Tag Archives: unreliable narrator

Fractured: Catherine McKenzie

“Rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, I’d taken to calling what I was doing on a daily basis.”

Imagine that you are a wildly successful author whose first novel, The Murder Game, sold over a million copies (and counting). The royalties are pouring in, plus there’s a film version in the works. You’re young, attractive, and you have a wonderful, patient, supportive and dependable husband who shoulders a great deal of the care for your six-year-old twins. Who wouldn’t trade places with Linda Apple, lawyer turned best-selling author? Well hold, on. Before you get too envious of Linda’s life, there’s a lot of trouble simmering under the surface.

Linda Apple, her husband and twins move from Tacoma for a fresh start in Ohio. They move into an affluent neighbourhood hoping to put Linda’s problems with a stalker far behind them. This isn’t some random stalker, this is Heather Stanhope, a former law classmate of Linda’s who’s stoked the rumour that The Murder Game is based on the mysterious death of Linda’s friend and roommate, Kathryn. Given Heather’s computer skills and her ability to hide behind various internet identities, it was a miracle that Linda was finally able to prove that Heather was the stalker who caused so many of the bad things that happened. But still there’s just a shadow of a lingering doubt that perhaps Linda created some of the press herself….

fractured

The fresh start in the Eden Park neighbourhood turns sour quickly. There’s a neighbourhood association run by the perfect wife and mother, Cindy. It all started out with seemingly good intentions: neighbourhood watch and block parties, but with Cindy in charge and making all the rules, soon Linda finds herself unwelcome in the neighbourhood. And then bad things begin to happen again.

The novel is told in two voices: Linda and her neighbour, and running partner, John Dunbar, who lives across the street. The novel begins in the present, then shifts back to a year ago when Linda first moved into the neighbourhood. Through the chapters, the story then moves forward to the present.

Fractured is a page-turner. No arguing that one. We know that something bad happened in the neighbourhood, and exactly what that is, is gradually revealed through the unfolding story. Author Catherine McKenzie gives us someone to loathe: Cindy, the seemingly perfect wife and mother who single handedly runs the neighbourhood association. Some people see her as a little over-zealous, but she’s a truly horrible person, encouraging everyone to use an app to monitor the comings-and-goings of their neighbours, all in the name of safety.

But what of Linda? I found her a somewhat unreliable narrator (not sure if I was supposed to), but this gray area made the book more interesting for this reader. There are several times in the book where Linda’s actions are called into question by her neighbours: hint: when you take your dog for a walk, remember the poop bag. Linda has a German Shepherd trained to attack. (At one point she says that next year, it’s going to be her 6 year old twins job to walk the dog. Is she NUTS???) Controlled, directed aggression is one of the most difficult behaviours to inculcate in a dog (note the number of times police dogs go off the rails once their ‘killmode’ is switched on). Linda uses her dog in a morally reprehensible fashion, and then fails to acknowledge her own responsibility. But this is not a lone incident that highlights Linda’s moral flaws. There are several times throughout the novel when she does stuff and pretends (or acts like) it was all an accident. Unfortunately, these incidents were too frequent and establish a pattern of behaviour of failing to take responsibility, so instead of Linda being a heroine, she was a shady figure, and that worked well too.

The ending didn’t quite work for me, and I kept wondering why Linda, who was loaded, didn’t move to a gated community for security or leave Eden Park when things went South. With these sort of domestic-threat novels, readers know that characters will make mistakes. After all, that’s often how they get into trouble in the first place. The imperative, however, is that the mistakes still be plausible even if the decisions are stupid or ill-advised. There were a couple of places where Linda, who’d been terrorised by her stalker, doesn’t act sensibly at all, but the author plays with the theory that Linda may have helped create her own publicity and then there are those meds Linda is taking. Still, I found some of the aspects of the story stretched credibility. in Linda’s shoes, you’d have to be a complete moron not to have a secured network. But in spite of its flaws, this highly readable, well-paced novel explores the issue of maintaining privacy in today’s world, and exactly how an author who needs a public presence on social media can battle against stalkers.

I will be reading The Murder Game to get to the bottom of what really happened to Kathryn. Yes Linda, you can run but you can’t hide…..

review copy

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McKenzie Catherine

Crush: Frédéric Dard

“And you will never know how big that green car seemed, or how deliciously it smelt of America.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues its very impressive output of unusual crime books through another venture into Frédéric Dard territory with a third title: Crush, a tale of longing, obsession, and murder. The double meaning of the title becomes horribly clear around the book’s halfway point.

crush

Bird in a Cage and The Wicked Go To Hell earlier Dard releases from Pushkin Vertigo, were both told by a male narrator. In Crush, we have a seventeen year old female narrator, Louise, who lives in Northern France in a very unpleasant town named Léopoldville. The place is ugly, dominated by a large chemical factory, “chimney stacks spewing out great clouds of smoke that seem to stretch up into the sky for ever before falling back down on the town below,” and the air stinks of cabbage. Things aren’t much better at Louise’s home; she lives with a mother she’s ashamed of and her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Arthur, in a wreck of a rented home.

