J.K. Rowling's Naked Lunch

by Arthur B

The Silkworm finds J.K. Rowling combining literary allusions with a gruesome imagination.
One of the bits of Gene Wolfe wisdom I regularly dredge up on here is the distinction Wolfe makes between a multi-volume novel and a series. To Wolfe, a multi-volume novel is a story with a planned beginning and end that is told over the span of multiple books, and when the story is told the books stop coming. Conversely, a series is a story told across several books in which there's no actual end planned, and the author simply stops writing them (or engineers an abrupt conclusion The Final Problem-style) when they, their publishers or their audience get tired of the fun and games involved.

Superhero comics and detective novel sequences are usually series in the Wolfean sense. In both cases, once the origin story is settled, it's sink or swim time - either the writer comes up with a format for future adventures which they can refine and repeat indefinitely, or it becomes apparent that the origin story was the best bit and the series doesn't have legs after that.

J.K. Rowling (donning her Robert Galbraith regimental tie) has gone on record as saying she intends her Cormoran Strike novels to go on in an open-ended fashion - in other words, it's a Wolfean series, whereas Harry Potter was a multi-volume novel. The Silkworm, then, is a crucially important entry in that series; having introduced us to Cormoran Strike, former military policeman turned private detective thanks to an IED in Afghanistan that blew his leg off, and his assistant Robin, Rowling now has to convince us that they are worth tagging along with for the long haul.

To an extent, this requires readers to buy into the Cormoran Strike formula as much as it requires us to cultivate an affection for the characters. This being the second book, we can also be expected to start noticing the formula more and more from this point on. In terms of premise, we are once again stomping around London with Cormoran and Robin investigating a case arising within the realms of celebrity - a world which Cormoran, despite his down-to-earth manner, can't quite disentangle himself from due to his history as the illegitimate son of rock legend Jonny Rokeby (and now, of course, he's also famous for cracking the Lula Landry case in the previous book).

Celebrity is an excellent target for Rowling to skewer. It is the world she exists in herself, and thanks to her incredible wealth she can be as devastatingly vicious about it as she likes. Any libel suit arising from a fictional depiction a little too close to the bone can't actually make a dent in her finances that she would actually notice, and her work is too profitable for anyone to reject. Rowling could burn all her bridges and the people on the other side would build them all over again just to maintain their connection to the Midas author.

This makes the subject matter of The Silkworm all the more tantalising, because it involves Rowling turning her attention to the world of publishing and unleashing the most gruesome and morbid side of her imagination upon it.

Cormoran and Robin at first think they are working a missing person case; Owen Quine, a literary author of lukewarm sales and mixed critical success, has vanished, and his wife Leonora, lumbered with caring for their daughter Orlando (a twentysomething with profound learning difficulties), turns to Cormoran in desperation to find him. At first there's little alarm - Quine has pulled off such disappearing acts before, it's his habitual way of throwing a tantrum, and he is known to be in a particular strop about Bombyx Mori ("The Silkworm"), a semiautobiographical allegorical fantasy in which he savages his peers through imagery which would make William Burroughs wince.

Things take a grim turn when Cormoran tracks down Quine in a state of hardcore death - naked, bound, eviscerated and burned by acid, as the centrepiece of a grotesque dinner party scene ripped directly from the conclusion of Bombyx Mori. Suddenly, everyone satirised in Quine's last work is under suspicion - but unravelling the incestuous, bickering clique around Quine is a task for no ordinary detective. Luckily for Strike, his education at Oxford has given him enough confidence in his own literacy to avoid being intellectually browbeaten by the privileged individuals he comes up against, a few choice quotes from Catullus to rattle the suspects' cages - and, most importantly, a grasp of literary analysis that proves crucial to solving the case.

Rowling said recently that the Harry Potter books are whodunnits in disguise, and I certainly think that is true of the better books in the series - and that the more that focus was obscured later on in the series, the less compelling the results were. On the strength of The Silkworm, I would say that whodunnits are her natural element - certainly, this is my favourite thing Rowling has written to date under any identity. I'd said in my review of the predecessor that Rowling's middle class mores and barbs would be better served savaging the middle class itself, and lo and behold here she is constructing an unflinching look at the pretensions of authors (both establishment figures and self-publishers), editors, agents and publishers alike. Floating about in their little bubble, the publishing industry giants Rowling depicts resemble dinosaurs pondering their own extinction; they are aware that e-readers are changing the landscape but have no idea how to respond, and their response to the self-publishing boom is to gripe about how there are too many writers and not enough readers. Although Rowling has a little fun at the expense of a character who cranks out erotic fantasy ebooks, in the big picture it turns out the individual in question has been genuinely wronged, and I got the impression that they may end up having the last laugh in the long run. Rowling also uses the literary pretensions of the characters to slip in some nice easter eggs, which she has the good taste not to signpost too garishly - for instance, William Burroughs and his work is never directly mentioned, but the crime scene and the phantasmagorical nature of BM feels like an allusion to him, and Virginia Woolf readers will raise an eyebrow at a literary author with a fixation on hermaphrodites, androgynes and trans people calling his daughter "Orlando".

