Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Review of Murmur from 29.2

Laura Mullen. Murmur. New York, New York: Futurepoem, 2007. $15.00 paper (ISBN 0-9716-8006-X) 151 pages.

Reviewed by Hannah Faith Notess

The reader’s intelligence has always been central to the genre of the detective novel. Whether the author follows the convention of keeping the reader’s knowledge equal to the detective’s at any given time, or whether the author breaks that convention, the reader is constantly being courted, thwarted, and led astray. Laura Mullen’s book Murmur takes the detective novel as its subject, weaving poetry around the genre’s typical characters, evidence, and moments of revelation. Everything is here: the discovery of a corpse, the interrogations, the hard-boiled narrator, the evidence labeled and categorized. But by reordering and interrupting these stereotypical moments, Murmur moves against the grain of the genre’s inexorable logic, working with the reader’s ability to make sense of the text in a playful and surprising way.

Even as it unravels the genre of the detective story, Murmur’s own genre remains ambiguous. The book is divided into fourteen sections that contain mostly prose poem blocks interspersed with the odd short line. At times, Murmur relies too heavily on the ruptured line as a device to move the text forward, and the cadence of an interrupted sentence becomes a too-expected rhythm. Nevertheless, I found this book compulsively readable, perhaps partly because it seems to work as a book-length poem with recurring images among sections—a body on the beach, say, which may or may not be the cover image of a mystery titled The Body on the Beach.

Mullen’s appropriation of detective novel language is spot-on, and when in the section “I Shadow (Private)” she blends her own language with the rules of the genre, the results are weird, witty, and insightful:

There simply must be a corpse, and the deader the corpse the better. But what really happens in relationships is that desire and even romantic love cycle: people bear with the bad times, hoping there will be A) a sequel; B) a face “in the misty light”; C) a submarine nuclear and protective like a mother. This was all ocean once.

Sections like these reveal that in Murmur, Mullen has mastered the pleasurable manipulation of the reader that is at the heart of the detective novel genre.

The form feels like a detective’s case dossier full of red herrings, clues that don’t point to a solution. A description of such a dossier in the section titled “Demonstrating Bodies” could very well be a description of Murmur itself:

As this episode begins, our detective’s trying to close the massive, overstuffed
binder in which he’s collected what he likes to call the “flotsam and jetsam”:
all he has to show so far by way of a report. Newspaper cuttings, scraps of
notepaper, cocktail napkins, cancelled checks, photographs, siftings of tobacco
and lint, baggies oozing mysterious fluids, and other (even less mentionable)
articles keep falling out. He whistles soundlessly. Sheesh. If he can’t make sense of it, what will anyone else…?! Except to see it, just as it is, as a confession (I can’t figure it out). Victimless. Motiveless….

This form feels fitting for this subject; Mullen has found a way to render the detective story reader’s pleasure at being misdirected on the way to the solution. Perhaps, this form suggests, the reader expects to be misdirected, even desires it. Other features of the book explore misdirection on the metatextual level, such as the “List of Illustrations,” which points to no real illustrations and reads like a found poem:

(p. 8) “Don’t touch anything! I’ll be right there!”
(p. 38) “‘Goodbye,’ I said, ‘I am going to do my best for you. Wish me well wherever you are.’”
(p. 68) “‘Oh! Monsieur,’ he said to me in a voice trembling with emotion, ‘I have never killed one of them.’”
(p. 98) “He walked past me, and in passing he glanced in my direction, and for a second or two we looked each other in the face.”

As we leaf through this dossier, we uncover the figure of a woman who has used detective stories to shut herself off from her family:

She lay down. She went to bed early but it wasn’t just that. She ‘took to her
bed.’ She lay down more often in the middle of the day, not to sleep but to be
left alone, to take up again the threads of an absorbing plot….She had a
daughter who hovered in the doorway as ferocious judgment, barely awaited
permission—and vanished. The book came back up: on the cover an enlarged
fingerprint, a bloody knife, the body of the

The serious treatment of this figure hints that what propels Murmur forward is not merely a desire to play with the detective story’s conventions. On a deeper level, Murmur is about exploring the boundaries of literature as escape from life, “where invention and memory meet,” and what happens to a reader’s life when it’s spent in thrall to stories.

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