Enigma of murderous evil is the job of serious fiction

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

Serial-killer lit dodges human truths, opting for clinical banalities.

October 24, 1999|By Laura Demanski | By Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

What makes human people do inhuman things? That question hangs heavy over America in this anxious year of school and workplace shootings. The debates are full of easy, policy-oriented answers like loose guns, bad parenting and violence in TV and the movies -- but literature has already been addressing this question for centuries. The results could strike the chattiest talking head dumb.

Imaginative writing, especially fiction, has infinite potential to delve into the human heart and suggest how particular worlds work on particular minds to inspire acts of evil. What the most powerful literature of this stripe finds, however, often looks more like another question than a genuine answer: the uncomfortable truth that enigma always remains at the core of murderous evil.

In the past, such literary achievements as "Crime and Punishment" and "The Turn of the Screw" directly confronted the unsettling, ultimately mysterious coexistence of humanity and brutality. In Joseph Conrad's great novella "Heart of Darkness," the paradox is particularly ripe: the colonizer Kurtz's bloodlust appears to be part and parcel of his humanitarian impulses toward the colonized Congolese. Kurtz writes an eloquent, optimistic report on his ivory operation that voices "every altruistic sentiment" -- before abruptly declaring in a chilling about-face coda, "Exterminate all the brutes!"

Today this level of serious meditation on the psychology of evil has virtually vanished from novels. The most serious contemporary American fiction tends to be interested in the psychology of victimhood or otherness (for instance, Janet Fitch's recent success "White Oleander"), in history (Thomas Pynchon), in the management of everyday life (David Gates). By and large, the study of evil is left to thrillers, which are captive to the demands of entertainment and unresponsive to those of art.

The most popular way to explore evil in fiction these days is through the uber-monster of modern times, the serial killer. But the serial killer of best-selling fiction is all too transparent to be a persuasive or illuminating portrait of human monstrosity.

In the current American cultural lexicon, the serial killer is the very embodiment of evil (and almost always a he). He should, then, reflect something about what the culture believes about evil. Alas, serial-killer lit proves for the most part locked in step with the clinical and therapeutic banalities of the experts on TV. It supplies all of its villains, practically to a man, with traumatic childhoods that are supposed to explain their madness and even their methods.

Exhibit A has to be "Hannibal," the publishing story of last summer, still high on the best-seller list. Thomas Harris' previous two books pushed at the boundaries of genre by giving their FBI heroes compelling and complex inner lives. They also introduced Dr. Hannibal Lecter as the final word on evil -- an absolutely remorseless connoisseur of pain and death.

Lecter was evil beyond explanation. As he himself famously put it to Clarice Starling in "The Silence of the Lambs" in 1988, "Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences." This seemed not only scary but authentic, so many critics were deflated to find the murderous doctor's own unhappy past laid out like a map in "Hannibal." To explain his peculiar appetites was to demystify him, and to court sympathy for a character readers once relished fearing. It is no accident that Harris seemed closest to transcending genre when he let Lecter be a true mystery.

Along with Harris' earlier books, Caleb Carr's "Alienist" is a recent example of serial-killer lit heralded as bringing the genre to a higher plane. The historical thriller set in New York City circa 1896 tells of a bloodthirsty pioneer in this specifically modern form of crime, and the equally trailblazing psychologist whose controversial criminology can alone track down the killer.

Carr's research is painstaking and his ambitions laudable -- but the die-cut pieces of his puzzle fit together all too seamlessly, with nary a red herring in sight. Everything the killer does is a crystalline clue to his psychosis, which in turn becomes a clue to his identity. The ways of real human beings are, as a pretty firm rule, not so neat.

In terms of plot, neatness may be all to the good. No mystery reader wants to wind up holding loose ends. But recall the not-so-neat plots of past masters like Raymond Chandler. When his "Big Sleep" was being made into a film, not even the scriptwriters (among them William Faulkner) could figure out who had killed the limo driver. When they asked Chandler by telegram, he didn't know himself.

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