In common with most of the other people in the town, Louise works in a factory. In order to glam up her dull life, Louise, who longs for escape, begins walking through the moneyed areas of Léopoldville and is entranced by glimpses of the lives of an affluent American couple, Mr and Mrs Rooland. She begins dawdling outside of their home:

At first sight, it looked like the others: two storeys, an arrowshaped weathervane sitting on top of the gable roof, with little stained glass windows and some steps leading up to a front door flanked by light-blue earthenware pots… But what set it apart was a funny sort of feeling that floated in the air around the house. How can I explain it? It seemed like it was somewhere else. Yes, it was a Léopoldville house, but it existed on a sort of desert island all of its own. A tiny, mysterious island, and one where the natives seemed to live bloody well too.

Walking by this house becomes a habit for Louise. She sees the Roolands relaxing on a swing seat sipping whisky at dusk while jazz music plays as background noise.

I can’t tell you how enchanting the atmosphere of that garden was, with the beautiful, shining car, that music, those drinks that you could tell were wonderfully chilled, and that couple, gently swinging while the seat creaked. 

One day, after being slapped by Arthur, Louise gathers the courage to approach the Roolands and she asks them if they want a maid, a rare commodity in Léopoldville, as factory work pays better than domestic service. The Roolands employ Louise, but the dream life Louise saw from the outside doesn’t really exist. The house is a disorganized mess, and Mrs Rooland has a drinking problem. …

Louise, our somewhat unreliable narrator, tells the story in retrospect, in an intimate, near confessional style. As she digs into the Rooland household, managing to live-in and proving through her hard work that she’s indispensable, the spectre of the Roolands returning to America clouds any future fantasies.  Dard includes some foreshadowing, some intense, dramatic scenes of violent weather that match the narrative, and rather ironically, IMO, the American car (s) play a huge role in this tale of betrayal and revenge. To say more would spoil the tale for the next reader, but fans of the Pushkin Vertigo line should enjoy this. Of the three Dard novels released to date, The Wicked Go To Hell is my favourite.

Review copy

Translated by Daniel Seton

(original French title: Les Scélérats)

8 Comments

Filed under Dard Frédéric, Fiction

The Stranger Next Door: Amélie Nothomb

“There are no exterminators for neighbors.”

Emile and Juliette Hazel have been married for 43 years, and when Emile retires from his job as a Greek and Latin high school teacher, the couple look forward to the perfect retirement. In their minds that means moving from the hustle and bustle of the city to the pristine peacefulness of a small isolated house in the country, “less out of a love of nature than out of a need for solitude.” They can’t believe their luck when they find the House:

When we saw the House, we had a wonderful feeling of relief: this place we’d been aspiring to since childhood existed after all. If we had dared to imagine it, we would have imagined a clearing just like this one, near a river, with this house-the House-pretty, invisible, a wisteria climbing its walls.

Yes, a dream come true. What could possibly go wrong?

The Stranger next door

So Emile and Juliette, a loving couple who look forward to growing old together, buy the house and move in. They are four miles from the village of Mauves, but not to worry, they have a neighbor. A doctor, no less, and surely having a doctor nearby is a good thing, isn’t it?….

A week after moving in, at four in the afternoon, there’s a knock at the door. The gargantuan Dr Palamedes Bernardin, a morose man who resembles a “depressed Buddha,” stays exactly two hours. It’s a horrible visit for the Hazels as they try everything possible to engage the monosyllabic Bernardin in conversation. But what’s even worse is that the visit becomes a dreaded, oppressive, tedious daily event. Initially the Hazels employ a series of tactics: escape, frivolity, open-ended questions and even boredom–anything to put an end to Bernardin’s visits, but nothing works. And then they meet his wife.

The Stranger Next Door, from Belgium author Amélie Nothomb, with its twisted dark ironies and black humour should appeal to fans of Pascal Garnier. Garnier seems to take delight in throwing his characters into adverse circumstances–circumstances in which we have a good laugh at their discomfort as they struggle, and are captured, in the mighty fist of fate. That same sort of feeling is here, but the tale is told in the first person. We enter the mind of Emile–a man who feels trapped by politeness, and who, over time, driven to breaking point, feeling smaller in the eyes of his wife, takes a dark path from which there is no return.

And here’s one of my favourite quotes, ironic under the circumstances:

It’s true that someone will always say that good and evil don’t exist: that is a person who never had any dealings real evil. Good is far less convincing than evil, but it’s because their chemical structures are quite different.

Like gold, good is never found in a pure state in nature: it therefore doesn’t seem impressive. It has the unfortunate tendency not to act; it prefers, passively, to be seen.

Evil, on the other hand, is like a gas: it’s not easy to see, but it can be detected by its odor. It’s most often stagnant, disbursed in a suffocating sheet; initially this aspect makes it seem inoffensive, but then suddenly you see it at work and you realize the ground it has won, the tasks it has accomplished. And by then it’s all over; gas cannot be expelled.

Many of us have had to deal with obnoxious neighbours and/or pushy people in our lives, so the situation in the book feels very real and makes us question how we would react in the circumstances. Pushiness is a type of manipulation because it forces the target to move out of the comfort zone and engage in behaviours he, or she, would not normally employ.  The Stranger Next Door , a delightful, darkly funny, nimble surprise, will make my best-of-year list.

Translated by Carol Volk

Originally published as Les Catilinaires

 

13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nothomb Amélie

Asylum: Patrick Mc Grath

“None of them noticed that she drifted through her days in a state of detachment and abstraction, functioning as she was expected to but not ever, totally there. None of them noticed but me. I was watching her.”

