Tag Archives: revenge

The Lady Killer: Masako Togawa (1963)

Earlier this year I read Masako Togawa’s The Master Key–a rather claustrophobic novel set in a decaying apartment house. Time to try The Lady Killer also from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo line of crime novels. This novel which pivots on revenge concerns a married Lothario whose approach to casual sex and one-night stands assumes nightmarish proportions as a serial killer hunts women in post WWII Tokyo.

Unhappy, overworked, 19 year-old Keiko Obana is not used to bars or drinking alcohol, but one night, with life stagnant and despressing, she makes the fatal error of entering a bar and drinking too much. She’s easy prey for a man who picks her up, has sex with her and then walks out of her life. It’s a simple one-night stand, casual sex with no repercussions, right? IMO casual sex is an oxymoron–not from a moral point of view, but from a consequences (long-term, short-term) viewpoint. Yes I’m sure that many people manage it effectively but other people are far too brittle and Keiko, a virgin, is one of those brittle people.

the lady killer

Fast forward six months and Keiko, pregnant and alone, commits suicide. Meanwhile the man who seduced her, married Ichiro Honda, continues to lead his double life. With his affluent wife safely stashed in Osaka, he lives in hotel rooms and hides his various disguises, all aimed at the seduction of young, lonely women, in a rented apartment.

Honda had a way with women. He had the faculty of penetrating their psychology at the first meeting. Was the woman interested in the arts? Very well, he would be a musician or a painter. 

Honda is a narcissist. He keeps a detailed journal, “The Huntsman’s Log,” of his conquests and he’s adopted the methods of a killer. He stalks women, and then frequently presents himself as a foreigner, faking a coy vulnerability to catch his prey off guard. When some of the women from his past are murdered, Honda, who really wants to think it’s a coincidence, finds out the hard way that his actions have consequences.

The novel’s premise is intriguing: Honda is a predator who thinks what he does is harmless. He gives women what he decides they want by filling a void in their dull lives. He has no clue about the damage he does, and the serial killer seems to deliver the coup de grâce.

The Lady Killer creates two predators: a serial seducer and a serial killer. The author creates similarities between the Modus Operandi of both emphasizing Honda’s calculated approaches such as “drinking the stale blood” of one woman’s “missed romance” and seeing women as “no more than tinplate targets at a shooting gallery in a fair.” The killer is on the heels of the seducer, and Honda is soon in so deep, he can’t see a way out.

While The Master Key examines the lives of spinsters and widows, The Lady Killer takes a cold hard look at the lives of the lonely women who step out into social life. The novel is strongest for its descriptions of Tokyo night life with its tinsel attractions, where “the aroma of Tokyo seemed to be compounded of darkness and neon.” Unfortunately, for this reader, the story became rather lurid and distasteful in its details and concluded with a long exposition which wrapped up the story.

Review copy

Translated by Simon Grove

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Filed under Fiction, Togawa Masako

Dear Mr M: Herman Koch

“At first the man feigns patient interest in an adjustable bed frame or a chest of drawers, but before long his breathing grows labored and he begins tossing glances toward the checkout counters and the exit, like a dog smelling the woods after a long trip in the car.” 

I loved Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner and liked Summer House with Swimming Pool. These are both very different novels but they share some characteristics: black humour, nasty people, and skewed morality. Dear Mr M, a story of revenge, focuses on a famous writer who is oblivious to the fact that he’s being stalked. The writer, M and his stalker, Herman have deep connections, and over the course of the novel, those long-standing ties are gradually revealed through several perspectives.

The novel opens with Herman narrating. It’s a strong invective as Herman spits abuse at M, a writer he despises, but this isn’t dislike based on M’s professional shortcomings. No, what exists between M and Herman is personal and has putrefied over the last 40 years.

dear-mr-m

A sense of menace arcs over the narrative as Herman watches M which isn’t hard to do since Herman is M’s downstairs neighbour. A game of cat-and-mouse is afoot with the mouse, M, so deeply buried in his own writerly concerns that he’s oblivious to Herman’s malicious activities.

