"The murderer wanted to know the truth": Thade Correa and Beth Towle on Laura Mullen's Murmur

by on Oct.10, 2012

[More excerpts from my grad students’ discussion of Laura Mullen’s Murmur.]

Thade Correa:
This is great, Drew–thank you! I felt the same way about Murmur at first. I couldn’t “enter” the text (i.e., make some kind of coherent sense of objective ‘truth’ out of it) at first, but then I too relaxed, and suddenly realized that this is a pretty brilliant book.

What attracted me most at first were the simple, atmospheric descriptions of the sea and the beach on which the murder-mystery (or one of them) partially plays out. It made me think of what I love most about the best film-noir / detective / horror films: not the big reveal, not finally figuring out the mystery, but the atmospheric sense of mystery itself. (That’s what I love about Twin Peaks, and in general, about the rest of David Lynch’s work–the sense of indecipherability, the sense of something that lies beyond the clutches of “truth” multiplies rather than resolves itself the deeper you go into his work.) Finally, I understood that Mullen’s beach-side moments in the text were “clues” in themselves–the seaside beach is a “real”place that is endlessly mutable, constantly shifting, and thus “illegible” just as the personal, subjective experience of “truth” itself is.

I’m not certain about this, but it seems to be that “Truth” (in the sense of hard, objective, external Truth) might be one, if not the ultimate, villain in the text. There’s the mention of “the crime we call the truth” early on (p 35), the mention of collecting hard evidence as a process that is always less-than-complete, and thus narrative itself–the attempt to “arrest” the truth–“is only ‘true’ insofar as it’s failure we narrate” (p 39). There are always holes left in the Real, always stutters, breaks, ruptures, wounds, silences. Like Drew mentioned, the text itself refutes coherence–it enacts its own claim that “The problem is, it’s all language” (38).

The whole ‘theme’ of truth-as-villain became even more pronounced later on in the text, with this passage: “The murderer wanted to know the truth: how things looked ‘on the inside’; he liked to listen to his victim’s stomachs, to their hearts.” The murderer’s search for truth leads him to dig into the body of the victim, as if trying to gain access to, or intimacy with, the subjective interiority of his victim by way of her concrete, physical interiority. There’s some relationship here, for me, with the “personalityless” personality of the serial killer. The serial killer experiences himself as a type, a genre of person–he lacks interiority, subjectivity. He could be, and *is*, anyone. More chilling, he makes up for this lack of interiority, it seems, by externally referencing himself, putting on “identities,” finding his “self-portrait” in the FBI profile of a serial killer. He searches for his own inside outside himself, and he tries to “intimately” connect with the “inside” of another person through the “outside” as well–through the body, through the violence of the wound.

Beth Towle:

There are a million ways to approach this book (or extract from it, if you will); it would be impossible to tackle them all. So I would like to focus on what is most interesting to me about Murmur and Mullen’s other work: the concept of language as wounding. Or more interestingly, for me anyway, the idea of genre as wounding.

Drew did a good job talking about the concept of the wound and wound culture. In the last bit, he mentions the way the text itself is full of gaps. The text, the language is wounded. Blocks of text just fade away, end on emptiness. Something has been deleted from them, so that we are left in the middle of a sentence or a thought. It’s as if they, too, have been stabbed, hacked away at. The skin of the poems/prose are peeled away and inside the story is the blind fetus covering its face.

Speaking of the fetus, I find it such a weird little detail, with its hands in front of its face. Mullen implies that it has a double connotation: it is covering its eyes, but it is also mimicking the way a person looks when holding a book to his face. I kept trying to figure out where the act of reading fit into Murmur, as it most certainly does fit in somewhere. There’s a reader at the beginning, coming in and out of a book, the language extra-choppy (admittedly, this was the part of the book I struggled with the most). And then, of course, there is the mother reading murder mysteries smack in the middle of the book (the “Forensics” section). She is so engrossed in these mysteries that she ignores (and sometimes mistreats) her children. She is the dangerous reader, the reader who is so far into the fictional world that she cannot re-enter normal society quite right when in the middle of one. But she also brings that world out with her a bit, to the main speaker who is so enmeshed in the world of death and murder and evidence laid out as if to also tell a story. (Who is this interrupted speaker by the way? Thade implies he’s the killer. To me, he or she felt like a medical examiner or detective…). The act of reading becomes almost wound and wounding. It is the wound one can gape at, but it also becomes a kind of wounding against them; it changes them, infects them. The reader is the killer, the medical examiner, the victim, and the intact fetus who nevertheless must also pay for the crime….

In his introduction to Serial Killers, Seltzer argues that communciation and the technology of communication play a role in the lives of serial murderers and their acts. “Writing, dictation, typing, shorthand, communication technologies, the data stream, pulp fiction and the true crime genre, the mass media and mediatronic intimacy: all traverse these cases, enter into the interiority of this style of violence” (p. 5). Mullen would certainly seem to agree with this, and part of the way she attempts to show the inherent issues of media and medium wrapped up in violence is through her use of genre and the expectations genre sets up for readers.

Genre may be the most dangerous of all narrative addictions. Genres are built around rules, particularly the types of genres Mullen plays with in her work as a whole: horror/gothic, crime, romance. Genres create reader expectations because they almost always deliver on those expectations. Throughout Murmur, Mullen plays on the conventions of the pulp/murder-mystery genre: wherein the real meat of the story is the investigation but the central setting is always, in ways implicit and explicit, the crime scene itself. In a crime novel, the victim may only literally be on the page for a chapter or so, but he/she is everywhere in the novel as a whole. The victim is the main thrust of the action, of the plot. It is who all the other characters – the detective, the lawyer, the killer, etc – must always return to. And so in this book, here is the woman’s body on the beach, over and over again. Mullen, of course, plays on our expectations of genre convention by cutting up the language but by also taking away the convenience of a regular narrative structure. What are we left to do but feel betrayed by the fact that we desire a full story and just aren’t getting it? Aren’t we the neglectful mother who hides in her room and reads her library books all day in this case? Does this story make us want to yell at our kids and pretend we have a headache?

Genre wounds in that it ruins us in some ways as readers and as people, forces us into nice narrative structural expectations that we then carry with us from book to book, or even into our regular lives. But when genres fail to carry out on those expectations, then they also wound us again. Again, genre is dangerous, insidious, murderous.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Laura Mullen is one of the very top, visionary poets going. And her new book, Enduring Freedom, just out from Otis Books/Seismicity, is the poetry gathering of the year, so far I can see. Very strange and powerful, a series about quasi-Duchampian “Brides” of various stripes, with pastoral arras of Culture- Industry mayhem and Imperial war.

  2. Kent Johnson

    Also very relevant to mention: The Otis Books/Seismicity Editions poetry series is hands-down one of the most impressive, ambitious publishing projects of the past few years. And those responsible are producing what are surely some of most beautiful books around. It’s all been totally under-noticed. Too, there is no other publishing venture doing more to bring forward post-war Italian a-g poetry in translation. Along with my full collection of Ugly Duckling Presse products, there is no other press collection in my small library that I am prouder to have complete!

  3. Johannes

    U of Chicago Press is also doing a lot of Italian contemporary stuff…