Tag Archives: unreliable narrator

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

You know how it is with some books. You’ve been meaning to read them for years, but somehow you always pass them by. Perhaps part of that comes from the idea that you think you know what the book’s about, and there’s a familiarity to it since it’s been sitting on the shelf for decades. This is exactly the case with Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. I’d always meant to read it, but I passed by my old hardback edition–even the college library threw it away which is how I came to own it. For some reason that I cannot adequately explain I had the impression that Castle Rackrent was a gothic novel–perhaps because I’d seen it linked with Ann Radcliffe’s works, so I was very surprised to find myself laughing at this very funny short book narrated by the old, faithful family retainer, Thady. Thady manages to outlive generations of dissolute owners of Castle Rackrent in the book that he presents as a “Memoir of the Rackrent Family.” The cover of the Oxford Classics edition says it all:

castle rackrentBut first a note on Maria Edgeworth… the introduction to my copy states that she was born on January 1, 1767 and died on May 22, 1849. At this point in time, Wikipedia gives her birth year as 1768. She was born in Oxfordshire as the result of the marriage between her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth and the first of four wives. My copy states that Maria was the first child of 19–Wikipedia places her as the second of 22. Right away of course, whichever version is the correct one, we know that there’s an interesting dynamic at work–especially with a quote from Maria’s father regarding his four wives:

I have had four wives. The second and third were sisters, and I was in love with the second in the lifetime of the first.

So whether we are talking about 19 children or twenty-two, this had to be an energetic and chaotic household. Maria Edgeworth lived with her aunts until her mother’s death and then her father remarried and relocated the family to his Irish estates. She returned to England for her education  during the illness of her first stepmother, Honora Sneyd, but after her death, and Mr Edgeworth’s remarriage to Honora’s sister (my intro says that this was Honora’s dying request), Maria shortly returned to Ireland yet again. So no small amount of impermanence and upheaval until Maria’s teen years. At this point she became involved in her father’s business and estates.

Castle Rackrent was published in 1800, initially without the author’s name, but this was added for the second edition. This is an unusual novel for its time as it is narrated by a servant, Old Thady Quirk, and if this story were told by the successive gentry owners of the estate, it would be a very different story indeed. As it is, Thady ‘s disingenuousness may be a construct to not speak ill of his various ‘masters,’–a habit from a lifetime of obsequiousness, or it may be his way of telling this shameful history while still appearing ‘loyal’ to the dissolute members of the family. Nonetheless, it’s the spaces between Thady’s naïve narrative and the actual events that creates so much humour. And this is how it begins:

Having, out of friendship for the family, upon whose estate, praised be heaven! I and mine have lived rent-free time out of mind, voluntarily undertaken to publish the MEMOIRS OF THE RACKRENT FAMILY, I think it my duty to say a few words, in the first place, concerning myself. My real name is Thady Quirk, though in the family I have always been known by no other than “Honest Thady.”

The insertion of Honest Thady let’s us know that the version we are about to hear is suspect, and as the tales unfold from Honest Thady of a dissolute bunch of owners, we have every reason to suspect his version of events.

Castle Rackrent was originally owned by Sir Tallyhoo Rackrent who came to a bad end, so the estate passed to Sir Patrick O’Shaughlin with the stipulation that he take the “surname and arms of Rackrent.” The litigious Sir Patrick, “who used to boast that he had a lawsuit for every letter in the alphabet,” according to Thady, “gave the finest entertainment” in which “not a man could stand after supper but Sir Patrick himself.” Here’s an example of Thady’s fond recollection of a Rackrent:

I remember when I was a little boy, the first bumper of claret he gave me after dinner, how he praised me for carrying it to my mouth.

Probably a good thing that the male Rackrents seem to die early and without issue–and that brings me to my very favourite member of the family, Sir Kit, who brings over his new bride who is, as we learn later, a very dark-complexioned Jewish woman, the “grandest heiress in England,”  who’s been married for her fortune.  The poor woman has no idea of what’s in store for her:

“Is the large room damp, Thady?” said his honour.

“Oh, damp, your honour! how should it be but as dry as a bone,” says I, “after all the fires we have kept in it day and night? It’s the barrack-room your honour’s talking on.”

“And what is a barrack-room, pray, my dear?” were the first words I ever heard out of my lady’s lips.

“No matter, my dear,” said he, and went on talking to me ashamed-like I should witness her ignorance. To be sure, to hear her talk one might have taken her for an innocent, for it was, “What’s this, Sir Kit?” and “What’s that, Sir Kit? all the way we went. To be sure, Sir Kit had enough to do to answer her.

“And what do you call that, Sir Kit?” said she; “that–that looks like a pile of black bricks, pray, Sir Kit?’

“My turf-stack, my dear,” said my master, and bit his lip.

Where have you lived, my lady, all your life, not to know a turf-stack when you see it? thought I; but I said nothing. Then, by-and-by, she takes out her glass, and begins spying over the country.

“And what’s all that black swamp out yonder, Sir Kit?” says she.

“My bog, my dear,” says he and went on whistling.

“It’s a very ugly prospect, my dear,” says she.

“You don’t see it, my dear,” says he; “for we’ve planted it out; when the trees grow up in summertime—” says he.

“Where are the trees,” said she, “my dear?” still looking through her glass.

“You are blind, my dear,” says he: “what are thee under your eyes?”

“These shrubs?” said she.

“Trees,” said he.

“May be they are what you call trees in Ireland, my dear,” said she; “but they are not a yard high, are they?”

“They were planted out but last year, my lady,” says I, to soften matters between them, for I saw she was going to make his honour mad with her: “they are very well grown for their age, and you’ll not see the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin at-all-at-all through the screen, when once the leaves come out. But, my lady, you must not quarrel with any part or parcel of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin, for you don’t know how many hundred years that same bit of bog has been in the family; we would not part with the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin upon no account at all; it cost the late Sir Murtagh two hundred good pounds to defend his title to it and boundaries against the O’Learys, who cut a road through it.”

Now one would have thought this would have been hint enough for my lady, but she fell to laughing like one out of their right mind, and made me say the name of the bog over, for her to get it by heart, a dozen times; then she must ask me how to spell it, and what was the meaning of it in English–Sir Kit standing by whistling all the while.

According to Thady “she laid the corner-stone of all her future misfortunes” this very first day, and if you want to know the fate of this particular Lady Rackrent (none of them exactly fare well), then you’ll have to read the book. Thady relates her history in this deadpan style–as if what happened to the poor woman was 1) deserved and 2) normal, but then the term ‘normal’ doesn’t apply to the Rackrents–an atrocious bunch of Anglo-Irish riffraff, a family of boozers, bounders and debtors, and the very worst sort of landowners.

There’s also an extensive glossary that accompanies the text, and written in an authoritarian style, this adds another level of irony to the humorous tale. Finally the topic of the Irish Roof emerged in Great Granny Webster, and the subject appears again here–the windows are broken and the roof leaks, but there’s too many debts and too little money to fix anything as the various heirs to the castle run the place into the ground.