M’s breakthrough novel was Payback, a fictionalized account of the real-life disappearance of a history teacher named  Jan Landzaat. Landzaat was last seen by his pupil, the teenage Laura (with whom he’d been having an affair) and her high school boyfriend, prankster, Herman. Landzaat, who’d been dumped by Laura (and Mrs Landzaat) wasn’t taking Laura’s rejection well when he barged into Laura’s life and the remote home owned by her famous father. There’s no one single story about what happened that weekend, but Landzaat was never seen again. …

But forty years have passed. M’s career is now in eclipse. He’s married to a much younger woman, and above all else, he’s tired–tired of the pathetically small attendance at book readings, tired of the same boring, and sometimes hostile questions, tired of interviews. M, the object of Herman’s decades-long venom is seen as a rather pathetic man who can’t even rustle up a decent cup of coffee in the local cafe. Herman wonders if M “is aware of his own mediocrity?”

In fact, you should see your face when you’re extolling your own intelligence. Your face, and the look in your eyes. It’s the look in the eyes of a rabbit who has misjudged the distance to the other side of the expressway–and realizes too late that the headlights bearing down on it are already too close to dodge. A look, in other words, that doesn’t believe itself for a moment, that’s paralyzed by the fear that the first tricky question will expose it as a fraud, once and for all.

A mediocre writer serves a life sentence. He has to go on. It’s too late to change professions. He has to go on till the bitter end. Until death comes to get him. Only death can save him from mediocrity. 

Koch shows us that there are two ways of perceiving men who have relationships with much younger (underage) woman–they can be seen as predators, which is the common view, or idiots. At first Landzaat seems to be a middle-aged predator, but as the plot continues, he morphs into a pathetic, emotionally weak loser who can’t accept the fact that Laura, his teenage lover, realizing that she’s made a horrible mistake, has moved on. Laura takes the nuclear option, and that leaves Landzaat alone in the aftermath of his affair’s destructive path. Through Herman and Laura’s eyes, we see how the young perceive the aging loser, and to Herman, every teacher is a loser:

Nowhere is the odor of mediocrity more pervasive than at a high school. It’s a smell that works its way into everything, like the stench of a pan of soup that has been bubbling on the burner for too long.

Dear Mr M, for its acrobatic, nasty subversive wit made me chuckle with sheer delight. Nothing is sacred here, and all of the characters are fair game for the author’s acerbic vision. Koch mines the deep well of student dislike for their teachers, so Herman’s observations about his “dropping like flies” high school teachers are vicious. Each “sad announcement,” for Herman, is just an occasion when “you had to keep your mouth shut and look serious, but what we mostly felt was a sense of justice having been done.”  Koch captures the students’ perceptions as teachers being old and decrepit, boring people who are so mediocre, they might as well die now and get on with it. And then of course, there’s that “one spectacular finish” by social studies teacher Harm Koolhass who “less than half an hour after a midnight landing in Miami,” takes a “wrong exit”:

Somehow we couldn’t reconcile the two images–the trousers and the beaded bag on the one hand, the corpse hanging out of the car with its neck twisted at a strange angle on the other. As though the halls, the classrooms and the auditorium of the Spinoza Lyceum were the worst possible preparation for a violent demise in an American B-movie.

Dear Mr M, shares some thematic connections with The Dinner (the insular world of youthful morality) and Summerhouse with Swimming Pool (a predatory male and an underage girl), but it’s ultimately not as successful a novel. While the first half or so of Dear Mr M was very strong indeed, the plot began to lag when it shifted to Herman’s high school days, and the story’s pacing cools down to teenage friendships and a certain ordinariness. These sections just couldn’t match the ingenuity, viciousness and hilarious spleen of the first half of the novel. That said, in the last chapter, Koch pulls the strands together brilliantly, and the novel ends on a splendid note. Flawed as the novel is, I’ll still read anything from this author.

