The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

accident

I adore Graeme Macrae Burnet’s work, and I’ll continue to eagerly devour everything he does, but the fierce love I first started to feel last year, after reading His Bloody Project, which only grew stronger when I read The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau earlier this year now diminished a little.

This novel is certainly not a major disappointment – Macrae Burnet’s style is as enjoyable as ever, and he’s as smart and funny as ever – the only reason I’m slightly disappointed is that I like even my favorite authors to change (or at least: to do the same thing differently). Adèle Bedeau and His Bloody Project, despite dealing with similar topics, are two very distinct novels, while The Accident does the same thing Adèle Bedeau did in the same way, and I find this slightly boring.

Once again, the story takes place in the small and boring French border town, Saint-Louis, where nothing interesting ever happens and which isn’t exactly a crime-infested place, either. Even if there’s a crime, in the end we usually learn that it wasn’t a crime at all, that perhaps someone only imagined there was a crime, or we simply don’t learn anything at all. Of course, this is ironic, postmodern, and so on, and I enjoy watching how Macrae Burnet gently mocks the traditions of detective novels and seems to conclude that life is incomprehensible anyway, and we never learn anything about anything.

Here, for instance, we meet Monsieur Barthelme, a reserved and well-respected member of the local community, who swerves off the A35 on his way home on an average Tuesday night, hits a tree and dies. It looks like an accident, no questions, but Gorski, the less-than-super-sleuth we already met in Adèle Bedeau starts to investigate the circumstance based on the request of M. Barthelme’s widow, and sure enough, he quickly comes across some suspicious details. For instance, turns out that M. Barthelme lied to his wife as to his whereabouts on Tuesday nights, and some signs seem to indicate that perhaps he wasn’t such an upstanding citizen after all.

While Gorski investigates rather awkwardly and without much success (of course we all know from detective novels that all detectives are alcoholics, but this Gorski – who’s not a genius inspector to begin with – really drinks so much that if affects his work, and since he’s constantly drunk it’s no wonder that his progress in the investigation is hardly spectacular), Barthelme’s son, Raymond also starts out on a private investigation of his own after finding a slip of paper in his late father’s desk drawer, with an address written on it.

What follows is a parade of everyone spying on and following everyone else, or else constantly wondering what others would think about their actions and reactions if they were spying on or following them. It’s so complicated, and everyone is so paranoid that the original case (which wasn’t a case to begin with, was it – it was only an accident) fades into the background after a while.

Which is fine because the psychological aspect of the story is again extremely interesting – it’s especially remarkable that Macrae Burnet seems to know a lot about how the minds of losers and eternally awkward people work – and the small-town atmosphere and the small-town figures he conjures up are depicted vividly and with gentle irony. It’s just – I’d seen exactly this already, in Adèle Bedeau.

And now I’m curious where Macrae Burnet goes next. Judging from the fictitious foreword revealing the fictitious origins of this novel, there’s possibly going to be one more novel set in Saint-Louis, presumably another detective story featuring Gorski. If so, I’ll read it for sure but I’m secretly hoping that later on Macrae Burnet moves on and writes stories outside of this universe – it’d be a pity if he used all his considerable talent writing about small-town small-time paranoia – there’s so many other kinds of paranoia out there waiting to be examined by such keen observers as he is.

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The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

adele

I had a secret dream when I started reading this novel. I was hoping that perhaps it’s going to be as good as Macrae Burnet’s other novel, His Bloody Project, which was one of my favorites last year – I was starving for something to really blow my mind because I haven’t read anything like that yet this year.

And there’s no sad and dramatic turn coming here, because this novel did manage to blow my mind, and I dearly hope that Macrae Burnet will write many more novels, because I could read any number of books by someone who can write in such an intelligent and darkly funny way, and who knows the possible ways humans work this well and can write about these ways with such sensitivity, precision, and effect.

So, as for the novel – like His Bloody Project, this novel also seems to be a simple (not really) mystery novel, set somewhere in the countryside, far from the noise of the world, in a secluded environment.

