Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Private Midnight by Kris Saknussemm

                   "The Darkness is gone-- because We can see in the Dark..."
- Genevieve Wyvern 

                    Once upon a time, before the Sam Reader Memorial Book Club existed in any form whatsoever, I used to talk books with a great many people, but in particular, one person whom I will name Greg for the convenience of it. Those of you who know me probably know Greg and know his real name. Good for you. One of these books was a strange little novel called Lint by Steve Aylett. I'd read it in two days, and the next time I saw Greg in class, I told him "Seriously, Greg, you have to read this. It's fucking hilarious."
                     And read it Greg did. It took him slightly under a week, to my recollections, and he handed it back to me on a bright Friday afternoon, at which point I asked him, "So, what did you think of it?"
                     Greg paused, and then looked at me and asked, "How the hell can you recommend this to someone? How can you hand someone a book going 'I know you're going to want to punch me for making me read this, but...'"
                     I persisted. "But the book was good, right?"
                     He paused again. "Well...yeah, but it was fucking weird!"
                     The reason I mention this is because I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to review and recommend a book that I don't think many people will like. Not for any reason based on Kris Saknussemm's writing ability or anything, but because it's just too freaking weird for words.

In short, I'd press this eagerly into your hands, but you'd probably punch me for making you read it.

                    The book begins with a corrupt cop with a few too many personal demons (all of which are showing a damn sight too much) being handed a business card for a place called 4 Eyrie Street. When he goes there, a gorgeous femme fatale out of a film noir gives him an odd therapy session involving a blindfold. Something compels him to keep coming back for more and more sessions, each stranger and more to-the-point than the last, supposedly helping him heal psychologically. After that, things begin spiraling in stranger and stranger loops towards a climax that makes no sense when summarized, but perfect sense when you finally get to it. If I told you any more than that, I would be spoiling the experience. The best way to experience this book would be to have a friend who knows your tastes just hand it to you out of the blue, and for you not even to read the dust jacket before plunging in. Trust me, it's better when everything's a surprise. As Birch Ritter, our hard-boiled antihero, gets closer to the truth and the psychological breakthrough he may very well need, the story begins to ask the most important question of all: Is it really worth it when the cure is worse than the disease? And, if we must completely lose who we are to be healed, can it really be considered a cure?
                  What I have to give Saknussemm props for is his ability to hammer the reader with sensory overload, to supersaturate every page with detail. Hammer he does, and he does it well. Possibly better, even, than the more successful and better-known China Mieville, who while a big fan of detail overload, lets it get in the way of the plot. Before the end of the book, you will be exposed to scenes, both hallucinatory and real, that seem to ooze off the page. Make no mistake, the book is disturbing, as if someone added a cohesive plot to an experimental film. It is guaranteed to make one uneasy in certain ways, but once one gets used to the visuals and the trippy nature of the whole thing, one tends to accept more and more of it, until eventually it becomes commonplace. The book wants you to think of what the characters do as normal, so it can unsettle you with a new nightmare on the very next paragraph. Every time you find a routine or think "I can get used to this", Saknussemm blindsides you out of nowhere, his writing detailed with the care and love of movies like Audition, or Videodrome. Not that this is anything like that. Well...I suppose you'll see, if you follow this particular rabbit hole deep enough. But I have never encountered, even in the best of horror and fantasy novels, the amount of care that goes into the hallucinatory images. 
                   The images are then coupled with a strong narrative voice in the form of Detective Birch Ritter. Ritter is the kind of man whose voice easily overpowers the secondary characters, occasionally tossing minor plot points and characters aside with his all-consuming quest to figure out what the hell is happening. Birch isn't a "good" cop, he tries very hard to be unsympathetic, but it takes a very cold person not to identify with someone in over their head who just wants some control and peace of mind in their life. In fact, I'd imagine anyone could identify with Ritter. Mostly for the reasons that we know everything about him, but more because his mind is vulnerable and open to us. Birch is willing to trust us, even though his ridiculously unreliable nature and depiction of events that should not be able to happen makes him (at first) completely untrustworthy.
                    Now, there are more than a few problems with the book, too. The fact that there are only two "actual" characters in this (and I use the term loosely) means that more often than not, Birch is monologuing his heart out, and it gets tedious after a while. You long for him to have another odd encounter, because at least then there would be someone to talk to. While there is an ongoing police investigation into two mysterious deaths (both linked in their own way to Birch's mysterious "therapist", Genevieve Wyvern), Birch doesn't seem to do much detecting-- he spends most of his time wrestling over the psychological and sexual issues Genevieve keeps throwing him into. One would think even a corrupt cop would spend time looking into these matters. Not a big problem if one is capable of suspension of disbelief, but still a problem. Another problem comes when this book would be more readily rooted in the 1950s at the true end of the private-dick and old-hollywood period, maybe sometime around the middle of LA Confidential with Genevieve's pinup-girl looks and heavily taboo practices, as well as Birch's hard-boiled tough-guy slang, but it is set in modern day. In this way, the use of words like n00bie, n00b, and the use of text-messaging technology only serve to jar me. 
                       But in the end, you have a sort-of supernatural novel that takes mythological concepts no one even thought of just yet and puts them in a new context. You have things that'll make you squirm, make you wonder, or simply make you go "now how fucked-up would you have to be to think of that?" Maybe you'll make a connection on another level. Maybe it'll feel less like a book and more like a trip. Hell, maybe you'll throw it against the wall in rage and frustration, or wonder "does it get any better?"  I can't say in any case. All I know is that to me, it's now a classic, and definitely part of my personal collection. It's twisted, it's off-putting, and it's thoroughly enjoyable.


  1. An excellent review. Way better than my own (reviews are definitely not my forte). And I am in total agreement with most of it. I hope you plan to read more Saknussemm. I'd be very interested to see what you have to say about Zanesville.

  2. Fantastic review. Right on!

  3. Thanks for the comments. And the postscript of the Kraken review. You might be pleasantly surprised.

  4. Wooha! It's completely different from Private Midnight, but equally as good. Maybe even better. It's my favorite, but I'm not entirely sure that's not just because I read it first (and many times). And the prequel will be coming out in March.

    I fully intend to read through all of your reviews when I am no longer dying of the summertime flu and in need of new books, to get some ideas.