"The Manual of Detection"
(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew MAR 19, 2009)
"It may be a crime / But I'm sure that you're mine / In my dream of your dream of me."
Reading The Manual of Detection will probably bring to mind Alice down the rabbit hole, Dorothy clicking her heels in the Oz movie, the Beauty who Sleeps, old-time radio plays, George Orwell's ominous 1984, unnesting those Russian matryoshka dolls, the virtual infinities of a house of mirrors, and the complex dichotomies of doubles and twins -- before they are mentioned or alluded to by Jedediah Berry's stiffly strange, somnambulistic characters. One of these people who fall asleep (or already are asleep) while talking says, "You've heard the story of the old man who dreamed he was a butterfly....And how, when he woke, he wasn't sure if he really was an old man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or if he was a butterfly dreaming it was an old man."
Yes, the cloudy, rainy unnamed metropolis in Berry's novel is a place where dream spies (oneiric detectives), dream crimes, and dream dreams are deconstructing the very existence of its residents. Are they real people being manipulated by a master magician? Are they just figments of a larger dream? When they "wake up," do they really wake up, or do they just think they do? These and other questions of existential consequence eddy in the dream pools in which rain patters and through which the unsuspecting masses slosh muttering acquiescent catch phrases.
Berry's meek, unambitious protagonist, Charles Unwin, is an experienced clerk at the Agency, a surveillance/detection octopus with its tentacles everywhere. One soggy day, Unwin's routine is turned upside down when he's nabbed at the train station while carrying out a little off-duty shadowing of his own. The Agency nabber tells him he's been promoted and gives him a gun and a detective badge. Poor, confused Unwin soon finds out the celebrated detective for whom he clerked, Travis T. Sivart, is missing, and he, Unwin, is to search for him. Sivart made a name for himself apparently solving three memorable cases: The Oldest Murdered Man, The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker, and The Man Who Stole November Twelfth. These peculiar investigations will return to haunt Charles. Back in the Agency skyscraper, Unwin is a fish out of water. He has already been replaced at his clerk's desk (by a woman he is stunned he recognizes), he is eyed suspiciously by the seasoned detectives when he goes to his new office on their floor, and he finds a nasty surprise when he ventures to a still higher storey to see Sivart's -- and now his -- immediate boss, a "watcher" named Lamech.
Unwin (a non-winner's name if ever there was one) is also initiated into his new rank by receiving a copy of The Manual of Detection, Fourth Edition, This is a green book with an unblinking eye stamped on the cover and the Agency's motto, "Never Sleeping," below it. "Each chapter focuse[s] on one of the finer point of the investigative arts, from common elements of case management to various surveillance techniques and methods of interrogation." But when someone instructs him to consult the eighteenth chapter, he is further confused. There are only seventeen chapters. Or are there?
Berry isn't one to drop plot points or miss opportunities. He skillfully incorporates the characters and the events mentioned along the way into the very fabric of the book, including re-opening the three famed cases mentioned. Everything connects meticulously, including the twinning of the chapter headings in Berry's novel and Unwin's manual. Everything is relevant in some clever way as representatives of the behemoth bureaucratic Agency face off against those of the rundown, rusting, seemingly dormant Carnival at the edge of town. The "nefarious biloquist Enoch Hoffmann" and the seductive Cleopatra Greenwood surreptitiously carry the banner of the Carnival, which itself can be interpreted as the unconscious or the subconscious in representation, in contrast to the mainly conscious Agency. Here is the classic opposition of methodology vs. creativity. Or of order vs. chaos. Or of logic vs. imagination. One character observes, "The problem is not belonging to one or the other, Mr. Unwin -- and there is always an Agency, always a Carnival to belong to. The problem is belonging for too long to either of them." This is the eternal battle between the Yin and Yang, and the round Tao symbol of the light and dark "S"s with encroaching other field dots symbolizes the struggle between the Agency and the Carnival. The perpetual tensions grant ascendancy to one for a while, but dominance is not permanent, and when the shift begins, there is social upheaval and even violence.
