Kris Saknussemm made a splash with his first novel, Zanesville, and Private Midnight, his second book, solidifies his reputation as an edgy, creative and blackly comic writer. Private Midnight’s themes and styles morph from noir to supernatural thriller to philosophical treatise on gender politics, and while not each incarnation is equally successful, the writing is at all times a joy. This man loves language. He loves words. I couldn’t stop myself from reading some lines out loud, and that alone puts this book on my recommended list.
The story opens in fine noir style, with world weary battered police detective Birch Ritter trying to connect the dots on a couple of murders no one else sees as murders, while struggling with the temptation to visit an address his former, now estranged, partner gave him without explanation. Ritter suspects the address will lead him to a woman of pleasure, but he has no idea what shadow lands she occupies. Naturally, he can’t help but find out.
Ritter is a man with secrets himself. The first part of the novel deals with self-sabotage, and the line between light and shadows, particularly our own shadows we’d rather not illuminate. The mysterious Genevieve says her business is shadows and from his first visit to her, Ritter is on a journey to his past, reclaiming bits of himself he’s buried over the years. At the same time, he appears to be losing other parts of himself, and this blurring of boundaries between apparently oppositional definitions of identity is a continuing thread of the novel and its most successful theme.
The language in this part of the book is delicious. Waking up after a stormy night, the detective says, "The storm had cleared the air but not my mind or the inside of my apartment." Ritter’s voice is so lushly noir it’s almost a parody of itself, and it is often funny, no matter how dark or twisted the subject. And the subject matter is dark and twisted, dipping into unconventional sexual practices that both fascinate with their ability to redefine and repel with their violence. It’s a tribute to the author’s power with words I was often laughing even when I was horrified by what I was reading, which, as a cat lover, I often was. Make of that what you will and be warned.
The criminal case is far from the focus of the story. It really is just a frame on which to hang an exploration of gender politics. The more Ritter peers into the darkness, trying to figure out who or what Genevieve is, the less sure he is of his own identity. The more he tries to decide whether she’s a force for good or evil, the less sure he is he can tell the difference. As the story progresses, the language changes from darkly noir to more supernatural thriller, though the ghosts are more memories than spirits. Genevieve, though, is hard to define, which is very much the point.
The final chapters lean toward a discussion of the gender issues raised throughout the story. The narrative is gripping enough that I enjoyed the debate, though I didn’t necessarily agree with all of it. I never had as much difficulty deciding if something felt wrong or evil as the author hopes, and I found one scene to have disturbingly racist overtones. But I think the point of Saknussemm’s argument is to engage with it, rather than swallow it whole. Agree with him or not, there are still provocative gems to be mined, such as Ritter’s contention that most marriages fail because they’re not conspiratorial enough.
Private Midnight succeeds because even if we draw lines at different places than the author, the engagement in the discussion is a useful challenge to our reliance on “natural” constructions of identity, especially sexual identity. Saknussemm’s way with words entices us to peer through a warped looking glass to see ourselves with ambiguously blurred outlines. It’s worth the look.