One thing I wanted to raise is that generally, when we interact with technology, we provide a lot of data about ourselves. And we do it without really thinking because it makes our lives more convenient. And then at a certain point, it’s almost like, there’s no way you could go about your days without Google Maps and without Amazon and without Netflix. In terms of online dating with the world that I created, online dating is really driven by data and algorithms and all that.
Because romance is so essential, finding your significant other is so essential to our conceptions of what we want our lives to be. And in order to have the best match possible, you actually want to get out as much data as you can about yourself to get a more accurate result. I don’t want to say that it’s like, definitely bad or good, but I do think it’s something worth thinking about in terms of what we put out there and what we get out of it.
Jane Pek, interview with Angela Qian at Hyphen Magazine
I became a Jane Pek fan when I read her two BASS stories – one in 2020 and one in 2021 – presenting female characters from Chinese mythology in a more positive light than the original tales held them. When I found out her debut novel was a mystery involving computer matchmaking, I was… ok, yeah, I’ll admit it, a little disappointed. But in the end, I went with my faith in her ability to weave story lines together and keep me reading. And guess what – faith works.
The book features Claudia Lin, verifier for a secretive company that checks out whether the person you’re chatting with on a computer dating site is telling the truth. A client has some unusual requests, which leads to several mysteries. I’m being obscure here because the pace of revelation is part of the pleasure of the book; Pek resolves one question only to raise another and keep us curious about what’s going on. Those who want more details can find plenty of reviews (I’ve never considered these posts reviews; I have no training for reviewing. I’m instead recording my reading experience so I can remember what was important to me years later) that provide a bit more without being spoilers.
At my verifier interview, when Komla explained what Veracity did and I said, maybe with a tad too much enthusiasm, “Like a detective agency?”, he looked faintly perturbed – which, I’ve come to realize with Komla Atsina, possibly meant he was one wrist flick away from consigning my résumé to the shred file. That man is harder to read than Finnegans Wake. A detective agency might seem like an obvious parallel, he said, but he tried to dissuade clients from viewing Veracity as such. The verifiers didn’t solve crimes, and they didn’t intervene in the course of events beyond reporting their findings to their clients. Think of us, he said, as a personal investment advisory firm.
A month into the job, it’s obvious to me that all our clients think of us as a detective agency.
I should make a confession here about one of my guilty pleasures: back in the 80s, 90s, into the aughts, I frequently read a small group of murder mystery series writers. It was mostly the hook on top of the mystery that got me interested: Jonathan Kellerman’s psychological and medical settings, Faye Kellerman’s exploration of Orthodox Judaism in contemporary life, Stephen White’s humor (which he dropped after the first two books, but thankfully resurrected later with an entry that had me giggling throughout) and psychological insight, Patricia Cornwell’s detailed explanations of the science used in postmortem exams and crime scene analysis (pre-CSI, by the way). But even the best series gets old after a while, or takes a wrong turn; I lost interest in them and never found replacements. Then I started reading literary short fiction seriously, and blogging, and taking moocs, and left the mysteries behind. Literally – they (along with other casual fiction) are stashed on a bottom shelf of the bookcase behind my bed, so they’re the last thing anyone looking at my books will find. One of these days I may post about them, just to atone for that.
So in a way, reading The Verifiers was nostalgic, a trip back in time. But better. Because even though the tone has a crisp factual modernity rather than the smooth emotive romanticism of her short fiction, I still love how Pek writes.
She does a lot with this book while keeping the mystery front and center. For example, a minor character is a writer. “Lionel writes the kind of story you read in The New Yorker, where nothing happens but the characters are all thrumming with anguish.” I read that passage within a few days of posting about Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child, about which I’d written, “a self-obsessed man basically muses about how miserable his life is for the first 100 of 400 pages. Then something happens, and we get some crucial story, but it’s back to 50 pages of navel-gazing and description before anything else happens.” (In my – and Murdoch’s – defense, I did find some academic papers that gave me a better understanding of all that nothing-happening).
Lionel isn’t having a good time of it: “The writer’s life, going by Lionel’s example, is a hamster wheel of submission and rejection. He’s told me he has an email folder labeled Dreamcrushers, where he archives all the rejection notes he has ever received.” Well, sure, even I have one of those. But it’s a kick to see how she works this into the overall story.
Lionel and Claudia tease each other about the stock phrases so many book reviewers use; “beautifully written,” “gorgeous sentences.” As it happens, I made a proposal years ago to my blogging buddy Jake Weber:
I keep thinking about the drinking game – take a shot every time someone… writes a sensitive coming-of-age scene with an age/race gap? Or eloquently portrays the end of a marriage? Nah…I don’t know, there’s something out there. Unnamed first person narrator. Unnamed third person protagonist (“the boy” or “the woman” – man, I hate that). Drawing blanks here, but I’m sure there’s a drinking game in there somewhere.
