To be an animal that thinks persistently in terms way beyond its lifespan sets us a frightful problem.

And a problem for which He Died with his Eyes Open by Derek Raymond has no comforting answers.

He Died with His Eyes Open is a novel I read some months back, I’m covering it here as it is the first of a tetralogy collectively known as the Factory novels, and I plan to read the others in the sequence. The factory itself is a West London police station in which is found the Department of Unexplained Deaths, which seems to deal primarily on the strength of this novel with deaths which are unexplained because nobody cares enough to explain them.

This is the first Derek Raymond novel I have read, of which more later.

The protagonist, a policeman from the department, is unnamed and we know him chiefly through his responses to colleagues and to the victim whose death he chooses to investigate. In any event, he as a character is not particularly interesting, being a cynical loner who puts the truth ahead of his career, a set of traits not wholly unknown in crime fiction.

The character that is interesting is the murdered man, a middle-aged alcoholic found brutally beaten to death (reminiscent in this of The Papers of Tony Veitch by William Laidlaw, a novel this has much in common with) by the name of Staniland. Staniland is a failed writer, and one who left behind him a series of audio tapes on which he recorded various musings about his life. It is those tapes that are at the heart of the novel, this is far more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit.

So, a cynical lone policeman, a brutally murdered alcoholic, in themselves these are not interesting elements. Why then do I consider this, as I do, an interesting novel?

Because it is not a novel about murder at all, rather it is a novel about the implications of our own deaths for meaning in our lives. Staniland is portrayed as an intelligent man, too much so for his own good, and far too sane to be able to live with any comfort. He sees without the benefit of any self-delusion that we are mortal, he has no belief in any afterlife or god. He recognises that our lives are finite and brief and that very shortly all that we are and do shall be lost. The novel is about how he lives, or as we know from the first chapter, fails to live with that knowledge. Staniland has realised that he is mortal, and once he has realised it that knowledge overwhelms him.

Noir fiction has been from its earliest days a vehicle for exploring the implications of existentialism. Indeed, I’ve seen it argued that L’Etranger by Camus is a noir novel (actually, I think it’s absurdist rather than existentialist, but others are better informed than I am on those precise distinctions). He Died with his Eyes Open is a noir novel in that vein, it is an exploration of existentialism and its implications. We inhabit a world without purpose, can we through our lives give purpose to it and to ourselves while we are here?

Staniland’s answer, though not perhaps Raymond’s, is that we cannot. That our lives are intrinsically meaningless, that we cannot give meaning to them and that even if we face up to their meaninglessness and live in the full honesty of that recognition that too is itself meaningless. As this is still a crime novel I don’t wish to get into plot here, but I will reveal that when the policeman finally understands why Staniland died he almost dies himself, falling into the same despair as did Staniland.

Staniland’s tapes cover his thoughts on mortality, his life shortly before his death, his obsession with a woman he loves but who does not care for him (this part is very strongly reminiscent of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, the relationship between the central character and the woman is almost identical) and also earlier periods in his life with the work he did and the family relationships he had.

So, here are our elements. Staniland’s thoughts on life itself, Staniland’s obsession with a woman named Barbara whom he knows mostly from pubs and who takes other men in part to mock him or so it seems to him, Staniland’s relationship with his daughter, with his step-son, the unnamed policeman’s reconstruction of Staniland’s life piece by piece until he understands what Staniland understood, until in a sense he starts himself to live Staniland’s life.

As a crime story the novel is a success, there are some excellent scenes in which the policeman slowly reconstructs Staniland’s life and how he came to his death. There are memorably unpleasant minor characters (in common with other noir fiction, there are no pleasant characters). One could read this purely as a crime novel and in my view it would still succeed on those terms. It is though as an examination of the implications of mortality that for me it really takes off. A quote helps here, from one of Staniland’s tapes:

“Most people live with their eyes shut, but I mean to die with mine open. We all instinctively try to make death less difficult for ourselves. Personally, I’ve got two ways. First, I drink. I drink for oblivion, and then a fall of some kind or a blow, once I’m beyond thinking or feeling. That’s how I’d die, with my eyes shut. My other way is to rationalise my experience. But, no matter how logically you think, you soon get in a muddle. Existence is blind – neither for you nor against you. This impartiality contradicts everything in human experience; there is neither love nor hatred, caresses or assault, in your dealing with the everyday. Existence is like a stock exchange – you can make as big a fool of yourself as you like, and go on until you’re hammered.”