Review copy

Translated by Sam Garrett

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Filed under Fiction, Koch Herman

Hush, Little Bird: Nicole Trope

Hush, Little Bird from Australian author Nicole Trope brings together two vastly different narrative voices that are tied together by place (a low security women’s prison) and their shared pasts. One of the voices belongs to a 33-year-old woman nicknamed Birdy by her fellow inmates for her knowledge and love of finches, and her job at the prison is to maintain an aviary of Gouldian and Zebra finches. Birdy is someone we would describe as ‘slow’ and although she’s separated in prison from her small daughter, she has managed to establish a firm place for herself amongst the other inmates. There are four women to each bungalow, and one of Birdy’s housemates, the very tough Jess, has taught Birdy how to manage her violent temper. It’s also through Jess that Birdy learned the word “agenda,” and now that a new prisoner is about to arrive, Birdy understands that she has an ‘agenda’ to complete.

I learned that word from Jess. She told me an agenda is a plan that you have to keep secret. Sometimes your agenda can make you do things that no one else understands. Whenever anyone is cranky with her, Jess says, ‘Tell me, love, what’s your agenda?’

What’s your a-gen-da?

The new inmate is a wealthy woman in her 50s, Rose Winslow; she’s the mother of two adult daughters, Portia and Rosalind, and she was married, for 40 years, to Simon, an “icon” of Australian television. Most of the other inmates have been transferred to ‘the Farm’ for their extended good behaviour at other institutions, but Rose’s lawyer managed to pull some strings to get her sent there while he lodges an appeal.

hush little bird

When the novel begins, we don’t know the details of the crimes Birdy or Rose committed, but we’re told that Birdy is there for some act of violence and that Rose claims that whatever she did is ‘an accident.’ While Birdy recognizes Rose, and plans some sort of terrible revenge,  Rose, due to the passage of time and Birdy’s weight gain, doesn’t recognize Birdy. These two women’s stories are gradually parceled out in alternating chapters with tension created by Birdy’s ever-encroaching plan for revenge, and the gradual revelation of each woman’s past.

This is one of those books where to discuss the plot will ruin the experience for other readers, so that’s as far as I will go. As always with alternating narratives that form the novel’s central puzzle, the author must balance tension with information. Sometimes this structure, especially when the reader is deliberately thrown red herrings, can be annoying. Here, in author Nicole Trope’s hands, the structure worked well. The biggest problem I had to overcome as a reader was believing that Rose wouldn’t have pulled out all the stops when it came to her murder trial, but then this book, while it is the story of two women, is fundamentally Rose’s story–how she must come to terms with not just some horrible truths about her life, but also some ugly truths about her passivity, her malleability, her gullibility.

“hindsight–oh, the delights of hindsight–“

This book was recommended to me by Kim at Reading Matters, and her review is here

Review copy

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The Good Liar: Nicholas Searle

“No, on reflection disclosure is not a good thing, thinks Roy. It doesn’t salve the soul. It invites questions, not least from oneself, and upsets the certainty at which one has arrived. At his age he can do without such perturbations.”

Nicholas Searle’s debut novel, The Good Liar, begins with an elderly man preparing for an appointment with a woman he’s ‘met’ through an internet dating site. Roy prepares for the meeting with a feeling that the woman who calls herself Estelle is “heaven-sent.” Are we about to get a little geriatric romance in the vein of Last Tango in Halifax? No, fear not dear reader… we are about to get something much nastier, and that becomes apparent as Roy thinks about all the time wasters who lie about themselves and their means:

With this transitory reflection comes a momentary weariness. Those dreadful meetings in Beefeaters and Tobys around the Home Counties with frumpy old women in whom the bitterness of their long unfulfilled marriages with underachieving and uninspiring husbands has in widowhood seemingly become the sense of license to lie at will. For them there is no legacy of happy memories or the material benefit of platinum pensions in leafy Surrey mansions. They reside in poky terraces that no doubt smell of fried food, eking out an existence on government handouts cursing Bert, or Alf, or whoever it may be, and contemplating a stolen life. They are out for what they can get now, by whatever means. And who can blame them really?

Roy, who for the purposes of this first date, calls himself Brian, is on the lookout for a rich widow. It’s a “professional enterprise,” and he’s used to wading through lies from women who present themselves positively before he uncovers the truth. He refuses “to let them down gently” and enjoys “dismantling them forensically.”

