The City Under the Skin by Geoff Nicholson

“But there are two kinds of power, as I see it. There’s one kind where you can make other people do what you want. That’s what most civilians think of as power. But there’s another kind, where nobody can make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

Let’s say I heard an audio reading of The City Under the Skin but I missed the part where the author is identified. With that scenario, I would have recognized this book as the work of Geoff Nicholson, one of my favourite British authors. Just to be clear here, I didn’t hear an audio version–I had this book on pre-order the moment I heard there was another Nicholson novel in the pipeline. These days, the author lives in America and maintains a fascinating blog where he explores his fascination with the landscape (urban, ruins, you name it), but back to the darkly humorous novel which has all the classic elements of Nicholson mania–obsessives, collectors, quirky misfit characters and a quest. Throw in cartography, an assassin, urban decay, sinister gentrification, and just a touch of kinkiness and here’s another Nicholsontopia.  

the city under the skinThe main piece of the puzzle in The City Under the Skin is the abduction and subsequent release of young women by some deranged and not particularly talented tattooist.  In another author’s hands, this might turn into a lurid crime novel, but since this is Nicholson, the emphasis is, instead, on the weird.

Zak Webster is the unassuming hero of The City Under the Skin, and as with many of Nicholson’s heroes, there’s a lot more to Zak than meets the eye. Zak is the sole employee of Utopiates, a shop that sells “cartographic antiques–maps, atlases, globes, navigation charts, the occasional mapmaking instrument, folding pillar compasses, snake-eye dividers.” Zak, a cartography expert, is a man whose talents are in low demand; he thinks of himself as “map nerd,” Feeling lucky to have this job and the apartment upstairs that comes with the small salary, Zak fantasizes about being “a curator or custodian of some magnificent, highly specialized, and possibly clandestine map collection.”

Zak steps into the mystery of the tattooed women inadvertently when he is at work in the shop one evening, and a naked woman, covered in rags, appears asking for help:

Her back looked less naked than the rest of her. It was marked with tattoos: wild incomprehensible lines and symbols that Zak first read as a meaningless accumulation of ink, a savage scribbling, and yet there was something compelling about it, something that suggested it wasn’t entirely haphazard. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might just possibly be a kind of wild ramshackle map, but the glimpse was brief.

Moments later, a “battered metallic-blue Cadillac” stops, a man gets out, shoves the woman in the car, and drives off. The strange scene witnessed by Zak is over in a matter of seconds, and perhaps Zak’s involvement would have gone no further, just another one of those weird things you see in the city, but an intrepid, assertive young woman named Marilyn also witnessed and photographed the incident.

As he drifted he kept trying to make sense of what he’d just seen, unsure whether there was any “sense” to be made. It was puzzling, but hardly one of the world’s great mysteries. Strange women got into strange cars with strange men at any time of the day or night, every day, every night. People had all kinds of weird stuff tattooed on their backs. People lived incomprehensible and desperate lives. It probably meant nothing: things only meant what you decided they meant. He would probably forget all about it in a day of two.

Zak, is a typical Nicholson hero–a loner who’s liberated from that state of inertia not exactly against his will, but not exactly by choice either. Wanting to impress Marilyn and hopefully get laid in the process, Zak teams with Marilyn to solve the mystery of who is tattooing these women, who is making them disappear from the street, and what the maps, tattooed so badly on their backs, represent.

But The City under the Skin isn’t just about 2 people trying to solve a mystery–it’s also about places in a city slated for “speculative urbanism.” The city is in a state of flux, and those impending changes are the white noise surrounding the mystery of the tattooed women. As the plot unfolds, Nicholson shows us the complex connections between three sets of parallel worlds: the criminal underworld and the surface world of the everyday working people, the worlds of urban decay and gentrification, and the architecture of childhood and the remnants which remain in adulthood. All these worlds co-exist, collide, and merge in The City Under the Skin.

Since this is a Nicholson novel, there are plenty of references to architecture and landscapes seen through the characters who inhabit various spaces. Do the places we live in define us, or do we define those spaces? Ex-con Billy lives in a trailer on a parking lot which is as bland, boring, and anonymous as you can get, but this blankness seems to be intentional. Wrobleski: a sinister real estate developer, crook and map collector lives in a walled compound while retired tattoo artist Rose lives in a “personal museum” stuffed full of tattoo “memorabilia” from a career in Ink. Marilyn, a woman of many talents, and many faces, lives somewhere extraordinary, rather as you’d expect.

The Carnaveral lounge said sixties all right, though it spoke in a stuttering, muted fashion. There were plastic pods and blobs, white egg-shaped chairs, though the plastic had crazed and developed  a yellow patina. On the floor, the carpet showed a pattern of stars and planets, seen through a veil of plaster dust. The walls were decorated with memorabilia that looked authentic enough: tattered flags and banners, portraits of alarmingly youthful-looking astronauts, sections of charred rocket fins and satellite housings. There was a map that Zak, even in his present state, recognized as a lunar landing chart for the Sea of Tranquility, still visible through cracked glass that had developed a thin film of mold.

“You really live here?”

“Sure,” said Marilyn. “A view property.”

“Why?”

“Who needs a reason?”

“Isn’t it like living in a  Kubrick movie?”

“The Shining or 2001?” Marilyn suggested. “Or were you thinking Spartacus?”

While this is a novel about discovering the mystery of the tattooed women, through the various characters we see that The City Under the Skin is also about finding one’s way in life which, after all, comes with no instructions, no landmarks, no maps. And part of making one’s way in life is making choices and decisions, taking a moral stand. Rather interestingly, Zak’s hobby, urban exploration, a seemingly odd activity, proves to be incredibly useful, and again there’s that subtle idea that our lives are defined by incidents that are not random. The novel argues that our lives are maps with one incident leading to another, and pathways are created by recurring patterns. The city that exists under our skin is our personal map, dotted with significant events and experiences that explain, connect and predict our choices.

“Urban exploration: investigating the city, creative trespass, going where I’m not supposed to, getting into abandoned structures, factories, closed-down  hospitals derelict power stations. You know?

“So you spend all your workdays dealing in representations of places, and you spend your free time exploring actual places.”

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The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován

After reading Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, a fictionalized  account of his experiences in WWI, I read an entirely different account written from the Hungarian view: The Burning of the World: a Memoir of 1914 by Béla Zombory-Moldován. While the narrator in Fear conveys the initial, naïve sentiment that many men looked forward to the war as an “adventure,” a break in their monotonous lives, Béla Zombory-Moldován (Béla from this point on) makes it quite clear that the war arrived as an unwelcome interruption. Fear and The Burning of the World are such completely different books, while still on the same topic of WWI, that they act as good companion books to be read fairly close together. That said, it’s probably inevitable that we identify with one book more than the other.

the burning of the worldBéla, a twenty-nine-year-old artist, and a member of a privileged Austro-Hungarian gentry family, is enjoying himself on holiday on an Adriatic beach, taking a solitary swim and trying to shake off the effects of the wine drunk the night before when he spies someone walking towards him with “some haste.” It’s through this man, the bathing attendant, that Béla receives the startling news that war has been declared and that a list giving “call-updates by year of birth” has been posted to the bathing station wall. The news comes so quickly and so jarringly rips apart Béla’s holiday, that we are almost as shocked as he is, and while the manner in which the news is conveyed may be simple, this is a moment that Béla, and anyone else who survived the war, will clearly never forget.

I stared at the poster as if I had just suffered a stroke, reading it over and over, until I realized that I was just looking at words rather than taking in the meaning.

