Wednesday, May 26, 2021

No, more likely, he has failed somehow to read them rightly - Robert Coover, James Sallis, and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

For some reason I paid $4.95 for Robert Coover’s Spanking the Maid (1982), although, if you can see the REGULAR PRICE, it’s $14!  For 94 pages!  This must have been twenty years ago.  Finally, I have read the book, as part of the ritual of getting rid of it.

Spanking the Maid is, as the title and cover suggest, a sadism and masochism novel, a struggle, possibly voluntary, possibly not, between a maid and her employer.  She is always making mistakes; he is consequently always spanking her, according to the rules of the manual.

The room is clean, the bed stripped and made, the maid whipped, why isn’t that enough?  Is there something missing in the manuals?  No, more likely, he has failed somehow to read them rightly.  Yet again.  (71)

Spanking the Maid is also, or I would say is primarily, a French New Novel by an American writer, about fiction about fiction about fiction, onward as far as you can stand.  Two characters, one setting (a bedroom with attached bath), with events repeated again and again, the perspective shifting from the maid to the employer and back, a few pages at a time.  The interest, the art, or alternatively the tedium, is in all the little variations in the events of the morning, all on the same template: the maid makes an error and is punished.  Again, perhaps as part of a sexual game, but perhaps not.  The woman eventually wins the game, for what that’s worth.

The internals rhymes and made/maid pun in the first sentence above are intentional and inventional – an intention/invention confusion is on the same page – and I would not have minded more of the linguistic play, more of the occasional Surrealist elements.  But mostly it is a text about repetition, like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947), with less style.  

Speaking of whom – I am switching to James Sallis’s The Long-legged Fly (1992):

One of the plates read W. Percy, M.D., another R. Queneau.  The third one just read B.S.  I punched the button beside it.  (86)

That is New Orleans private investigator Lew Griffin on a missing-person case, invoking two of his novel’s ancestors, French and Existentialist-American.  The Long-legged Fly is less a mystery novel than one of those anti-mysteries I enjoy, full of literature and parody and an utter lack of resolution.  It takes a severe meta-fictional turn at the end, guaranteeing that most mystery fans, as I understand them, will loathe the book, but the character who writes detective novels notes that “[t]he books are very popular in France” (172), and in fact Sallis’s Lew Griffin novels are more popular, if not “very” popular, in France than in the U.S.  The Long-legged Fly was Sallis’s first novel, so it was a little weird to see him prophesy so well.  But he knew what he was writing – again, an Americanized existentialist French New Novel – so it was not such a crazy guess.

I’ll cram in one more detective novel, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Murder in the Central Committee (1981, tr. Patrick Camilleri), the fifth of the Pepe Carvalho series.  I felt I finally needed to read one of the novels that gave Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano his name, so my interest was meta-fictional to begin with, before we find a murder suspect complaining that “Vázquez Montalbán can win the Planeta Prize” (60) – for an earlier Carvalho novel.

Or perhaps the suspect is praising the prize.  I'm not sure.  The Central Committee is of Spanish Communists, newly liberated from Franco’s repression.  Their chief is murdered, so our detective and his poor readers have to sit through a lot of theoretical Communist gibberish, and I do not want to say I understood it all.

In between, there is a lot of food, and some vivid sex.  Vázquez Montalbán writes with the kind of exuberant post-Franco excess I associate with Pedro Almodóvar, the sense artists seemed to have that they needed to catch up with the rest of Europe, in gusto, among other things:

Madrid markets provide a lesson in polychromic symmetry, with their plumed onion, metallic tuna-heads, glassy, finely dressed trouts, scraps of humanised cardboard boxes, oily Toro pastry, chorizos from Candelario, individually polished green beans from La Granja, porcelain chickpeas.  He bought some cooked tripe, capipota, frozen peas, the first fresh artichokes of the year, a head of garlic, almonds, pine kernels, a chunk of meaty tuna fish, a tin of anchovies, oil, onions and tomatoes.  (127)

I am not convinced the mystery as such is so special – it turns into more of a comic espionage anti-thriller – but the Madrid food is extraordinary.


  1. Eduardo Mendoza in his first mad detective novel jokes about the sort of novel that wins the Planeta. Now I wonder if that's a general joke or an allusion to this.

  2. Outstanding. That was I Killed Kennedy? And then he won it a few years later, for the book just before the one I read.

  3. No, Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt. But he did go on to win it--I haven't read his winner.

  4. Oh I se my confusion. Yes, that is likely exactly the reference. Pretty inside. These books could use some footnotes.