“I thought you said you were five foot six and slim,” he may say with incredulity, but is delicate enough not to add: rather than a clinically obese dwarf. “Not much like your photos, are you? Was it taken a few years back, dear?” (He doesn’t add the postscript: perhaps of your better-looking sister.) “You live near Tunbridge Wells, you say; more Dartford really, isn’t it?” Or “So what you mean by ‘holidaying in Europe’ is a package trip once a year with your sister to Benidorm?”

Roy isn’t a nice man. If fact, even though he may appear to be a well-dressed, harmless elderly man, he’s a predator, and he’s about to meet a well-heeled widow, a retired professor named Estelle….

the good liar

Estelle turns out to be Betty, an attractive, spry, slender, independent, intelligent woman and more to the point, a widow with a sizeable nest egg. She’s just the sort of mark Roy is looking for, and as for Betty, well she appears to want a companion. But what is she really after?

The plot goes backwards in time with episodes from Roy’s opportunistic life and the crucial points (the 90s, the 60s, the 50s, the 40s and all the way back to the 30s) at which he’s been able to use other people and step into different identities. These episodes are set against Roy’s present day life with Betty. He moves into her home and generally seems oblivious to how unpleasant he can be under sustained intimacy, but then while sociopaths are natural chameleons and so good at mimicking human emotions, sustained contact can reveal anomalies.  I asked myself why on earth Betty tolerated such a bore, but all is gradually revealed under Nicholas Searle’s controlled narrative.

Episodes from Roy’s sordid past are contrasted with the various fictions he tells Betty, so we are taken through the looking-glass to the real events–events which Roy has chosen either to forget or to gloss over. There are amusing moments when, for example, Betty tries to pin Roy down about his family. When he mouths the typical thing that he “bitterly” regrets losing contact with his family, and Betty offers to help him find them, he then says “they’re all dead.” But then later he invents a fictional son who conveniently lives in Australia and never travels to England.

“Would you like to see him?”

“Not really,” says Roy. “We have so little in common. And I’m afraid I’m unduly rigid when it comes to my moral standards.”

Ultimately, The Good Liar argues that we cannot change other people, and neither can a sociopath ever grasp a sense of his responsibility when it comes to his actions. The only thing we can carry away from a brush with a sociopath is the knowledge that we have survived.  This debut novel is well constructed, well paced and a page turner. I thought I was going to read something with an unreliable narrator along the lines of Get Me Out of Here or The Truth and Other Lies, but The Good Liar is a much more serious book, and Searle never allows Roy to control the reader’s vision.

Perhaps Roy should have asked himself why Betty picked the name “Estelle” for the first meeting. Although this is never addressed in the book, Great Expectations and its connotations came to mind.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Searle Nicholas

Lives and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon

She devils are beyond nature: they create themselves out of nothing.”

I expect that many people who read this post will have seen the film, Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. The film is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t really do justice to the Fay Weldon novel on which it’s based. The film with Roseanne Barr and her rival in life and love played by Meryl Streep is really very funny, but the book is much, much darker, and while like the film version, this is a tale of revenge, the book is much more subversive and its humour is black. You’ll laugh at the film but chances are you won’t have the same reaction to the book. Lives and Loves of a She-Devil was the first Fay Weldon novel I read, and it sealed me as a fan. Weldon is an outspoken feminist writer who’s come in for her share of controversy, and simply because she is a figure of some controversy, she’s all too easy to misquote. 

lives and loves of a she devilWhile Weldon’s work obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Weldon’s frequent themes include gender inequality, female reinvention, female identity and self-image and the often vicious relationships between women. Lives and Loves of a She-Devil is a tremendously powerful story–the tale of how one woman, a wife and mother, is abandoned by her husband and replaced by a prettier, sexier woman. Rising from her despair and thrusting aside all societal norms, maternal concerns, & obligations the discarded woman eventually triumphs over her enemies. Yes, a story of female empowerment and a rather frightening tale of a woman scorned who, because she’s willing to go as far as necessary, learns to live her life according to an entirely new set of rules.