Although Béla has a few precious days before he must report for duty, he can no longer enjoy his holiday. A page has been turned, and life which previously seemed carefree, can no longer be enjoyed. But Béla isn’t the only one altered by the news. The rhetoric, drama, and nationalism of war has invaded even lunch at the hotel dining room:

The dining room had changed. All the usual convivial noise, larking about and tittering had ceased. The guests had gathered at separate tables according to their nationalities. Groups which had previously spread themselves around now clustered together. Sereghy and his wife had come over to join us. Czechs, Serbs, Croats. Germans–all sat apart. People leaned in together over table and discussed events with animated gestures and low voices.

[..]

Everyone spoke in their mother tongue as is encyphering what they had to say.

The nationalistic segregation spreads, and it’s worse by dinner time. Hungarians who had not previously spoken to Béla join his table, the area no longer feels safe, everyone wants to return home.

There was something almost ostentatious now about the separation of nationalities. The Slavs huddles together. The Germans looked the least concerned: a huge country with a fearsome army.

These unique observations which show the narrator’s world changing with the speed of a natural disaster underscore the idea that the carefree holiday has turned into something completely different–the holidaymakers may be potential enemies. Béla grasps immediately, the flash of the bigger picture, that while some people speculate that the war will be over before it really begins, it may not be so simple:

This war may just be the first act of a global tragedy. It’s as if someone were struggling against an angry sea, while behind his back towers an immense wall of ice, ready to collapse onto him at any moment. This is the socialist revolution which will, one day, fall with full force on nations weakened by war. The war could be the least of our problems. Socialism has been agitating and organizing for the last hundred years. It’s just waiting for the opportunity to take power. Maybe it would be better if it did: one of its basic principles is to put an end to wars of conquest. Maybe it’ll be they who stop this war, if political theory and practice coincide for once.

Given what happened to the Austro-Hungarian empire, this is an interesting comment made by a man “caught up in the maelstrom [of] the fateful year when everything fell apart.” 

Béla returns home to Budapest, says his farewells to his family and his favoured locations. Initially, he wears a “mask” of normality and “confident gaiety” which finally drops. Béla joins the Thirty-First regiment of the Royal Hungarian Army as an ensign and since he’s there early, he witnesses the “torrent of men streaming” in from all over the region. The idiocy begins immediately when the regiment is ordered to make a seventy-five kilometer march, which as it turns out, is right into the Russian lines at Rava Ruska. The mouth to hell opens there in the wood as Béla encounters piles of abandoned rifles, clothing, and the corpses of dead Hungarians. Initially forbidden to dig foxholes “as this ‘leads to cowardice and undermines discipline’ ” Béla ignores that order after the officer who gave it is blown to shreds, and Béla digs in using a tin lid, while other men use their hands.

The term cannon fodder leaps to mind in the sheer insanity of shoving exhausted, inexperienced men right into the line of fire. The sense of chaos reigns, and Béla’s first encounter, almost surreal in its rapid, blinding intensity, is over almost before it begins. Always there’s Béla’s unused sword, part of his natty uniform getting in the way; it’s an incongruous, antiquated and as it turns out inconvenient accessory.

There’s a sense of privilege to Béla’s miraculous tale. Had he not been an officer with a “Slovak lad called Jóska” as a burly batman it seems doubtful he would have survived. As an officer, he fares better–better food, better billets, and throughout it all Jóska acts as Béla’s personal bodyguard ensuring that he gets home, gets food, acting as his feet, arms and legs when Béla is too weak to fend for himself. It’s in Béla’s attitude to Jóska, that the sense of privilege grates. The patronizing divide between classes gapes wide. To Béla, Jóska is a peasant, a “man-child”:

I owed a debt of gratitude to this healthy resourceful lad: though I knew that this personal service had been an opportunity for a bit of bunking-off on his part.

And:

My mother received Jóska without much enthusiasm; she seemed anxious. “Where shall we put him?”

“All he needs is a straw mattress at night, which can be put away somewhere during the day. He’s a good decent lad, and I’ve got a lot to thank him for. Let him rest here for a week as well. Then he’ll go back to the regiment.”

Jóska bathes and attends Béla and on the third day, Béla tells Jóska to return to the regiment.

The Burning of the World, as a memoir, is a much more personal document than Chevallier’s fictionalized account of his WWI experiences.  Whereas Fear is openly anti-war, The Burning of the World is not. Béla shows the chaos, lack of preparation and stupidity of those in command, but his complaints about “armchair generals” are directed towards ineptitude, archaic attitudes and methods of fighting, but he never  bitterly questions the hierarchy of the society in which he lives.  Whereas Chevallier’s narrator Jean notes “those who wanted all this” make public appearances on “palace balconies,” and for Jean, this was the moment when “the first–and last–machine gun should have done its work, emptied its belt of bullets on to that emperor and his advisors.” Similarly he notes, “in the revolution, they sent incompetent generals to the guillotine, an excellent measure.”

The Burning of the World covers a period of about eight months beginning with Béla hearing the “news of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia” until March 1915 when he reports back to duty after being injured and recuperating. At 184 pages, we are left wishing for more, but the introduction explains what happened to Béla for the rest of the war and beyond.  The book includes some maps, a painting from Béla, and a wonderful photograph of a large group of people on holiday at Novi Vinodolski–“three days before Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia and the start of the first World War. ” It’s peculiar how some people can dominate a photograph, and in this photo, Béla, a man of his time and his class, stands out.

The manuscript for The Burning of the World was found in 2013 “locked away among family papers,” and what a wonderful find this is. Translated and with an introduction by the author’s grandson Peter Zombory-Moldován who notes that “by the end of the war, Austro-Hungarian casualties were almost seven million out of a population (in 1914) of fifty-one million.”

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Bluff City Pawn by Stephen Schottenfeld

About a fifth of the way into Stephen Schottenfeld’s debut novel, Bluff City Pawn,  Memphis pawn shop owner Huddy Marr tells a simple story concerning Jenks, Huddy’s predecessor, and it’s a story that says a great deal about the process that makes the pawn shop business work for the customers and the owner:

So Huddy tells a story about Jenks. About a customer with a TV, and Jenks would give him twenty-five dollars and when the man picked up the TV, he’d give Jenks back thirty. “Sometimes, the man would bring his thirty in a month, sometimes a week, sometimes just a couple days. This man’s carrying his TV in and out of the store for years, Jenks making five dollars, five dollars. So one day, the man comes in empty-handed, depressed, and Jenks asks him what’s wrong. ‘My TV broke,” the man said, ‘and now I don’t have anything to loan on.’ So Jenks walks over to the TV shelf and grabs a set and gives it free. ‘Here,’ he says, ‘now you can loan on this.’ “

That story gives a great sense of the author’s tone and style, but it’s also indicative of the experience you’ll have when you sink into the pawn shop world created here. This is the world of the haves and the have-nots, and to Huddy’s down on their luck customers, Huddy is both a savior and a devil–the man with the cash. But Huddy, with a new baby arrived, is a bottom feeder in the pawn shop world, trading on low-end products and making a buck here and there. Renting from his much more successful older brother Joe, Huddy barely makes ends meet, and scenes of Huddy’s would-be customers emphasize the desperation involved in both ends of the transactions. With two-thirds of the customers “forfeiting on their loans,” the average loan just forty dollars, a robbery of the liquor store next door, a blood bank moving in and the general decline of the neighbourhood, Huddy scouts out Liberty Pawn with its excellent location, high-end merchandise, better tools and “bigger stones.” Coming up with the cash to buy this business is impossible, but then Huddy is offered the deal of a lifetime when a gun collector dies and his wealthy widow offers  to sell the entire collection to Huddy. 

bluff cityHuddy knows that getting that gun collection will yield a high return profit–especially since the gun collector’s widow, a woman from an old money family, doesn’t seem to realize the value of the rarer guns. Huddy cannot afford to buy the collection, but knows he has to move fast on the deal before the family looks elsewhere for the sale, so he goes to the only person he knows who has money, his brother, building contractor Joe.