As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Staniland may have brought on his own death, that he may have sought to die with his eyes open, that he despaired and that he had no belief that dying with his eyes open itself meant any more than anything else. That is where the fundamental sadness of this novel comes from, and it is a sad novel, it is a communication of despair from a dead man to a living, and a communication which persuades the living man of its truth.

The irony, and why I think it is open to question if Raymond means us to agree with Staniland, is that the tapes also reveal that Staniland at times had more in his life. In particular, a daughter he loved. Staniland’s tragedy is not the inevitability of death, but that he cannot ignore the fact of death and so live in the meantime. His knowledge of death seeps into his life, until there is little else left to him. Staniland’s life is meaningless and that cannot be changed, but as depicted it need not have been tragic, or at least no more tragic than any other life.

There are other aspects to the novel, Barbara (Staniland’s occasional lover and fellow drunk) is a form of concentrated human evil, her own response to the irrelevance of being. Staniland says of her “Barbara was hatched in fury like a wasp, and she’ll die in fury. Her promiscuity is aggression; she uses sex to obliterate a man – this is her revenge on existence.” Barbara too is responding to pointlessness, in acts of equally pointless cruelty and revenge. The policeman remembers an unfashionable sculptor who sought to capture the moments between life and death, but whose work was never acclaimed and was inevitably going to be destroyed by the council upon his death. The sculptor describes his work as follows “I try to reconstruct in stone the tragedy of a free man passing from life to death, from will to nothingness: I try to capture the second in which he disintegrates. It’s an objective that won’t let me go” “And I don’t want it to”.

Everywhere there is meaninglessness, but responses differ. Barbara responds in cruelty, Staniland in despair, the policeman by seeking to impose order onto the reality of chaos, the sculptor in art even though there is nobody who cares to view it and it will not outlive him. Since all responses are equally irrelevant, all are in a sense equally valid.

The works I would most contrast this with are those by William McIlvanney (predominantly a writer of literary fiction), who wrote a trilogy featuring a detective named Laidlaw. Of that trilogy, I have so far only read the first two, Laidlaw and The Papers of Tony Veitch. In McIlvanney’s world we are again faced with the implications of mortality, with the question of how we give meaning to our lives when our lives are ultimately meaningless. But McIlvanney reaches very different conclusions, his works are born of a clear Glaswegian socialist tradition and when in The Papers of Tony Veitch the policeman Laidlaw investigates the brutal death of a middle-aged alcoholic (I said there were similarities) he does so because the fact of our mortality to him carries with it a moral imperative. We must all matter, or none of us do. If this is all we have, then this matters, and the death of anyone – even a vagrant whose life was one of abject misery – is a crime against each of us as we are all we have. In Raymond’s work our mortality is a source of despair, for McIlvanney it is a call to action.

Raymond’s work is also more atomistic than McIlvanney’s. To McIlvanney we are products of the society we form part of, in the first of his sequence (Laidlaw) we are invited to sympathise more with a rapist and murderer than we are with the victim’s parents, because the murderer is himself a product of our society and so himself a victim too. With Raymond, we are each on our own. We owe no great responsibility to each other, nor do we draw meaning from each other. Both start from the same point, we are mortal and our lives have no intrinsic meaning to them, but from those points they go to very different places.

As I said above, this is the first of Raymond’s novels I have read. His most famous is I was Dora Suarez, a novel which reputedly caused his publisher to vomit across his desk when he first read it (much, apparently, to Raymond’s glee). I was looking at that the other day and noticed that the murdered Dora has left a diary, which the protagonist reads from to understand her, a worryingly close device to Staniland’s tapes and one that I hope will not recur too much in all his novels.