In Asylum, Patrick McGrath blurs the lines between those who treat mental illness and those who suffer from it. Perhaps, McGrath seems to argue, it’s even a matter of proximity…

Asylum is set at an institution for the criminally insane. It’s 1959 when psychiatrist Max Raphael, a dull, dispassionate, “reserved, rather melancholy” man brings his beautiful wife Stella, the daughter of a disgraced diplomat and his 10-year old son, Charlie from London to a walled asylum. Max is the new deputy superintendent, and the Raphaels take up residence in a large stone house just inside the walls. Max has his job and his patients to attend to, Charlie has school, but Stella doesn’t fit in with the other wives … what sort of life does she have within the confines of this “desolate” place?…

asylum

Stella is perhaps a trophy wife for Max, but they’re fundamentally mismatched. She’s bored, lonely, unhappy, sexually frustrated, and drinks too much. While the staff see the inmates as an entirely separate group of people, Stella, already alienated from the other hospital wives, resentful of the absolute power of the medical staff, doesn’t seem to be aware of a clear demarcation. Then she meets inmate Edgar Stark, an enigmatic artist who is restoring an old Victorian conservatory at the end of the Raphaels’ vegetable garden. Stark “functioned at a high level of intelligence,” but he’s subject to paranoid delusions, and years earlier, during a fit of violent rage, he murdered his wife, decapitated her and mutilated her head.

And if you think you know where this story is going, well you’re right. Even though she’s warned about Stark’s past, Stella heads straight for disaster.

The story is narrated, unreliably, by Dr. Peter Cleave, and we know through Cleave’s quiet, controlled narrative voice that something went horribly wrong with Stella. Interestingly, Cleave’s voice is so quiet, so controlled, that there are times when we forget that he is telling the story, and more importantly, that perhaps, just perhaps, he played a role in the events that took place.

The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion.

The book isn’t simply the story of what takes place; it’s Dr. Peter Cleave’s narrative placed on top of past events. Here is a tale of illicit wild passion, of Stella growing increasingly out of control with the story told by Cleave’s  occasional, very occasional, clinical interpretation. It’s not that Cleave’s interpretation is incorrect, but it is inadequate, and just why his clinical interpretation of events is inadequate adds subtle psychological depths to the story. The way Cleave watches Stella and Stark echoes a behaviorist watching two rats in a laboratory–with one important difference; Cleave is not a disinterested observer, and hints of Cleave’s true feelings are buried deep in his narrative. He was opposed to Max’s employment at the asylum in the first place, and his decisions at vital points in the story bring his neutrality into question. It’s perfectly brilliant that Stella’s story should be told by an observer who is hardly disinterested. Edgar Stark, with his “restless, devious intelligence,” is Cleave’s pet patient, and Cleave, a sexually ambiguous character, is fascinated by Stella. There’s a section in the book when Stella and Stark have “urgent and primitive” sex on the ground. In the next paragraph, time has passed and Cleave questions Stella about her sex life with Stark. Interestingly, and hardly coincidentally, he says “I probed her gently,” a very telling, Freudian choice of words when he questions Stella to get the details. It’s a love triangle of sorts with all the physical passion between Stark and Stella, and Cleave a voyeuristic observer who holds limitless power at the asylum.

And that brings me to the book’s title: Asylum–a word that has more than one meaning–a place of refuge or an institution for the mentally ill. The ending packs a powerful punch with Cleave’s professional reasonableness teetering into creepy obsession.

Aslyum was made into a film. It’s well worth watching ( I just watched it for the second time), and although the plot is fundamentally the same in the book and the film, there are some differences. The book, as usual, is more complex and subtle. Peter Cleave is a much more invisible character in the book than in the film whereas Stella is much more off the rails.

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McGrath, Patrick

Savage Lane: Jason Starr

“Fantasies seem great, but they’re just gateway drugs. You need more and more and then, when reality kicks in, you’re totally fucked.”

Various destructive fantasies and desires collide and converge in Jason Starr’s Savage Lane, a maliciously dark look at the lives of a handful of affluent suburbanites. There is a consistent subtext throughout this author’s work: the American Dream is Starr’s American Nightmare. So whether Starr is focusing on stay-at home dads, achieving upward mobility, the vagaries of employment, assertiveness, home defense, or as in the case of Savage Lane, life in the ‘burbs, expect a subversive look at American society and its values. Jason Starr’s novels are classified as crime & suspense, and while there’s no argument there, since Starr’s characters are often supposedly decent upstanding members of society before they go off the rails and slide into criminality, I’ll add the label Transgressive fiction.

Savage Lane, a quiet prestigious neighbourhood in affluent Westchester county is home to the two families who are central to this story. There are the Bermans: husband Mark, his wife Debbie and their two children: Justin and Riley. And across the street is delectable, divorced Karen Daily and her two children Elana and Matthew.  Due to the similarities in status, economics and the children’s ages, the Bermans used to be best friends with Karen and her now-ex Joe, but since the divorce, things have become more awkward. As a divorced woman who dates a lot of men through internet sites, Karen has become, in the eyes of the other women in the community, a suspected husband stealer, a “homewrecker.”

