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.