Me, in an email to Jake Weber
Every once in a while we still refer to it in one of our posts – in fact, Jake just gave me such a shoutout (“Karen! The drinking game begins with the first story!”) when he recently began his read/blog of BASS 2021. One of the reasons I so enjoyed this book was that it fit into my life so well.
Then there’s a wonderfully sly reference to writing in a scene at a Halloween party. She’s introduced to Rina, and they begin one of those conversations that in subtle ways has them both figuring out if they’re interested in each other. Claudia picks up on something:
That tangents us into a discussion of buttermilk versus ricotta, fluffy versus chewy, toppings versus fillings, and where to find the best pancakes in New York. Rena stakes all nine of her cat lives on a breakfast-only restaurant in Harlem called the Fitz. “When I lived up there I went every weekend,” she says. “I was on a mission to get through their entire menu.”
There’s a slight hitch in the rhythm of her statement, as if, maybe, she had been about to say when we lived up there. Now I get it. The Very Recently Single And Unhappy About It. Not any kind of situation I’d want to insert myself into; I’d be like the chapter in a novel that the author clearly wrote because their editor told them it needed some sort of transition between Exciting Event A and Exciting Event B.
What makes this particularly sly is that it’s in a transition section between one exciting event and another, between one discovery about character related to the murder and her confrontation with him. I just want to jump up and down and say, “I see what you did there!” That’s something I saw in one of her stories as well: she sneaks in Easter eggs everywhere, and I’m probably only noticing a fraction of them. And I just found another while writing this post: Claudia was recruited to Veracity via an online mystery game, which brings to mind the crossword puzzle used in the film The Imitation Game to recruit cryptography staff (a fictional technique, as it turns out).
She brings in literary references as well, channeling Chaucer’s Wife of Bath with advice on timing of romantic advances, and mentioning Jane Austen and Henry James. She has a lot of fun with Inspector Yuan mysteries, a (fictitious) detective from a mystery series set in the Ming dynasty. She recalls his techniques as she tries to solve the murder of a client. Sometimes they help her (“Right then it comes to me that I’m in the information-asymmetry scene in every Inspector Yuan novel where one out-of-the-loop character keeps asking questions so everyone else can reveal important information in a vaguely naturalistic way”); sometimes it’s more like “How come Inspector Yuan never had to worry about this?” That information-asymmetry is a real thing, by the way, from, of all things, economics.
One of the more emotional stir-ins concerns Claudia’s family, which has some psychodynamic similarities to the family of the woman whose murder she’s investigating. There’s an incredibly touching scene late in the book as she realizes her brother Charles had been fighting his own demons all along. He tells her he’s always acted in whatever way was expected, to prove to their mother that he was “an asset, not a liability” out of fear that she might escape with Claudia and leave him behind:
My brother loves me, I’m sure he does. I’ve felt it any number of times. When we are in his car and he brakes suddenly, he will fling his arm across the passenger seat like seatbelts are a scam and I’ll crash-dummy out through the windshield otherwise. Every time I’ve asked for help he showed up, making sure to nag me halfway to hell. But: what he said to me while we were driving through the hushed, late-night Queens, Symposium a melancholy sweetness through the speakers. You become something if you act that way for long enough. Maybe that’s the truth of why my brother loves me. And it might have made him a better version of the person he would have been otherwise, but the fact that he felt he had no choice but to be that way – it hollows everything out.
This leads Claudia to understand more about the key element in the mystery. But what strikes me is: This idea of becoming what you practice is straight out of Confucius. One of his most famous quotes is how he started to study at age 15, and by the time he was 80, he could act morally because he’d been practicing all his life and no longer wanted to act any other way. I’m no expert on Confucius, but Harvard’s Michael Puett is, and in his mooc “The Path to Happiness: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches Us About the Good Life” he says, “For Confucius, a ritual, in other words, is not a habit. It’s what breaks us from our habits and begins the possibility for us to become good….The ritual forces you to become a different person.” (This is also closely related to the Twelve-Step mantra, “Fake it ’til you make it.”) Claudia mentions Confucius a few times, and it turns out this is one key to understanding the motives behind the overall mystery: how to be our most authentic selves in order to connect with our best romantic partner.
I’m also impressed by what Pek doesn’t do.