The Bermans’ marriage is on the rocks, and while Deb has some nasty secrets of her own, she suspects that Mark is having an affair with Karen. Mark is certainly feeding the fire by hanging around Karen, jogging with her every day, texting her constantly and grabbing her hand at a party. Karen is so immersed in her own problems, that she fails to see the warning light, and Mark’s relationship as a friend creeps into something else.

Starr’s characters are constrained by societal standards but they long, or are pressured, to bust out and reveal the beast within. So we see Mark’s obsession with Karen growing to dangerous levels, and Deb, who has a problem with alcohol, determined to cast herself in the role of victim so that she can divorce, and loot, Mark. While these two families spiral out of control (and this includes a girl fight at the local prestigious country club), there’s another character here who’s already on the board and is about to change the entire game.

savage laneThat’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss.

I loved Savage Lane for its nastiness, its dark, dark humour, and its subversiveness. The story is told from various viewpoints–and I’ll stress not multiple narrators. That leaves Starr always in control of his story. Even though the story unfolds from different characters (including the wildly unreliable) so that we see inside their heads, Starr gives his characters no place to hide. While the characters comfort themselves with justification and excuses, their weaknesses and foibles are glaringly and hilariously on display. One of the techniques Starr employs is to show the way we lies to ourselves in order to slide into certain slippery behaviour. Here’s Karen with her usual liquid breakfast:

She still felt nauseated and her head was killing her. After making sure she’d deleted all the texts she’d sent and received, she switched the phone to silent mode and put it away in her purse. Then she heard Casey clacking away down the stairs and a few moments later he came into the kitchen, panting, and went right toward the sliding screen doors. She let him out and then, watching the happy dog sprint toward the backyard to do his business, the thought, Dog, hair of the dog, that’s it, and she got a glass, went to the liquor cabinet in the dining room, and poured some vodka–not much, just half a glass, enough to get back.

I especially loved the scenes en famille, for Starr is merciless with his portrayal of pathological family life. There’s an irony to the whole set-up. Karen, addicted to exercise and trying to stay marketable, is desperately surfing dating sites to get her new man while Deb, sinking into alcoholism, tells herself she doesn’t need her husband around anymore. Caught in between these two is cologne-soaked, pathetic creeper Mark, who fancies himself as a Javier Bardem look-alike. Here’s a chaotic scene in which a police detective, Piretti, questions Mark about his wife and his relationship with Karen. Mark is trying desperately to downplay any family issues, but his resentful teenage daughter jumps in and reveals the rot. Even the dog gets in on the mayhem.

“Friends don’t text that much, especially grownups who are friends. That’s why Mom wanted a divorce, because she knew what was going on too, she wasn’t a fucking idiot.”

“Riley, that’s enough,” her dad said, raising his voice.

But Riley kept going, saying, “It’s true. That’s why she’d been acting so weird lately.”

“How was she acting weird?” Piretti asked.

“She’s very upset, she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” her dad said to Piretti.

“She was too acting weird,” Riley said.
She was distracted all the time, and she was drinking like crazy. Sometimes I’d come home from school and smell the alcohol on her breath. Saturday morning in the car on the way home from dance class, she was acting really weird.”

“That’s enough Riley.,” her dad said.

“Let her talk,” Piretti said.

[…]

Then Justin came into the kitchen, holding an X-Box joystick, and asked, “Is Mom home yet?”

“Is that why Mom wanted a divorce?” Riley said to her dad. “Because you were going to leave her for Karen?”

Now Casey came into the kitchen and was barking.

“Shut up,” Mark said to her, and maybe to the dog too.

Jason Starr is not a stylist, and neither is he interested in in-depth character analysis, so his books tend to look as though they are deceptively easy to write. He is not writing ‘great literature,’ but neither is that his intention; Starr’s novels (he’s also written a number of graphic and comic books) are modern pulp threaded with societal concerns and pressures, so here we see mouthy teenagers who lead lives their parents are unaware of, children who are more worried about the X-Box than a less-than stellar parent, and cell phones as a helluva way to get in trouble. Spearing characters who find themselves in positions in life without quite understanding how they got there, Starr’s strengths are his plotting and his vision of the confinements of the norms of society. Just as you think you have nailed the plot of Savage Lane, Starr barrels in out of left field and delivers surprise after surprise, so be prepared. Savage Lane, fueled by the triple horsepower of urban middle age angst, fantasy and obsession is Starr’s best novel yet.

Review copy

11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Starr Jason

Jack of Spades: Joyce Carol Oates

Point me in the direction of a book written by an unreliable narrator, and chances are I’ll want to read it, and that brings me to Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates. First the disclaimer: I’m not a fan of this author’s novels–although I like some of her short stories, so I hesitated when I saw this.

Jack of Spades is narrated by best-selling author Andrew J. Rush who lives with his wife, Irina in a prestigious home in Harbourton, New Jersey. Almost immediately we can tell that there’s something a little off about Rush, for while he appears almost gushingly humble and self-deprecating, he never misses an opportunity to slip in self-flattery even as he tries to paint himself as a nice, normal man, a pillar of the community. He describes himself as “the most famous of local residents,” and with 28 books to his credit, this is no doubt true. He writes “best-selling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory noir performances.”