Joe laughs. “Sure I’m rich. But it would help if someone paid me to do more than fix a door or window. That’s all anyone’s doing. Everybody else in a bind puts me in a bind.”

“But you got your money diversified. Nobody wants a door or window, you just get it somewhere else, right?”

“Multiple streams of income,” Joe says, as if he were confiding life’s secret. ” ‘cept they’re all drying up. Six months ago, people were calling for everything. This one fella, lives on a dead-end street with the street named after him. He pays me to turn his garage into  a bar, and then he pays me again to build him a garage next to the bar. People were spending like they could never spend all they had … What I’m saying, Huddy is right now I don’t have room for bad ideas.”

To Huddy, buying and selling the guns will allow him to move to the next level in life; he and Joe just have to “hit it right.” In addition to contractor Joe and pawn shop owner, Huddy, there’s a third brother, the black sheep of the family, Harlan. With all of the brothers involved in one form or another in the gun collection, it’s just a matter of time before the old family dynamics emerge with trouble right behind. Huddy wants the deal to work so badly, and for a while it seems as though the plan is working, but add impatience, lack of caution and greed to the mix, and the deal goes south.

Bluff City Pawn starts slowly as Huddy’s working life is described, and since I love books that give me a sense of worlds that would otherwise remain impenetrable to me, I appreciated all the details of Huddy & his customers surrounded by pawnshop detritus–evidence of a shifting civilization and its discarded televisions. Here’s Huddy reading about a pawnshop bust:

The pawnshop bust has moved off the front page, and Huddy checks to see if it’s buried elsewhere. It’s gone. Fast Pawn over on Winchester, only open a year, which means to Huddy they were criminal from day one. It’s been over a year since a pawnshop got busted, that one over on Park, where the guy got in so deep and stupid he was giving orders: You think you can get me computers, stereos, jewelry? And then before that the shop near the tool plant, where the owner had employees from the plant stealing from the factory, and you’d walk in there and see shelves and shelves of brand-new industrial tools. These stories happening just often enough to make people think every pawnshop has a truck parked out back doing these midnight deals.

 While Bluff City Pawn has elements of crime, this is primarily a tale of how we fail to understand money, how it’s made, where it all goes, and just how hard it is to move from one level of society to another. Huddy, who knows the pawn business well, sees desperate people living on the edge of poverty, trying to catch a break every day. He lives off of their failures, while Joe lives off of people’s success. To Joe, Huddy charging 20% interest sounds like a hell of a deal, but it’s 20% interest on stuff that is usually unclaimed. To Huddy, Joe with his lavish mcmansion, high maintenance third wife, and extravagant water feature must be rolling in green. Neither man understands the other’s position, the pressures, the restraints, the temptations, and that’s part of the problem. The rest of the problems occur simply because of impatience, carelessness and greed.

He can already hear the customers coming in, saying , “hey man, you’re taking fishtanks? I’ll get you a bigger one.” Give him a month, he could turn the place into an aquarium. It’d be the same way if he bought an accordion, a bowling ball, frozen steaks. Whatever he buys, the street  wants to bring him more. “Steaks, man, I can get you beautiful cuts. All packed up, ready to go.”

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Julia Paradise by Rod Jones

While Australian novelist Rod Jones’s first novel, Julia Paradise, set in 1920s Shanghai, could appear to be about the enigmatic, mysterious and deeply troubled wife of a missionary, the story is really about her Scottish physician/Freudian analyst/lover Kenneth Ayres. Given that Julia Paradise included an element of psychoanalysis, one of my pet subjects, plus the exotic allure of 1927 Shanghai, I read the blurb, and committed to the novel. Later I almost put the book aside, more of that later, but after concluding this novel, an uneasy, deeply disturbing read, it’s fair to say that author Rod Jones risks alienating his readers at one point with the very details which paradoxically entice analyst Kenneth Ayres into Julia’s intricate sticky web of deceit. Intrigued?… Read on…

julia paradiseIt’s Shanghai 1927, and physician Kenneth Ayres, age 34, a man of considerable bulk at eighteen stone, lives at the Astor Hotel and spends time at the “Shanghai Club, to which he had been given a temporary membership which never quite became permanent and never quite expired.” His hotel apartment also conveniently  serves as his consulting rooms, and it’s here he treats his female patients who seek his help for various “nervous disorders.” Ayres dominates the scene as he “propelled his bulk from the club and back to his hotel,” while on foot, he has to “stop often, panting for little rests.” This is a remarkably visual novel full of the terrifying memories of a childhood in the Duck River region of Northern Australia and the exotic sights and sounds of Shanghai. Of course, it’s exotic for the foreigners in Shanghai–not so much for the locals:

Rickshaw drivers had to struggle to get Ayres’ weight into motion in a stream of Shanghai afternoon traffic.

 Apart from this comic and yet sad image (the underfed rickshaw driver dragging around a fat Scotsman who’s too out of shape to walk a few 100 feet), we immediately gain, or so we think, a very clear picture of Ayres. A bon vivant, and a great table companion for other westerners in Shanghai, he has three favorite topics of conversation: his home town of Edinburgh, his former professor Freud (Ayres’s beard increases the resemblance between the two men), and J.M. Barrie. Ayres specializes in the “treatment of nervous disorders” and after his wife died, he sailed for Australia, but “on a whim disembarked in Shanghai and had been there ever since.”

Socially, the British there treated him with a polite and deferential suspicion. It was as though, with his appointment book full of the names of their wives and their daughters and their cases of petit mal, hysteria and the nervous collapses which followed broken love affairs, he had learned quite enough of their secrets, and they tended to exclude him.

But is this the only reason that Ayres is held at a polite distance? There’s an early hint that there may be something else that keeps Ayres from being treated as a friend by other Europeans who live in Shanghai. Could it be his taste for pre-pubescent girls? For a Freudian therapist who is supposed to help his patients uncover the secrets locked in their subconscious, Ayres is a man whose self-awareness is remarkably shallow and righteously self-indulgent:

He knew well Freud’s remark that ‘some perverse trait or other is seldom absent from the sexual life of normal people’.

One day, Ayres observes a woman as she dashes into the hotel and just as frantically, exits. Then a moment later, she returns, a bundle of nerves, “panicky and disoriented” on the arm of her husband. The woman is Julia Paradise married to William Paradise, a Methodist minister, there to see Dr. Ayres. In the doctor’s consulting rooms, Julia’s story is told by her husband, and he describes Julia as a narcoleptic who during periods of drowsiness began spouting German, her father’s language. Sedatives were given and then withdrawn, and Julia became increasingly worse and more dysfunctional, hallucinating, swinging wildly between periods of withdrawal, and periods of creative energy during which she ran off to Shanghai with her camera to take photographs of the denizens who inhabit the seediest areas.

Initially Ayres sees Julia’s case as “common to the point of banality,” as he’s seen a steady stream of women who are “victims of  their husbands’ ambitions in the colonial services.” To Ayres, for these women “the cure was as simple as a steamship ticket home.” The details of Ayres’s behaviour as he listened to Rev. Paradise reveal that Ayres, a man of enormous appetites, is hardly compassionate. He agrees to take the case, but there’s a sense of brutality and boredom to his acquiescence–what can Julia’s story contain that he hasn’t heard a thousand times before. But while Ayres doesn’t bother to hide his disinterest (after all, he’s the only game in town, so where else is Rev. Paradise going to seek help), it’s clear that Julia’s disintegrating behaviour is rooted in some deep, dark psychological disturbance.

The root cause of Julia’s mental problems is gradually revealed through her ‘sessions’ with Ayres. If there were any doubts about the doctor’s lack of integrity, those doubts are confirmed by his completely unprofessional, exploitive behaviour as the layers of this morphine-soaked tale reveal the horrors of incest.

