Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for the unreliable narrator, so throw in a holiday setting, and it was guaranteed that I’d be interested in Julie Zeh’s book, Decompression a torrid tale of a love triangle told in alternating views by two sides of that twisted relationship.
Years before, Sven slipped the leash of a legal career in Germany and now, looking at his 40th birthday, he’s a resident of Lanzarote and runs a tourist business which allows him to combine his love for diving with independence. He’s lived on Lanzarote now for 14 years. He’s in charge of the diving side of things while Antje runs the actual business. That means she cleans the guest accommodations, cooks the meals, maintains the website, and manages all the finances. Note that I didn’t say that Antje is Sven’s girlfriend or S.O, and there’s a reason for that. While Sven and Antje live together and have sex, she occupies an undefined space in Sven’s life. She probably thinks she’s his girlfriend, but Sven sees the relationship more as a convenient business arrangement. And if you’re thinking that I don’t like Sven, you’re right.
The book opens with Sven picking up two tourists from the airport. Usually he books several guests for the same period, but this is a special arrangement. This time Sven is exclusively under contract for the next two weeks to only two guests: writer, Theo and soap opera actress Jolanthe, also called Jola. Theo, who, at 42, is 12 years older than Jola, has one book to his credit, and Jola, who intends to bust out of television into film, is there to learn all about scuba diving hoping that she will land a major film role in a biopic about Charlotte Hass. Jola, the daughter of one of the world’s greatest film directors, sees the role as her “last chance” to leave television roles behind, so the diving lessons are of primary importance.
In very little time, Sven, who lives in the beachside cottage right next to his guests’ quarters, establishes that Theo and Jola have a twisted sick relationship which, as it turns out, includes violence as an erotic component. Sven is attracted to Jola, and the feeling appears to be mutual. While there’s a definite attraction between Sven and Jola (with both of them fantasizing about a future together), Theo, the odd man out in this sex-triangle, conveniently seems to step aside to allow Sven access to Jola.
The story unfolds through two dueling narratives. There’s Sven’s version, and then there’s Jola’s version of events. While these competing narratives agree on the basics: date, location, and weather, on everything else, all agreement ends. According to Sven, Jola teases and plays dangerous games, creating some very awkward and embarrassing situations since, as a client, she’s theoretically off limits. But listen to Jola, and she’ll tell you that Sven can’t keep his hands to himself. In this increasingly dangerous and risky situation, who do we believe?
Part of the sick joy of reading a story told by the unreliable narrator is the feeling that we, as readers, recognize the way truth slowly peels away from the narrative. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks are both excellent examples of the unreliable narrator and give the reader the experience of being in the minds of total nutjobs who do terrible things while justifying all their actions quite merrily. Decompression is more a he said/she said scenario, and yes, while that gives us possibly two unreliable narrators, one of them may be telling the truth. Or at least a partial truth.
While the novel’s premise is intriguing, one of the problems is that Sven, Jola and even Theo are all unlikable characters–not that there’s a problem with unlikable characters as I enjoy reading about people I would not tolerate in my life. But Sven, who’s got this hot babe throwing herself at him under the nose of Theo, alone at night, begins masturbating to episodes of Jola’s soap role in Up and Down, and yet by day, according to his narrative, he’s prudishly pushing her away telling her that she’s off-limits. He’s drawn to Jola but simultaneously gets very bad vibes about the situation. He isn’t honest with himself, so is he honest with us? His confessional narrative which includes a wisp of victimhood could make him a reliable narrator–a man drawn into the very sick relationship between Theo and Jola, or this could make Sven somewhat unreliable too. He’s certainly struggling to stay focused on his better self, and that struggle remains until a very dramatic but foreseeable scene which occurs towards the end of the book.
Jola’s diary, which forms her part of the book’s narrative, reads like the confessions of a spoiled teenage girl flexing her sexuality for the first time rather than the devious, seasoned mind of a femme fatale, and this is part of the novel’s weakness. While the two narratives verge and diverge, neither of them are strong enough or appealing enough to carry the plot. Sven had his problems before this famous couple arrive and play havoc with his island paradise. He can’t commit to his long-suffering girlfriend and seems embarrassed to admit that there’s anything between them other than business. When it comes to sport for Theo and Jola, he’s ripe for the picking, and he never quite gets the rules of the game. As a morally compromised character drawn into a relationship in which he’s out-of-his-depth, his questionable narrative doesn’t quite work. For this reader, Theo remains the most interesting side of this sick triangle, and yet we only see Theo opaquely through other people’s eyes. Ultimately, the novel’s best scenes describe the landscape or the underwater moments between Sven and his troublesome clients.
The Spaniards had long since given up tinkering around on their half-finished houses; instead they would sit on their driftwood fenced roof terraces while the salty wind gnawed the plaster off their walls. Wooden cable spools served as tables, stacked construction pallets as benches. Lahora was a terminus. A place where everything came to a halt. Furnished with objects that would have landed on the rubbish pile long ago if they were anywhere else. The ends of the earth.
Review copy. Translated from German by John Cullen