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March 10, 2014 4:52 PM True Detective: Wonders of the Invisible World

By Henry Farrell

[Warning: Over-long ruminations and significant True Detective spoilers below the fold]

Nic Pizzolato, the executive producer and writer of True Detective says in interview that the show owes a lot to weird fiction writers like Thomas Ligotti and Laird Barron. I’ve no doubt that’s true. However, the show’s organizing tensions aren’t those of Ligotti, Barron and their crowd; they more closely resemble those of another and much better writer of the supernatural; Robert Aickman.

Ligotti and Barron are Lovecraft’s children, or better still, weak and flickering shadows of their father. Ligotti’s fiction isn’t really interested in human beings – the characters in his stories are crude puppets in a show scripted to show the awesome cosmic futility of it all. After you’ve read two or three, the monotony starts to overwhelm. Barron is better and certainly more apt for Pizzolato’s purposes – his stories are often about the breakdown of tough-guy ideals of masculinity in the face of the unknown. Again however, they start to sound like each other very quickly; indistinguishable characters bound together by ligatures of cod-Nietzschian philosophizing, in which vast, pitiless universal forces explain themselves at length to the doomed protagonists, telling them precisely why they are so unimportant. The void turns out to be quite chatty; who’da thunk it?

Aickman, in contrast, is quite definitely interested in individuals. If he has a secret model, it’s Kafka’s Before the Law. Aickman’s characters differ in many of the ways that real people differ, but are similar in one. They are trapped in their lives in ways that they do not really understand. In the classic Aickman story, the supernatural irrupts into these lives to confront their authors with their actual circumstances, encoded in a metaphor. The revelation, such as it is, is oblique. Its message is for its recipient, and its recipient alone, but it cannot really be understood by her or him, only apprehended. Even so, it creates a dialogue between the individual and her situation, completing some circuit between them that provides no escape route, but instead a kind of bleak satisfaction. The reader only eavesdrops on this conversation, picking up hints as to what is really being said. These hints are enough.

This seems to me to be one useful way of reading the conclusion of True Detective (obviously, there are many possible readings). The finale is generic Southern Gothic, albeit high quality generic Southern Gothic. Fine old families gone to seed. Parricide. Old houses overwhelmed by accumulated layers of detritus. Ruined buildings overtaken by the greenery. The confrontation with the murderer, both the product of generations of in-breeding, and the incestuous progeny of a hundred Hollywood maniacs. Taken on its own, it’s a little disappointing.

But it shouldn’t be left on its own. It’s a distorted reflection of other mysteries that are never resolved. Jacob Mikanowski has a fine essay on the show in the LA Review of Books, which talks to how the show’s landscape and backdrop tell stories that the plot itself only indirectly alludes to. The petrochemical industry that is tearing up the Louisiana landscape. The mother of a dead daughter, whose nerves have been irretrievably damaged by chemicals in her workplace. The network of Christian schools, set up to work around the bussing rules which themselves reflect battles over race that are never directly alluded to.

These hidden structures are the real Invisibles, whose workings shape and constrain the lives of everyone depicted in the show. The power of the Tuttle family is a way of making hidden relationships graspable for a moment, reducing the vast inhuman systems of economy and power into a single point, an individual or small group of individuals whom we can hold accountable (or at least pretend to hold accountable).

There’s yet another world that is largely invisible to the main characters. Marty talks twice (if my memory is correct) about the Detective’s Curse – the detective’s inability to see the solution that is right under his nose. He also talks, in a rare moment of self-awareness, about how his greatest infidelity wasn’t his sexual unfaithfulness; it was his inattention to his family. Marty’s unforgivable weakness is that he can only see his family through the distorting lens of his own ongoing crisis of identity. He’s trapped by who he is into walking the same patterns again, and again, and again, and again, unaware of the ever-tighter spiral that he is enfolding himself within. He doesn’t think of his family as real people. When he meets his wife in the third arc of the show, for the first time in two years, it’s clear that he only has the vaguest sense of his daughters’ adult lives.

So too, Rust is trapped into being who he is, by the memory of the daughter whom he accidentally ran over. The world of True Detectives is a world of broken fathers. Carcosa – the realm where perpetual repetition is made visible – is one metaphor for their situation. Another is the Tuttle family, in which Marty’s violent paternalism and need to control the women and children in his life turn into murder and incest.

The final show, where Marty’s and Rust’s lives collide with their reflections in Carcosa, provide a kind of ambiguous catharsis. Under one interpretation, the resolution uncritically confirms the structural sexism of the show, in which women are bit players. While both men start to come to terms with their family histories, their most important relationship (as it has been throughout the show) is with each other. Underneath their verbal sparring, their love for each other defines their lives (Maggie recognizes this when she figures out that having sex with Rust would be the one truly unforgivable transgression she could commit). The show’s main characters start in a man-centric world, and will continue in it, indefinitely.

Another interpretation, which seems to me to be equally plausible, is that the catharsis of the closing episode is false, and deliberately so. The darkness continues. Marty’s inattention to his family has had profound costs. The show strongly suggests that one of Marty’s daughters has been the victim of sexual abuse, in ways that mirror the detective story, just as the detective story mirrors the story of Marty’s family. Marty doesn’t seem aware of this at all. If Marty and Rust conclude that the light as winning, it is only because they fail to see the darkness that surrounds them, and cannot see it, so long as they continue to live in a world of purely brotherly camaraderie, a war of light against dark where one responds to male violence only with more violence and leaves women’s business to the women. Even when you are confronted with your true situation, you cannot necessarily free yourself from it. The detective’s curse means that you do not escape from Carcosa. You only think that you do because you are willfully blind to the Carcosa that surrounds you, the labyrinth made of the circle that is invisible and everlasting.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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