Ruth, an overweight, unattractive woman who’s 6′ 2″, is an excellent wife and mother. While she’s appreciated by her somewhat scatter-brained in-laws, she’s neglected and undervalued by her accountant husband, Bobbo, who at the best of times says that Ruth is “no beauty, but a good soul.” Ruth, who is virtually powerless in the relationship, does everything to please Bobbo, even tolerating his announcement that he wants an “open marriage.” She’s aware of his extra-marital affairs which he discusses with relish, but now Bobbo has fallen in love with one of his clients, Mary Fisher, a wealthy, prolific author of trashy romances. Ruth is trying her best to ignore the affair, but after a particularly degrading scene, Bobbo moves out of his home in the suburb of Eden Grove, abandons his wife and two children and moves to Mary Fisher’s splendid home, the High Tower.

Fay Weldon’s style is spare, low on descriptions and high on mythic qualities. This is how the novel, alternating between first and third person narrative, opens:

Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea: she writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies.

Mary Fisher is forty-three, and accustomed to love. There has always been a man around to love her, sometimes quite desperately, and she has on occasion returned that love, but never, I think, with desperation. She is a writer of romantic fiction. She tells lies to herself and to the world.

Is that hate or contempt lying under the description of Mary Fisher? Probably a bit of both, but add envy to the mix too as Mary Fisher is the embodiment of everything Ruth isn’t: small, petite, feminine and highly desirable. And here’s a quote that shows just how well Fay Weldon can write:

Now outside the world turns: tides surge up the cliffs at the foot of Mary Fisher’s tower, and fall again. In Australia the great gum trees weep their bark away; in Calcutta a myriad flickers of human energy ignite and flare and die; in California the surfers weld their souls with foam and flutter off into eternity; in the great cities of the world groups of dissidents form their gaunt nexi of discontent and send the roots of change through the black soil of our earthly existence. And I am fixed here and now, trapped in my body, pinned to one particular spot, hating Mary Fisher. It is all I can do. Hate obsesses and transforms me; it is my singular attribution.

While Bobbo and Mary Fisher have the looks, the power and the money on their side, Ruth is dumped with the two squabbling children, a gluttonous vomiting dog who humps anyone lower on the totem pole, a cat who fouls the house, and an unfortunate guinea pig. Bobbo and Mary live in sex-soaked idyllic bliss while Ruth suddenly has to worry about money–how to pay bills and buy food (there’s one great scene in which Ruth directs the children to search the house for coins). To add to the worries, Bobbo tells her to move to a smaller, cheaper home. Part of Ruth accepts what has happened to her–after all, she reasons “to those who hath, such as Mary Fisher, shall be given, and to those who hath not, such as myself, even that which they have shall be taken away.”

Ruth has always behaved well and put Bobbo’s needs before her own. Why shouldn’t she accept divorce, destitution and displacement and be happy for the few years she had? But Ruth doesn’t see it that way, and she doesn’t react the way Bobbo expects her to.  Strangely, once removed from the position of wife, something begins to happen to Ruth. Liberated from her own repressive behavior,  “Hate obsesses and transforms” her, and she has revenge in mind. As events unfold, it becomes clear that revenge is an emotion that can take you to the place you want to go. Ruth abandons the roles assigned to her: doting wife, patient mother and begins a transformative journey–both literal and figurative, and along the way she confronts other women in various miserable circumstances including a clueless welfare mother who’s impregnated by a series of transient rogue males, a group of Wimmin, and also the much-abused wife of a judge who has a secret “passion for bondage and whips.” As Ruth continually reinvents herself, she leaves an imprint on the lives of everyone she touches, and rather magnificently, she becomes all the things her husband, to assuage his guilt, accused her of. She becomes a She-Devil who “creates havoc and destruction all around,”  and by abandoning the roles she is expected to endure, and breaking all the “rules” she plots her revenge…

Since this is a Weldon novel, the economic poverty of women is evident, but Weldon is not a man-hater; rather she revels in the power of sexuality, and she’s also very funny:

She’s such a good wife,” said Bobbo’s mother, moved almost to tears. “Look at that ironing!” Bobbo’s mother never ironed if she could help it. In the good times indeed, she and Angus liked to live in hotels, simply because there’d be a valet service. “And what a good husband Bobbo has turned out to be!” If she thought her son was narcissistic, staring so long in the mirror, she kept her thoughts to herself.