There was a moment when I wasn’t sure I could continue with Julia Paradise. The vibes around the incest tale were so repulsive, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read on. I mean, really… who wants to read about incest? As a subject, incest might be a deal-breaker for some readers, and while I understand that choice, I’ll add that incest is used here as a ‘tool,’ and it’s not until the novel is over that we realize exactly what we’re read, and exactly how we’ve been seduced along with Ayres.  Julia Paradise is a very clever novel, and once past the incest, something shifts, and the novel becomes a different tale than we were originally led to believe. Julia’s tale of a past full of depravity, shrouded with images of death and decay, draws Ayres into her web, and he’s attracted to her malignant childhood and finds her “the most suggestible patient he had ever come across in his life.” Ayres is entranced with Julia, and completely and utterly seduced by her tale, his ego takes him along a path where his fate awaits him.  We go along for the ride.

Julia Paradise, a tale which takes place against the upheaval of the Chinese civil war, and which examines the many layers of human exploitation, is a tale of moral redemption. Julia is a fractured human being, an enigma, and long after the tale is finished questions remain:

She was like a brilliantly-coloured jigsaw puzzle dismantled and spread across the floor of his mind. His thoughts continued to inhabit small sections of her life–or what he increasingly thought of as her ‘lives’. He talked aloud to her, pleading with her to clarify this point, to explain the apparent contradiction between this and that to make sense of the brutal pantomime he played over and over. In short, he became obsessed.

In terms of its exotic location and the theme of moral redemption Julia Paradise, reminded of Maugham’s wonderful novel, The Painted Veil, but for its insidious plot which examines the complexities of human sexuality, this book should appeal to fans of Jeannette Winterson.

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Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier

Yes, it was like living on holiday, the only difference being that holidays came to an end. It was as though they had bought themselves a ticket to the afterlife; they no longer had a future.”

I thought when I read How’s the Pain, I’d found my favourite Pascal Garnier novel, but the decision was premature. How could I know what was in store for me in Moon in a Dead Eye, a darkly funny look at a ‘dream’ gated retirement community and its handful of pathetic inhabitants. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that people sometimes make strange retirement decisions–some move across country to places they’ve only ever visited briefly; others move to houses they’ve bought sight-unseen over the internet, others strip their retirement nesteggs to build dream retirement homes out in the middle of nowhere only to find themselves running out of money or ripped off by contractors, and spouses who’ve lived together for 40 years decide they can’t take another day, pack a suitcase and split.   All these observations and memories came back to me as I read Moon in a Dead Eye

Moon in a dead eyeMartial and Odette Sudre retire from Paris to Les Conviviales, a retirement community in the Midi. Concerned about the increased violence in their Parisian neighbourhood, the retirement community seemed to be the ideal alternative–especially when the estate agent told them that they “exactly fitted the owner profile the property company was seeking.” It was a hard-pressure sell, and Martial and Odette, narcotized by the thought they’d be surrounded by people just like them, signed on the dotted line….

Now, three months later, it’s December and Martial and Odette arrive to discover that they are the sole inhabitants of the community. True, there’s Monsieur Flesh,  a caretaker-manager, a surly antisocial type, but what happened to all the other promised residents, the activities director, the sunny weather? But not to worry… there’s another couple due to arrive in March or April.

Martial and Odette are like shipwreck survivors washed up in a ghost town. Odette, the one who pushed for the move in the first place, refuses to be unhappy with their decision to move, so she throws herself into her new life and hobbies which is probably just as well as there’s nothing else to do. First she starts making crappy apple jelly, and then moves on to torturing her husband with culinary ‘surprises’ from around the world. Imagine how thrilled they are when someone else finally moves in. Maxime (with his false teeth and dyed black hair)  and former ballerina Marlene Node, another retired couple of course, move in up the street. From a distance the Nodes seem younger than the Sudres, but up close, it’s a different story. If these two couples met elsewhere, they’d instinctively avoid one another, but if there are only four of you living inside a gated community, you don’t have a choice but to become friends.

They engaged in the customary small talk for a quarter of an hour, all the while studying each other closely out of the corners of their eyes, like naturalists examining a newly discovered species.

So now we have 4 people, 2 couples in this forced friendship created by circumstance. Then a fifth person moves, a younger, single woman named Léa. By this point, the other four residents are desperate for a new face:

She had been a little taken aback to find the four of them on her doorstep. The removal men had only just left and she had barely had time to get her breath back. They stood there smiling like Jehovah’s witnesses, the tall one especially, Maxime Node. He was the one who introduced everybody, showing them off as though trying to get a good price for them. Then they all began talking at once, each of them impressing on her their willingness to help. They didn’t seem like bad people, but they still frightened her a bit. Too eager, too smiley, too many outstretched hands … so old and wrinkled it was hard to tell whether they were grasping or giving.

A gated community exists to keep out the riff-raff, and the residents who buy into such an arrangement are happy with that idea. M. Flesh is there to make sure that the outside world doesn’t creep in and intrude on their fabricated middle-class isolation, but the lengths he goes to are extreme. Plus then there’s the whole gate part of ‘gated community.’ At what point do you become locked in instead of the world being locked out? When gypsies move in and set up an encampment down the road outside of  Les Conviviales, paranoia reigns and all hell breaks loose.

Moon in a Dead Eye is savagely hilarious, and most of the humour comes from snobbery & paranoia. Garnier doesn’t spare his characters; they’re a sad lot whose empty lives become worse when they move into this gated community.  Aging lothario Maxime sees the poor as “vermin” infesting society, and when he’s inside a gated community with people in his own economic sphere, he can only associate with a couple in his peer group. In theory this should comfort Maxime, but the isolation only fuels his paranoia. Maxime finds the company of people his own age disconcerting as he’s spent the last few years denying the fact that he’s aging, and he spends a considerable amount of time and energy to disguising, unsuccessfully, his age. Living in a retirement community just confirms the fact that Maxime is no longer young, and this fuels his feeling of exposure and vulnerability. The ‘security’ of the gated community feeds the paranoia gnawing at Maxime until any difference seems unacceptable and threatening:

A lezzie, that’s what she was! A dirty bloody lezzie! … The only reason they’d bought this dump was because they’d been assured their neighbours would be of a certain caliber, no one too foreign, no dogs, no cats, no children or grandchildren for more than two weeks at a time … Well, if they were going to let lesbians in, it would be fairy boys next!.

While in the past in Orléans, feeling as though he lived a life under siege, Maxime carried a revolver, but he’s no more secure now–especially after the gypsies appear. They’re just more people who according to Maxime are “out to get us and take our things.” Living in isolation, even in a place that theoretically safe, hasn’t done Maxime any favours.

They had been burgled three times in recent years. The residential neighbourhood of Orléans  where they had lived for many moons had become a prime target for the scum who came in from the outlying boroughs. Nothing could stop them, not the most sophisticated alarm systems or the patrols that took place day and night. They were everywhere and nowhere, gnawing away like vermin at the foundations of the stable, quiet life people had worked so hard to build.

Living in this retirement community is a sort of living-death, a hibernation phase just prior to the permanence of death. Garnier shows how this sort of isolation is unhealthy and contributes to the idea that any sort of difference (class, wealth) feeds paranoia. Although the subject matter is different from the dying hitman of How’s the Pain and the disaffected killer in The Panda Theory, once again I’m reminded of Jean-Pierre Manchette, probably because of Garnier’s merciless view of the bourgeoisie. 