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Consequences by Philippe Djian

“Evil’s out of hand in this country.”

Earlier this year, Emma pointed me in the direction of Philippe Djian’s novel, Consequences. It’s a great title as the main character, Marc, a middle-aged professor whose failed literary career has led him to teach creative writing, has reached his 50s in a life full of bad choices that is still, miraculously, consequence-free. But this is all about to change, and it changes rapidly within the first few pages. After an evening of drinking, Marc drives one of his young students back to his “lair” for “one full night of fun.” The next day, the girl, whose name he can’t remember, is dead. Marc doesn’t hesitate; he disposes of her body in a deep crevice on a hillside in the nearby woods.

consequencesStrange reaction … but then everything about Marc is a little strange. Not that the casual observer would necessarily pick up the warning signs right away. After all, Marc is a professor, middle-aged, and lives with his sister, Marianne. The fact that he lives with his sister is a little worrying, and then again they are awfully close. On the surface, Marc seems a ‘normal’ libidinous middle-aged professor who compensates for life’s disappointments by engaging in meaningless sexual encounters with students.

Quite a few years ago, he’d understood that the time had come to take advantage of certain perks that came with his profession–for lack of the better rewards that he had to stop expecting. One day, by a kind of miracle, one of his students began to glow as he looked at her–from the inside out, like a Chinese lantern with a wonderful gleam–but was, despite this, insipid and ordinary, almost devoid of interest, and absolutely incapable of putting two sentences together. Yet, just as he was brutally jeering, in front of other students, at work she’d turned in, he was blinded by a blast of heat. And this girl turned out to be the first in a fairly long series, as well as one of the most satisfying lays he’d ever had.

Richard Oslo, the department head, a real cretin in Marc’s opinion, isn’t the least attractive to women, so Marc congratulates himself that he may not have gained the directorship, but at least he can seduce any woman he wants. To Marc, this “reestablishes the balance.” Marc congratulates himself on a narrow escape from some messy consequences with the dead girl and starts lining up his next affair with a student who “was making use of lower and lower necklines as the year advanced.” There’s no shortage of eager young female students, it seems, but all of Marc’s erotic machinations fly out the window when he meets Myriam, the gorgeous red-headed step-mother of the missing girl. Marc, who normally steers clear of mothers, has never had sex with a woman older than 26. He’s powerfully attracted to Myriam, and since her husband is somewhere in Afghanistan, she’s alone.  Marc is warned to stay away from Myriam by Richard Olso, who sees a PR nightmare ahead, but Marc is already hooked into the chase:

Certainly a department head had a more comfortable salary, and the power that came along with it, especially in these uncertain times, had to be very enjoyable. Yet attracting women, turning the heads of widows, students, housewives, and holding on to that gift, appealing to these fucking women before you even opened your mouth, without putting the slightest effort into it–well, he said to himself, now that was something that gave pause for thought.

He wouldn’t have traded places with Richard, There was no sense thinking about it for hours. Ten or so years ago, his life had changed. It made a 180-degree turn the day he realized how something that seemed so complicated was really so easy. Things took on a different cast. And what a relief that had been! What a profound rebirth, in fact.

From there to thinking he wasn’t against extending his hunting grounds to mothers, to the parents of students and the like, was a step he took easily.

One very clever device utilized by Djian is the collision of consequences. Initially Marc, who ironically is teaching a course of “John Gardner and moral literature,” escapes all the consequences of his actions–his casual affairs, and the way he treats his female students. As the days pass, the author gradually reveals glimpses of Marc and Marianne’s childhood, so that we see how these middle-aged siblings live, daily, with the consequences of their childhood. Memories of the past and actions of the present are interwoven until the consequences of both collide.

At 195 pages, this is a slim, deeply unsettling novel, and one that is very easy to underestimate. Initially when Marc doesn’t question why the girl died and he decides, casually, to toss her body into the crevice, the plot seems implausible or at least sketchy. As the book unfolds, events as they are explained or presented to us by Marc become increasingly questionable. I’m used to an unreliable narrator in the first person. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks are both superb example of just how far authors can go (and have fun) with narratives told by unreliable narrators. Philippe Djian takes the riskier road less travelled and for this novel, using the third person, he tells the story through Marc’s eyes.  It’s all so very cleverly done, and yet because this is a third person narration, Djian initially risks alienating the reader with a story that appears to have implausible actions committed by the main character. All the red flags would have popped up sooner with a first person narration, but the third person narrative places an additional murkiness to events in this dark tale of crime, twisted relationships, and the inability to escape the consequences of one’s actions and experiences. The cover, reflecting the narrative in multiple ways, is a perfect choice for the novel. 

Translated by Bruce Benderson.

This is the second Djian novel I’ve read, and I’d rate Consequences above Unforgivable. So thanks Emma for another great recommendation.

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Constance by Patrick McGrath

To say that I looked forward to reading Constance, Patrick McGrath’s latest novel would be putting it mildly. His novel Dr. Haggard’s Disease makes my favourite books list, so I approached Constance with some high expectations. McGrath’s father was the superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital, and I don’t think I’m making a leap when I say that you can see this influence in his work.  I’m specifically thinking of Asylum and Spider which were both made into excellent films in case anyone is interested. Since Patrick McGrath uses the unreliable narrator in his novels, I expected more of the same creepy insanity. Was I disappointed? Well yes and no.

SO … imagine that you are a middle-aged professor, an expert on Romantic poetry with a couple of failed marriages under your belt. You don’t think you’ll ever love again at your age and with your soured attitude towards love and relationships. And then, one night, while attending a  book party, you spot a beautiful young woman alone and out of place in the room full of people. You go and talk to her, take her from the party and go to a restaurant to talk. The young woman, whose name is Constance, is obviously damaged goods. Brittle and … yes … on the mentally fragile side. She hates her father (long story) but also has a daddy fixation. Not a good combination. And to top it off, you become the father figure in her life. How unhealthy and potentially hazardous is that?

ConstanceAnd here’s how the novel begins:

My name is Constance Schuyler Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said goodbye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went  before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling querulous voice so unshakeable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary.

Constance is married to her new “daddy,” and things, hardly surprisingly, are not going well. While I understand why one partner in a relationship may seek a new parent, I’ve always found the other partner facilitating that role cringeworthy. Perhaps it can work if both people in the relationship accept the parent-child dynamic but how can it be healthy and isn’t it guaranteed to be fraught with problems and tension? Naturally, it follows that this parent-child relationship is going down the toilet. Sidney is, of course, old enough to be Constance’s father (that’s why she’s attracted to him) and so according to Constance, he likes to lecture his girl-bride and ‘teach’ her how to think. Shades of Pygmalion here so often found in relationships between much older men and young women: she offers youth and he offers experience, stability and financial security.