Jack of SpadesHere’s where the cracks begin to appear in Andrew’s self-portrait, for while he’s busy emphasizing that his books are in good taste, then he reveals that he writes an entirely different type of book under the pseudonym: Jack of Spades, “born out of my restlessness with the success of Andrew J. Rush.” These books have a cult-type popularity, are extremely violent, sexist, “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific.” The local library refuses to stock any titles by Jack of Spades, so Rush donates copies.

So right away, we have a paradox: Rush goes to great lengths to continually explain how his books don’t offend, don’t cross any lines, but then he also produces, secretly, this whole other line of books that are offensive and written in extremely bad taste.  We can only conclude that Rush is a very complicated man who needs to hide his more vicious, violent side beneath the surface of both his personal and professional life.

But is Rush a nice guy at home? As layers of the story drop away, we see Irina through Rush’s eyes. Once she was a promising writer, but now she teaches at a small school. Even though Rush frequently prefaces the word, ‘wife’ with the term “dear,” there’s violence, dominance and control behind his attitude, and that violence occasionally seeps through the surface when she questions her husband or suddenly appears in the areas of the house that are more or less forbidden to her.

Soon after we were married, Irina gave up writing. I had been her most enthusiastic reader and had continued to encourage her, going through drafts of stories and novels, but something hesitant and self-doubting had crept into her sense of herself as a writer. Gently I admonished her–“Darling, you care too much for precision and perfection. There’s no need to polish each damned sentence–just say what you want to say.”

But Irina grew ever more shy about her writing. I hope it wasn’t because I insisted upon reading everything she wrote, and offering my heartfelt, sincere, and sympathetic critiques.

It doesn’t take too long before you realize that the veneer of nice guy and good husband (and what about those estranged children?) is stretched thin and that Rush could explode at any minute. The name ‘Jack of Spades’ is a pseudonym, but it’s also a label for Andrew’s dangerously violent alter ego.

The pivotal incident occurs when Rush is served with a summons to appear at the local courthouse. With a very nice touch, the summons is misspelled, and Rush, for a moment, imagines that there’s some mistake–surely the summons is meant for ‘Andwer J. Rash,’ whoever he is, and not him. But no … as it turns out, he’s being accused by some local nut of plagiarism–and not just plagiarism; he’s also being accused of actually breaking into someone’s home and stealing her unpublished manuscripts.

This accusation sparks a violent turn of events in Rush’s life. So far, he’s barely managed to keep the more violent side of his personality under control. The civil suit tests that ‘nice guy’ veneer to the limit.

There are many. many five-star reviews of Jack of Spades out there. For this reader, in the minority, the book doesn’t have much appeal. Perhaps if I hadn’t read Henry Sutton’s brilliant: Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s wonderfully nasty  A Pleasure and a Calling, I’d feel differently, but both Hogan and Sutton take the intricacies of the unreliable narrator to new levels; Jack of Spades does not. The narrative exposition lacks subtlety.  Both Henry Sutton and Phil Hogan constructed windows in the lives of two very different, cunning, psychopathic narrators, and while we read about the actions of these men with fascinated horror, it’s to both Hogan and Sutton’s credit that we can acknowledge the nasty intelligence and craftiness of their protagonists as they create mayhem for other people. In the case of Andrew Rush, there’s nothing to admire–not even the bestsellers. Being in his mind is an unpleasant chore.

Jack of Spades is at its best in its references to Stephen King. Andrew Rush is constantly compared to King. This comparison to Stephen King obviously bugs the hell out of Rush who tries to get some recognition from King, and then later he plays a nasty trick involving King that seems both tongue-in-cheek and also references how King attracts the nuts for some reason. While Andrew Rush can’t help but be flattered by the comparisons to King, there’s a niggling annoyance there that Stephen King is richer and much more famous:

With my third bestseller in the 1990s it began to be said about me in the media–Andrew J. Rush is the gentleman’s Stephen King.

Of course, I was flattered. sales of my novels, though in the millions after a quarter-century of effort, are yet in the double-digit millions and not the triple-digit, like Stephen King’s. And though my novels have been translated into as many as thirty languages–(quite a surprise to me, who knows only one language)-I’m sure that Stephen King’s books have been translated into even more, and more profitably. And only three of my novels have been adapted into (quickly forgotten) films, and only two into (less-than-premium cable) TV dramas–unlike King, whose adaptations are too many to count.

But who’s counting, right?

Review copy

 

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Oates Joyce Carol

A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

“The only difference between the sane and the insane is how many people you can get to agree with you.”

An unreliable narrator in a tightly developed, fascinating, claustrophobic tale of escalating madness … within a few lines, I knew I’d love this book. In A Pleasure and a Calling, author Phil Hogan creates a smoothly operating, high-functioning sociopath, the seemingly respectable owner of a prominent, successful small town real estate company who organises his lifelong programme of intense, obsessive voyeurism by collecting  & using keys of the properties he’s sold. Middle-aged Mr Heming is one of those anonymous men who easily fades into the background, and this just makes his activities that much easier to conduct as through his dream job, he uses easily accessible keys to enter into homes and spy on the residents, probing into their lives, their bank accounts, and their correspondence.

Mr. Heming narrates this tale rather as though he’s talking to an old friend, so the tone is light and leans towards camaraderie. After all, he seems to argue, his hobby really doesn’t hurt anyone, does it?