Review copy/own a copy.Translated by Emily Boyce

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Manhunters: Criminal Profilers and Their Search for the World’s Most Wanted Serial Killers by Colin Wilson

After reading about Victorian Murderesses and the way crime solution was handled in the 19th century, I was ready for another non-fiction on crime detection. That brings me to Manhunters: Criminal Profilers and Their Search for the World’s Most Wanted Serial Killers by Colin Wilson. The book, a reprint from 2007, began very promisingly with a rather chilling introduction about the shifting nature of murder. While compiling his Encyclopedia of Murder, Wilson states that he “noticed a variety of murder” that he was unable to “fit into the old classifications.” This variety, Wilson argues and cites with examples, is the “motiveless murders.” Wilson argues that murder “changes from century to century,” while noting that during the “second half of the nineteenth century a new category of crime began to emerge: sex crime.”  He refers to The Chronicles of Crime or the New Newgate Calendar to bolster his argument, with the fact that of the 500 plus cases mentioned only seven were for rape. Were there statistically less rapes then than now?  Could this be true? Or is it a matter of reporting? We know that the crime of rape historically carries a stigma for its victims, so was the crime just less reported in the nineteenth century?

Casting my mind back over history and various aspects of villainy, did women report when they were raped by the mongol hordes, the Roman legions, marauding pirates or the Vikings?  No, of course not; this is absurd as there was nowhere to ‘report’ the crime–no Bow Street Runners back in those days. Plus there’s the matter of reportage and a lack of media; we do know, however, that Tacitus wrote concerning the rape of Boudica’s daughters by the Romans, and that she took matters into her own hands. …

So were Victorian women not subject to the same sort of sexual assault that is historically known to have occurred or did they simply not report it? Plus then I think about Victorian women in general. Victorian Murderesses argues that the New Women were much more vulnerable to potentially scandalous situations as they began to mingle more freely in society. Arguably, however, the lower classes would have much more vulnerable to rape than the middle and upper classes. After all we know that many women were accompanied by chaperones and were never left alone with men, so by extension, rape victims would have been more likely to be found in the lower classes. Would a maid report her employer? Would a woman report the lord of the manor? Would a poor woman even bother reporting a rape to the police? Would the Victorian police even have paid attention to such a complaint if a barmaid reported she’d been sexually assaulted on the way home?

All these questions were running through my mind as I read the first chapter.

manhuntersInitially the book started very well, and began by giving me the sort of information I’d hoped for–the first time the term “serial killer” was used for example (FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler, 1977, if interested). The first chapter covers the history of criminal profiling which the author argues “for all practical purposes, this began on 1950 with a series of explosions in New York City attributed to the “Mad Bomber.” Frustrated with no leads in the case, the police consulted psychiatrist Dr. James A Brussel, a man who’d spent a great deal of his career working with the criminally insane. The Mad Bomber helped out by sending a flurry of letters, and Dr Brussel was able to provide the police with, as it turned out, a remarkably accurate profile of the bomber. Brussel was also called in on the Boston Strangler murders, and this chapter explains some of the controversies surrounding that case and how Brussel’s argument that all the crimes were committed by one killer, and not two as other experts argued, won the day.

Chapter 2 details the establishment of the FBI Academy of Quantico and draws in some big figures in the history of 20th century crime detection–instructors: Howard Teten, Robert K Ressler,  Patrick J. Mullany, and LAPD detective Pierce Brook. Brooks, as a LA detective who caught a serial killer based on hours and hours of pouring through files and newspaper clippings argued for a computer system in which crimes “solved and unsolved” were logged. This system was eventually developed as the VICAP (Violent Crimes Apprehension Program). This chapter also covers the “first serial killer to be caught with the aid of the FBI’s new investigative technique.” Chapter 5: The Behavioural Science Unit covers how the “Hoover old Guard” stymied innovative changes to crime solution (The Criminal Personality Research Project), and that for the younger agents, it was a matter of waiting for some people to retire until they could solve serial murders by adopting new approaches.  Chapter six includes a section on “organized versus disorganized” serial killers. Fascinating stuff if you’re into this.

The remainder of the book covers some of the most heinous cases in the history of serial killing and include: Manson, Bundy, Gacy, Dean Arnold Corll, the Hillside Stranglers, the Zodiac, the Atlanta Child Murders, Andrea Chikatilo, and The Night Stalker. Another chapter details Profiling in Britain. Some of the chapters were disappointing as profiling was subsumed by gruesome details of the cases themselves, so that it wasn’t profiling under examination so much as piles of corpses with the killers being caught not due to profiling as much as by mistakes, body parts & carelessness. If you’re familiar with the cases at all, you may be disappointed by the grim rehashing of details instead of the emphasis on profiling.

On a final note, when people, writers, detectives, psychiatrists, sociologists, study these serial killers, there’s an obsessive component to it. Perhaps even a fascination. I just finished watching True Detective, and I’d say that the character of Russ Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey shows that sort of obsessive fascination whereas his partner, Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) does not. Does that obsessive-fascination make Cohle the better detective? And if so when does that obsessive fascination go too far? A few of these killers mentioned in the book, once incarcerated, took to publishing  their “insights” (Ian Brady) or fiction (“sadistic sex killer” George Schaefer’s Killer Fiction). Author Colin Wilson describes the publication process with Brady and acknowledges that it was “wishful thinking” that Brady could ever see himself “objectively.” According to Wilson, these books are “interesting solely as an insight into the mind of a sadistic killer,” but IMO it’s frankly immoral, and misguided, to publish such stuff in which the killer either justifies these crimes or details violent sex porn fantasies.

Review copy

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The Hundred-year House by Rebecca Makkai

“This place doesn’t want me,” he said. “It’s rejecting me. Like a transplanted organ.”

Rebecca Makkai’s engaging novel The Hundred-Year House spans a century, focusing in on 4 specific time periods: 1999, 1955, 1929, and 1900 through the story of the various residents of a splendid ancient manor house, set in gorgeous grounds, located outside of Chicago. This was once the Laurelfield Arts Colony, but in the present, 1999, when the novel begins, the Arts Colony is a thing of the past, and all its secrets are hidden under lock and key in the attic. Matriarch Gracie, married to second husband Bruce, guards the past and the keys. Her only daughter Zee, a Marxist scholar, teaches at the local university, and Zee and her husband Doug live in the former coach house on the grounds of the family mansion. Doug, a “freelance PhD” is unemployed and is still working (for the last nine years) on a book about obscure poet Edwin Parfitt, who once stayed at the colony.  While Zee’s frustration grows at Doug’s inability to finish his book, he is actually secretly employed writing formulaic books in a popular teen series called Friends for Life. He’s ashamed of this job which he found through his friend, Leland, a “luckless poet.”

They give you the entire plot,” he said, “and you just stick to the style. Really there is no style. It’s refreshing.” Leland claimed they took a week each, and Doug was enchanted with the idea of shooting out a fully formed book like some kind of owl pellet.

While Doug stays in the coach house writing series teen novels, his book on Edwin Parfitt is frozen. He has piles of xeroxed articles, but he becomes obsessed with the old art colony attic files and convinces himself that there’s previously unknown information about Parfitt to be uncovered somewhere in the attic. Strangely, Gracie proves to be very difficult when it comes to allowing access to the files, and she’s an elusive person whose air of distracted eccentricity may be genuine or may be a way of effectively avoiding confrontation. Doug convinces himself that if he can just get his hands on the files, he’ll be able to finish the book, and his life will take a new direction. His quest leaves him with the “horrible feeling that he’d jumped down the wrong rabbit hole.”