But Bobbo looked in the mirror at his clear, elegant eyes, his intelligent brow and his slightly bruised mouth, and hardly saw himself at all; he saw the man whom Mary Fisher loved.

review copy

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Tony and Susan by Austin Wright

“The novel as revenge is preposterous, but the idea won’t go away.”

Tony and Susan by Austin Wright was originally published in 1993 and is now a well-deserved re-release. Wright, also known as Austin McGiffert Wright (1922-2003), was a professor at the University of Cincinnati who wrote 7 novels and also a few books of non-fiction. I’d never heard of this author before, and it’s only due to the fact that Tony and Susan is being reissued now, that I  ‘discovered’ him. I decided to read the book for its very attractive and intriguing premise (more of that later), and while the novel is extremely entertaining, it’s also a marvellous example of metafiction. This makes the multi-layered plot more difficult to explain.

Susan Morrow, a married university teacher in her late 40s, unexpectedly receives a letter from her ex husband Edward. They’ve had no direct contact for over twenty years, and Susan knows little about Edward’s life except that he’s remarried to someone called Stephanie and now sells insurance. In the letter, Edward tells Susan that he’s written a book that he wants her to read as she’s always been his “best critic.” This seems an odd request that’s possibly loaded with meaning as Edward’s so-called writing career was a major problem in their brief marriage. Edward and Susan knew each other in childhood and reconnected by chance in college. Susan was studying English and Edward was in law school at the time, but shortly after their marriage, Edward dropped out to become a writer. His efforts were not successful, and since the topic was fraught with emotional minefields, Susan could not broach the subject. About two years into the marriage, Susan, now the sole wage earner, began to realise that there was a problem. At first Edward produced short poems about their sex life, but then he began to hide his work, and at one point even retreated to the woods in order to concentrate:

He talked of larger projects. He had been working on a novel but had not mentioned it because it was so unfinished. It was pretty long. She gathered it was autobiographical, with twelve hundred pages so far, and had brought young Eddie up to the age of twelve.

They grew apart with the abyss of Edward’s non-existent writing career spanning the distance. Susan wrote Edward off as “phony” and they divorced.

So now fast forward twenty years. Edward and Susan are both remarried. Susan is married to Arnold, an eminent cardiac surgeon and they have three children together. Edward’s unexpected request arrives as a blast from the past, and Susan finds the prospect of reading the manuscript both intriguing and disturbing. She wonders if he has a hidden agenda. Does he want to show her that she was, after all, wrong about him? Does he want to prove that he can write? All these thoughts make her recall her first marriage and she reluctantly re-evaluates the fictions she’s woven about Edward and Arnold:

There’s a gap in the saga of Susan’s official memory, almost a year between Edward’s return  from the woods and her marriage to Arnold. When she looks back, she finds the time blank. It could not have been totally without  event. There must have been daily drives to the college with snow scenes and slushy streets. Also grocery shopping, cleaning and cooking for Edward. And moods and arguments, movies, a friend or two. She remembers the apartment: dark walls, tiny kitchen, the bedroom with books on the floor and view of the alley.

The reason for the blockage is that the period was about to end with revolutionary change. Arnold would replace Edward with new laws, values, icons, everything. The new regime rewrites history to protect itself, burying Edward’s time like the Dark Ages. It takes Edward’s return to remind contemporary Susan of what is hidden and challenge her to rewrite the old saga through imaginative archaeology.  

As it turns out, Edward’s novel, a dark thriller, which appears in its entirety here, is a remarkable pageturner. It’s not at all what Susan expected from her ex-husband. The novel is called Nocturnal Animals, and it’s a story that penetrates into the unexpressed fears of any spouse, any parent. In Nocturnal Animals, mathematics professor, Tony Hastings, his wife Laura and their daughter, Helen decide to drive through the night to their holiday home in Maine, but the trip is derailed by three psychotics.

