With spare and rigorous brilliance, Jeffrey DeShell’s Expectation reforms speech, narration, and the tropes of American noir through the spellbinding operations of a new Schoenbergian lingo, a hard-boiled sprechstimme, a talk as tough as Hammett, Cain, and Chandler’s, as singular and expressive as Pierrot Lunaire’s.
On the surface a murder mystery — a detective’s search for the killer of five people in Denver — Expectation is also, among other things, a meditation on the relationship between language and music.
In his newest novel, Jeffrey DeShell draws on the musical innovations of Arnold Schoenberg — by turns traditional, serial, and atonal — to inform his grammar and language. Moving progressively through specific Schoenberg compositions, DeShell complicates the surface of his text into lyrical derivatives, all the while drawing us into a murder mystery like no other as Detective Francisca Fruscella pursues both the killer and her own complicated personal history.
By turns rapturous, rigorous, and gripping, Expectation is a thriller of another kind — and a bold venture to the limits of the mystery genre and language itself.
With spare and rigorous brilliance, Jeffrey DeShell’s Expectation reforms speech, narration, and the tropes of American noir through the spellbinding operations of a new Schoenbergian lingo, a hard-boiled sprechstimme, a talk as tough as Hammett, Cain, and Chandler’s, as singular and expressive as Pierrot Lunaire’s. DeShell’s exploration of Viennese serialism’s effects on form and content succeeds mightily because, in the best tradition of experimentalism, its conclusion is not closure or confirmation, but a necessary reminder that everything, particularly language and its performance, could be otherwise, and that the complexities of otherwise can be as moving as hell.
I have long admired Jeffrey DeShell’s work because each novel is a fresh and entirely different, asking the reader to adopt a new theory of reading. The high-concept detective story that is Expectation reaches a moving musical climax in its final third that’s not often seen in the prose of peers. But readers will be equally delighted to find in this work a memorable, compelling character — the widowed, driven, urbane Denver detective Francesca Fruscella. Her voice of voices drives this thoroughly satisfying novel.
An avant-noir tour de force, Jeffrey DeShell’s Arthouse is an architecturally stunning exploration of how we are all thought by cinema.
Arthouse is an audacious transformation in prose of fourteen modernist films. From film to film, Jeffrey DeShell follows a forty-something failed film studies academic — The Professor. While The Professor is reinvented with each new chapter (or film), what remains is DeShell’s inventive deconstruction and representation of modern cinema. At times borrowing imagery, plot, or character elements, and at times rendering lighting, rhythm, costuming, or shot sequences into fictional language, The Professor’s journey sends him from the Southwestern town of Pueblo, Colorado, into the role of rescuer as he aids an attempted-rape victim, and finally to Italy. Ultimately though, The Professor is left alone, struggling to reconcile the real world with his life in cinema.
An avant-noir tour de force, Jeffrey DeShell’s Arthouse is an architecturally stunning exploration of how we are all thought by cinema. Peopled by tweakers, dealers, killers, a woman hostage, and an ex-con academic, set in a blasted corner of the New West, and shot through the lenses of fourteen films, this extraordinary novel appropriates and celebrates a multiplicity of filmic vocabularies and points of view, even as it turns family into a Fellini, sex into a Suzuki, and the world into a series of eccentric angles, incommensurate scripts, and beautiful, stylized, joco-serious, self-reflexive textual double exposures.
Jeffrey DeShell’s writing of them gets under the skin, the way parents’ “autobiographies” also live under their children’s lives. DeShell is a daring, intelligent, hard-eyed, and tenderhearted writer …
The Trouble With being Born
Novel, memoir, and anti-memoir, The Trouble with Being Born depicts the lives of Frances and Joe, husband and wife. Told in their own alternating voices, they recall their lives, separately and together, and the divergent trajectories of their origins and aspirations.
Frances’s story moves in reverse: beginning with her dementia in old age, her narrative moves backwards into lucidity, through a cruel and loveless marriage, the birth of her son Jeffrey, and into a childhood that she recalls fondly as a time of innocence and belonging.
Joe’s memories begin in childhood, a bewildered boy struggling with poverty, racism, and isolation, and we watch him grow into a manhood fraught with wrong turns, rage, betrayals, and disappointment, caring in the end for the woman he has long mistreated.
The Trouble with Being Born is a stark meditation on memory and the struggle — both necessary and impossible — to remember.
In his fourth book, Jeffrey DeShell takes on the challenge of writing from inside those familiar strangers whose lives led to his own: his parents. The elegant formal structure of The Trouble with Being Born organizes a thoughtful, heartfelt, and extraordinarily visual (indeed, sensual) querying of histories, subjectivities, and the narrative shapes we give to our lives.
The Trouble with Being Born evokes the constricted egotism and materialistic desperation of America’s mid-century. The DeShell family seems incomprehensible, spilling out everywhere as romantic fragments, bourgeois myths, the bric-a-brac of blocked transcendence and dogged calculation. I emerged from the reading with a powerful sense of words struggling, like the characters themselves, to organize contradictions into a life.