Hundred year houseMeanwhile, Gracie’s second husband, Bruce sinks into an end-of-world millennium scenario, so hoarding and stockpiling, he prepares for Armageddon. To add to the complications, Bruce’s severely depressed and freshly fired son, Case, and his artist wife Miriam arrive from Texas to share the coach house with Doug and Zee. All the old status quo dissolves as new alliances form: Zee begins a campaign to get a colleague fired in order to get her husband a job, a trail of bad luck dogs Case, and Trash Artist Miriam forms a renegade bond with Doug. …

Other sections take us back into the history of the house and questions or incidents left in previous sections are eventually answered. The first section of the book set in 1999 was lively & very funny. There’s an ongoing joke that Zee, a Marxist scholar is Marxist–a difference people either don’t understand or deliberately choose not to. Many of the things Zee does or says have a way of boomeranging back at her with snide comments that she’s a commie. Here’s a scene at a university party in which Zee’s arch nemesis,  fellow professor Cole, a professor gets his digs in:

Cole, she realized, was talking to her from down the table, pointing his empty fork at her chest. “Comrade Zilla Grant is uncharacteristically withdrawn today,” he called. “I suspect she’s planning her Marxist revolution!” Before the laughter died down, he continued. “This is why I’ll never leave. She’ll replace me with her minions and all the seniors will take ‘Why Dickens Was a Stalinist.’ “

Misogynistic Professor Cole, who pokes fun of Zee at every opportunity, is one of my favourite characters:

Cole stood to give a brief speech about how he planned, in his twenty-first year at the college, to scare each and every student out of his classes, until he was left with “exactly one attractive and intelligent specimen that will grade its own papers and massage my neck.” When even Golda laughed, Zee pretended to as well. Cole must have felt his age protected him against rumors of impropriety, though Zee understood there were plenty of whispers about the man back in the eighties. Zee heard a senior boy claim he knew “for a fact” that the policy of leaving office doors cracked during office conferences could be traced to Cole’s misbehavior some fifteen years earlier. He’d been married once, briefly, but by the time he came back to campus he’d long been a swinging bachelor–attractive, back then, too–so rumors were bound to follow him. The fact that the rumors stuck, though, spoke to his behavior, not his erstwhile good looks.

With sharply drawn, wonderful characters, it was great fun to see all these people acting badly to get what they want, and there’s the definite sense that the arrival of Case and Miriam unleashes a previously dormant force within the house. Something wakes up–something mischievous. Perhaps it’s the creative presence of artist Miriam, but the house seems to reject those it doesn’t want while others blossom in its environment.  Many mysteries are deep in the history of the house, and these include the secret of Edwin Parfitt, exactly what took place during the colony years, and the reasons behind the suicide of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr whose portrait is in the house, and “no matter where you stood, you couldn’t get Violet to meet your gaze.”

This is a place where people aren’t so much haunted by their pasts as they are unknowingly hurtled toward specific and inexorable destinations. And perhaps it feels like haunting. But it’s a pull not a push.

In some ways, The Hundred-Year House reminds me of Kate Atkinson’s  Life After Lifeboth novels cover long time spans, with buried clues and connections to the central story revealed as the plot moves backwards, and both novels, for their approach, are ambitious. The Hundred-Year House doesn’t quite succeed, and this is only because not enough attention is given to other time periods. As the novel flashes back, the earlier sections–1900 and 1929 screamed for the attention to detail found in the first two sections: 1999 & 1955. I loved the first section with Miriam’s Trash Art and her so-called Barf Period, the way she collects rubbish, stuffing it in her pocket like some sort of bag lady. There’s also the rowdy family poodle, Hidalgo, who has to be distracted by peanuts or he’ll romp on top of visitors. By the time we’re back in 1900 and 1929, the details aren’t there, the characters aren’t as delightfully developed, so the novel feels rushed and sketchy when compared to the first half. But in spite of the novel’s flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed it, loved the optimism, loved the ideas, and the characters, and so I look forward to this young author’s next book. Wanting a book to be about 200 pages longer isn’t a bad thing.

Review copy

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A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

I would not change the beginning for anything.”

Author Darcy O’Brien (1939-1998) was best known for books on true crime, including Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers. While I’ve read about the case, I won’t be reading that book about a couple of sickos who hunted, tortured and killed women in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s. Given that O’Brien produced a seminal book on those brutal murderers, it’s practically impossible to align that part of O’Brien’s career with A Way of Life, Like Any Other, his wonderfully lighthearted book told by a young man, the sole offspring of unstable Hollywood film stars. O’Brien was the child of silent star George O’Brien and actress Marguerite Churchill, and while no doubt O’Brien incorporated many experiences from his real life into the book, some major differences exist.

Our unnamed narrator begins by recollecting the golden years of his early childhood which was spent mostly at Casa Fiesta, a ranch in the Malibu hills owned by his father. It’s here that the narrator lives an almost dream childhood. He’s the cosseted son of Hollywood film stars, and while his surroundings are real, there’s still a sense of fabrication–as though someone somewhere has sketched an idea of stage-set perfection, but as always in the book, the narrator’s parents behave inappropriately, and we see that sneaking into the scene even in these halcyon days:

I would not change the beginning for anything. I had an electric car, a starched white nanny, a pony, a bed modeled after that of Napoleon’s son, and I was baptized by the archbishop of the diocese. I wore hats and sucked on a little pipe.

The only child surrounded by various Hollywood luminaries, the narrator’s role, even in early childhood, seemed to cast him as part of the entertainment, a miniature adult. The first crack in this picture appears when the narrator is seven and his mother begins talking longingly about New York. Meanwhile the boy’s father, George, lives the acting roles he loves by dressing as a cowboy all in black and riding his horse “just like the old padres” even when he’s off the set. There’s a telling moment when George decides to take a grueling four day trek by horse to Santa Barbara which is ended by a stay in a luxury hotel, an expensive meal, and a drive home in a Lincoln.

The war intervenes in everyone’s lives, and after that, nothing is the same.

Life turned round on Mother and Dad, and stripped them of their goods and pleasures. It was not the war that did it, but by the end of the war everything had changed.

The marriage between the narrator’s parents sours and peels apart. At first, the pre-teen narrator lives with his needy, hysteric mother in Los Angeles, and their roles, in terms of maturity and responsibility are reversed; he’s her confidant throughout her many love affairs, her nurse when she attempts suicide and her 12-year-old bartender for the parties she throws. A long, steady stream of unsuitable men pass though their lives:

Mr. Johnny Standfast, whose real name turned out to be Reilly, and who had been a handball partner of my father’s at the Hollywood Athletic Club, came to stay for a week, but the old magic didn’t click. He left with a black eye. The man who invented the Hawaiian shirt ran strong for almost a year. He would fly in from Honolulu and take us to expensive restaurants. We were going to live on his yacht. Life would be an endless cruise. Then he began to notice mother’s drinking, and one morning he had to drive me to school because she couldn’t get up. Mother said she hated the sun anyway. She had had enough of it with my father.

Aging and losing her looks, the narrator’s mother confesses that she’s spent her life “looking for the perfect man, the perfect love.” After a series of disastrous relationships, the ‘perfect’ man turns out to be Anatol, a short Russian sculptor, a “compact rhino of a man” who works for Disney, but this regular paycheck supports Anatol’s real love–statues of “mythological creatures performing sexual acts of every description.”

As his mother’s life sinks into alcohol-soaked drama, eventually the narrator returns to live with his father.  George, “his money almost gone, his wife gone altogether, his motion picture career apparently behind him,”  lives “in diminished circumstances,“with his ex-wife’s mother, a strange arrangement laced with disgust:

She watched him pining and growing fatter and behaving more and more peculiarly. He had fallen into a religious mania, attending mass and taking holy communion every morning, participating in every sort of church function–novenas, missions, Holy Name Society breakfasts. The Ladies’ Alter Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacrament bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the Infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member. He twirled the cage at bingo, he raffled automobiles and turkeys. When the parish sedan was broken down or otherwise in use, he chauffeured the priests on their errands of mercy. He never missed a funeral. Because of his physic and the glamour that still trailed from him, he was in great demand as a pallbearer.

With “the Navy and the Church” now the “twin props of his existence,” George’s ex-mother-in-law addresses him derisively as Captain, yet this militarism invades the household with George granting her military status and promoting her rank periodically.