The protagonist, Manfred, is an eternally awkward outsider, he suffers from all kinds of repressions and he’s completely at loss when it comes to any kind of casual (or other) human interaction. Manfred is following a routine in every moment of his life, and he’s convinced that the slightest diversion from the routine would immediately be noticed by everyone and would throw the shadow of some dark suspicion on him. It’s not as if anyone suspected him of anything originally, and it’s not as if Manfred (who is, by the way, a well-groomed and respected office worker, but not of the Patrick Bateman but rather, the Meursault kind) was doing anything wrong – still, he struggles with an eternal sense of guilt, and he’s forever waiting for the moment when someone – anyone – will accuse him of something – anything.

The moment of a sort-of accusation arrives when Adèle, the waitress of a bistro frequented by Manfred, disappears without a trace, and the detective investigating the case interviews Manfred. The detective’s only doing his job, and he doesn’t really accuse Manfred of anything. Yet, for a reason that only becomes clear(er) later on, Manfred lies to the investigator, and from this moment on, his paranoia goes into full swing – after all, he’s really kind-of guilty now, and he’s really kind-of pursued by someone now.

Later on, though, Adèle’s disappearance becomes more like an excuse than a main plot driver because Macrae Burnet is, again, less concerned with the investigation as such, and more deeply interested in what goes on in the characters’ mind. Slowly, therefore, we learn some details that can (partly) explain where Manfred’s awkwardness, alienation, paranoia and eternal distrust stem from – but Macrae Burnet is an extremely smart writer, and he doesn’t make the mistake of using some cheap pop-psychology to establish direct connections between Manfred’s youthful traumas and his behavior as an adult. And this is immensely enjoyable – that the author leaves questions open, that he dares to fill his text with delicate ambiguity and multiple possible meanings.

Moreover, his writing is amazingly alive and visceral. Even though he uses a third person narrative, he manages to give the illusion of being inside Manfred’s mind – which is deeply disturbing, because Manfred’s inner monologues, doubts, fears, and conspiracy theories follow a very strict and rational logic, and they are so convincing that after a while I also start developing my own conspiracy theories, and start to entertain weird fears about what my colleagues would say behind my back if the next day I went to the kitchen for my morning tea not at 8:10 a.m., but, say, at 8:13, thereby disrupting a well-oiled routine.

As you can guess, this novel is not action-driven – the plot hinges on the characters, and the most important one is, of course, Manfred. But all the other characters are sharply drawn, too, and it’s a relief that the focus sometimes shifts to them – if I had to see everything through Manfred’s eyes only, I would end up being even more paranoid than I am now.

The most interesting character besides Manfred is the detective working on the case – he’s also an eternal outsider, forever worrying about what others might think, forever battling with a bad case of impostor syndrome. Like Manfred, he also tends to envision apocalyptic scenarios in his mind, and he’s also a gently ironic example of the mystery novel convention that the detective must intuitively enter the mind of the possibly culprits or suspects. In this case, the detective isn’t exactly intuitive, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of empathy, either – it’s only that the way his mind is messed up is very similar to Manfred’s own messed-upness.

And I could go on still, and describe how Macrae Burnet again creates intriguing extra possibilities of interpretation by pretending that the novel was written not by him but by someone else. This time he pretends that he translated the cult novel of a French author, Brunet, into English – and this Brunet just happens to be a lot like Manfred, and also happens not to like it when someone assumes that his novel is autobiographical. What can I say – it’s very exciting, dark, disturbing, and weirdly funny. For me, a perfect read.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

hisbloodyproject

When I was reading The Goldfinch a few months back, I enjoyed it so much that I embarked on all kinds of crazy schemes and did a number of other things just in order to put off the moment when I reach the end. The same thing happened now; I removed myself from the vicinity of this novel for several hours at length, but the day was long, and the novel, sadly, short, so I couldn’t make the pleasure last too long.

This is such an amazing novel.

I guess it’s already a separate sub-genre, the kind of novel that’s based on supposedly found footage, and that describes the events from multiple points of view, and besides the events themselves it also contains their (possible) interpretations. It’s a wonderful technique which often makes me doubt the trustworthiness of the characters, and makes me question not only the mental workings of the characters, but my own powers of understanding. Additionally, it also makes me read with bated breath until the very last page because any moment might reveal an important detail that can put things in an entirely new perspective.