David Mitchell, in a scholarly article that asks, "what use are dreams in fiction?" warns that "fiction itself is already one remove from reality." He continues, "But to write a dream and insert it into the fiction runs the risk of weakening the illusion by doubling it....We can care about what happens to a character one level of reality down: going down two, to a dream within a story, is another tough act to pull off." Berry's daring with dreams does arguably stress the illusion that fiction tries to sell. There are times when the reader may pause and think The Manual of Detection is intriguingly entertaining but so implausible that it pushes the mind out of the narrative. It isn't that Berry doesn't craft his city, his plot, his characters with enough care. He certainly does. And it isn't that the story isn't ingenious and layered. As mentioned before its circling, spiraling of themes is philosophically thought-provoking in a M. C. Escher way. The difficulty is simply that the innumerable, stylized coincidences and the fantasy world in which dreams can be infiltrated and used as weapons require a great deal of "the suspension of disbelief" that Mitchell discusses. However, mystery and fantasy fans alike should not be at all dissuaded from sinking into The Manual of Detection. The extra effort expended to penetrate to the next realities down, to the dream in the dream in the dream, is profitably, suspensefully, and enjoyably spent.
As the publisher points out, Berry's nested novel calls to mind great authors such as Jorge Luis Borges. A short story of his, "The Garden of Forking Paths" slyly advises, "No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same." Borges wrote about paradoxes of time and space, of parallel worlds, and of doubles (as in "The Other"). Berry's Manual fits into the Borges genre. One can say the same with respect to Berry and John Barth's works, and Berry and Christopher Priest's. Barth was fascinated by twin and doubles, modern relativism, and time tinkering. So is Priest. Berry, in his first novel, shares a resonance of underlying themes with both.
The flux in modern scientific theory has surely influenced these writers. The world of solitary-by-nature Charles Unwin suspends some of the laws of reality as we know them, much as quantum physics theory does. Somehow, in the indeterminate sub-atomic world, particles, often mirror opposites, blink in and out of existence. Somehow, new parallel universes may be created every time a decision is made on our material plane. Unwin, as he progresses through levels of learning about the hidden powers shaping his city, confronts a world no less odd and sharing some similarities.
And like the mercilessly utilitarian and totalitarian state of Oceania that casts the all-seeing eye of Big Brother on Winston Smith, the Party and the Proles; Unwin's city, a "character" in its own right, wears an oppressive, suppressive aura. The city isn't functioning in a healthy, wholistic fashion. It is missing a vital piece of itself, the piece that is intuitive and spontaneous. Like Winston, Charles has to wake up (no pun intended) to certain misapprehensions he'd been sold during his long clerkship (a type of apprenticeship). The question is whether Unwin will fare better than Smith when he's faced with harsh truths. Unwin undertakes a hero's journey of sorts as he navigates the secret bowels of the Agency and seeks help from those who shelter but also shape the precious information gathered by Agency operatives. He has to find out for himself whether his precious faith and trust in the Agency's operating procedures is misplaced and, if it is, what he ought to believe in. Is anything dependable? Is anything solid and indivisible? What should he believe about a Sivart report that declares, "Everything I tell you is true...and everything you see is as real as you are."
John Dufresne, in his first novel, Louisiana Power and Light , wrote, "I am the dreamer and the dream. I am the everything that is nothing....I am the tissue of contradiction, the eye of the needle, the needle of the eye....I am the wave of reason, the particle of faith....I am the writing on the wall...." These comments can apply to the ethereal, yet murderous characters whom colorless Clerk/Detective Unwin must confront if he is to save himself and the city. They are both the dream and the dreamers.
Yes, the atmospheric Manual spins itself out on many levels. There is always a question of where "reality" begins and ends. Distinguished and superior, The Manual of Detection embroils the reader in an gritty but otherworldly drama with a film noir feel and endless connotations and implications. Have at it:)
- Amazon readers rating: from 33 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Manual of Detection at author's website (see excerpt)
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Jedediah Berry
- Strange Horizons review of The Manual of Detection
- The New Yorker review of The Manual of Detection
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About the Author:
Jedediah Berry was raised in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. His short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Best New American Voices and Best American Fantasy. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and works as assistant editor of Small Beer Press.