Told in dual narratives from Constance and Sidney, narratives that are possibly unreliable from their very defensiveness, we learn how these two people met. We already know that Constance has a daddy-complex, and while Sidney seems happy enough, at least initially to accept that role, he’s attracted to Constance’s damaged self. Sidney, a lover of Romantic poetry, is working on a  book called The Conservative Heart and is at an all-time low when he first spots Constance at the book party that changed the direction of his life. Attracted by her “air of angry untouchability,” he approaches her. On Constance’s part, she sees Sidney in a far from flattering light. We’re told he’s tall and “heavy,

It was a warm evening. I was in my light seersucker and apparently there were beads of sweat on my forehead. The effect she said later, was that of an obscure consular official going quietly mad in a far-flung outpost of empire.

Constance’s daddy complex is more than matched by Sidney’s doomed Romanticism:

I asked her about her childhood, and she told me she’d grown up with her sister, Iris, in a falling-down house in the Hudson Valley complete with a framed verandah and a tower. It had been in her family for generations, she said, but when I asked her how many generations she was vague. Oh, two at least, she said. Daddy grew up there. It stood high on a fissured bluff, and on the south side of the property a steep wooded slope descended to a wetland meadow by the railroad tracks and the river. This was the view she’d had from her bedroom window, she said, the sweep of the mighty Hudson far below her, with the Catskills in the distance. It was called Ravenswood.

It was all too good to be true. The old house with its tower on a bluff above the river, and this beautiful girl, clearly in flight from who knows what horrors she’d suffered there, it was a Romantic cliché, the whole thing. But for that I liked it all the more.

While Constance ostensibly seeks a new father figure who is everything her real father isn’t, Sidney soon, in common with Constance’s father, becomes the villain–the villain to be rebelled against. And while Sidney was initially attracted to Constance as a damsel-in-distress, that old cliché becomes wearisome when he realises that he is now the source of her distress. Sidney discovers that being the caretaker of a mentally damaged, fragile person is both draining and thankless, so when Constance’s sister, Iris, moves to New York and finds an apartment “over a noodle shop in Chinatown,” Sidney is pleased.  Sidney rather approves of Iris who intends to become a doctor like her father, and this really doesn’t help the child-parent dynamic between Constance and Sidney as this effectively recreates the toxic competition between the two sisters for attention. Sidney’s approval of the freshly relocated Iris,  “a messy beatnik floozy,” very effectively signals trouble for Constance’s marriage.

McGrath novels often include a lurid, pathological past, and there are hints of that from Constance, and those hints blow wide open into a lingering malignancy as the book progresses. All the past secrets, of course, reside at Ravenswood, a house that is slipping into decay–symbolic of course of the pathological secrets buried deep in the past. Why is Constance’s father (who reminds Sidney of the “pitchfork man in Grant Wood’s American Gothic”) so emotionally distant from his daughter? There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here in the very unhealthy atmosphere at the family home at Ravenswood. There’s a creepy dried, up, “sour,” housekeeper, Mildred Knapp, who takes over after the lonely death of Constance and Iris’s mother Harriet. What’s the dark secret involving Mildred’s husband, and why are certain topics strictly off limits at Ravenswood? The book has an underlying trademark McGrath creepiness, with its emphasis on death and decay. Buildings and people fall apart. While one character is slowly dying, New York’s Penn Station is being stripped and noisily demolished–both incidents depress Sidney who sees the pointless destruction of the station as evidence of the decay of civilization.

Constance is a problematic character in this beautifully written novel in which the characters never quite seem comfortable together as they drift through the story rather like disinterested dance partners. While Constance is the less-favoured daughter, there’s something of the spoiled brat about her damaged air, and for this reader, there were a couple of story threads which were never fully explored–one involving oily lounge lizard, pianist Eddie Castrol, thrown into the mix but underexploited for the plot.  Dr. Haggard’s Disease remains my favourite McGrath novel, and it’s a book that set an impossibly high standard to beat, and unfortunately Constance doesn’t come close. The madness and obsession found in Asylum, Spider and Dr Haggard’s Disease appear in Constance but in a much lighter dose. There were occasions when the novel seemed about to take the reader down the dark labyrinth of total insanity, but instead the story lands on neuroticism. Does Gothic not translate effectively to Manhattan in the 60s? Or is Gothic simply replaced by its more modern counterpart, Neuroticism?

But she had such a tricky psyche, all turned in on itself like a convoluted seashell, like a nautilus, and at times I caught her talking to herself as though in response to what she heard in that seashell. When I asked her who she was talking to she’d all at once startle and wouldn’t tell me. It was disquieting.

Review copy.

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Solo Pass by Ronald De Feo

“People continued to pass by, and I meant nothing to them, as they meant nothing to me. Who needed to court their approval? Why had such a need ever been important to me? And this particular group was especially pitiful. Here they were, just leisurely strolling about, gazing in windows, stopping in shops, hurrying off to drinks or a late lunch, while a thief and a madman traveled among them, by their side, almost shoulder to shoulder. And the fools didn’t even know it. They believed themselves to be perfectly safe.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for novels told by an unreliable narrator. I also have a perverse interest in any book set in an asylum, so add those two factors together and throw in a name I already know, Ronald De Feo, who delighted me in 2011 with his extremely unusual novel, Calling Mr. King  –the story of a hit man who finds an inner life. It’s a triple whammy. How could I lose?

solo passOtt, a man in his 30s, is our unreliable narrator. He once had a career as a New York editor, but his life began a downhill spiral when his wife Elizabeth left, and after a meltdown, he found himself being carted off to the mental health ward at Essex Hospital. Well, this is Ott’s version of events, and as the novel continues,  we discover, of course, that Ott’s view of life is inaccurate. His problems extend far beyond the breakdown of his marriage, and if anything, marriage was a failed attempt at normalcy and connection with another human being. But hey, things could be worse–there’s also a violent ward at Essex and Ott isn’t on it. He also isn’t being shipped off to Courtland, a hospital for more permanent cases, full of “frigging zombies talking to walls and chairs.” No, life is looking up for Ott; he’s on the brink of being given a solo pass to spend a few hours outside of the hospital by himself. A solo pass is a trial run of sorts, a taste of full release and theoretical freedom . Will Ott be able to handle it?

According to seasoned patient, Mandy, a young trust fund woman, there’s a knack to being released. She advises Ott to “just tell them what they want to hear.” ‘Them,’ of course refers to the doctors in the ward–the ones who make the decisions about medication and further treatment. She also advises Ott not to open his mouth to rant against his bête noir, that “uncouth bastard,” Prodski, Ott’s former therapist, and as it turns out, the man Ott blames for the breakdown of his marriage and his life. Mandy is an expert on solo passes–on her last one, she immediately found another former patient and had sex. These days we’d call Mandy a sex-addict, but back in the 60s she’d be on the nympho ward in Sam Fuller’s spectacular over-the-top film, The Naked Kiss (yes, one of my favourites).

Solo Pass takes us through Ott’s preparations for a few hours of ‘freedom’ in one afternoon. Of course, since we are privy to Ott’s innermost thoughts while his doctor is not, we get a sense of whether or not he’s ‘ready’ to fly solo, or whether this is a risky venture:

“Any of those strange feelings lately?” Dr. Petersen asked, referring to those feelings that used to creep up on me–at my job, at home with my ex-wife, just about anywhere and at any time. There I’d be by the window of my office staring out at the office buildings across the way or sunk down in my favourite easy chair at home studying Elizabeth reading on the sofa, and I’d suddenly feel that I didn’t belong, that I had been placed in someone else’s life, that everyone and everything around me was foreign, unfamiliar, wrong.

