Manuel Puig Essay - Critical Essays

Manuel Puig Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

Manuel Puig was not, strictly speaking, a mystery and detective novelist. His modus operandi was consistently more or less to usurp some popular genre for each of his novels. In Heartbreak Tango, he used the serialized melodrama, in Kiss of the Spider Woman, the screenplay. Even as he plundered the artifacts of mass culture, Puig’s attitude toward popular culture was deeply ironic. It is this obvious ambivalence that made him one of the most self-conscious of twentieth century writers.

The Buenos Aires Affair

Consequently, Puig’s use of the police-novel format for The Buenos Aires Affair, his third novel, reflects a sincere interest in the genre yet simultaneously permits him to parody its conventions. The result is an interesting amalgamation of pop fiction and the avant-garde. In reviewing the novel for The New York Times Book Review, Robert Alter called it a “sustained bravura performance by a writer keenly conscious of how both the novel as a literary form and the kinds of people who are its best subjects have been caught up in the clichés of popular culture.”

Puig initially chose to write the book as a detective novel because he had already selected the themes he wanted to treat—repressed sexuality and contained violence. He believed that the narrative structure typical of detective literature would facilitate his project. In fact, the conventions of detective writing were particularly well suited to his undertaking. First, the rules of the genre are very well defined. Puig had only to subtitle his book “detective novel” to activate an entire set of expectations in readers. Second, the detective novel appeals to those who read critically and enjoy filling in missing details and information. Puig’s narrative technique has always required such readers.

Puig’s critics have often compared his technique to the neorealism of the French New Novelists. Puig was generally quick to deny any literary influence and to insist that the cinema had a greater impact on his work. Specifically, he mentioned Alfred Hitchcock as a major influence on The Buenos Aires Affair. The majority of Puig’s novels are attempts to render in prose reality as it might be seen by a camera’s eye—that is, with distortions, omissions, and plenty of room for an audience to draw false conclusions. This coincides with the efforts of the New Novelists to record reality in an objective fashion, without commentary or interpretation in the text, much as a camera would. It is the same nonintrusive style of writing that French critic Roland Barthes has called “zero degree writing.” The technique in itself creates mystery, and Puig’s fiction has much in common with works by New Novelists Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor that have been classified as detective fiction.

The classic detective story has well-defined rules of functioning. Generally, the whodunit begins with a crime, preferably a murder. The story, then, involves a detective’s reconstruction of the event from available clues to unmask the perpetrator of the crime. The text moves toward a solution while at the same time postponing that solution through a series of false leads and delays. It is this process of discovery, rather than the answer to the problem or the identity of the criminal, that forms the body of the book. The detective, not being omniscient, must piece together his solution through careful observation of evidence found at the scene of the crime as well as from eyewitness accounts that are necessarily fragmented and sometimes unreliable. Puig’s fiction works in a similar manner, often requiring readers to supply connections and interpretations.

In The Buenos Aires Affair, Puig uses a variety of narrative techniques. There is no consistent narrative voice or point of view, and there is no detective other than the reader. Sometimes a dispassionate third-person narrator catalogs objects in a room, listing, for example, the sharpest object, the most expensive objects, metal objects, and the like. At other times, an omniscient narrator lays bare the hearts and minds of the characters, revealing their dreams and sexual...

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