Within a month of Mother’s desertion she was made Chief Petty Officer, and soon afterwards Chief Engineer and First Mate. Yet her climb in status was accompanied by no improvement in her decorum. She flouted military discipline, rising and retiring in defiance of the Order of the Day; defacing the labels he so painstakingly affixed to every cupboard, closet, and drawer; taking out the garbage on the windward side of the house; refusing to stand watch, causing many a sleepless night for him; battening down the hatch to her compartment so that it was impossible for him to carry out his inspection rounds; countermanding his orders for provisions

George trying to run his ex-mother-in-law’s house to military standards is, of course, very eccentric, but the behaviour goes deeper and addresses George’s need to bring status, order and some meaning to his life. No wonder then that the narrator imagines he’s found greener pastures when he moves in with the son of a famous director, but if he’s hoping to find the stability that has so far eluded him, he still has lessons to learn. Affluence does not equal stability, and neither is it a replacement.

Upstairs, Mr Caliban’s bedroom was done in a Genghis Kahn motif, all read, black, and silver with weapons on the walls and full set of Mongolian armour standing in a corner. Mr. Caliban used the armor to hang his suits on, when he came home from work and changed into his relaxing clothes. Mrs. Caliban’s bedroom knocked your eyes out. It was entirely chartreuse, the walls the rug, the bedspread, everything. The bed was a four-poster job and the chartreuse hangings had been made to order by some nuns in France.

This story could have been written with anger, resentment and bitterness, but there’s none of that here. A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a coming-of-age story told by a young man who grows up & matures in spite of his many problems. While never critical of his parents, the narrator instead matures to understanding and acceptance, approaching his damaged parents with empathy & humour, and part of the book’s magically light tone is created by the narrator’s initially naïve explanations of the unfiltered adult life which surrounds him. He grows up listening to a running commentary of his father’s faults, but there’s one painful moment when he sees his father’s weak character unadorned by movie screen presence or Navy bluster, and it’s a scene of painful truth.

For Max’s review 

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The Mad and The Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Eccentric, wealthy businessman, former architect Michel Hartog arrives at a swanky country asylum to collect Julie Ballanger, a young woman who’s lived there, voluntarily, for 5 years. She’s leaving to be employed as a nanny for Hartog’s young nephew, Peter aka “the snotty brat.” Hartog inherited his wealth unexpectedly when his brother and sister-in law died in a plane crash, and their deaths left him in charge of the family fortune and the well-being of his nephew, the heir. Now Hartog has hired a former mental patient as a nanny. What’s wrong with this picture?

If you listen to Hartog’s driver, Hartog has a reputation as a philanthropist for hiring people who have physical or mental problems. Hartog’s home is a “house of defectives.”

Julie nodded. The driver handed her the drink. He had poured himself a Ricard. He drank half of it and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“Physically, you are better built than Old Polio.”

“Old Polio?”

“The nursemaid before you. Completely off her rocker. Fifty if she was a day. And an idiot. What about you? What’s your thing?”

“I don’t understand at all,” said Julie. “My thing? What do you mean?”

“The thing that’s screwy with you.”

“I’m cured,” Julie stated.

“The hell you are!” exclaimed the driver. “The boss’s way of doing good is over the top. He only hires retards. He sets up factories for cripples to work in, can you figure that?”

“Not really.”

“Those guys who go around in little motorized wheelchairs? He’s got them working on a production line! In this house it’s the same baloney. The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind. His valet suffers from locomotor ataxia–no wonder his meals arrive cold! The snotty brat’s old nanny–well I told you about her. As for you, you must know yourself.”

Hartog is certainly very odd, but his first scene at the asylum shows us that he’s not a nice man, so does he hire Julie from some sort of philanthropy or contrariness or is there something deeper at play?…..

the mad and the badJulie’s introduction to Hartog’s nephew is not reassuring; Peter is a difficult child, and Hartog, who encourages Julie to drink, is strangely repellent, with a smile which “resembled the coin slot of a parking meter.” Julie is not the only one who hits the booze hard in Hartog’s house; it’s “a drinker’s paradise,” and even the valet downs Guinness with his breakfast omelet. Hartog runs his home in a paradoxical fashion. On one hand, he whimsically expects his employees to be available whenever he pleases, sharply dressed and ready to perform their duties, but on the other hand, he indulges certain vices.  Thrust into this new stressful environment, Julie washes down tranquilizers with alcohol.

Although we never get the whole story of Julie’s past life, some information is revealed in fragmented hints, but these crimes are only the external projections of something much deeper. Julie who claims to be “allergic” to the police is politically alienated from bourgeois society. Hartog plucks her from an insane asylum, hands her a job, a wardrobe full of clothing and a regular paycheck. He expects her to be impressed and grateful:

“What do you think of me?” Hartog asked. “What do you know about me? Do you get the feeling you are in a fairy tale?”

“I don’t believe in fairy tales.”

Okay. But what then?”

“You are a soap, oil, and detergent magnate. You are rich and you are a philanthropist.”

“Let’s not exaggerate.”

“You do Good. You are probably trying to compensate for the feeling of being a usurper. Because your wealth is not the fruit of your own labor. Only the death of your brother and his wife made you the owner of it. You must have developed a strong sense of guilt, even if you had no wish for them to die. Anyway, one always wishes for the death of one’s brother at some level.”

“Congratulations!” said Hartog in a toneless voice. “Is that what they teach at the asylum?”

“It’s not an asylum. It’s an open establishment. I could have left any time I wanted.”

“But you stayed there for five years. Why?”

“You’ve seen my records. You know why.” 

While this is a crime story, The Mad and the Bad also contains a socio-political undercurrent. Hartog expects gratitude from Julie for offering her ‘another chance,’ but he also wants to see awe–awe for his wealth and his accomplishments. But Julie is unimpressed. She sees Hartog as an unexceptional human being with the advantage of controlling a fortune:

“Quite the little rebel,” he observed. “I know all about you. Pickpocket. Arsonist. Congratulations.”

“Of course you do,” replied Julie. “It’s all in my file.”

“You, all you poor people, are just too stupid. You go about things in the dumbest way.”

“Everyone can’t inherit money.”

Hartog shrugged.

“For my part I do something with my inheritance. You people wouldn’t know what to do with one.”

I’m not going to reveal much of the plot–the back cover of the book reveals more than I intend to address here. But since this is a crime novel, a hit man and his sloppy henchmen enter the scene, and Julie’s brief re-entrance into society comes to a screaming halt. Suddenly, she finds herself back in a life on the run, and all of her old survival skills return. Julie describes herself as looking like a “post-op transsexual,” but this is just a reflection that Julie eschews bourgeois society’s signifiers of the feminine ideal; in reality she’s fit, attractive, handy with weaponry and adept at survival. As the book continues, there’s a parallel metamorphosis that takes place as both Julie and Thompson, the hitman with a nagging ulcer, return to primal behaviour.

The Mad and the Bad is a deeply subversive novel and contains the same sharply observed criticisms of bourgeois society that are found in Fatale. As the novel continues, Julie’s ‘madness’ becomes questionable, and as her violent history morphs into her violent present, she is removed farther from society’s norms and sinks deeper into self-preservation. Her past insanity is seen mal-adjustment–a reaction to the hypocrisy of a decadent, materialistic society and a drive to anti-social behaviours; she simply opted to no longer live in the world and voluntarily retired to the asylum where, drugged and removed from aggravation, she was “cured.” Her re-entry into society has turned into a nightmare, and those same anti-social behaviours that sent her into the asylum in the first place, now allow her to survive. Another character, Fuentès, a failed idealist, has also rejected society, and in his case, he’s not locked up in an asylum, but chooses to isolate himself in a bizarrely constructed building whose labyrinth design grants security and is a testament to his individualism. Is Fuentès, another fringe dweller, also mad, or is his abandonment of society a signifier of sanity?

