“Do not think of revenge, or anything of the sort, at present. I think that we may gain that by means of the law; but we have our web to weave, while theirs is already woven. The first consideration is to remove the pressing danger which threatens you. The second is to clear up the mystery, and to punish the guilty parties.”
Sherlock Holmes, “The Five Orange Pips” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891).
I remember watching the trailers for Pulp Fiction and thinking, oh, this looks like it might be interesting—some sort of crime movie with Bruce Willis and John Travolta? That could be fun, and I suppose I liked Reservoir Dogs a lot and then you watch the movie and everyone’s favorite ex-video store clerk warps and tangles time and narrative and Uma Thurman’s all bleeding out the nose and then suddenly we all like not only surf music but also the Statler Bros. I mean, what the hell, you know?
Writing about Laura Mullen’s latest book, Murmur, is like those perilously, almost laughably one-dimensional trailers for Pulp Fiction: or like trying to explain to your uncle why people time traveling aren’t supposed to talk to the younger versions of themselves or kill Hitler or stuff like that, or how you felt that one time you were sixteen and your car skidded off the road when you were changing the station and you thought you were going to wreck (for the first time). No matter how much you feel it in your guts, language fails.
So then, Murmur is a detective novel, a murder mystery, inasmuch as there are cut-up bodies and suspects; and it is poetry, because the words play with each other but they don’t have to act all stuffy like a Times op-ed. After that all bets are off. By far the greatest treasure is Ms. Mullen’s constant and effortless reinvention of familiar phrases and words. This delicate jostling of language suffuses the book: it wants you to read it sideways, just like a detective novel, looking for clues through the words on the page.
Nestled alongside the wry joys of A Noun’s Meant, the Gravida Loca, and the invocation Fail tarry lull efface is often revelatory insight about writing and relationships. There are echoes of process philosophy in the chapter The Evidence, where “The road slick with gore,” we see the narrator struggle to change time: “(so swerve),” she tells us, even as she again and again “drive[s] through the dismembered remains of a deer.” “Try to change the ending,” she says, “Try to change the ending earlier.”
That’s the constant lament in our fiction and our lives: “if I could just go back one more minute, I could stop him from pulling that gun/I could stop her from reading that letter/I could stop myself from picking up the phone/I could” &tc., &tc.
The murders in the chapter The Forensics were the hardest. Maybe it’s because the idea of a stranger pushing my head beneath the waves, kelp encircling my bruised neck is a galaxy away, but the detective-novel obsessed wife and mother who slowly kills herself and her daughter is a real fear, a known fear, with dreary, real detail: “My brother learned to stay out of the sound of her voice: he came in, ate, joked around, left.” The struggle to know and love a mother who demands knowing, demands love, but prohibits both:
In my memory every gesture seems tight, fraught, acted out theatrically as evidence of how you were oppressed: slamming the shovel into the earth, grinding the point of the pen across the page, burning a black crust on the bottom of the pan, as if to make us all sorry . . . ‘Cooking isn’t fun,’ you sneered, ‘but you’ll have to learn to do it!’ Because I was a woman, I would also be trapped (but you wanted children, you insist).
That is real murder, American suburban murder, more real than any Black Dahlia and played out in fifty times a day in one million 3BR/2BAs from Baton Rouge to Baltimore.
I have promised myself not to forget two things: first, the cover, sumptuous and mysterious, soaked in shadow, perfect for the book and looking like a record album for a sleepy type of British electronica:
Design by Anthony Monahan, photography by Bridget Walsh Regan.
And even before the first page there is a tremendous present for lovers and defenders of the South. “The wife of the famous dead writer” notes that
The thus and such review arrived today, full of the usual stories about upper-middle-class white people (in which the deepest emotional experience available to the characters is dismay), and lower-class types, the preference being for Southerners, who feel everything, intensely. (Southerners being allowed feeling as women and certain specific ethnicities are—in exchange).
That’s the funniest and most dead-on jazz written about the way we Southerners are used as props in fiction and movies that I’ve ever read. It is, as we said growing up in Alabama, so awesome.
As an essential caveat to this adoration I am compelled to add that it has been my great pleasure to make the acquaintance of Ms. Mullen; indeed, she is the legendary host of the annual Prettyfakes Spanish Town Extravaganza. It is in her home that the Screwmosa was concocted, her porch where we catch the beads, her living room where we drink the bourbon, her kitchen where we eat the king cake. She is an extraordinarily gracious hostess, much more than just a little bit Southern herself, now, and I can never tell her thank-you quite enough (I do realize that duct-taping up cardboard over the windows as to guard against beads—my annual job—is a step in the right direction).
Futurepoem listing for Murmur.