No, I told her. None at all. And I smiled again, this time to indicate that I now regarded those feelings as rather ridiculous, a product of an illness that was no longer with me. Why the very mention of them amused me more than anything else. I conveyed this amusement well. Yes, I believe I was very convincing.

Through Ott’s memory, glimpses of his married live with Elizabeth emerge along with scenes of his hostility at work:

And when I discovered that my immediate boss, Richard Lorch–a smug, officious nuisance–had an aversion to office plants, considered them bourgeois and decorative clichés, I brought in more. “What’s the point?” he had the nerve to ask one day when he caught me hanging up a new addition. Perhaps to annoy you, I answered in my head.

Apart from his relationship with Mandy, Ott also chats with other patients, including  Wally, a man addicted to cheesy TV programmes and Tommy, a man with a history of violent behaviour:

He held up a sheet of paper covered with what looked like graffiti–words, circles, cylinders in red and blue ink–quite a mess really, an aggressive, violent one at that, “My plan for attacking Iran,” he said, and went on to explain that the dozens of circles represented tanks, our tanks, thousands of them, and that they would form a line and sweep down into the country and destroy everything in their path. And then they would get air support from thousands of fighter jets–the cylinders–that would be firing on anything the tanks missed.

“Fuckin’ great, right?” he said when he finished detailing his battle dream,. “We’ll wipe out all those fucks. Right?”

One of the subtler aspects to the novel is the idea that certain bizarre behaviours are condoned by society while others are deemed unacceptable, and of course, the real question here is just who gets to decide which behaviours are ok while other behaviours are not. For example, Ott’s uncle insists on dressing smartly to visit graves. It’s a sign of respect, he argues, while Ott can’t see the point. However, when Ott calls his own answering machine and leaves himself a message this is considered most peculiar by Uncle Arthur. Bottom line, once you’re deemed ‘unstable’ good luck getting that label changed.

In this highly engaging novel, Ott presents his version of events, but we are still able to see cracks in the narrative, and eventually a well-formed picture of what really happened emerges.  Are Ott’s workmates “cool or just plain indifferent?” And why did the secretary resign “for personal reasons?” This is a story of a man who doesn’t fit in, and his attempts to do so have failed abysmally. Now with time out, therapy and the appropriate medication, what will happen during this test run–a solo pass for a few hours? The novel’s conclusion didn’t go in the direction I perversely urged, but that is, I think, my personal preference, and not the fault of the story. Ultimately, author De Feo shows that the weight of conformity and a desire to belong to a social group can be both a terrible burden, an overwhelming challenge, and oddly enough a liberating choice. Some of us just have to go farther to find a comfort zone.

Review copy

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The Dinner by Herman Koch

“When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is tell a bare-faced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.”

I’ve discovered that I share some reading tastes with Tom from A Common Reader , so when he read and reviewed Herman Koch’s book, The Dinner, I knew I’d enjoy it too. The narrative (which is hilariously funny, btw)  appeared to be taking me in one direction–something along the lines of a nasty interior dialogue which mostly consisted of an under-achieving brother bitching about the success of his sibling–in other words, something we can all relate too. In terms of the fussy sniping, the narrative style is reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and reminds me of the translator Richard Pevear’s term “the dialectic of isolated consciousness.”  Just as I was laughing, and enjoying the ride, the book took an unexpected turn, and there I was in the middle of a bunch of nasty characters who had to make a serious, life-altering moral decision.  

the dinnerThe story is set around, as the title suggests, a dinner, at a swanky Amsterdam restaurant attended by two very different brothers and their wives. Serge Lohman, a politician, “leader of the largest opposition party,” the much more affluent and successful brother, is married to Babette. Paul Lohman, and the unreliable, unempoyed narrator of this story is married to Claire. There’s a lot of unresolved baggage between the brothers, and it’s one of those social situations in which every decision, every choice made is assumed to be making some sort of point or insult. Serge, for example, part of “that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’ ” selected the restaurant, and it’s impossible to get a table there unless you book months in advance. It’s not impossible for “nationally famous” Serge, of course, and so even the selection of the restaurant seems to be a dig at his brother’s lesser position in society.  At another point, Paul selects an appetizer he dislikes simply because he thinks “to have the same appetizer as my brother was out of the question,” as it would look as though he “wasn’t original enough to choose an appetizer of my own.” Yes the relationship between the brothers is that poisoned. And so you ask why on earth are they spending a tortured evening together? They are there to discuss an incident that involves their sons. That’s as much as I can say.

I knew I was going to thoroughly enjoy this book almost immediately, but by the time we got around to the toadying floor manager who describes every dish and its point of origin as if he personally trekked hundreds of miles to hunt down unique food items for his customers,  I was laughing out loud:

“The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,” said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinky. “And these chanterelles from the Vosges.” The pinky vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthwise; the “chanterelles” looked as though they had been uprooted only a few minutes ago: what was sticking to the bottom, I figured, could only be dirt.

It was a well-groomed hand, as I’d established while the manager was uncorking the bottle of Chablis Serge had ordered. Despite my earlier suspicions, there was nothing about him to hide; neat cuticles without hangnails, the nail itself trimmed short, no rings–it looked freshly washed, no signs of anything chronic. For the hand of a stranger, though, I felt as though it was coming too close to our food–it hovered less than an inch above the crayfish; the pinky itself came even closer, almost brushing the chanterelles.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit still when that hand, with its pinky was floating over my own plate, but for the sake of a pleasant evening, I knew it would be better to restrain myself.

As the courses pile on, and the detailed origins of the food continue, tensions mount and old scores are revealed. There’s an argument over the merits of the “new Woody Allen,”  with Serge declaring the film a “masterpiece,” while confessing that he lusts after Scarlett Johansson (“I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers,”). Paul is then boxed into taking an oppositional statement about Woody Allen, the film, and Serge’s lust object. Babette is already visibly upset when she arrives with Serge and as the evening wears on, much to Paul’s glee a number of embarrassing scenes take place and threaten total meltdown.

As the situation that created the need for a dinner engagement is gradually revealed, additional details of the private lives of these families surface. Paul and Claire have a teenage son, Michel. Serge and Babette have two children: Rick, who is the same age as Michel, and an autistic daughter, 13-year-old Valerie. They also have an adopted son, Beau from Burkina Faso, according to our narrator, as part of–Paul nastily suggests– a  “rent-to-own agreement.” Paul hints that the adoption was motivated by career concerns and notes that after Serge and Babette adopted Beau, the “ African son,” Serge “began to pose more frequently for family photos.”  Our unreliable narrator loathes his brother, and since Serge is an ambitious politician, someone who is obviously conscious of image, it’s difficult to pierce through Paul’s perceptions to find reality. Paul frequently predicts Serge’s attitudes and behavior. We know, for example, that Serge attended a “six week wine course” at night school, and thereafter with diploma in hand, became one of those annoying wine experts

I can’t remember exactly when he first presented himself as a connoisseur; in my memory it seems to have happened quite suddenly. From one day to the next he became the one who picked up the wine list and mumbled something about the “earthy aftertaste” of Portuguese wines from the Alentejo: it had been a sort of coup, really for from that day on, the wine list automatically ended up in Serge’s hands.