The novel tells the story of a brutal triple murder that happened somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, in 1869. Roddy, a young village boy (who is, according to some people, highly intelligent and articulate, and according to others, not completely right in the head) one fine day ups and kills the village foreman, and a couple of other people, too, who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I won’t go into the questions of why and how – the novel deals with all of that, and I wouldn’t want to take away the pleasure that arises from disentangling (then further entangling) the motivations of the characters and the connections between the events.

The novel comprises mostly of Roddy’s memoir written in prison, of a summary of his trial, based on contemporaneous newspaper coverage, and of a case study of a famous criminal psychologist-anthropologist, and then there’s also a couple of coroners’ reports thrown in, and a preface where the author describes how he came across Roddy’s case (this story is also fictitious, of course).

The novel deals with the questions typical in these cases: how different people remember the same thing; who is trustworthy; what makes something believable; and why we tend to trust someone more than someone else.

These are serious questions, and the novel treats them seriously. For instance, it’s highly thought-provoking why everyone believes one of the trial witnesses, a pretty neighbor from Roddy’s village who – despite her village background – looks and behaves like a city dame, and why everyone doubts the words of Roddy. The short answer: even though both the neighborhood lady and Roddy are very articulate, and they both employ a rich vocabulary, the lady is attractive, while Roddy is – as it’s often mentioned – a seedy-looking village type, and no-one expects him to be an intelligent language user (or even to have a brain).

So the novel gives ample opportunity to think about how prejudices work, especially since the criminal psychologist, Mr Thomson (who was a real person), who writes a case study of Roddy’s crime, concentrates heavily on the question whether Roddy, based on his physical characteristics, is a criminal type or not.

Besides all the serious topics, though, this is a fascinatingly ironic novel, which continuously questions the authenticity of all the documents and story versions it contains. For instance: in connection with Roddy’s memoir, it’s mentioned that even if no-one would have thought that a young boy from a remote village could write so well, so elegantly, one shouldn’t forget that village schools provided a surprisingly high-quality education to children in that era, and that Roddy was an eminent pupil. And just when I’m almost ready to believe that it might have indeed been possible for Roddy to write the way he writes, I realize that he often uses the kind of grammatical constructions and expressions and writes with a learned eloquence that would put persons with even the highest academic degrees to shame – and then I start to have serious doubts whether village elementary schools could have been so amazingly good, or if Roddy is not the author of Roddy’s memoir, after all.

And then: like I said, one part of the novel is a summary based on the newspaper coverage of Roddy’s trial, and other documents. So – it’s based on newspaper articles written by journalists who regularly retired to the neighboring pub during the breaks of the trial, and didn’t exactly refrain from consuming alcohol there. And it’s based on commentaries made or offered by people who were not at all well-versed in the intricacies of the law, by people who were seriously prejudiced or actively wished Roddy harm. And so on. So the question is: how much can we trust a summary (which is a kind of interpretation) that’s already well-removed from the original events and that’s based on other texts (that were also interpretations)?

I have no answer, of course, but this is another fascinating topic the novel makes you think about. So yes, this is a mind-boggling novel, and a deeply satisfying and enjoyable one at that.

Besides all this, this novel is funny. Not exactly satirically funny, and not even funny in the way when we laugh in our pain – its brand of humor is more like something I’d call “village-style Kafkaesque”. What I mean by this is that the humor mainly arises from the absurd, exaggerated conflict between the village authorities and the simple men, and even though here the authority figure isn’t faceless and nameless, and he’s supposedly approachable, the same things happen as in the worst Kafka nightmare: the rules don’t make sense, the authorities select their victims seemingly at random, but after the damage is done, it’s impossible to say whether the authorities really behaved irrationally, unfairly, and cruelly, or if it’s the supposed victim who behaved in a paranoid fashion, and no-one in fact wronged him.

And still besides: this novel isn’t only a pleasure to the mind – it’s a deeply emotional experience, too. It’s possible to feel for these characters, to worry about them or root for them, and I simply love it – when a novel has real characters.