It was a book whose length could have been done in one sitting. But I couldn’t do it.
It took two days. And yesterday, when I read the bulk of it, I still couldn’t read it straight through in one go. I had to keep stopping to catch my breath.
Derek Raymond (whose tribute site has been in the Blogroll since the start here) was a writer who wrote brutal, unflinching works that told the truth. If you’ve ever read a book that made you feel as if it left a lesion on your brain, trust me when I say you haven’t experienced anything close to what Raymond delivers.
Nightmare in the Street is the story of a few days in the life of a French undercover cop named Kleber. He is a man who takes the value of life and justice — true justice — seriously:
I must express it, thought Kleber; otherwise the dead will go down as if they’d never lived. He didn’t quite know what the war was, being too young to have lived through it; but what he did know was that the dead had fought for a society for him, and what was happening to that most expensive of all things was that it was being wrecked and so what had they died for? [pg. 39]
In the course of these few days chronicled in the book, Kleber is suspended from his job for punching out a fellow officer (bastard deserved it, of course!) and suffers two devastating losses. The bulk of the book deals with his grief.
His unbearable grief that Raymond, through words on paper, manages to transfuse into the reader’s soul. You become the grieving Kleber. And it is awful.
The tragedy of existence, he now discovered, was that as you were on the point of living you were on the point of dying, and that when the greatest thing in your life died you, too, were dead. Afterwards others could only hold you gently by the wrist or forearm, get you a drink, joke to you, and beg you not to fall down and die. [pg. 128]
But no matter how grim the world Raymond portrays is, there is always, somewhere, hope:
So our society, for all its mediocrity and corruption, is still occasionally based on the absolute of our common soul, and a human being can at times be as strong as God. [pg 12]
But it’s not passive. We must bring it about:
‘It’s not our fault,’ Kleber saìd, ‘Not altogether, anyway.’
‘I don’t agree,’ she said. ‘It is. We let it happen the way it does.’ [pgs. 129-130]
Consider that the next time someone mutters in your presence, “Why do things have to be this way?” We let it happen the way it does. Ayn Rand coined an apt phrase for that: The sanction of the victim. (I cite Rand to emphasize the point; otherwise, there is hardly anything in common between the works of Raymond and Rand.)
It is, of course, a book I recommend. I recommend all of Raymond’s works. Serpent’s Tail publishing will be re-releasing Raymond’s “Factory” series of books. These feature a nameless detective in the Bureau of Unexplained Deaths who, even moreso than Kleber, takes his job, life, and justice very seriously. This is what noted writer James Sallis wrote about his encounter with the final book in that series, I Was Dora Suarez:
Five or six times in a life you come across a book that sends electric shocks skittering and scorching through the whole of you and radically alters the way in which you perceive the world. There’s a great deal of talk about books changing lives. The mass of people are as likely to have their lives changed by a doughnut as by a book. But it does occur.
In 1990, as usual, I was reviewing for a number of periodicals; books arrived daily by the boxful. It became my habit, as I headed out for afternoon coffee, to select a book at random from the stack and take it along.
One day I happened to pick up the unprepossessing trade paperback of a thriller by Derek Raymond titled I Was Dora Suarez.
And for three or four hours, I was. Not only youthful Dora Suarez, who lived and died horribly. I was also taken deeply into the mind of the nameless detective from “the Factory” who, reading Suarez’s journal and following her trail through tangled London streets, sets out first to solve then to avenge her murder. And from the first page I was plunged into the mind — terrifyingly into the mind — of the murderer himself. His thoughts and feelings became as real to me as the chair upon which I sit now, writing this.
I put down the book stunned. I was sitting outside and, suddenly, quite ordinary traffic along Camp Bowie Boulevard seemed fraught with meaning. Streetlamps came on, dim and trembling in early twilight. I realized that this novel now aslumber on the bistro table before me had carved its way into me the way relentless pain etches itself indelibly upon the body.
After reading Nightmare in the Street, I did a very stupid thing. I went to the NYPL and got out several other books. One of which I will not name. It was first published (I found out only after starting to read it) on the Internet and has recently been put on paper. It was filled with very clever sentences. Surprisingly, I read about fifty pages of it. But something got under my skin and started to burrow into me. Finally it hit me: I was reading utter shit!
The clever sentences disguised the fact that characters were bullshit. They were thinner than the paper that described them. They had an emotional range from A to A. They were the kind of people who after watching Seinfeld reruns in their ghastly midwestern towns and cities then invade the city of my birth and think that if they can speak in complex compound sentences that display their degreed educations, they are automatically emotionally deep. I had stumbled into a book written by one of them for them.
I stopped reading in disgust.
And it made me think: I have to stop wasting my time with writers who can’t, or won’t, address our humanity. Writers who think clever sentences equal talent. Writers who can think only about today, as if nothing ever happened before they opened their eyes. Writers who — fuck, I shouldn’t devalue the word writer like that. People, creative typists (Harlan Ellison‘s apt phrase!) whose work garner the fashionable reviews of today but whose work will, rightfully, be forgotten tomorrow.
Raymond Chandler, in his lifetime, was scorned and ignored. Yet all of those bestselling, well-reviewed authors of his time are forgotten today. Chandler’s works live on. This is the difference between the creative typists and the true writer.
Derek Raymond was a true writer. His work will live forever.
Go read it now.
A dedication to Derek Raymond and Ken Bruen