I didn’t want this novel to be about what it means to be gay or what it means to be Asian, or what it means to be a gay Asian. It’s just the fact that Claudia is both gay and Asian, and she’s living her life in New York. There are some ways the world is shaped by those traits of hers, but there isn’t a deep dive into what either of those two things mean….I just wanted that to be part of the character, the same as how she works as an online-dating detective and she likes cycling and she likes reading mysteries.
Jane Pek, interview with Angela Qian at Hyphen Magazine
She doesn’t ignore those details – part of the tension of the family scenes comes from her not having told her mother she’s gay, and she both resents and uses the assumptions so often made about any “soft-spoken petite Asian female,” sometimes kicking back against it, sometimes allowing it to shield her from unwelcome scrutiny when she’s trying to fly under the radar. And, as I just mentioned, there’s Confucius. But it’s all presented as who Claudia is, not as a key to her conflicts or as any part of the mystery.
There’s a more technical aspect I’m wondering about, having to do more with stylistics than with content. More than halfway through the book, I tripped over this passage:
“Wait,” he says. “I… There’s something I would like to do for her.”
“The story she was working on. She thought it was about something important.” He sighs. “Enough to get back in touch with me.” He would like to complete it for her and have it published posthumously under her name. “Will you help me with that?”
And now I feel like an ass.
It strikes me as odd that in the third paragraph here, the discourse changes from direct speech to indirect speech (I’m a little hazy on the terminology, so forgive me – and please correct me – if I’ve got it wrong). That is, there’s a sentence in quotes, a sentence as narration, and a sentence in quotes. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it strikes me as unusual, particularly with single, fairly short sentences. I would normally think of this as being used to compress an idea that might be complicated to express in speech. But here, it would be just as simple to have the indirect sentence as “I would like to complete it…” and keep all three sentences in a single quote block.
This stuck with me so strongly, I went back after I finished the book to see if I’d overlooked other instances. I found a few other similar passages, but they had other elements that made the switching less unusual: an attribution, an explanation that required narration, and different position. I even re-read Pek’s short stories from BASS to see if this was just a writer’s quirk, but didn’t find much; those stories were in past tense and had less dialog, and in one, the dialog was presented as italics, so it was harder to figure out.
Maybe it’s insane to obsess about 45 words out of a 350-page book, but is there some reason for the switch? I wonder if it’s meant to trip up the reader, cause us to slow down and pay attention, but I don’t really think so; it’s no more crucial than dozens of other spots. It also occurred to me it could be an editing artefact: a longer passage was cut down, but the quote structure wasn’t changed. That would be highly unusual for a fairly high-end publisher and a meticulous writer. Maybe it’s just how Pek hears it as she writes, the way I start a lot of sentences with conjunctions (yes, I know, that makes them incomplete sentences and when writing more formally I edit them out, but it’s how I hear what I’m writing).
As for the central mystery, I have to admit being less than horrified at the “oh, so that’s what’s going on” moment. It’s hard to discuss without revealing way too much, but I have a feeling my lack of concern reveals more about me than it does about the book – which is a really interesting point, by the way. I’m not sure if I’m particularly cynical about the standards being violated, or if I just have a pessimistic view of reality and feel less threatened by the irregularities. This all goes back to the interview quote I opened with: how do we evaluate what we put out there, and what we get from it – as well as what the risks are, particularly given the unstable political environment we find ourselves in. I’ve pretty much decided we’re doomed (by several present threats), but I’m old enough to not have to worry about it for that much longer.
The very ending of the novel is wonderful, bringing both a sense of resolution, and of the future. There’s an even that could be setup for what could be another mystery; Claudia, at home with her family for Christmas, texts her colleague, now partner in detecting, who warns her to stand down. Then she gets another text:
And this time if you do anything stupid, God help me, I am going to kiss you.
*KILL YOU. Fucking predictive text. I mean: I am going to kill you.
One thing happens and then another. Maybe all of it means nothing, or maybe everything has already changed and the question is what happens next. I type my reply and hit send. Suddenly I can’t wait to find out.
What a great ending for this particular book! Autotext is frequently hilarious; switching kill to kiss would seem to be benign, but it’s followed by the all caps correction KILL YOU which is a lot less benign, and then the question of attraction is subtly sprinkled into the mix, completely accidentally. And of course it could, but doesn’t have to, serve as a springboard for another book – or just a reference point in a second book, linking it back to this one. Such a smart ending.
I’m quite delighted with the book. Sure, I would’ve liked more Chinese mythology, but I can see where that could get old, too, and as Pek writes it, this is not just another mystery. She’s mentioned in interviews that she’s working on something new, and isn’t saying what, but the idea of continuing with Claudia is something she’s considering. Will I be adding a new mystery series? Or finding something completely different? And suddenly, I can’t wait to find out, either.