The Mysterious Afterlife of Revolutionary Events: Jim Feast’s Karl Marx, Private Eye

By Jerome Sala
Big Other

Jim Feast’s Karl Marx, Private Eye is a remarkable book. On one level, it’s a wildly entertaining detective novel, offering satiric humor, an absorbing plot, and a cast of colorful characters. On another, the book registers the impact of a specific historical event, both on its social milieu and the minds of the people who inhabit it. While solving the plot’s mysteries, the book meditates on the mysterious ways revolutionary events change the way we think and act.

I’m thinking here of “events” in a special sense. The philosopher Alain Badiou defines a true “event” as something more than just a notable occurrence. Such happenings are rare in history, as they mark the advent of a new idea offering unthought of possibilities, whether in the realm of politics, the arts, love, or science. At the same time, such events, while heralding the new, resurrect the classic. In Badiou’s Plato-inflected thought, events embody truths because they renew faith in eternal Ideas or forms.

Events in Badiou’s sense also give birth to styles of consciousness, or as he puts it, “Subjects.” There are those who are loyal to the Idea represented by the event, those who react against it—denying its very “newness,” and finally, those who acknowledge that our situation has changed, but obscure the cause of it, offering an improbable alternative.

The event haunting Feast’s detective yarn is the Paris Commune—a short-lived revolutionary community that represents both the irruption of a new type of society and, at the same time, the renewal of the classical ideal of utopia (as old as Plato’s Republic or the “Golden Age” of Hesiod or Ovid). The Commune, which occurs roughly four years before the book opens, was also the site of a great genocide; it is estimated that twenty thousand of its members were executed in its defeat by reactionary forces.

The impact of this event of great hope and brutality pressures the way characters act and even think in the book. Its presence is everywhere in the background. There is even a moment where the young Sherlock Holmes discovers an intricate diorama memorializing the Commune, painstakingly constructed by its refugees. In fact, when the young Holmes discovers its importance, it helps him solve murders. As he puts it to his fellow sleuth, Eleanor Marx:

Once in a while, something really big happens, like the Commune, and then for years everything that occurs is a repercussion. The murders are repercussions. How each person…acts, comes out of the impetus of that event. I should have thought about that…

Karl Marx, Private Eye opens in Karlsbad, Bohemia, at a health spa (featuring springs of healing waters), in 1875. The book is a fictionalized account of Marx’s actual visit to such a spa for his health. Its characters include Marx and his daughter Eleanor, the young Sherlock Holmes, Communards fleeing from Paris, Serbian nationalists and pan-slavists (who have their own view of the forces moving history), former members of the American confederacy, police chiefs who quote Goethe, doctors who meditate on Baudelaire, and even a masseuse who studies Hegel.

Reflecting on this eccentric cast of characters, I couldn’t help but think of Feast’s own background as a writer, poet, aesthetic activist, and member of New York City’s Lower East Side underground. Arriving in NYC in the early seventies, he was one of the founders of a group of writers known as the Unbearables, famed for their anarchic group readings as well as their satiric protests at mainstream literary events. He is also the author of several novels, including Long Day, Counting Tomorrow, following the exploits of a male hustler through the AIDS crisis of the 90s, and Neo Phoebe, co-authored with poet Ron Kolm, which features a fictionalized account of the exploits of the Unbearables group. His books of poetry are devoted to similar themes, the most recent, a strange awakening of light takes the place of dawn, inspired by Feast’s own mentorship at the feet of a little-known, pre-Beat abstract artist and nightclub performer. His spouse, Nhi Manh Chung, is the author of Among the Boat People, a memoir about her experiences as a Vietnamese refugee. In short, Feast has been a student of “bohemia” in its contemporary sense for his entire career—leading one to speculate whether Karl Marx, Private Eye is in some way a translation of the figurative sense of the term into the literal Bohemia of book.

In any case, and without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the plot of this novel involves the murder of a right-wing arms dealer (who supplied weapons to the troops suppressing the Commune) and his servant, herself a Communard. As in all good mysteries, as the intrigue builds about possible perpetrators to the initial murders, bodies continue to fall. Rather than a single detective, the novel features a plurality of sleuths, including Marx and his daughter Eleanor, the young Sherlock Holmes, a local police chief, servants at the spa, sketchy physicians, and gossipy townspeople.

A point of contention with each crime, aside from who did it, is why, i.e., was the motive personal or political? Was the murder done by a jealous lover, as a political gesture by a Nationalist or Communard, or merely the result of a blunder? The way characters answer such questions reveals their own ideologies, and ultimately, their stance on the important events that furnish the setting of the book. There are the reactionaries, such as a police chief, who draw on now forgotten theories of “natural philosophy,” Serbian Nationalists (such as Eleanor’s servant), who sometimes resort to an obscure mysticism in explaining motive, and finally, supporters of the Commune, such as Karl and Eleanor Marx, who rely on the rationality of dialectical thought.

It is the latter’s style of thinking through which the novel’s crimes are ultimately solved. In fact, the book proposes, with a witty dash of revisionism, that the secret behind Sherlock Holmes’s legendary powers of reason is, in fact, dialectical thought. He is informally schooled throughout the book by Karl, who advises him “to work slowly, digging through all the hard facts but then putting them into wider patterns,” and Eleanor, to whom he remarks, “you told me that it’s only when you see the whole that the parts fit in.” It is through seeing the big picture that the initially naïve Holmes begins to unlock the book’s mysteries.

At the same time, neither Karl nor Eleanor Marx is doctrinaire or a paragon of revolutionary virtue. Both are entertaining, fully drawn characters. Despite Karl’s visionary thought, for example, on a personal level, he remains, at times, the patriarchal father, with a tendency to stick his nose into his daughter’s love life. Eleanor is by turns both bold and timid. And though her thought tends toward the (dialectically) rational and scientific, she is also a bit of an oracle. The book begins with a dream she has that turns out to be prophetic.

There is also a porous quality to the book’s politics. Though the views of the Communards and Nationalists might be seen as ultimately antagonistic, such characters comprising the servants of the book, bond with each other through their mutual class positions, and their experience as refugees. Karl and Eleanor Marx also remain open to the ideas offered by other ideologies.  Though Karl sees the Serbian independence movement as ultimately impractical and their vision of a possible future backward, even obscurantist, he wonders at one point whether its vision of communal life might hold some value. And Eleanor Marx, rather than dwelling on the “irrationality” of other ideologies, offers a vision that unites Nationalists and workers in a single stream of rebellion:

People say the brickwork of society—the food, the clothes, the amenities—are due to people’s labor, whether it’s making beds, tending looms, handing out punch at a soirée—creating things and adding surplus value.

But if you look at it, there are things beneath that, underground watercourses, the people’s social movements, ones which are sometimes on the surface, like the Serbian independence fight or labor organizing in the Midlands. These people’s currents are what influence and direct events. And it’s the ferocity of the struggle that shapes what will happen.

All of which is to say that Karl Marx, Private Eye offers the richness and unpredictability of a novel, rather than the didactic rigidity of political tract. It is a highly pleasurable read that engages deeply with the ideas of its time. The plot is both suspenseful and humorous, with characters often expressing deep emotion through the arcane diction of the era, and murderous motives ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. It’s a book where many voices are heard, each contributing something significant to the ongoing story.

The novel’s generous and egalitarian spirit transcends the antagonisms of the history it limns. What could be more loyal to the ideal of the Paris Commune than that?