A Look into the Abyss: The Unsolvable Enigma of the Self and the Challenges of Metaphysical Detection in Martin Amis's Night Train1

By Martínez-Alfaro, María Jesús | Journal of Narrative Theory, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

A Look into the Abyss: The Unsolvable Enigma of the Self and the Challenges of Metaphysical Detection in Martin Amis's Night Train1


Martínez-Alfaro, María Jesús, Journal of Narrative Theory


Although its origins are traceable to the 1930s, the greatest surge of the metaphysical detective story and of the critical inclination to examine detective narratives within this framework coincides, to a remarkable extent, with the emergence of postmodern culture. The metaphysical detective story shares its heritage with the mainstream detective story - especially the influence of Poe - but it differs from the latter in many ways. Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney explain that "[a] metaphysical detective story is a text that parodies or subverts traditional detective-story conventions [. . .] with the intention, or at least the effect, of asking questions about mysteries of being and knowing which transcend the mere machinations of the mystery plot" (2).

Other critics have devised other names for this genre. Thus, in 1972, William Spanos referred to what he called "the anti-detective story" as the literary paradigm of postmodern thought. To Spanos (17-18), anti-detective fiction constitutes the postmodern genre par excellance, in that it reflects better than any other genre what postmodernity no longer has: a solid, monolithic certainty that experience, either historical or personal, can be approached as a version of the Aristotelian well-made plot, a plot that is always intelligible on account of its being grounded on an utterly comforting cause-effect logic. It has been argued, though, that the term chosen by Spanos - later on rescued by Dennis Porter and finally refined by Stefano Tani - describes only partially the kind of works it intends to label. Referring to these narratives as "anti-detective" may give a view of them as a kind of fiction that is just, in Tani's words, "a deliberate negation of the fundamental purposes of the genre" in something that "is no longer a detective novel" (24). The term "anti-detective" emphasises the oppositional thrust of this fiction at the expense of a similarity that must equally be taken into account.

It seems, though, that there is no designation devoid of contradiction or controversy. The label "metaphysical detective fiction" had already been used before Spanos and Tani popularised that of "anti-detective story" and it can certainly be said to have taken roots, being now the most frequently used to refer to this kind of literature. Widespread as it is, it is also a quite paradoxical designation, in as far as it may seem paradoxical to speak of metaphysics in connection with postmodernity. Be it as it may, Patricia Merivale used it in a 1967 essay focused on Nabokov and Borges, and shortly afterwards, in 1971, Michael Holquist refined it in an article often regarded as the first consistent study on the genre. In "Whodunit and Other Questions: Metaphysical Detective Stories in Post- War Fiction," Holquist analyses Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers (Les Gommes) and Borges's "Death and the Compass" ("La muerte y la brújula") as self-conscious and paradoxical rewritings of the classical detective formula. In these narratives, the reader's expectations are partially or totally thwarted and the epistemologica! doubts inherent in the genre become more and more radical. Holquist points out that modernist fiction already thematised these doubts, but it also looked for certainties that might soothe them - by a recourse to archetypes and mythical symbology, or the incorporation of brief but regenerating epiphanic experiences that emerge amidst the chaos of experience as a vehicle for transcending it, however temporarily. By contrast, Holquist argues, the metaphysical detective story does not try to fill the void. It rather dramatises it, it uses it for aesthetic purposes and, in the process, one may add, it also dramatises how the solid metaphysical principles of the classical detective story have been replaced by a weak and decadent metaphysics. Like so many other things in the postmodern era, the metaphysical certainties of the past have become mere simulacra, images with no real referent.

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