As Susan reads Nocturnal Animals and then occasionally puts the book down, Tony and Susan goes back and forth between Edward’s novel and Susan’s personal life. With Arnold off attending yet another conference, Susan uses the novel as a much-needed distraction from some unpleasant things that she’d rather ignore in her troubled marriage. But Edward’s novel is more than a mere distraction, and while Nocturnal Animals certainly does entertain, it also disturbs Susan. She wonders what sort of a man Edward has become, and then there’s the uncomfortable feeling that some aspects of her old life with Edward have crept into his novel.

Tony and Susan  is a splendid, clever multi-layered novel, a perfect example of metafiction. On one level, we get the gripping story of Tony and how one man faces his fears and inadequacies, and then we have Susan’s reaction as a reader to the tale. She’s pleased with parts of it, disappointed at others, but enthralled with the characters who are sufficiently diverting that she is able to shelve her problems, temporarily at least: 

Well, she was a reader. If Edward couldn’t live without writing, she couldn’t live without reading. And without me, Edward, she says, you’d have no reason to exist. He was a transmitter, spending his resources, she was a receptor who became richer the more she received. Her way with the chaos in her mind was to cultivate it through the articulations of others, by which she meant the reading of a lifetime with whose aid she had created the interesting architecture and geography of herself. She had constructed over the years a rich and civilized country, full of history and culture with views and vistas she’d never dreamed of in the days when Edward wanted to make his visions known.

Some reviews of the novel state that while Nocturnal Animals is a gripping tale, by comparison the bits we see of Susan’s life are boring. Nocturnal Animals is a crime novel set within a contemplative domestic scene, so the pace of these two stories are entirely different.  There’s a stark contrast in tone when Susan puts down Nocturnal Animals, picks up various domestic tasks and begins to mull over her personal life. I did not find these sections boring, but while Nocturnal Animals comes to a conclusion, Susan’s life and the dilemma she faces is not neatly sew up with a tight, discrete ending. Instead Susan’s life must continue after the novel she reads concludes.

Tony and Susan is a rich novel which tackles many thematic issues within Susan’s relationship with Tony, Arnold and Edward. While exploring the subjects of family, marriage, and divorce, Wright shows that what we want, what is important, shifts with age. Through Susan’s readership of Edward’s manuscript there’s the idea of a parallel universe at play. Susan finds herself asking if she did the right thing in divorcing Edward and marrying Arnold–not that she still has feelings for Edward at this stage, but in changing husbands, did she simply swap one set of problems for another. Is Edward, on some level, for example, a more sensitive human being than Arnold?

But twenty years of marriage (no idyll, to be sure) allow Susan to wonder with an open mind what sticking to Edward would have been like. If she’d stayed with him, she’d now be Stephanie.

Not only is Tony and Susan a marvellous example of metafiction, but it’s also a superb instance of the literary theory The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing developed by Louise Rosenblatt–a theory that argues that the meaning of a piece of literature or poetry does not reside solely in the text to be analysed by the critic, but that the work is fluid with each reader extracting his/her own subjective meaning which is  influenced by a unique frame of reference.

It’s a path going somewhere, made by Edward up ahead. The question for Susan, do I want to follow? How can she not? She’s caught, just like Tony.

Copy read on my kindle courtesy of netgalley

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Filed under Fiction, Wright Austin

Red Haze by Christian Gailly

Last year I read The Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé. It’s the story of a Paris bookshop whose owners decide to take the high road and sell only ‘good books.’ A secret committee of writers create a list of ‘the best books ever.’ These books are not best sellers, and are instead those wonderful little gems we readers dream of finding. Anyway, after reading A Novel Bookstore, I wanted that list. Unfortunately the list was fictional but that didn’t stop the author from dropping some names throughout the pages, and I was right there taking notes. One of the titles was Madame Solario, which I read and enjoyed. But there were other names too–some I’d never heard of. One of these names was French novelist, Christian Gailly.

There are a few of Gailly’s novels translated into English, so I actually had a choice. I selected Red Haze for its plot (and look at that great cover), but I really wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this novel as Gailly is known as a minimalist. At 108 pages (and that includes several double-sided black or near black pages), they weren’t joking about minimalism. My copy is translated by Brian Evenson and David Beus.

