Friday, February 5, 2010

On "The Manual of Detection" by Jedediah Berry *****

Having read a story of Berry's online, I was drawn to read more about him and found that he had this novel. The description sounded like something I'd enjoy--and indeed, it was. Berry's Manual of Detection is unlike any mystery I've read, and also like so many other books and stories that I have read. The novel has been compared with the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Ray Bradbury, as well as Terry Gilliam. One can see the influence of all here--the interest in dreams, the strange and sinister carnival come to town, the obsession with bureacracy gone silly.
But Berry's book was, for me, fun in ways that Bradbury's carnival was not. It evokes that same sort of gothic feel that Bradbury's fantasy does, but by turning the readers to the world of dreams and adding a mind-numbing focus on red tape, the story becomes fantastically absurd and a bit funny.

Essentially Berry's book is about a clerk in a detective agency, one larger than perhaps any such agency on this planet unless it's government affiliated. As such, there are regulations guarding what the clerk can and can't do, what information he has access to, and whom he can speak with. One day, Unwin, the clerk, is promoted to detective, much to both his surprise and horror. He loves his job, and he has no desire to move on. And thus begins the mystery. He's off to find out how he got promoted and by whome, but that's no so easy in the dimly lit halls of an agency so large that no one department seems to know what another does nor have any interest in it.

Dreams become a big part of this book, for in the course of Unwin's work, he discovers a larger mystery that in many ways part of the world of dreams and that can only be solved and fixed there. Hence, we find the connection to Borges, though without quite so much of Borges's philosophically learned tone acting as an erudite barrier between the reader and the author--and the very possibility of reading the truth (or do we reach the truth?). Like much of Borges's work, however, Berry's book does lack a certain passion that at times one longs for. Unwin is a curiously devoted clerk, with no seeming life outside of the office (though perhaps that changes by the end, but not in a way wholly convincing or wholly transforming). Still, by novel's end, I did find myself sad to leave its world and its various characters, and that is always a good sign when it comes to a novel.

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