The menu courses keep rolling in, the floor manager and his intrusive pinky keep appearing, and between the four diners, layers of pathology are slowly revealed. The motivating factors behind the dinner are cleverly supported with memories of the past and through a series of revelations, a portrait of skewed morality, deeply troubling parenting, and mental illness emerge from the wreckage of the evening. In the final evaluation, however, the book is not what it initially appears to be, and the dynamics of the relationships between two brothers and their wives are subsumed into a statement about modern Dutch society. The Dinner is especially recommended to fans of Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks  and Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

Thanks for the suggestion, Tom.

Translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett. Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Koch Herman

The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain

“Not every man’s death is a crime.”

It’s the sort of scenario we readers dream of … a “lost” novel found and brought to publication, but that is exactly what happened with The Cocktail Waitress, the “Lost Final” novel by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime, the novel includes an afterword by Charles Ardai in which he describes how he found the novel and the role of Max Allan Collins in the hunt. Crime fans owe a huge debt to Charles and Max for their continued contributions to the crime genre.

The Cocktail Waitress is narrated by Joan Medford, a shapely young “corn-husk blonde,” widow, and we meet her on the day of her husband’s funeral which happens to be the same day she lands a job as a cocktail waitress. Joan needs this job badly as she has no money, her Hyattsville house in a suburb of Washington DC is on the brink of foreclosure, and the utilities have been disconnected. Joan’s marriage to Ron wasn’t happy, and their life together ended when a very drunk Ron drove the car at 2 in the morning and met his death in a fatal crash.  

Things look bleak for Joan. Her hostile, barren, accusatory sister-in-law, Ethel, has agreed to take Joan’s small son, Tad, until Joan gets on her feet, but Joan knows that Ethel considers her an unfit mother and that’s she’s looking for any excuse to keep Tad permanently. But when good things happen to Joan, they happen fast. Although she has no experience, thanks to police sergeant Young, she lands a job at the Garden of Roses. So what if she has to wear a skimpy outfit? So what if the male customers think that Joan sells something on the side? Joan makes it clear that she’s not for sale. Well at least she’s not for sale unless she gets that flashy diamond hardware, third finger, left hand.

It’s on the day of her husband’s funeral, the first day on her new job as a cocktail waitress, that Joan meets the two men who play significant roles in the next stage of her life: Tom, the studly driver from the undertakers (who insists that Joan “blew him a kiss,” as he left her at her doorstep after the funeral), and the very wealthy Earl K. White–an older man who suffers from a touchy case of angina….

Joan is a very interesting, strange character. We know little of her past, but some facts roll out as the story unfolds.  She’s estranged from her family, and we learn from Joan “my mother hated me and my father cut me off.” Joan has to fight to survive, and while she tells her story in a seemingly straight-forward fashion, can we believe her version of events?

Did I put an extra sway in my step as I walked away, to make my hips jog and my bottom twitch? I may have. I know I unbuttoned an extra button on my blouse before turning around, tray in hand.

“Joan, there is something I’m curious to ask you”

I rejoined him at his table, and swapped a full bowl of Fritos for the half-full bowl in front of him. It was no more than I’d done at any of the dozen other tables at the bar. But perhaps I bent slightly lower doing it than was absolutely necessary. “What’s that, Mr. White?”

Earl, please.”

“I’d feel too familiar.”

“Please.”

“Earl, then.”

“I…”

“What is it? What do you want to ask me?”

“I’m not usually tongue-tied, Joan, I just find myself somewhat distracted at the moment.”
I smiled and lowered my gaze, and said softly: “Pleasantly, I hope?”
“Most pleasantly.”

“But all the same, I don’t want to make it hard for us to have a conversation, Mr. –Earl.” I fastened up the lowest open button on my blouse. “Better?” 

That quote is a good example of the author’s style–no flashy prose style & everything seems fairly straightforward. The kicker to this novel is that there’s more than one way to read The Cocktail Waitress. You can read it straight, and believe every word that comes out of Joan’s somewhat prim and proper mouth, or you can start to question her as an unreliable narrator. If you take the first road, you’re going to read a meat-and-potatoes story, nothing fancy here. But, if you take the second facta non verba approach, then the novel’s power and intelligence hit you after you turn the last page, and slowly you’ll find yourself unravelling Joan’s narration with chilling results. There were a couple of times that Joan chose actions that seemed out of character but by the story’s conclusions, it all comes together in a sinister sort of way.

According to the afterword, Cain struggled with this novel for some time, and Charles Ardai, editor and founder of Hard Case Crime discusses finding the manuscript, its various drafts, and the way Cain experimented with various narrative voices. Cain took a chance writing The Cocktail Waitress through Joan’s voice, but its very boldness makes for a bigger payoff.

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What We Did On Our Holidays by Geoff Nicholson

Moving along with the third novel in my Year of Geoff Nicholson brings me to What We Did On Our Holidays, a dark, wickedly funny, and nastily subversive novel which follows the trials and tribulations of one man who drags his family off on a tent holiday. What We Did On Our Holidays was actually the first Nicholson novel I ever read, and while I recognised that I’d found a seriously different author, the book also made me a devoted fan.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a weakness for books which depict people on their holidays. There are several reasons for this: Holidays are high stake events, but expectations don’t mesh with reality. Plus close confinement serves to highlight family fractures that perhaps have been deftly avoided or even unnoticed. You could definitely say that middle-aged Eric, our narrator, and the man who plans and organises the family hol, has no idea what he’s in for.

Eric’s 45th birthday is approaching. Wanting to “get off this rat race” for a while, and suffering from “an intense bout of middle-aged angst,” Eric overrules his family’s objections, and books two weeks in a caravan in the Skegness Tralee Carapark and Holiday Centre. Already by page 2, we know that there’s something wrong with Eric. His narrative presentations are somehow off. Here he sounds as though he swallowed the Holiday Centre advertising brochure:

It is a well-designed, attractively appointed, carefully screened, compact site, on level ground, with trees and bushes, sloping gently towards the sea on one side, with small but sylvan hills to the rear. It has outstanding panoramic views and is genuinely picturesque. There are extensive showering and toilet facilities, a site shop, a launderette, a children’s playground, and calor gas supply.

Perhaps Eric is just one of those boring, dull people who never show a spark of life or original thought. He suffers humiliating encounter after humiliating encounter with various characters in and around the holiday camp. Someone let the loonies out, and they’re all there to victimize poor Eric–there’s the psychotic policeman Hollerenshaw who’d like to fit Eric up for every crime that’s occurred in the area, a crooked car-dealer named Honest Iago, a gang of violent bikers, a disaffected shop clerk who’s ready to get violent for better pay, a stuttering bingo caller, and some sexually rapacious acrobatic dwarves. And what is going on with the Garcias in the caravan next door?