Raymond himself (a pseudonym by the way, his real name was Robin Cook but he needed to avoid confusion with the writer of medical thrillers) lived a life very much like that of Staniland, even down to the jobs each of them held such as vineyard labourer and minicab driver. I generally dislike trying to read an author’s life into his work, and I don’t plan to here, but I mention it as it is entirely possible that Raymond meant us to do precisely that and that in some senses this novel is an externalisation of an investigation into Raymond’s own life and philosophy. Ultimately, however, I tend personally to prefer to treat the work as a thing in itself, so though I mention this to draw attention to it it’s not a theme I intend to explore here further.

Overall then, this is a noir novel which seeks as the best noir fiction does to explore the implications of existentialism and mortality. It portrays a world without much by way of hope, a world in which we are animals and not particularly pleasant animals at that. We are animals with the misfortune to think beyond our lives and to understand the fact of our own deaths, and we are animals capable of cruelty to each other beyond that of most species. Like David Peace in Nineteen Seventy Four, Raymond does not portray us as a species of great value, and if there is a message it appears to be that we can expect no better from each other than we would from any other animal.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Died-His-Eyes-Open-Factory/dp/1852427965/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1216905353&sr=8-4

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16 Comments

Filed under British Crime Fiction, Existentialism, Hardboiled, Noir, Raymond, Derek

16 responses to “To be an animal that thinks persistently in terms way beyond its lifespan sets us a frightful problem.

  1. Max Cairnduff

    I forgot to add that He Died with his Eyes Open is published by Serpent’s Tail, an excellent publishing house now responsible for releasing much of the cutting edge of British crime fiction.

  2. Trevor

    You’ve definitely got me interested here, Max. I’m not initiated into a lot of the best noir novels. I’ve got some Raymond Chandler on my shelf, but I haven’t given much time to any that have been published in the last thirty years probably except for Night Train. I look forward to seeing how you like the rest of the series . . .

  3. Jonathan M

    I think there’s something else going on in the book actually. I think there’s an element of parody in it.

    The murder victim is a bright guy. He had some money in his younger days but it just went through his fingers and despite being intelligent and well-read he spent his time as a minicab driver and hanging out in really horrific pubs.

    I think there’s a quite trenchant element to the novel that seems to suggest that in some ways, existential nihilism is as much a protective belief system as any other. After all, if life is meaningless, what does it matter that you’re wasting your brain driving cabs and talking to morons despite being horrifically unhappy as a result of it?

    Interestingly, I think that Camus realised this in L’Etranger and he would probably point to the tapes as an example of someone trying to give hjis life meaning, even if it is just embracing the meaningless of it all. Camus called this state a paradox.

  4. Max Cairnduff

    Hi Trevor,

    I’d draw a distinction actually between hardboiled and noir, one I’ll probably go into in a more detailed entry some time. For now though the distinction I’d make is that hardboiled contains a moral protagonist, someone who despite living in a dirty world nonetheless lives as if it weren’t. Noir is more a literature of despair, in which the protagonist is often as repulsive as the rest of humanity. The noir protagonist is in the mud with the rest of us, not rising above it as the hardboiled protagonist tends to.

    It’s not an absolute distinction, like any genre classification there’s plenty of blurriness, but the concerns of the two tend to slightly diverge.

    For hardboiled I would recommend Chandler, he is the best prose stylist in my view in crime fiction, you read Chandler for the prose rather than the plots basically. The Big Sleep is a good place to start, a marvellously written novel. I consider Chandler to be essentially literary fiction working from within genre, and it’s worth remembering of course that the genre he is now considered part of was in large part created by his work, what can seem today to be cliche is so in part because he was so widely copied.

    For noir, I would recommend something slightly different. They Shoot Horses Don’t They, by Horace McCoy, naturally also published by Serpent’s Tail. It’s a remarkably powerful work, takes noir outside of crime (it involves a murder and a court case, but the murderer is the narrator and we know the sentence from about the first page) and is again very much a whydunnit (a common approach in noir actually). It’s only 122 pages long, so if you discover you hate noir at least you haven’t spent too long on it, and in my view is one of the finest works ever to address noir themes. It also avoids the sometimes stomach churning attention to unpleasant detail that noir often embraces, making it in many ways a much easier read.