There are moments when Julie seems aware of her delusions, but there are other times when she can’t control herself. One scene in which a preacher emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between religion, the government and the police seems to awaken something in Julie:

She had to get rid of all these bastards who were out to destroy her. This was no time to lose her head. She would have loved to open fire with a machine gun and create a bloodbath.

It’s no coincidence that one of the book’s destructive, brilliantly explosive scenes takes place in a large department store–a temple to consumerism. Violence detonates with a darkly humorous edge as Julie is pushed to extremes in order to shock the customers and shop assistants out of their stupor. Yes, Julie uses the location for her purposes, but as the tranquilizers wear off and she blazes across France, Julie comes alive, all those old skills ignite, and we cheer her on. 

Manchette shows that while the ‘bad’ are predictable, the ‘mad’–those who reject society–are not. This is the fourth Manchette novel I’ve read, and my favourite to date. For its irony, its unexpected twists, and for the marvelous character of Julie, The Mad and the Bad will make my best-of-year list. For those interested, here are reviews of Fatale, The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill

Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith & with an introduction from James Sallis.

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Amy’s Children by Olga Masters

In the novel  Amy’s Children, Australian author Olga Masters creates characters who commit appalling acts of betrayal: a mother abandons her children, a husband betrays his wife, relatives turn on each other, and an unforgiving daughter rains down retribution on her mother’s head. Yet in spite of these things, or perhaps even because of them, ultimately there’s a sense of understanding underlying these people’s actions. Amy’s Children follows the life and decisions made by one young Australian woman over the course of a few decades–through the depression, WWII and beyond in a judgmental society in which the struggle for survival creates tough moral choices.

Amy is from Diggers Creek “a hamlet of school, post office, public hall, general store and All Souls Anglican Church.” It’s the Depression, and Amy, with three small children, finds herself abandoned by her husband, Ted, who leaves to find work and fails to return. It’s a miserable, hardscrabble existence for everyone when Amy moves back home with her three little girls. The poverty of the era is tangible with Amy walking back to her parents’ home, children in tow, and one of her brothers carting her pathetic pile of belongings in the farm truck. A few years of marriage have left Amy with little beyond a kettle, two saucepans, a frying pan, an old butter box the children pretend is a pram, and of course, the three children.

amy's childrenThe restlessness in Amy begins as she watches the road for Ted’s return, and perhaps this is where it all her dreams begin:

She would dream of having a job, buying a new dress and silk stockings, and a blue band for her hair to go to the Tilba Tilba dances.

She sometimes dreamed aloud on the front veranda, sitting between Kathleen and Patricia, with her feet among the arum lilies growing thickly on either side of the front steps.

“Mummy might get a job one day, you never know,” she said once, her eyes on a car racing along the road, going south. It might stop, she said silently, a man might get out and come up to me and say, I’ve got a job for you in my big shop. There will be clothes for you very cheap, and clothes for the girls. Come on, I’ll give you half an hour to get ready. All she needed to do was to wipe their faces and go.

Unfortunately the ‘dream’ doesn’t include the children:

The car had gone but there was another coming. Perhaps this time, Amy thought. The baby cried and Kathleen took a sharp breath and watched Amy’s face.

‘Lebby’s crying,’ she said gently as if Amy were sleepwalking and she didn’t want to shock her into waking, In a moment there were footsteps inside and the crying stopped. ‘Gramma’s got her,’ Kathleen said.

Inside herself Amy said, I won’t be taking her. She didn’t either. Or for that matter the other two.

Amy eventually makes it Sydney, solo, of course, and she moves in with her Aunt Daphne, Uncle Dudley, and their two sons. It’s an agreement given grudgingly, but then almost everything given in this tale–love, attention, food, relationships and even accepting responsibility–is given under some bitter constraint or unspoken protest. Once in Sydney, Amy, masquerading as a young single woman is able, with some struggle, to find employment and improve her circumstances, but it’s only a matter of time before her past arrives on her doorstep.

This is a novel which examines individualism and moral responsibility, and no matter which Amy chooses, there’s a terrible price to pay. These days, Amy’s small materialistic desires and dreams of city life seem modest, but due to the times and her circumstances, she chooses between staying in her parents’ home and being a mother, or abandoning her children to their grandmother’s care while picking up her life as if she’d never had children. Just as Amy effectively creates a narrative for her life in order to gain employment, Kathleen, the first of Amy’s three daughters builds a narrative of her own, and we see how two generations of lives are bitterly interlocked by Amy’s choice to abandon her children. Amy sheds her children lightly, like tossing aside yesterday’s clothing, but it’s not quite that easy. Amy’s husband Ted manages to disappear, and no one seems to think this is particularly strange or hold him accountable, yet Amy’s decision to do the same is seen as a moral failing by those who know her secret. Kathleen, who possesses a sort of twisted primness, seems to have a submerged desire to see her mother destroyed while there is no lingering resentment for the father who also abandoned her.  This double standard isn’t overworked, but it’s there deep in the subtext of the story.

The introduction provides some background information on Olga Masters (1919-1986). The mother of seven children, she worked part-time as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, and her career as a writer came late in life–in her 50s. It’s clear that Olga Masters wants us to treat Amy, a young woman who wants very little from life, with generosity. The introduction mentions the Misses Wheatley, Heather and Grace, two spinster sisters in their sixties, as unpleasant characters. Somehow I think that Olga Masters would want us to take the same generosity that we show to Amy and spread it to the Misses Wheatley. These two spinsters lead a fragile marginal existence on a monthly allowance. Their brother Henry takes over the family’s wheat & sheep ranch, and when he marries a widow with two children, he wants his sisters to have an “independent life.” There’s no share in the family sheep ranch for the Misses Wheatley; instead they’re shipped to Sydney, live in a boarding home and exist on ten pounds a month. They’re a postage stamp from disaster:

Heather, eating her half of the apple carefully because an unsteady tooth at the rear of her upper jaw, looked keenly at Grace, wondering if her pallor meant she was coming down with the bronchitis she had suffered all her life, and how she would cope with the expense of a visit to doctor if this were necessary. Their cheque was due to arrive at the end of the week, but it could fail to arrive should an emergency like floodwaters keep Henry from getting into Dubbo to the post office. Heather automatically and foolishly looked out the window to the sky, clear and blue, and hoped for the same for Dubbo.

The Misses Wheatley provide all the judgment on Amy’s behaviour that she’s managed to escape from her own relatives, and it’s through the behaviour of the Misses Wheatley, and their Victorian attitudes (they must have been born in the 1880s), that we see how toxic judgment is. These two women have never had to make the choices Amy faced, and because they’ve never been in Amy’s position, they feel free to judge her. Through the Misses Wheatley, Olga Masters shows the slippery ease with which judgment falls into place as these two sisters extend the lack of options in their own narrow sterile lives towards Amy. At least Amy never uses anyone as a moral crutch which is a great deal more than can be said for Kathleen. And yet Masters even gives us pause to understand and forgive Kathleen. Kathleen is Amy’s daughter, and yet her appearance, her existence causes Amy to feel threatened, and when she must sacrifice for Kathleen, she sees Kathleen as a resource sponge:

I won’t let her see that perfume, she will want it. And Amy slammed the drawer shut and shut out the angry picture of Kathleen eating a sandwich she didn’t want, while Amy’s throat craved for one. She saw herself drinking water for the rest of her life while Kathleen ate.

Olga Masters paints a quietly savage portrait of suburban Australian life: in the grab for limited resources, children step over their parents and siblings shove aside siblings; spouses depart to feed themselves, and parents begrudge the food and necessities their children require. This all sounds quite glum, and yet, miraculously, somehow Amy’s Children isn’t glum at all. It’s a wonderful, rich, life-affirming book, for we understand that while Amy makes new choices and her life heads in one direction, Kathleen’s adventure is just beginning…

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