Rereading . . . saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere).” I love that aphorism from Roland Barthes’s S/Z, though he spoils it a bit by adding that to reread is to engage in a subversive act, resisting the tyranny of consumer culture. (Always with the “subversion”: so tedious, that posturing!) In my experience, as a bookish person acquainted firsthand with many like-minded souls and connected variously with a countless number of hard-core readers, rereading is quite commonplace. My dear late friend Bill Tunilla, for instance, always had with him a custom-made fabric bag, Victorian in design, that was just the right size for a small book (most often a Trollope novel, sometimes one of his Thomas Hardy favorites). Of course he reread them, multiple times.
Something like that is a common practice for readers with a wild variety of tastes. It doesn’t apply exclusively to “old favorites,” or to any particular variety of fiction. (I know people, myself included, who are passionate rereaders of Thomas Bernhard!) When I read a novel for the first time, I almost always reread it right away, unless I simply didn’t care for it (in which case I’m likely to have abandoned it early on).
“But isn’t it incredibly boring to reread a novel you’ve just finished?” Not at all! I like to see how the book is made, and I always catch things that I missed the first time around. I savor bits that I particularly enjoyed on the initial reading; encountering them again adds to the pleasure. If the writer in question is aphoristic (like Muriel Spark, for instance), rereading reinforces my memory of signature lines.
I’ve just reread Spencer Quinn’s latest in the Chet & Bernie series, Tender Is the Bite, published earlier this month. (I wrote about the two previous installments last year and the year before.) The books are narrated by Chet (who is not a “talking dog” but rather a dog whose consciousness we are privy to, thanks to the alchemy of fiction), relating his adventures with Bernie Little; together they make the Little Detective Agency, based in Arizona. “Spencer Quinn” is a pen name for Peter Abrahams, who wrote many excellent novels under his own name and was hailed by Stephen King as “my favorite suspense novelist”; King has described the Chet & Bernie books as “without a doubt the most original mystery series currently available.”
I sense, in some quarters of the audience, a degree of skepticism. “Most original mystery series currently available”? Really? Please note: This is not merely generous hyperbole on King’s part. With the central conceit of dog-as-narrator, the series could easily slide into kitsch. It never does. Let those fastidious readers who turn up their noses at such a prospect look elsewhere! I will relish the delights of perceiving the world via Chet’s superb nose and ears and eyes, not to mention his companionable consciousness.
Part of the fun of the series, of course, is that Chet often perceives things that he is unable to communicate to Bernie but that we readers learn about from Chet’s narrative (he notices a smell, for instance, that Bernie is oblivious to). At the same time, Chet reports Bernie’s out-loud musings to us, which he often fails to understand entirely (as he is quick to admit). We readers can combine information from both sources.
More broadly, Chet’s narrative voice is one of the treasures of contemporary American fiction across the board:
Here’s what I had to work with on the trail up to the mine. First there were the smells of me and Bernie, but they were not the most recent. Later than us—on top of our scents, if you’re with me—came the scents of two men, one who had a bit of nervous sweat going on, the sour kind of male human sweat, and the other whose smell reminded me of a strange case we’d worked, something about fake rabbis. Had there been a banquet with some sort of reddish soup? I couldn’t remember.
Chet may not remember, but he has just supplied the reader with some vital bits of information, not to mention the enjoyment of hearing even cryptically about strange cases from the past (like those allusions in the Sherlock Holmes stories to cases that were never, alas, recorded by Watson).
Casting a rightfully disenchanted eye on partisan politics in the U.S. today, Tender Is the Bite includes a lovely grace note late in the going. Chet curls up as he and Bernie are on the road yet again in a battered Porsche:
I curled up, got comfy, felt the power of the Porsche and the power of the earth itself, coming up through the wheels. A mighty invisible hand placed itself gently on my eyelids and closed them. Rumble, rumble, rumble. Ah, heaven, whatever that happened to be. A voice in my head—Charlie’s actually [Charlie is the divorced Bernie’s beloved young son], which was a first—said, “Of the dogs, by the dogs, for the dogs.” Heaven? Was I there?
The Chet & Bernie series will continue in October with the publication of It’s a Wonderful Woof. If you haven’t yet tried these books, why not pick up the first one, Dog on It, to see if it’s your cup of tea. If you enjoy it, you could easily read the others between now and October.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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