Eric may seem to be the meek recipient of constant abuse, but there’s a lot more to Eric than meets the eye. After all, any man whose Joan Crawford obsession is strong enough that he needs to take a coffee table book of his idol on holiday can’t be all bad, right? Perhaps still waters run deep.

I find it fairly hard to say just what Joan had that really hits the spot for me. Of course she was sexy and statuesque, but who wasn’t in those days? of course she had flashing eyes, a finely chiselled nose with flaring nostrils, and a warm, melting mouth. She was distinguished, determined, passionate, perhaps a little haughty. But she had something more than all of these. She had class. She was also something of an icon.

In later years it was revealed that Joan had appeared in blue movies before she got her big break. That didn’t exactly gild the lily but I never held it against her. It only made me feel a deep compassion for her; and it proved,. as if proof were necessary, that above all else Joan was a survivor.

But Eric is not just under assault from the strangers who cross his path–his family is also revolting (deliberate pun). His daughter Sally has turned into a religious maniac, and son Max decides that Skegness is a great place to go primitive. As for Eric’s wife, Kathleen, who packs up 4 suitcases of dirty laundry to take on holiday, she’s the originator of such vomit-worthy dishes as turnip and corned beef flambé, and she’s also a raving nymphomaniac who’s reading a book called Canine Orgasm. Eric calls it pornography, but Kathleen defends the book as erotica. Not that this insatiable woman needs any more ideas on the subject, mind you.

All of Eric’s sorry misadventures are recorded in diary entries. These entries amount to one humiliating encounter after another, but there are also a few lists such as Eric’s “pet hates” and his “political statement.” It’s through these very private lists and diatribes that we see that underneath Eric’s moronic exterior lurks some strange and equally moronic thinking:

Unions are a very good thing if they protect workers’ rights, but a bad thing if they become all militant and subversive.

I think people should be free to walk the streets without being molested by the police, and they should certainly be allowed to sleep in their own caravans, unless of course they’re criminals, in which case the police should go in fast and hard. It doesn’t pay to have a soft police-force. I think most police are doing a good job but there’s always one bad apple and unfortunately I seem to have met him. I’m no fan of capital punishment but how else can you make people see sense?

I think education’s to blame. Everybody’s entitled to an education, but sometimes it seems to me that all we’re doing is educating people to be unhappy with what they’ve got. They all think they’re so bloody clever. And if the State can’t provide a good education then it’s only fair to be able to send your kids to school so long as they don’t turn out a bunch of toffee-nosed snobs and poofs.

While the holiday was designed to bring Eric and his family closer, confinement in the tatty, smelly caravan has the opposite effect. Sally, Max and Kathleen all behave badly and go wild in their own ways. Here’s Eric remonstrating with Max about his behaviour:

“Don’t you see Dad, this is all a sham.”

He gesticulated wildly at me, at Kathleen and Sally, at the caravan, at the world beyond. He picked up his plate, scooped the food in his mouth, licked the plate clean and threw it over his shoulder.

“If rejecting civilisation means an end to good table manners, then it seems a sorry show to me,” I said.

Max roared again. He knocked over the table, snatched up a chair and smashed it against the caravan wall. He started to leave.

“Just where do you think you’re going, young man?”

After some more animal noises he said very distinctly, “I’m going native.”

“In Lincolnshire?” I demanded, incredulous, but it was too late to argue with him. He was already out of the door and disappearing on all fours.

I suppose this wasn’t exactly the effect I’d hoped my little chat would have, and if I had my time again I’d probably be more gentle with him, though frankly I’m still not sure exactly what I did wrong. Kathleen began talking to me again and accused me of being a bully and a home-wrecker, which I hotly denied. Nobody bullies Max these days. Basically I’m sure it will do Max the world of good to get away from the nest for a while, and, if nothing else, at least our little exchange has cleared the air.

These humiliating encounters which always have bad results for Eric typically end with this sort of peculiar non-response, so the last passage will give you a sense of the novel’s tone. This repetition is the novel’s weakness as a normal character wouldn’t take this, and after each anti-climatic encounter, I started to wonder if Eric was heavily medicated, but then again, we are seeing all this through Eric’s eyes, and just how reliable a narrator is he? Author Geoff Nicholson ties all the madness together in a very satisfying and transgressive manner, and by the novel’s conclusion as events spiral out of control, it’s clear that while Eric’s world is a strange, inhospitable place, perhaps Eric’s head is even a worse place to be. I could waffle on about how What We Did On Our Holidays is a subversive exploration of the moral bankruptcy of modern family life, and while that’s true, the book is also a good laugh for anyone who’s been stuck with their family for two miserable holiday-from-hell weeks.

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Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Everyone knows it’s always the husband, so why can’t they just say it: We suspect you because you are the husband, and it’s always the husband. Just watch Dateline.”

Gone Girl, a mystery novel from author Gillian Flynn that explores the vicious depths of a toxic marriage, racks up as one of the most inventive, suspenseful mystery novels I’ve read in some time. This is the story of a disappearance of a beautiful, young married woman, Amy, who in her childhood was the subject/inspiration for an immensely popular series of children’s books called “Amazing Amy” written by her annoyingly doting psychologist parents. The books made Amy’s parents–Rand and Marybeth– extremely wealthy, and that wealth poured down to Amy in the form of a large trust fund that swelled to almost $800,000.

Rand and Marybeth always referred to the Amazing Amy series as a business, which on surface never failed to strike me as silly: They are children’s books, about a perfect little girl who’s pictured on every book cover, a cartoonish version of my own Amy. But of course they are (were) a business, big business. They were elementary-school staples for the better part of two decades, largely because of the quizzes at the end of every chapter.

Apart from making Amy rich, they also made her a celebrity. Now in adulthood, Amy’s life isn’t going so well. She married reporter Nick Dunne and their picture-perfect marriage came apart at the seams after they both lost their New York jobs. As Nick explains:

I had a job for eleven years and then I didn’t, it was that fast. All around the country, magazines began shuttering, succumbing to a sudden infection brought on by the busted economy. Writers (my kind of writers: aspiring novelists, ruminative thinkers, people whose brains don’t work quick enough to blog or link or tweet, basically, old stubborn blowhards) were through. We were like women’s hat makers or buggy-whip manufacturers: Our time was done.Three weeks after I got cut loose, Amy lost her job, such as it was.

With less than $100,000 of the trust fund left, Amy and Nick retreated to Missouri, back to North Carthage, his old home town. At the local college, he teaches journalism as an adjunct professor, and with the remnants of Amy’s money, Nick bought a bar which he operates with his twin sister, Go. While this move may have been necessary in their dire economic situation, it hasn’t improved things between Amy and Nick. She’s stuck as a haus frau in backwater Missouri ferrying Nick’s dying mother to chemo. Gradually Nick and Amy have drifted apart.