The novel is narrated by unemployed biologist-would-be-novelist, Sylvère Fonda–a man who gets mixed up in an incident involving a man he knows called Lucien.  I was intrigued by the plot, and here’s the opening paragraph:

A rake, that’s what he was, a lovelace. We get this odd word from a character living in a novel entitled Clarissa Harlowe, the work of English novelist Samuel Richardson, the son of a cabinet-maker who became a printer before turning to writing. But above all the name marries love to lace, net, snare.

It didn’t bother me that he slept around, he never pursued my wife, but still, I would often tell myself: one day unlike the others he’ll run into a husband worse than the others, he’ll run into trouble. I often thought this. Well, I was wrong, it was a woman worse than the others, here’s what happened.

After that opening, I was hooked into the tale.

Lucien is a womaniser who attacks a woman named Rebecca Lodge; she fights back and then runs away. Sylvère, who’s a stutterer, becomes involved and simultaneously loses his speech impediment when he finds the wounded Lucien. Lucien gives Sylvère the task of tracking down Rebecca and apologising for his act. The impact of the incident leaves a deep impression on Sylvère, but Sylvère’s wife, Suzanne doesn’t understand his fixation. And she certainly doesn’t approve of her husband’s trip to Copenhagen to track down Rebecca Lodge.

There are no pleasant aspects to this lean and mean tale of obsession and revenge.  All of the relationships are abnormal and twisted, and I can’t say more without giving away too many aspects of the plot. Is Lucien’s desire to apologise sincere? Isn’t what he did a little beyond apology? And given how Rebecca retaliated, isn’t an apology rather beside the point. What about Sylvère’s motives? Why on earth would any sane person want to get mixed up in what happened? Sylvère doesn’t even like Lucien and admits that he is “not my friend, just an experiment in hatred.” Let’s just say that Sylvère is playing with fire when he tracks down Rebecca. I should make it clear that while I write these questions, it’s not because I had a problem with the credibility of what happens, but rather I am chewing over the destructive and self-destructive nature of the characters. This is in many ways a haters’ triangle–an inversion of the familiar lovers’ triangle.

The details of the story of what happened between Lucien and Rebecca are not immediately apparent; they are teased out over time, and I found myself re-reading past passages in light of newly discovered information. The author has a deliberately recursive style–with old information repeated while tagging on other sometimes startling information. We are told just a fragment of an incident, for example, and then the incident will be repeated with additional details. This style frustrated me at first until I got used to it and could see just what the author was up to. And while Gailly’s style may be minimalism, it’s minimalism inside a maze, so the text becomes a puzzle to be solved and understood. Gailly is compared by critics to Nabokov. I’ll leave that for others to decide.

The narrator, Sylvère also consciously adopts that recursive style. At one point, he’s tells a dark, disturbing tale about something he witnessed, but towards the end of the book he adds just one line that monumentally changes the story he’s told before. This is brilliant, but I won’t write the quotes as this would ruin the impact for any future reader. It’s through this approach that we, as readers, grasp the power of control when it comes to just how much story is told or withheld, and of course, Sylvère has been torturing us with this since page one:

This repetition is deliberate. I entreat my future editor, if one is found to publish me, not to omit it. In music in the past, they repeated what the listener liked to hear. Me, I repeat what the reader hates to read. My goal is to torment his mind. I want him to tremble. I’m dreaming. To keep him from sleeping at night. The famous struggle against the dark. And then also because I think this scene, in its complete, family version, is infinitely more important than the little story I’m telling you, but since I’ve come this far, I’m going to finish it, before a new slaughter starts, so let’s hurry.

This is an infinitely nihilistic tale, and all the characters are either unpleasant or unsympathetic, so the relationships they share aren’t exactly healthy. The story’s dark twists combined with its sense of impending doom probably explain why I enjoyed it. I am, however, used to meatier fare, and to be honest, I finished this feeling a bit cheated and wishing it had been about 200 pages longer. As fate would have it, after finishing Red Haze, I picked up another novel that was so horribly bloated, I unexpectedly found myself preferring Gailly’s style, and I have a feeling that I could grow to appreciate Gailly more with subsequent novels. I’ll be ready for him next time….

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