Book Review: Solo/The Manual of Detection

SOLO Rana Dasgupta Fourth Estate, £14.99 THE MANUAL OF DETECTION Jedediah Berry Heinemann, £14.99

ASK A hundred literary specialists what a "postmodern novel" is, and you'll get a hundred different answers. It's something to do with being self-conscious about storytelling, being playful and perhaps surreal, being ironic and perhaps unreliable.

Critics tend to run off a little pantheon of names – Borges, Calvino, Pynchon,Auster – but it still tends to be something that's recognised rather than defined. Both these novels are within that broad postmodern tradition, and I really hope that saying that doesn't deter any readers from enjoying their unique, clever, bittersweet pleasures.

Jedediah Berry's debut novel, The Manual Of Detection, is billed, somewhat erroneously, as "Raymond Chandler meets Douglas Adams". The protagonist, Unwin, is a humble filing clerk in a vast and anonymous detective agency, who is promoted to detective. His first case is to find out where the man whose cases he has been assiduously filing for years has disappeared to – the legendary (and palindromic) Travis Sivart. Solving this means going back over Sivart's most famous victories. It also means encountering Sivart's arch-enemies: the vampish Cleopatra Greenwood, Jasper and Josiah Rook (separated conjoined twins) and the illusionist, biloquist and carnival owner, Enoch Hoffmann.

Like Sin City, this is a noir fairytale, with the grey-scale, drizzly streets and shabby cafs contrasted by fluorescent, primary colour characters. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in elegant convolution and cerebral dazzle.

As all the alarm clocks in the city go missing, and Unwin's assistant succumbs to narcolepsy, the narrative spins into dreams within dreams; shadows and mirrors; dppelgangers and split personalities. There is an infectious joyousness in Berry's ransacking of gumshoe clichs and aesthetic metaphors, and the whole novel is driven forward by classical thriller switchbacks and betrayals, as much as by the knowing wit and panache with which they're delivered.

Berry's work is reminiscent of the coolest young American novelists – Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem,Glen David Gold – in its sheer delight at how genre writing can be re-invigorated and re-imagined. The Manual Of Detection makes the weird, fantastical world of the unconsciousness seem comically logical – like its subject, it is a dream.

Rana Dasgupta's Solo is a more poignant, legato affair. The narrator, Ulrich, is a blind centenarian in Bulgaria who, at the beginning of the novel, reflects on a story he once heard about parrots who had preserved a lost language. Ethnologists were startled by the discovery and shipped the parrots away, only for the birds to die from the trauma.

Ulrich, a piece of historical flotsam, buffeted between thewaves of repressive Communism and gangster Capitalism that have flowed over his homeland, feels a melancholy affinity with the birds. The first part of the novel, relatively conventionally, gives us Ulrich's autobiography – his lost parents and lost family, his meeting with Einstein, his years of drudgery in a chemical factory.

The ingenious twist comes halfway through, when a wholly new set of characters are introduced: a Bulgarian musician, a Machiavellian Georgian entrepreneur, an American music producer with the wonderful name of Plastic Munari. But images from the earlier part of the novel – a burning violin,two dogs with their tails tied together, traumatised parrots – start to reoccur; and the reader gradually realises that this is Ulrich's wistful daydream.

Fantasy and resentment vie in his subconscious, on both the political level, with Bulgaria's exploitation translated into the anodyne world-music circuit, and on the personal level, as Ulrich imagines variations of those people he lost. In Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus describes history as a "nightmare from which I am trying to awake" – for Ulrich, his country's past can only be redeemed in dreams.

This is an ambitious manoeuvre for a novelist – Alasdair Gray tried something similar with 1982,Janine and it requires the reader to be as alert as the prose. Solo is a nuanced and virtuoso performance.

These two diverse, experimental books might both be considered 'postmodern'.

What's far more important is that they are both, simply, good.

Back to the top of the page