Fiction: Spray-Painted Mysteries
Nina Siegal, A Little Trouble with the Facts (Harper, March 2008)
If judged only by its synopsis, Nina Siegal’s debut novel, A Little Trouble with the Facts, would be quickly categorized as a neo-noir, a rehash of mystery/suspense structure contemporized by a slew of modern landscapes and references. This is both true and misleading. On the one hand, the novel certainly does not attempt to break noir convention. It is packed with corkscrew twists and dubious personages, and is piloted by Valerie Vane, a beleaguered obituary writer whose incisive first-person narration presents her as an amalgam of a reformed femme fatale and a classic PI. Additionally, in true noir fashion, the plot is rolling from page one, when Vane receives an ominous phone call regarding the obituary of a famous graffiti artist named Malcolm Wallace, aka Stain 149. “Who said [it was] suicide?” the caller wants to know. All Vane can answer is that the police report had said, “jump from bridge,” and she had inferred from there. When evidence accumulates to suggest that Wallace was, in fact, thrown from the Queensboro Bridge, Vane is placed on a fast track either to redemption or to that special rock they keep below rock bottom.
But while the novel never rebels against its heritage, Siegal has subtly rejuvenated the genre. The innovation of the book is in the subtext constructed by her carefully wrought extended metaphors, which surface under new aliases throughout the narrative just as the primary characters do. There is, for example, “the Incident” that instigates Vane’s plummet from grace, an event that leaves her screaming, “Don’t you know who I am?” What has become a clichéd yelp of the glitterati is gingerly subverted throughout the book to become a sweeping statement about the need to be seen, recognized, immortalized. It originates from the same place as that common vandalistic urge to write “I was here,” and—no matter how soothing it would be to believe such a compulsion is rooted in grand ideas of living on through art—is most often a by-product of chronic insecurity. That Vane and Wallace share it so fundamentally provides a connection between them that bridges life and death as naturally as the Queensboro bridges the East River. From here, the key symbol of the book emerges, the conceit of “the writing on the walls,” literally and metaphorically. Siegal expertly misdirects the reader with false clues, all the while spray-painting the truth in the tunnels and overpasses of the book, where we will decipher them only if we look closely out the window as the train trundles along.
One of Vane’s fellow reporters condenses the genre beautifully when he says of the Queensboro Bridge, “When I was growing up, this bridge was supposed to be the scariest place on earth […] Kids said they saw lights for trains that never came or else trains full of ghosts.” What else is mystery than evidence of something that cannot be seen, and what else is suspense than a vision of something that cannot be explained? This coy commentary on noir runs throughout the novel, adding a colorful depth and resonance.