“Homicide tends to make ripples in the human pond.”
I’ve started, stopped and subsequently deleted this blog post about half a dozen times. Each time I started writing about this book, I haven’t been happy about what I’ve written. Nothing seems to fit, and so I decided to start with this explanation and go from there.
I came across Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb online. I almost bought it several times, but I’ve been disappointed in a great deal of the new fiction out there, and so I hesitated. I can’t remember exactly what tipped my decision to finally buy the book. Perhaps I was just tired of wondering about it. Who knows. Good job I didn’t read the blurb on back of the novel first as it sounds awful:
“a wrenching and enthralling suspenseful story that mines the explosive terrains of love and paternity, marriage and its delicate intricacies, family secrets and how they fester over time, and ultimately the true nature of loyalty, trust, friendship, envy, deception, and manipulation.”
That would have put me off. It sounds a bit like Ya Ya Wankerness to me, but as it turns out Now You See Him really is an intriguing read. It’s a book I throughly enjoyed even though I wrestled with some of its elements.
Now You See Him takes place in Monarch, a small town in upstate New York. The tale is narrated by Nick Framington, and it all begins with Nick explaining the tragic events involving his once best friend, Rob Castor. Whereas Nick went to college and then returned to the slow-paced life of Monarch, Rob became almost nauseatingly famous, a cult figure in the literary world, through the publication of a “book of darkly pitch-perfect stories set in a stupid sleepy upstate New York town.”
While Rob’s old friends and family fossilize in safe but middling lives in Monarch, Rob luxuriates in his celebrity status and :
“he began a new life which seemed to consist almost entirely of him moving in long elliptical circuits through college campuses and art colonies, and arriving home about twice a year with an exotic new woman in tow…. Each of these women, tense, gorgeous, and dramatic looking in entirely different ways, arrived in town on Rob’s arm, took a look around, and did their best to conceal their disappointment.”
But then for one visit, Rob returns with a woman who is completely different. Kate possesses a “mysterious aloofness, untouchable composure,” and Rob’s friends are shocked when the very ordinary-seeming Kate becomes a permanent fixture. But things begin to go sour for Rob–a man who “wasn’t prepared for rejection. It wasn’t in the Rob Anthology.” Rob’s relationship with Kate ends up in a tragic murder-suicide case that grabs the headlines.
The book begins with Nick reminiscing about Rob and the explosive media storm that hit Monarch after his death. With television reporters pouring into the town, memories of Rob become a premium, but eventually the dust settles. Nick, however, remains shaken by the event. Suicide always leaves unanswered questions for the survivors, but in Nick’s case he seems to be haunted by a little more than questions surrounding Rob’s death. Nick’s wife, Lucy thinks Nick is suffering from depression, and Nick gradually begins sliding farther and farther away from his family.
Now You See Him carefully parcels out the story about Rob and Kate through Nick’s memories. These portions of the novel are so real and so painfully intense that it’s like watching a train wreck about to happen and yet as readers we are powerless to stop what has already occurred in the plot. Initially Nick’s story in comparison seemed much less interesting. I began to get the feeling that Nick was wallowing in his connection with Rob’s celebrity status, but as the book continues, however, stories cross and connect, and suddenly Nick isn’t just a sad little man who regrets the loss of his friend.
The author lets drop that Nick manages an animal-research lab, and that rang out some alarm bells for me. Now in my mind, that’s a very strange job. Nick’s job never comes up for discussion apart from the fact that he goes there regularly, 5 days a week, I assume, and collects a paycheck. Nick never mentions his work and those nasty animal experiments he spends 40 hours a week overseeing. I began to wonder if the author just mentioned Nick’s job as an aside. Was the fact that Nick worked in an animal lab supposed to be important? Or was it just important to me? Did this at least partially explain why Nick is a warped human being?
For me, two of the most intriguing things in any book are 1) the unreliable narrator and 2) the creation of a character who’s already dead when the book begins. There were times when I decided that Nick is a classic unreliable narrator, and then at other times, I wasn’t so sure about that. But after reading about Nick’s horribly choreographed, ritualistic sex life with Lucy and Nick’s suspicions about Lucy’s fidelity–which may or may not be grounded in reality, I decided to land on the unreliable narrator theory. The unreliable narrator theory may very well be wrong and others who’ve read the book may argue against this. I should add that in Nick’s case, his unreliable version of things (if that’s what it is) is tainted by depression, avoidance and denial rather than insanity.
While Lucy thinks Nick is having some sort of mid-life crisis, his problems go far deeper than that, and of course this leads back to the past. Given the revelations about Nick’s past, I was relieved that the author didn’t linger on cliché and instead later scenes manage to be anticlimactic and strangely appropriate at the same time. The past so often leads back to the parents, and this novel is not an exception to that. Nick’s parents have escaped from Monarch and have “reinvented themselves as precocious jazzy seniors” in Arizona–a reinvention which includes a range of strange new hobbies and Arizona-style clothing. Here’s Nick’s impressions on the drive to Sunnyside Acres in Arizona :
“In the distance, hundreds of identical cute bungalow-style “villas” dotted a landscaped series of slightly convex hills, looking at a glance like jacks in the palm of a huge hand. Amid these were the elderly, in every variant of stooped, leaning, pitched and wobbly, congregated in the patches of shade beneath trees. The only time they moved quickly, my mother told me, was when exposed to the direct, killing rays of the sun.”
Anyway, not a perfect book, but one whose dark undercurrents grabbed my attention and kept it. The unresolved matter of the unreliable narrator issue still nags at me, but then again perhaps when examining the past and the painful present, we are all a little unreliable to one degree or another.