If you were to put a gun to my head and ask me to explain myself, I suppose I might begin by saying that we are all creatures of habit. But then you might wonder, what creature of habit is a slave to the habits of others?

That’s the novel’s very first sentence, and in just a few brief revealing words, sociopath Heming immediately appears to subordinate himself, with a hint of self-pity, to his victims when he calls himself a “slave” to the habits of others. In reality, Heming’s “habit” of breaking into people’s homes, spying on them and in a few cases, ruining their lives, is all about power.

a pleasure and a calllingHeming is the very worst type of sociopath–high functioning, seemingly normal, mingling with ease, able to nimbly mimic the socially required emotions, and, of course, completely lacking a conscience. Through the clever narrative, Heming presents himself initially as some sort of invisible protector of his beloved town, a do-gooder, a righter of wrongs wreaked upon the innocent by some of the nastier residents. At one point, for example, Heming observes a local man impatiently walking his dog and failing to pick up the dog’s poo. This incident outrages Heming’s sensibilities, and so he takes revenge in an incident that is to have powerful, long-range consequences.

A great deal of the novel’s success, and IMO, A Pleasure and A Calling is brilliantly conceived and perfect in its execution, comes from the well-realized creation of Heming. Author Phil Hogan slips into Heming’s skin seamlessly, and Heming’s voice and skewed vision never slips. But another large part of the novel’s success is also established through the novel’s black humour–Heming’s tone of reasonableness & logic.  This is particularly true when Heming is describing the foibles of his customers, and it’s here we see author Phil Hogan’s seductively, skillful technique as he takes us into Heming’s sick mind, and we find ourselves uncomfortably agreeing with Heming’s observations and opinions. Here he is complaining about the Cooksons–a particularly difficult married couple who’ve listed their property for sale:

I’d lost count of the properties the Cooksons themselves had walked away from at the eleventh hour–upscale dwellings that ticked every box on an evolving wish list that had taken the three of us out to look at converted windmills and maltings, a superior Georgian townhouse on the square, a riverside apartment with long views and finished in oak and granite, a wool merchant’s cottage with sizeable vegetable garden out towards Wodestringham. The paths of the couple’s individual whims–hers, at any moment, for a circle of yews, his for an authentic chef’s kitchen with wine cellar–rarely crossed. If one light went on, another went off. You saw them bickering quietly in their car. Once I heard Mrs Cookson refer to me as ‘that fucking creep, Heming,’ which seemed a little severe, though in the circumstances–I was lurking in a recess on the landing directly below them as them stood disagreeing about the aesthetic merits of porthole-style windows–I suppose she was right.

In Heming, author Phil Hogan brilliantly creates an unforgettable character–a man who’s developed his childhood sneakiness and ‘invisibility’ in order to wreak havoc on those who offend him or who cross him in some way, and as the narrative continues, the mask of Heming as a do-gooder, the guardian angel of his town slips and the true monster underneath is revealed through key events in his childhood, his adolescence and his present. It’s clear that Heming’s life could have taken a rocky path to social failure but for the (un)fortunate circumstance of stumbling upon the very job that automatically grants him trust and allows him unfettered, unlimited access to people’s private lives.

I have to smile when newspapers–so predictable in their attempt to explain the behaviour of those transgressing social norms or the workings of the deviant mind–speak of the ‘double life’ led by this furtive criminal or that. In fact the reverse is true. It is normal people who have a ‘double life’. On the outside is your everyday life of going out to work, and going on holiday. Then there is the life you wish you had–the life that keeps you awake at night with hope, ambition, plans, frustration, resentment, envy, regret. This is a more seething life of wants, driven by thoughts of possibility and potential. It is the life you can never have. Always changing, it is always out of reach. Would you like more money? Here, have more! An attractive sexual partner? No problem. Higher status? More intelligence? Whiter teeth? You are obsessed with what is just out of your reach. It is the itch you cannot scratch. Tortured by the principle that the more you can’t have something the more you desire it, you are never happy.

The humour here is deeply and subtly embedded in the plot. At one point, for example, Heming, blithely enjoys a leisurely meal at one of his “favourite breakfast spots,” cooking for himself and reading the newspaper while the unsuspecting family members are away. Elsewhere in the book, he uses his keys to advance an obsession with a female home owner. Towards the end of the book, Heming has occasion to visit a significant figure from his past–another man whose life is ‘a pleasure and a calling.’ The introduction of this element to the book brings Heming’s addictive, compelling story full circle and forms the perfect, ironic conclusion. A Pleasure and a Calling should appeal to fans of Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here –a book that easily made my best of year list in 2011.

review copy/own a copy

24 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hogan Phil

The Dance of a Sham by Paul Emond

Brilliantly witty, mercurial and almost disorienting, The Dance of a Sham is narrated by a wily character who recounts, with some zest and no small admiration, the exploits of his more conniving friend, Caracala. The narrative is one long sentence which pours out of the narrator’s mouth with lightening speed.  Have you ever been in a situation, perhaps at a party, work, or at the pub, trapped in a corner while someone tells you a story that sounds less-than-authentic? You could, perhaps, escape but choose not to because the storyteller’s energy, sheer force of personality, and gift for bullshit becomes almost mesmerizing. At about 160 pages, The Dance of a Sham is the perfect length for this sort of narrative voice; any longer and you might have to seek the advice of a Professional.