Along the way, Rowling gets to check in on some of her pet themes. Strike's interactions with Culpepper, a tabloid journalist (for the News of the World, no less, the book being set mere months before said paper would close) allows Rowling to grind her well-ground axe concerning the media. As her contributions to Parliamentary inquiries on press intrusion show she has clearly put a lot of thought into the question of the balance between press freedoms and personal privacy. As illustrated by the depiction of the media in both the Strike and Potter series, and particularly as embodied by Culpepper, Rowling appreciates the importance of having an active, questioning press undertaking penetrating investigative journalism; at the same time, she clearly thinks a large segment of the press only pay lip service to those ideals. Still, Culpepper is an entertaining enough character (in a shamelessly mercenary way) that I don't mind him as one of Strike's contacts, and I look forward to the inevitable future installment of the series where Culpepper is murdered or accused of murder or something and Strike and Robin have to clean up his mess.

Much of the page count that doesn't directly deal with the present case is devoted to fleshing out Strike and Robin's lives, and Rowling does a good job of giving us enough to see them as rounded human beings with a life and existence outside of murder investigations whilst not making the reader feel as though their time is being wasted. A habit both Strike and Robin share is thinking about the murder whilst getting on with more mundane work or dealing with family and friends, and these interludes serve to both give the reader some time to digest the evidence that has come up so far and to give Robin and Strike a semblance of life outside the mystery - so that when one of them ends up in peril later on the stakes feel that much higher.

In addition, the slow burn relationship between Robin and Strike continues to develop. Robin's interactions with her fiancé Matthew remain believably dysfunctional, and a Strike-Robin kiss seems inevitable at some point in the series, but Rowling adeptly plays the will-they-won't-they game by putting a few pennies in the "they won't" side of the scales; it transpires that Robin may actually be more infatuated with the job than with Strike, and the major series-affecting plot development this time involves Robin making the shift from secretary to trainee private detective - with the full share of the risk that brings. Moreover, as much as Matthew dislikes this development, by the end of the novel he seems to have accepted it - and since Matthew's contempt for the private detective profession was a major sticking point in their relationship for the past two books, there's a real temptation to see them as reconciled, even though we know full well that Strike and Robin are on a romantic collision course. It Isn't one of literature's great flirtations, but it's hard not to get caught up in the Strike/Robin thing, not least because Rowling narrates it with the breathless enthusiasm of a soap opera fan eagerly recapping the latest episode.

Another great success of the novel is in its exploration of the Quine clique's past; just as Strike and Robin take on a reality beyond their sleuthing through their friends and family, Rowling invests not just Quine but the entire cast of suspects with the semblance of life by sketching a group history that began in literature classes in Oxford, exploded messily in the 1980s, and persisted since then as a network of interlocked grudges and obligations. Of course, in the long run much of this history proves to be only incidentally relevant to the murder, but it's all potentially relevant enough that it never feels like Rowling is wasting your time, and it also enhances the whodunnit angle - you aren't choosing suspects from a range of interchangeable cardboard cutouts, you're dealing with a situation where whoever did it had a very particular relationship with Quine and if party A turned out to be guilty that would have radically different implications from if party B did it.

The Silkworm doesn't entirely get away from some of Rowling's recurring habits. One character is presented as a gay man who has absolutely no desire for sexual interaction with men beyond painting hot guys in the nude. Not only is this exactly the sort of sanitised, celibate homosexuality that Rowling tried to apply to Dumbledore after the fact, but it isn't the only time the novel points at someone who isn't getting much action and suggests there's something weird going on; another character is portrayed as being entirely poisoned by their burning sexual frustrations.

In addition to this, Rowling attempts to fulfil her once-a-book quota of trying to incorporate members of a marginalised group by bringing in a trans character (tying in with Quine's interest in blurring gender boundaries), but does so by having that character wave around a knife threateningly and acting all irrational and angry. The intention may not be to connect those unappealing characteristics with the character being trans - they are also 19 and have been grotesquely provoked - and Rowling does have Robin sympathise with the character in question to an extent that I think we are meant to think the character is terribly brave for how they have handled their trans identity and the prejudice of others. At the same time, the whole thing reeks of tokenism because the character in question is incredibly shallowly characterised compared to everyone else, as though being trans constituted sufficient characterisation all by itself.

On balance, though, I found The Silkworm enough of an improvement over The Cuckoo's Calling that I am inclined to push on with the series. After all, with this volume she seems to take the series in exactly the direction I said I hoped she would in my previous review, and it would be churlish to slam Rowling for following my advice. The next book tackles the subject of retired soldiers, a subject close to Rowling's heart - the Galbraith royalties go to charity to support them, in fact - and it'll be another day one Kindle purchase for me.

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