    I wouldn’t actually recommend Raymond as a starting point, simply because he does revel in the unpleasantness rather, instead I’d suggest him as an author to investigate if you find you have an interest in the concerns of noir fiction more generally.

  5. Max Cairnduff

    Jonathan,

    I think that’s right actually, I think the novel is also exploring the Camusian (is that a word?) paradox and I definitely think we are invited to question whether Staniland’s is seeking to make meaninglessness itself a form of meaning and whether in part he is simply justifying his own failures.

    I quoted a passage which includes the words “My other way is to rationalise my experience. But, no matter how logically you think, you soon get in a muddle.”, which I think is in part Staniland recognising his own paradox. And as I note (though this is a slightly different point to yours) it’s made quite plain that Staniland had open to him a far better life than that he actually lived, we’re not I think necessarily meant to agree with Staniland.

    Each of the major characters in the novel responds to pointlessness in different ways, but Staniland has also comprehensively messed his life up and I think there is a sense in which he seeks by embracing nihilism to protect himself from his own responsibility for the terrible choices he has made. That said, I think the novel does still treat him as being essentially correct in his analysis, he is right that life is meaningless. It’s just that his actions, his life, don’t necessarily follow from that conclusion.

    But yes, in short I agree, I think that element of parody you identify is also definitely present.

    I’d also suggest in part it’s being said that we can’t actually mentally process reality, that the reality of the indifference of existence is so alien to us that no matter how we try to understand it ultimately we simply cannot (shades of HPL there of course). Staniland tries, but even he ultimately realises that what he seeks to do cannot be done, we cannot emotionally understand reality. The paradox arises in part because we are constitutionally incapable of living lives without internal meaning.

  6. Max Cairnduff

    Trevor,

    Forgot to say, it may be worth your scrolling down to look at the comments on A Dance to the Music of Time and on Goshawk Squadron, neither of which is remotely noir or crime or anything related to Raymond or this blog entry but both of which might interest you.

  7. Max –

    I recently re-read the final third of this book and I think that there’s something else going on here than existentialism.

    For my the most powerful chapter in the book is 33 in which he talks about this sculptor whose wife goes mad and she spends her time trembling… terrified by the realities of the world. “she’s too sensitive” the sculptor says.

    I wonder whether the point isn’t that she sees the world is meaningless or absurd, but rather that she is incapable of distancing herself from the world. In short, this is anti-existentialism… the world has far too much meaning. Potential and sub-text and emotion and yearning are present in everything we do, everything we say and everything we see.

    Barbara is utterly evil because she realises this but she doesn’t care. Her eyes are open but all she can think is “what difference does it make?”.

    For HPL reality was completely other. I think for Raymond, reality it is we who distance ourselves from reality. We choose not to think about stuff, we choose to ignore feelings, we cut off our nose to spite our face, we make the wrong decisions and then try to convince ourselves that we didn’t.

    In many ways, I think that this is quite traditionally noir. The questing knight model of the hard-boiled PI rests upon the idea that the PI is more sensitive to the world than he should be… he’s tarnished and he uses cynicism to protect himself but he never quite manages it, which is why he is able to solve crimes.

    On another note, I’m really not sure about the ending to Eyes Wide Open. The stuff in the mother’s flat seem surplus to requirement; a nod to the demands of genre a traditional psycho and a traditional violent confrontation at the end. But of course the true crux of the story is Staniland and the true villain is Barbara and not the laughing cavalier.

  8. Hey Jonathan,

    Both can be true, it can be both existentialist and anti-existentialist.

    I think the existentialist stuff is there, but I think your take is also present. I’ll reread 33 though now you raise this.

    Having just written up The Devil’s Home on Leave it’s much plainer there that the narrator is too sensitive, he feels responsible for people and that responsibility crushes him. He cannot distance himself from the world as others can.