the dance of a shamCaracala, is according to the narrator who admires him, a man “with the gift of the gab and crafty as a monkey to boot.” Here the narrator brags about the carousing and mayhem the two men indulge in.

we could drink all night and stay up the whole next day fresh as a daisy, occasionally the police found me one time and brought me home, my mom was shouting, haven’t you brought enough shame on us already, eh, haven’t you, and she was shouting so loudly the police were more scared that I was  they cleared out really quick, apologizing for the inconvenience but my mom wasn’t listening, I was the one she was after, you see, and she went on with her litany, aren’t you ashamed, don’t you feel any shame, I’ve got to say, that was a serious bit of merrymaking, I’d been out with my buddy for three days and went to every bar in a seven-mile radius, I’d even lost him at some point without realizing, he must have stayed with some girl because you couldn’t imagine the success he had with the young ladies, he’d serve them up one of his nest speeches, hot, just the right word to get them giggling and he had a knack even with the most reluctant ones, they never had time to get bored with him, he was never one to beat around the bush, my method’s a straight line, he’d say, cutting the air with his hand, but once it was over there was no question of sentimental primness, it was more of a hello, can I slide into your bunk, drop my little men and see you later, he had to have all of them , a blond then a brunette, one after the other, he was the champion of hanky-panky and proud of it but they knew what he was like and didn’t hold it against him, not usually, except one who wanted to kill him because she got pregnant, he claimed he wasn’t the father, no way I’m going to be the pigeon here he told me

That particular part of the tale doesn’t end well, but this is just one episode in Caracala’s demolition-derby-of a life. The story of Caracala’s escapades escalate seamlessly in severity, and the adventures of an amoral Lothario slide into criminality.  In his relationship with Caracala, the narrator compares himself to “that guy on his donkey following a half-crazy knight around,” so we need no more evidence about the narrator’s view of himself, but wait… just as we get one impression of the narrator’s slippery relationship with Caracala, that impression shifts and the narrator’s admiration of the lowlife Caracala morphs into something different, something much darker. The narrator’s versions of events alters–there’s the woman he claimed he liked, Marie-Ange who became fat and unhappy after she married someone else. End of story, or so we think, and yet in subsequent versions she has a “bad reputation,” has an “affair with the station-master,” and brags about her “flings.” The various images we are given of this woman are completely different. How much is delusional fantasy? Lies? Insanity? As the story continues and various versions of events multiply and shift, the truth becomes more elusive, and it becomes entirely possible that our narrator is a murderer.

there are some things that are hard to tell, you hesitate, procrastinate, you know, there are stories you wouldn’t envy share with your best friend, stories you try to bury once and for all in the most unobtrusive corner of your little imaginary garden, and if by some unfortunate chance they resurface one day, you feel so nauseous you’d rather be dead.

Slowly the mask slips:

the more far-fetched stories you tell them, the more they believe them, the bigger the starship you paint for them, the more they start itching for an implausible journey, but it isn’t easy to fool your listener, to lie well, to lie sensitively, if I can put it that way, there’s an art to it, you have to be able to stand your listener in front of a mirror, then slip a second mirror between his face and the first one, and then another, and another, and you go on like that as long as you like and your victim keeps smiling sweetly at each new mirror, doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.

We have every reason to doubt what the narrator tells us, and the persona he presents, that of an idle, naïve, careless man with little thought of the consequences of his actions, is replaced by something else entirely.  I would normally pass on a novel that consists of one long sentence–even if it’s less than 200 pages, but in The Dance of a Sham, the narrative voice matches the slippery tale. The style could be stream-of-consciousness, but when you consider just what we’re being told, it’s clear that what flows from the narrator’s mouth isn’t stream of consciousness at all;  it’s cleverly conceived fabrication deliberately weaved around some very dark events.

The novel includes a Q&A interview with the author. One of the most interesting aspects to The Dance of a Sham is the transaction that occurs between the reader and the narrator, and the author addresses the complicity created by the text in this interview and how the book “transgresses” the  “pact” between author and reader. If this all sounds elaborate, it is, but the narrative trumps all other considerations of experimentalism and intellectual exercise. A sociopath will happily construct and deconstruct an event until he finds the version which suits, and this is exactly what happens here.

Translated by Marlon Jones.

Review copy 

14 Comments

Filed under Emond Paul, Fiction

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

“In my profession, true relaxation is a necessity. I see and hear things all day long. Things you need to get off your mind at night. The fungal growths. The bleeding warts. The folds of skin between which things have gotten much, much too warm. The three-hundred pound woman you have to examine in a place you hoped you’d never have to go again.”

The Dinner by Herman Koch made my best-of-2012 list, and when I turned the last page of the book, I was very disappointed to discover that there were no other books available in English by the author, so you can understand my delight when I heard about Summer House With Swimming Pool.  Plus a big bonus on this book, it includes the added attraction of one of my reading obsessions: a holiday setting.

Summer House with swimming poolSummer House with Swimming Pool is narrated by doctor Marc Schlosser and the book begins with a deliciously nasty, claustrophobic, self-obsessed first-person narration which recalls Bernhard, or a sicko version of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The not-so-good doctor, a general practitioner is obviously a seriously disturbed man, and that makes him an unreliable narrator.

