Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb

“Homicide tends to make ripples in the human pond.”

I’ve started, stopped and subsequently deleted this blog post about half a dozen times. Each time I started writing about this book, I haven’t been happy about what I’ve written. Nothing seems to fit, and so I decided to start with this explanation and go from there.

I came across Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb online. I almost bought it several times, but I’ve been disappointed in a great deal of the new fiction out there, and so I hesitated. I can’t remember exactly what tipped my decision to finally buy the book. Perhaps I was just tired of wondering about it. Who knows. Good job I didn’t read the blurb on back of the novel first as it sounds awful:

a wrenching and enthralling suspenseful story that mines the explosive terrains of love and paternity, marriage and its delicate intricacies, family secrets and how they fester over time, and ultimately the true nature of loyalty, trust, friendship, envy, deception, and manipulation.”

That would have put me off. It sounds a bit like Ya Ya Wankerness to me, but as it turns out Now You See Him really is an intriguing read. It’s a book I throughly enjoyed even though I wrestled with some of its elements.

Now You See Him takes place in Monarch, a small town in upstate New York. The tale is narrated by Nick Framington, and it all begins with Nick explaining the tragic events  involving his once best friend, Rob Castor. Whereas Nick went to college and then returned to the slow-paced life of Monarch, Rob became almost nauseatingly famous, a cult figure in the literary world, through the publication of a “book of darkly pitch-perfect stories set in a stupid sleepy upstate New York town.”

While Rob’s old friends and family fossilize in safe but middling lives in Monarch, Rob luxuriates in his celebrity status and :

“he began a new life which seemed to consist almost entirely of him moving in long elliptical circuits through college campuses and art colonies, and arriving home about twice a year with an exotic new woman in tow…. Each of these women, tense, gorgeous, and dramatic looking in entirely different ways, arrived in town on Rob’s arm, took a look around, and did their best to conceal their disappointment.”

But then for one visit, Rob returns with a woman who is completely different. Kate possesses a “mysterious aloofness, untouchable composure,” and Rob’s friends are shocked when the very ordinary-seeming Kate becomes a permanent fixture. But things begin to go sour for Rob–a man who “wasn’t prepared for rejection. It wasn’t in the Rob Anthology.” Rob’s relationship with Kate ends up in a tragic murder-suicide case that grabs the headlines.

The book begins with Nick reminiscing about Rob and the explosive media storm that hit Monarch after his death. With television reporters pouring into the town, memories of Rob become a premium, but eventually the dust settles. Nick, however, remains shaken by the event.  Suicide always leaves unanswered questions for the survivors, but in Nick’s case he seems to be haunted by a little more than questions surrounding Rob’s death. Nick’s wife, Lucy thinks Nick is suffering from depression, and Nick gradually begins sliding farther and farther away from his family.

Now You See Him carefully parcels out the story about Rob and Kate through Nick’s memories. These portions of the novel are so real and so painfully intense that it’s like watching a train wreck about to happen and yet as readers we are powerless to stop what has already occurred in the plot. Initially Nick’s story in comparison seemed much less interesting. I began to get the feeling that Nick was wallowing in his connection with Rob’s celebrity status, but as the book continues, however, stories cross and connect, and suddenly Nick isn’t just a sad little man who regrets the loss of his friend.

The author lets drop that Nick manages an animal-research lab, and that rang out some alarm bells for me. Now in my mind, that’s a very strange job. Nick’s job never comes up for discussion apart from the fact that he goes there regularly, 5 days a week, I assume, and collects a paycheck. Nick never mentions his work and those nasty animal experiments he spends 40 hours a week overseeing. I began to wonder if the author just mentioned Nick’s job as an aside. Was the fact that Nick worked in an animal lab supposed to be important? Or was it just important to me? Did this at least partially explain why Nick is a warped human being?

For me, two of the most intriguing things in any book are 1) the unreliable narrator and 2) the creation of a character who’s already dead when the book begins. There were times when I decided that Nick is a classic unreliable narrator, and then at other times, I wasn’t so sure about that. But after reading about Nick’s horribly choreographed, ritualistic sex life with Lucy and Nick’s suspicions about Lucy’s  fidelity–which may or may not be grounded in reality, I decided to land on the unreliable narrator theory. The unreliable narrator theory may very well be wrong and others who’ve read the book may argue against this. I should add that in Nick’s case, his unreliable version of things (if that’s what it is)  is tainted by depression, avoidance and denial rather than insanity.

