfortunately, with the disappearance of his boss, Unwin slowly ascends up the agency ladder-- and down a hole of Alice in Wonderland-proportions-- in looking for the missing Sivart. Promoted to the rank of detective and given the said Manual of Detection, Unwin finds another mystery instead: who is stealing all the alarm clocks in the city and why?

And because this is a detective novel about a dream and set in something dream-like, he meets the requisite femme fatales (one who's a narcoleptic), a carnival of criminals, a chamber of watching dreamers (or is that dreaming watchers?), a writer who is purportedly writing Unwin's adventure, and a criminal mastermind out to take control of a city via its dreams.

In the process, he finds out Sivart's legend may not be what they truly seem and being a detective isn't what it's all cracked up to be. But isn't that what dreams are like? Incomprehensible when you're awake and almost logical while you're in the dream?

The comparisons to the book range from Jorge Luis Borges to Paul Auster to Franz Kafka but it's really its own book. Like my own little Inception crack, Berry's novel shifts between dream-like reality to realistic dreams effortlessly as Unwin maneuvers (blunders?) his way through a labyrinthine oneiromantic maze.

And in that sense, the comparisons are apt because-- like Inception-- you're not really sure what the story is or how to tell it. But isn't that just like dreams? Rather than trying to say why-- who needs explanations in dreams anyway-- let me just say that this is a lovely book and I'd recommend it highly. (Rating: Four paws out of four.)

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