Many of us have probably had doctors who’ve seemed unbalanced, but Schlosser is dangerous because, on the surface, he seems to be so stable. This is a man who loathes his patients, who grimaces at their ailments which he believes are mostly imagined, and yet his carefully developed professional mask has helped Schlosser built a large practice of loyal patients mainly from the “creative professions.” Schlosser paces his patients twenty minutes apart, “his selling point” as a doctor, but he barely bothers to listen to the litany of health issues, and confides that in his practice, “the key is not to worry too much about medical standards.”  While he knows that people line up on a waiting list to become patients, believing that he “makes time for each individual case,” Schlosser brags that “patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention.” He has a well-honed script to deter anyone from seeking a specialist, and a manner in which he encourages patients to keep coming to him while feeling good about their bad, unhealthy addictive habits. Repulsed by his patients’ bodies, he has fantasies of death during examinations:

Human bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them, those parts where the sun never shines. Not the folds of fat in which it is always too warm and the bacteria have free rein, not the fungal growths and the infections between the toes, beneath the nails, not the fingers that scratch here, the fingers that rub there until it starts to bleed … Here, Doctor, here’s where it itches really badly … No, I don’t want to see. I pretend to look, but I’m thinking about something else. About a roller coaster in an amusement park. The car in front has a green dragon’s head mounted on it. The people throw their hands in the air and scream their lungs out. From the corner of my eye I see moist tufts of pubic hair, or red, infected bald spots where no hair will ever grow again, and I think about a plane exploding in the air. The passengers still belted to their seats as they begin a mile-long tumble into eternity: It’s cold, the air is thin, far below the ocean waits.

One of the very best scenes in the book, and one that made me laugh out-loud concerns how Schlosser terrorizes patients prior to a rectal exam while appearing to reassure them as he slowly and methodically preps. Of course, any doctor with an attitude like this is a disaster waiting to happen, so it doesn’t come as any great surprise to discover that something has gone terribly wrong with one of Schlosser’s patients. A famous actor, Ralph Meier, is now dead, and Schlosser is accused of malpractice.

Meier, a larger than life, bon vivant, obnoxious womanizer, first came to Schlosser’s practice 18 months before because he had heard through the grapevine that the doctor “was fairly accommodating with prescriptions.” This, incidentally, is another way that Schlosser has built his practice.  A series of events brings Schlosser and his wife, Caroline into Ralph’s social sphere. When Ralph is introduced to Caroline, he doesn’t disguise his lust:

As he examined the back of Caroline’s body from head to foot, a film slid down over his eyes. In nature films, you see that sometimes with birds of prey,. A raptor that has located, from somewhere far up high in the air, or from a tree branch, a mouse or some other tasty morsel. That was how Ralph Meier was regarding my wife’s body: as if it were something edible, something that made his mouth water. Now there was also some movement around his moth. The lips parted. his jaws churned, I even thought I heard the grinding of teeth–and he breathed a sigh. Ralph Meier was seeing something delicious. His mouth was already anticipating the tasty morsel that he would, if given the chance, wolf down in a few bites.

The most remarkable thing perhaps was that he did all this without the slightest embarrassment. As though I weren’t even there.

Ralph and his wife Judith invite Schlosser, his wife Caroline and their two daughters (aged 11 & 13) to join them near the Mediterranean coast at a rented summer house. Caroline wants to decline, and yet strangely enough, Schlosser manipulates a visit which ends in complete disaster…

Summer House with Swimming Pool is a bit of a disturbing curiosity. It begins with an unreliable narrator, a nasty toxic, twisted doctor who indulges in violent fantasies involving his patients (and humanity in general), who references the teachings of a former university professor who was “later drummed out of the university” for his controversial studies, and isn’t completely honest about his motivations. These motivations become clear over time, and yet I still didn’t quite trust his version of events.  While the book was initially very funny, in a sick psycho sort of way, the plot spins in the doldrums for a while before it takes an unexpected, very serious turn, and the two parts of the novel don’t quite mesh smoothly. 

I enjoyed Summer House with Swimming Pool, but I prefer The Dinner–a novel with nastiness that built relentlessly to the end. Both books examine the parent-child role–specifically the issues of protection and innocence. In Summer House with Swimming Pool, the male adults at the rented home, who include a visiting American film director with a taste for nubile young girls, engage in a summer of irresponsible, lustful juvenile behaviour which naturally ends badly. The motivations of all the characters are under scrutiny here, and while revenge may seem to be the dominant directive, troubling questions remain regarding Schlosser’s actions. We all tend to believe what we want to believe and accept the version of events that we like best, and perhaps this is what happened with Schlosser.  Unfortunately for the book, the Marc Schlosser we are left with at the end appears to have run out of steam and nastiness and this, in spite of the fact that Schlosser has finally had to confront the validity of his demented mentor’s misogynic ravings, doesn’t quite gel with the character revealed at the beginning. That said, I just read that Herman Koch has a third book soon to be published in English, and you bet I’ll be reading it.

Translated from Dutch by Sam Garnett. Review copy.

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Koch Herman

Decompression by Julie Zeh

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.

decompressionThe 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

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Zeh Julie