While Lucy thinks Nick is having some sort of mid-life crisis, his problems go far deeper than that, and of course this leads back to the past. Given the revelations about Nick’s past, I was relieved that the author didn’t linger on cliché and instead later scenes manage to be anticlimactic and strangely appropriate at the same time. The past so often leads back to the parents, and this novel is not an exception to that. Nick’s parents have escaped from Monarch and have “reinvented themselves as precocious jazzy seniors” in Arizona–a reinvention which includes a range of strange new hobbies and Arizona-style clothing. Here’s Nick’s impressions on the drive to Sunnyside Acres in Arizona :

“In the distance, hundreds of identical cute bungalow-style “villas” dotted a landscaped series of slightly convex hills, looking at a glance like jacks in the palm of a huge hand. Amid these were the elderly, in every variant of stooped, leaning, pitched and wobbly, congregated in the patches of shade beneath trees. The only time they moved quickly, my mother told me, was when exposed to the direct, killing rays of the sun.”

Anyway, not a perfect book, but one whose dark undercurrents grabbed my attention and kept it. The unresolved matter of the unreliable narrator issue still nags at me, but then again perhaps when examining the past and the painful present, we are all a little unreliable to one degree or another.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb

  1. Some reviews are just hard to write aren’t they? However, I’m glad you stuck with this and wrote it as it’s an interesting review that shows that you found it intriguing to read even if you don’t think it worked perfectly. They can sometimes be good books – as long as the writing is not cliched and prosaic. I’m not planning to rush out to buy this book but I’m glad I read your review.

    BTW, I rarely read blurbs on the backs of books, mainly I suppose because I don’t go into bookshops looking for something to read. Sometimes, though, as with my current book, I start reading and some time in I suddenly wonder what the blurb writer had said. It can be fascinating!

  2. Me too. That is, glad you stuck with writing this review… it does seem a fascinating book and I’m adding it to my TBR.

  3. Yes, it’s a good thing I bought this online and avoided the blurb. It’s not that the blurb is inaccurate as much as the way it’s written makes the book sound like one of those digging- through-your-horrible-childhood fiascos. Yes the book does delve back into childhood, but it’s not over done or hysterical about it either. It’s more “grow up and get over it.”

  4. Thanks Judi, I think it’s the sort of book you’d enjoy (taking a wild guess here)

  5. Well, it sounds a bit of a challenge. The choice of professions in books is always interesting – manager of an animal research lab being one of the more unusual and provoking the reader to ask what message is being given by the author, particularly when it doesn’t really feature in the book. An interesting review.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Tom. Yes, when the author dropped that bombshell about the animal lab, I thought it was a clue about the author’s emotional stuntedness, the disconnect from his family, and possibly even explained Nick’s niggling discontent. He was, after all, stuck in Monarch while friends went on to bigger things.

    That said, I’m not sure how important the lab was, ultimately, in analyzing Nick’s actions. He might as well have worked for Tesco (British readers) or Albertsons (American readers).

    Would I read another novel by this author? Yes. I could “feel” Kate–even though she was long gone when the story began. If you’ve ever seen the terrific noir film Laura, you know what I mean about feeling a character who isn’ t there.

  7. ruthyr

    Reading this book was a struggle. Not only was the narrator, Nick Framingham, a boring guy, but I found the writing plodding and sometimes pretentious. I had no interest in or empathy for this man.

    Gottlieb luxuriated in minute detail but his characters weren’t fully developed and the book’s conclusion, a seeming bombshell about Framingham’s identity and what truly happened to his hero, Rob Castor, were not especially surprising.

    I was especially displeased with Gottlieb’s description of his Jewish characters. Since Gottlieb is a transplanted Jewish Englishman living in Israel, I’m assuming he is a member of the tribe. He should know better than to create the monstrous, drunken, sexually driven Mrs. Castor and her out-there drug and sex addicted daughter. Even Dickens apologized for his description of Fagin.

  8. I must have missed the mention of the Castors being jewish as I don’t recall it at all.

    I was perplexed about the animal lab reference. I kept expecting it to be expanded but it wasn’t.

  9. If anybody’s interested in taking a class online with Eli Gottlieb. . . he’s teaching one starting March 26. It’s called

    “Conquering Characters: Revision as a Roadmap to Creating Real People”–here’s a description and link.

    An axiom of fiction writing is that characters are created through the process of revision. But revision itself asks of the writer: what am I revising TOWARDS? And how do i know when i’ve gotten there? Credible, emotionally vibrant characters lie at the heart of successful narrative, and yet the process of their creation remains somewhat mysterious. This workshop will demystify that process by training the ear and eye to herd visual, verbal and spatial clues into characters whose “roundness,” to use the famous descriptor of EM Forster’s, compels. Emphasis will be on moving from imperfect early draft material to more polished versions of texts. Equally we’ll stress revision as a phased process, akin to a marathon, which requires rests and pacing to achieve the highest results. Students are advised to choose their submissions understanding they will undergo serious revision. A handful of exercises will also be assigned, and students will be highly encouraged to discuss one another’s work.

    http://fawc.org/24pearlstreet/workshops.php?filter=01#Eli

    If you have questions, you can ask me; I’m Jill McDonough, and I run 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center Online. Thanks for your time!

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