Gone Girl is split between two narrators: Amy and her husband of 5 years, Nick Dunne. For approximately the first half of the novel, Amy’s voice and her story is parceled out through diary entries which alternate with Nick’s version of events. This format shifts later, but that’s as much as I’m going to say. The novel begins on the day of Amy’s disappearance when Nick receives a phone call from a concerned neighbour that his front door is open and Amy’s beloved cat is outside. Nick rushes home to find signs of a struggle, and he soon finds himself accused of murdering his wife.  

Right from the start, we know that Nick isn’t telling the truth. There’s something not quite right about his reaction to Amy’s disappearance, and he almost immediately becomes the prime suspect. Amy, who specialized in creating quizzes for magazines, left behind an anniversary treasure hunt for Nick, and each clue reveals just how well she understands her husband.

The novel covers the police investigation with the two detectives  who vacillate back and forth on the possibility of Nick’s innocence. There’s also the dynamics of the search team–complete with groupies who are all-too-ready to console poor, lonely, good-looking Nick. Amy’s disappearance interests significant figures from her past, and while some ugly details about Nick begin to emerge, there’s an argument that Amy was “Amazing” in all the wrong ways. Things begin to look bad for Nick, and when a media frenzy begins, out of desperation he hires a well-known defense attorney, Tanner–a cynical man whose slightly sleazy, but wonderfully polished character leaps off the page. Tanner understands the power of the media along with the fact that “Americans love to see sinners apologize.”

Gone Girl is a page-turner–no argument there, and the twists and turns don’t stop. The book’s narrative power comes from its clever construction, and constructed any other way, the novel wouldn’t have worked in quite the same manner. As readers we begin with limited knowledge and then it’s doled out to us slowly. But how much can we trust the information told by an unreliable narrator–two unreliable narrators to be precise?

Gone Girl is well-written, wildly entertaining, suspenseful and packed full of terrific characters, but at the same time after I got past the halfway point, as a reader I began to feel manipulated. It feels strange admitting that–after all stories can be loaded with manipulation. Crime books frequently throw in red herrings, and authors often withhold essential information–we as readers sometimes have to be generous about a certain amount of misinformation before the crime is solved, but in Gone Girl while I admire the way the story was put together, at the same time I feel a little annoyed by it. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and I expect that Gone Girl will pick up awards on its way to being a bestseller, so perhaps I’m in the minority. My complaint is only going to make sense to those who’ve read the book–can’t reveal more without spoiling the plot.

On another level, praise must be given for the way in which the novel shows just how society likes narratives. Parts of the novel include the media frenzy that sweeps over Nick and the way in which narratives are forced onto the story of Amy’s disappearance. I found it impossible to read the book without recalling certain notorious cases that appeared in the news, and Amy and Nick’s story was in many ways a clever, gripping composite of these headline grabbers.

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Filed under Fiction, Flynn Gillian

Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin

One good reason for readers to blog is to pick up book tips, and this exact scenario occurred recently when I visited Kevin’s blog and noted that no less than two other bloggers: Kim and Max both recommended Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks (and yes it’s been made into a television film!). Kim compared Dirty Tricks to Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, and since that book was one of my favourite reads of 2011, that sealed the deal.

Dirty Tricks is narrated by a forty-year-old Oxford EFL teacher who pedals his “tenth-hand push-bike” from his shared flat in the slums of East Oxford to his pathetically underpaid job at the Oxford International Language College. It’s here that the narrator meets a married couple, the upwardly mobile and socially pretentious Parsons, accountant Dennis, “a wine bore of stupendous proportions,” and his sexually rapacious, PE teacher wife, Karen–a pencil-thin woman with a “large, predatory mouth, like the front-end grille on a cheap flashy motor.” After feeding Dennis’s wine snobbery, the narrator finds himself invited to a dinner party at the Parsons’ suburban home with the “lumpenbourgeoisie,” and he embarks on a sordid affair with Karen in which the biggest thrill comes not from orgasm but from the thrill of blatant coupling right under Dennis’s nose. After rubbing elbows with members of the consumer-driven middle-class, the narrator gets a taste of the good life, and following a holiday with the Parsons in a villa in the Dordogne, he decides it’s about time he moved up in the world…..

I wanted the lifestyle which other people of my age and education enjoyed but which I had forfeited because of the wayward direction given my life by the humanistic propaganda I was exposed to in my youth.  I didn’t crave fabulous riches or meaningless wealth, I simply wanted my due.

And just how Dibdin’s unnamed sociopathic protagonist decides to get his “due” is the subject of the novel, and since the tale is told by an unreliable narrator of classic proportions who refuses to play by society’s rules, Dirty Tricks is both transgressive and darkly comic.  The opening paragraphs of Dirty Tricks resembles a confession, but it’s not of course; this is a justification:

First of all, let me just say that everything I am going to tell you is the complete and absolute truth. Well yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? And since I’ve just sworn an oath to this effect, it might seem pointless to offer further assurances, particularly since I can’t back them up. I can’t call witnesses, I can’t produce evidence. All I can do is tell you my story. You’re either going to believe me or you’re not.

Nevertheless, I am going to tell you the truth. Not because I’m incapable of lying. On the contrary, my story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind, as you will see. Nor do I expect you to believe me because my bearing is sincere and my words plausible. Such things might influence the judges of my own country, where people still pretend to believe in the essential niceness of the human race–or at least pretend to pretend.

Thus begins the narrator’s hilarious confessional narrative in which he explains and justifies his actions. He tells us his side of this sordid tale of adultery, murder, and social-climbing while waffling on the precise version of events until he creates one he intends to stick to.  Part of the reason the novel works so well is that all of the characters are unpleasant, and when the homicidal EFL teacher, a seething mass of envy with a self-admitted “yen for married women” is unleashed in suburbia, the results are explosively funny and wicked. Dibdin takes us deftly into the mind of the sociopathic narrator, and here he is applying grandiosity to murder

It is striking that at a time when just about every other human value has been called into question, the value of life is still universally accepted as an absolute. Despite this, I have no qualms about admitting to men of your culture and experience that the demise of Dennis Parsons seemed to me to be jolly desirable.

With this narrator, Dibdin creates an awful human being who’s always full of unpleasant surprises and whose base actions are unspeakably low and self-serving. Now matter how awful the narrator is, I found myself laughing out loud at his twisted, sick thinking. Just when I thought the narrator had sunk to his lowest behaviour, there were endless disgraceful actions in store.

I’ve always made a point of borrowing money from women early in the relationship so as to give them a hold over me. It also helps when the time comes to break off the affair, because you can talk about the money instead of feelings and love and messy, painful stuff like that.

In true sociopathic style, the narrator ambushes the reader with his twisted logic. Here he is discussing the past of one of his EFL students, Garcia:

Trish had given me a brief account of the allegations against him, but just to be on the safe side I phoned Amnesty International, posing as a researcher for a TV current affairs programme. Their response was unequivocal, a detailed catalogue of union leaders, students, newspaper editors, civil rights workers,  Jews, feminists, priests and intellectuals tortured and murdered, a whole politico-socio-economic subgroup targeted and taken out. I was dismayed. With a record like that, Garcia might well regard the menial task I had to offer him as beneath his dignity.