In The Trouble with Being Born, the parents trade riffs, mother and father telling their stories in short, staccato sentences. Jeffrey DeShell’s writing of them gets under the skin, the way parents’ “autobiographies” also live under their children’s lives. DeShell is a daring, intelligent, hard-eyed, and tenderhearted writer, all of which is abundantly evident in his wonderful new novel.
A stylistic and formal tour-de-force that manages at the same time to tell an enormously entertaining story about sex and loss and the quixotic self-deceiving pursuit of love.
S & M
An elegant exploration of language, passion, imagination, and betrayal, Jeffrey DeShell’s second novel is a nocturnal meditation on sexual politics and sexual exigency. Full of lyricism and wit, S & M relentlessly questions the roles language and imagination play in the construction of sexual and emotional desire.
S & M presents characters driven by the lustful pursuit of any loving other who might turn out to be a more flattering image of themselves. Through them, we suffer knowledge of our own shallowness, which is at once comical and devastating. Despite its own deceptively shiny surface, this is a book with death and resonance, with something important to say about the possibilities of becoming a self that you can live with and let live.
Stylish and stylized, DeShell’s S & M is a novel for people who can still feel a frisson from reading novels.
We’re concerned about the level of judgment that’s been exercised by the people responsible for its publication … such materials are a violation of what most people in Iowa would find prudent.
S & M is an aggregation of small words like stones or shells which suggests a well-known territory: the place where we obsess over relationships.
Here’s a fluid plot shaped by a narrative voice both elegant and playful — always with an ear for the music of words — sliding the reader face first into both place and story, accompanied by interesting, provocative characters with lives shaped and complicated by the culture of the late 20th century. DeShell gives his characters the freedom to create themselves, create each other, and, in a way, re-create us as we read.
This is the saddest story deconstructed. As a collage of ill-fated love triangles, this neo-Pop romance may be for its generation what Barthelme’s Snow White was for the sixties. DeShell’s debut is provocative, compelling, and too smart to be hip — the author is his own psychosexual and philosophical brat pack.
In Heaven Everything Is Fine
Jeffrey DeShell’s In Heaven Everything is Fine is a first novel with a difference. While engaging a traditional subject — a young man’s initiation into the difficulty of life amidst the hard realities of love, waste, and failure — it does so in a peculiarly contemporary way. Reflecting a style of life into which a new generation is being inducted, the story is told through fragments of narrative and collaged excerpts from media reportage. The protagonists’ state of mind is expressed through the very context of contemporary history which has created it. The whole projects the effect of humor and melancholy very much like the blues. In fact, the impact of the book is heavily informed by its allusion to contemporary rock music as it inherits the blues tradition.
Jeffrey DeShell’s “Exploration of Surfaces” is a virtuosic analysis of human relationships using mathematics and Scrabble, producing a story that is witty, touching, and insightful despite (or perhaps because of) its experimental typography.
In Heaven Everything Is Fine plays many fields. Lists of lit-crit and rock-and-roll Top Ten hits, headlines, TV news, and ads are part of the story. DeShell’s quirky, bittersweet characters wander in and out of clubs, bars, and apartments, hungering in a deadpan, I-don’t-really-care way for a sort of integrity, for a kind of meaning. In Heaven Everything Is Fine is as tender as it is smart.
Jeffrey DeShell has managed to make the form of the crime novel erudite, challenging, and entertaining at the same time. What a wonderful trompe l’oeil, a true literary experiment and adventure. This is a truly fine piece of work.
Masses and Motets
A crime novel loosely based on the masses and songs of the 17th century Flemish composer Pierre de la Rue
Masses and Motets is a tale composed of four basic interwoven threads, corresponding to the four-part choral writing of Pierre de la Rue’s service music. The first thread comes from the diaries of a recently murdered priest, Father Andrea Vidal, former secretary to the notorious Father Marcial Maciel. The second thread is the mystery story, a police procedural focusing on the efforts of Denver detective Francesca Fruscella to solve the murder and retrieve Vidal’s diary. The third strand is the story of Father Signelli, a priest sent from the Vatican to “fix” the murder. And the fourth strand explores the best and worst of Catholic culture: art and music created by Catholic artists and sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
Vidal’s narrative is the story of a priest who systematically, sincerely, and hopefully tries to destroy his very self through sex, drinking, and drugs in order to get closer to God. Fruscella’s story is that of a middle-aged, female detective trying to solve a ghastly murder while constantly battling the sexism of the Catholic Church. Signelli’s tale is that of an older career priest who, in doing the bidding of his superiors to fix problems that threaten the order of the Church, has perhaps compromised his own soul. By no means a simple narrative of wicked priests, this is a story of men who desperately want to believe, as well as a story of what this belief might shelter and cost.
Readers will want to see more of the intriguing Francesca. Those interested in issues facing today’s Catholic Church will best appreciate this one.
Jeffrey DeShell writes the only detective novels I want to read. Masses and Motets tore the top of my head off; I loved every word.