    I agree with you on Barbara, her sin is that she understands but does not care. That and there is a sense of fury at existence in her, as mentioned in the section quoted in my original blog entry.

    Traditional noir is fiction which addresses these issues, I certainly see it as noir, arguably also as hardboiled in that it has a protagonist who cares regardless (whereas noir such as They Shoot Horses Don’t They? contain no such paladinesque figures). I see noir as a profoundly moral genre of fiction, we exist, we are brief, we are all there is, why then do we live as we do? These to me are the themes which noir engages with.

    Agreed on the ending by the way, Devil also has some elements which are straightforwardly crime fiction rather than philosophy, but then if it didn’t it might not be readable. On Eyes, the point I took from the ending was that in understanding the victim he became him, and so came nearly to the same end. Was that necessary? Perhaps not, but I have no better ending to offer.

  9. Thinking more about this, I think you are right that the sculptor’s wife is another take on the problem.

    I think the problem is the problem of existence, the one that I titled this blog entry with. For Staniland that manifests as a problem of meaning, though he also uses existentialist dread as a way of avoiding responding to the world (which doesn’t make his analysis wrong, just self-serving, which takes us to the Camusian paradox).

    Barbara responds in fury, Staniland in despair, the sculptor in beauty he knows will not outlive him, the sergeant in a quest for truth regardless of consequence, the sculptor’s wife cannot help but be drowned in it.

    Although I do think you’re right about Raymond speaking to our failure to think and acknowledge our feelings, I think that is still within the picture of there being no greater meaning therefore our thoughts and feelings are all there is.

    HPL said that because we are all there is and there is nothing more, we should at least be kind to each other. He was not alone in that sentiment. Raymond in part explores how despite those truths, we are in fact not kind to each other at all.

  10. Hmmm… good thinking on the idea that the detective is also a perspective on the same phenomenon. I took him merely to be a way for Raymond to underline Stanisland.

    I’m not sure that the book is supposed to be non-partisan between the different reactions though. I think the fact that Stanisland is based upon Raymond so closely suggests that Raymond identifies in some way with his views.

    I suspect what may be going on is that Raymond is accepting his position in the family of existential theories (alongside Marcel, Camus and Sartre) but I think he is saying something different.

    Stanisland’s view is that we force ourselves to be partly sociopathic. We force ourselves to not give a shit or to not think things through and to not care because the truth is that everything matters to somebody and when faced with such semantic density, most people either flee or are crushed by it and consumed by existential dread.

    This is why there’s the early scene with the other CID detective and the unthinking copper. These are people who chose not to care. The blinkers are on.

    It is a great piece of work though. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year (though with the amount of bad SF I’ve read, that’s not saying as much as it should).

  11. One thing I forgot to say, but should have, Barbara is I think a direct descendant of the character Netta in Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, written in 1941.

    Patrick Hamilton in my view is a huge influence on Derek Raymond, not in as clear a way as Raymond is on Peace, but in terms of milieu and character. You might well enjoy Hangover Square, it’s interesting stuff and Netta is a memorable (if not exactly likeable) character.

  12. Guy Savage

    Thanks for pointing me to these reviews. I think I will start with He Died With His Eyes Wide Open. There are four things that persuade me:
    1) noir
    2) Barbara
    3) Serpent’s Tail (I agree, they conistently publish excellent crime fiction)
    and
    4) The reference to Hangover Square.

  13. Another Hamilton fan? Hurrah!

    Actually, I’m not really a fan yet, I’ve only read Hangover Square I think, but I was vastly impressed and certainly plan on reading more.

    On an aside, I was originally going to call my blog Of Love and Hunger, referencing another author of course, but for technical reasons that didn’t work out so Pechorin’s Journal it was.

  14. Guy A. Savage

    Max: Just wanted to drop in and say thanks for recommending Raymond. I am 1/3 of the way through He Died With His Eyes Open and it is phenomenal.

    (Have a copy of Love and Hunger here too)

  15. Pingback: They say an ambitious man can make a grand career in the cloister | Pechorin’s Journal

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