Sunday, September 19, 2010

Books: Reheated leftovers?

Dexter is Delicious, the fifth installment in Jeff Lindsay's series about a serial killer who hunts killers, pits the titular protag against a Goth cult of cannibals who have kidnapped, and are threatening to make long pig out of, two school-aged girls from one of Miami's elite private academies. This new installment is a solid entry in the series, but the strain of developing Dexter - a character who is defined primarily by the twin poles of his lack of emotion and his Big Secret - is starting to put visible strain on the narrative.

Ironically, Dex's third outing, widely panned for its profoundly regrettable side-trip into supernaturalism, may have turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to the series. At this point, Lindsay would have to turn out a pretty dismal book to not land a title above the bar of "worst Dexter ever." Though that's probably unnecessarily harsh: Dexter is Delicious contains all the elements that have made Lindsay's series an unlikely hit and there's nothing to suggest that Lindsay phoned it in or that it won't be happily welcomed by series fans. To clarify the television continuity from the novel series - the two are, at this point, almost entirely unrelated - the new novel finds Dexter the paterfamilias of a curiously functional/dysfunctional family. He's married Rita and become the stepfather of Aster and Cody: both of whom are larval stage serial killers, brutalized by the behavior of their biological father and looking to Dexter to pass along the vigilante code he lives by. (It is a curious conceit of the series that being a serial killer is sort of like being a mutant in the Marvel sense of the term: it gives you heightened senses, allows you to detect other serial killers, and other odd powers.) Dex's sister, a coworker at the Miami PD who is in the know about his extracurricular activities, increasingly relies on Dexter's extralegal capacities. And, in and odd twist, Dexter's biological brother, the baddy from the first book in the series, is back to make amends and help train Aster and Cody in the ways of serial murder. Only Rita, Dexter's wife, and the rest of his coworkers don't know (and a couple of the latter suspect something's up). All of this is complicated by the fact that Dex, after the birth of his first child, has sworn off the whole serial killer thing.

Fans of the Dexter series will find plenty to like here. Dexter's bemusedly sarcastic narrative is awkwardly charming. Lindsay transforms his baddies from pathetic to creepy with pleasing proficiency. The absurdist sensibility that situates the Dexter series firmly in crime-comedy subgenre of Florida crime writing is on fully display. The plotting of the actually mystery is straight-forawrd in that post-Spillane the-answer-happens-to-the-protag way.

If it delivers on the goods, why does the new Dex leave me feeling indifferent? The problems stem from the increasing inefficiency of the series. I don't want to accuse Lindsay of taking cues from the Showtimes series, but Lindsay has seemingly chosen to develop his character on the same track: making the struggle between Dexter's homicidal impulses and his role as family man the nexus of the series drama. The television series, which has never fully bought into the idea of Dex's psychopathy and has always emphasized the development of character, has made this the center of their show. By contrast, Dexter's unredeemed psychopathy was a strength of book series. It primary benefit was that it helped situate Dex, the narrator, in narrative position of the classic detective. Because Dexter didn't care about his past or his future, he behaved in the oddly impersonal and eccentric manner of any classic detective. Like Poirot or Nero Wolfe, he existed mainly to get involved in mysteries and solve them. There was, despite the bizarre context, a classicism to the early Dexter books that was a real treat for the reader. This narrative efficiency has become increasingly lost as the narrative has soap-operaed out. Second, the gleeful nihilism of the series has been replaced with a drive to build an inner emotional life for the main character. One of the chief pleasures of the early series was Dexter's chipper, yet inhuman voice. This was a character who, when strapped to a vivisection table, would express a giddy curiosity about what what about to happen to him. His inhumanity was the primary source of the early books' satire: the distance Dexter felt from his fellow humans made them charmingly absurd. With the evolution of Dexter, suburban daddy, this voice has gone from absurdist to petty. Dex no longer marvels at the seemingly suicidal antics of Miami drivers. Instead, he worries about speeders threatening his child. He's gone from amoral dissector (literally and figuratively) to a walking "Baby on Board" sticker. Such a development is not welcome.

You got sympathize with Lindsay: he has not made it easy on himself. When the televised Dexter threatened to overshadow him, he made a bold move in a direction that series wouldn't ponder. And he got spanked for it. Unfortunately, to go in the direction of the TV series is to suck the petrol right out of what made the series great, its weirdly amoral ability to romp through the worst behavior humans could offer up. This latest book is a perfectly serviceable holding maneuver, but it leaves me feeling inert. The future of the series depends on recapturing some of that old magic.

4 comments:

Jonny Metro said...

I agree with you for the most part, but I do disagree with you on at leat one point (and its not even regarding this book.)

I realize that Book Three (Dexter In The Dark) was not enjoyed by a lot of people, but personally, it is my favorite in the series. The supernatural twist turned a lot of people off, but I always felt a sense of the supernatural underlying these tales. It seems that you have sensed this underlying supernaturalism as well, as you have made the comparison to the X-Men. It had just never been brought to the forefront and stated so blatantly before. And although doing so in such an in-your-face manner may not have been everyone's cup of tea, it felt to me like a natural progression of this "hidden" character, the Dark Passenger. It wouldn't have worked *at all* in the television series, however, and I think that is what threw a lot of people off. As you've said, Literary Dexter and Television Dexter are completely different stories (save the original novel), and they take place in completely different realities. It's difficult to keep that in mind when you're only given one book a year, but many many hours of the TV series.

In Dexter in the Dark, Dexter went up against a whole gaggle of baddies, as opposed to the one or two that the readership (and the character) was accustomed to. I thought it was a nice change of pace, but it didn't work as well for me here, and I hope that Lindsay reverts back to the more solitary villain in the next installment. Dexter in the Dark was the exception, not the rule.

Anyway, I have reviews for all five of the Dexter novels written out somewhere. I just have to pull them out of the archive and type them up. One of these days...

$.02
--J/Metro

CRwM said...

Johnny,

We're actually in somewhat in agreement about the role of the Dark Passenger. My problem with the third book was that it took one of the strangest and neatest aspects of the first two books and spelled it all out. In the first two books, the Dark Passenger seemed to me to be like the ghosts in the earliest scenes of the Shining. Was it a part of Dexter's imagination or was it something independent of him? A realist reading would have it as an aspect of his psychopathy, but there were clear instances when the Dark Passenger picked up something or puzzled through something Dexter seemingly couldn't. I thought that ambiguity had some real power. I loved that you never could say definitively whether or not the Dark Passenger was a distinct entity or not. Laying all the cards on the table - rather than a supernatural explanation - was what killed #3 for me.

Plus, honestly, the baddies didn't do it for me. The cult seemed so half-assed after Danco. Though I think we're in agreement with the idea that Dexter is at his best when he's crossing swords with another lone hunter.

Thanks for the thoughtful counterpoint.

zoe said...

this really makes me curious about the first two books of the series. i tried an episode of the show and found it wretched, but your description of the original "detective-style" character interests me. thanks!

Spooky Sean said...

Its always the children that fuck up the suspense. I like horror that doesn't just revolve around a fear of the safety of the children.
Man, fuck the damn children, I want something that will scare me, as a childless, agnostic, nihilistic bastard.