In this extremely entertaining novel, our narrator leaves a trail of revenge, death and disaster and yet always sees himself as the victim–a simple man who merely tried to turn his life around, and as the crimes rack up, his justifications become more complex, skewed and hilariously wicked. Author Michael Dibdin’s journey into the mind of a sociopath would be chilling if not for the humour, and for this reader the very best parts of this terrific novel occur when the narrator mimics the emotional responses he knows society expects of him.

For Kim’s review, go here. Kim also liked Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

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The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato

How far might such a mania lead?”

Dostoevsky fans, stop right here. If you liked Notes from Underground, then this is your lucky day. At least that’s what I thought after reading Argentinean author Ernesto Sabato’s marvellous, wickedly funny novel, The Tunnel. In the introduction to Notes from Underground, Richard Pevear, who translated many Dostoevsky novels, uses the term “the dialectic of isolated consciousness” to describe the narrator’s obsessive, circular and rambling narrative. That term can also be applied to the narrator of The Tunnel, and even the title should echo a connection–although an explanation for the ‘tunnel’ does appear late in this brilliantly entertaining novel. The Tunnel is narrated by an obsessive, violently jealous man, an artist named Juan Pablo Castel who begins the novel with a frank confession that he has murdered his mistress, Maria Iribarne. So as we know the nature of Juan’s crime, the all-important question becomes why.

It takes just a couple of pages to know we are dealing with a loony:

To a degree, criminals are the most decent and least offensive people among us. I do not make this statement because I myself killed another human being; it is my profound and honest conviction. Is a certain individual a menace to society? Then eliminate him and let that be an end to it. That is what I call a good deed. Think how worse it would be for society if that person were allowed to continue distilling his poison; think how pointless it would be if instead of eliminating him you attempted to forestall him by means of anonymous letters, or slander, or other loathsome measures. As for myself, I frankly confess that I now regret not having used my time to better advantage when I was a free man, that is, for not having done away with six or seven individuals I could name.

The purpose of Juan’s “account” he tells us is that he feels “animated by the faint hope that someone will understand me- even if it is only one person.” ‘Understanding’ Juan isn’t the issue here, however, and that’s one of the dark ironies of this tale. It’s easy to understand what’s behind Juan’s actions: madness, obsession, deranged passion, violent jealousy, and the desire to own & control another human being, but while we grasp Juan’s mental state, Juan’s “account” is really an exposition of his insanity. He condemns himself with every word.

Juan has a neurotic aestheticism that belongs in a Huysmans novel: ” I do not mind telling you that there have been times after I observed a particular character trait that I could not eat for a day, or paint for a week.” There are many things Juan loathes: the critics (“they are a plague I have never understood“) psychologists (“let’s not go into that“) people in general (“I have always looked on people with antipathy, even revulsion“), the beach, etc. Sabato’s narrator is unintentionally funny, and one marvellous scene has him trying to retrieve a letter from the post office only to be met with a wall of impenetrable bureaucracy. But at the same time, side-by-side with this humour, tension builds as the tale develops and Juan’s victim is drawn deeper, almost irresistibly, into a blatantly dysfunctional relationship which seems fated to end, inevitably, in violence.

Juan is a well-known, highly respected painter when he meets Maria, the elusive woman who becomes the object of his obsessive love and paranoia. Juan first sees Maria at an art show where he exhibits a painting in Buenos Aires.  In the foreground of the painting is a woman and a child, and Maria is transfixed–not so much by the whole painting–but one particular corner of it:

In the upper left-hand corner of the canvas was a remote scene framed in a tiny window: an empty beach and a solitary woman looking at the sea. She was staring into the distance as if expecting something, perhaps some faint and faraway summons. In my mind that scene suggested the most wistful and absolute loneliness.

No one seemed to notice the scene: their eyes passed over it as if it were something trivial, mere embellishment. With the exception of a single person, no one seemed to comprehend that the scene was an essential component of the painting.

After Maria leaves Juan is devastated that he lacked the courage to talk to her, and he becomes depressed. At the same time, intrigued by Maria’s attention to the detail of his painting, he begins to be obsessed with her:

Throughout the months that followed I thought only of her and of the possibility that I might see her again. And in a way I painted only for her. It was as if the tiny scene of that window had begun to expand, to swallow up that canvas and all the rest of my work.

In Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the narrator spends many hours plotting revenge against an officer for some imagined slight, and it’s this same sort of thinking at work in The Tunnel. After the art show, Juan experiences insomnia while he racks his brain over the possibility of another encounter with Maria. He asks himself “How the hell is it that some men manage to stop a woman and start a conversation with her, even an affair?”

I envisioned scenes in which she spoke to me–for example, to ask about an address, or where to catch a bus–and from that opening, during months of reflection and melancholy, of rage, of abandon, and hope, I constructed an endless series of variations. In one I was talkative, witty (something in fact I never am); in another I was taciturn; in still another, sunny and smiling. At times, though it seems incredible, I answered rudely, even with ill-concealed rage. It happened (in one of those imaginary meetings) that our exchange broke off abruptly because of an absurd irritability on my part, or because I rebuked her, almost crudely for some comment I found pointless or ill-thought out. I felt bitter after these frustrated encounters, and for several days I would reproach myself for the clumsiness that had caused me to lose my one opportunity to establish a relationship with her. Fortunately, I would realize that everything was imaginary, and the actual possibility still existed.

Of course, they eventually meet, and through the relationship Juan begins his descent into madness.

Juan is the classic unreliable narrator, and regular readers of this blog know I have a weakness for this narrative form. As Juan tells his story, he spins a tale of justification, obsession, and paranoia, and of course since this is Juan’s version, we only get his side of things. Nonetheless,  there are tantalising glimpses of Maria, the only woman on the planet unfortunate enough to catch his attention and to become the vessel for his neuroticism and obsession. Here’s Maria being interrogated by Juan about her husband, Allende:

“You always twist my words, and pervert my meaning,” Maria protested. “When I said I had married him because I loved him, I didn’t mean I don’t love him now.”

“Ah, then you do love him.” I parried swiftly, as if hoping to prove she had lied in answer to earlier questions.

Maria was subdued and unresponsive.

“Why don’t you answer?”

“Because there doesn’t seem any point. We’ve had this same conversation too many times before.”

“No, this is different from the other times. I asked you whether you loved Allende now, and you told me yes. But I seem to remember that not too long ago, at the port, you told me I was the first person you ever loved.”

Again Maria did not answer. What irritated me about her was not only that she contradicted herself but that it was almost impossible to get her to say anything at all.

The Tunnel was rejected by several publishers but was finally published in the French magazine Sur in 1948. Camus read it and “commissioned” the novel for Gamillard. In the introduction, Colm Toíbín explains that Sabato chaired the commission to “investigate the crimes against human rights”  committed during  the years of Argentina’s military junta.

Translated by Margaret Sayers

Copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.

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Filed under Fiction, Sabato Ernesto