Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb is a bedeviling book. A writer from a small town who rises swiftly to fame with the publication of a brilliant collect...moreNow You See Him by Eli Gottlieb is a bedeviling book. A writer from a small town who rises swiftly to fame with the publication of a brilliant collection of short stories. That fame, however, is nothing compared to the media shitstorm that arises when the author, Rob Castor, shoots his lover and then himself. Though I tend to run from stories about writers, particularly moody-broody, prone to murder types, the suicide angle proved irresistible.
The novel is narrated in the first person from the point of view of Rob’s childhood friend Nick who, much like the small town where Rob is from and Nick still lives, is trying to move on from the tragedy, though not too hard and not too successfully. The storyline follows Nick as he navigates the aftermath and reflects on his childhood and on the dual tragedies. There are so many things wrong with this book I don't know where to start.
1) Ostensibly, it's about a writer. Like most writers I know, I profess to hate stories about writers, but I still find myself getting suckered by stories about scribes hoping I'll stumble upon the next Barton Fink or Wonder Boys. The way Rob's achievements are glorified is almost embarrassing. Nick is like the geeky fan whose fanaticism ruins the fun for normal people.
2) Overwritten. Try this on for size: "The seasons passed, the leaves fell and in miraculous fits, in tantrums of green, they appeared again, and every day, Rob climbed to his desk like an exhausted swimmer battling the outgoing tide to the beach, and there tried to concentrate." Don't you feel a little embarrassed for Rob? Don't you feel a little embarrassed for all of us? And what do the miraculous tantrums of spring have to do with anything? I used this example to bolster my first point, but the book is littered with constructions like these. But just so that there can be no doubt, here's another one that caused me to actually launch the book across the room. "She laughed at me, but gently, and in a way that was so familiar to me it was like a touch upon the foundations of my soul." And where would that be exactly, the spleen?
3) Bad Dialogue. I'll allow that there's nothing wrong with much of the dialogue (or almost nothing wrong) but Gottlieb's sense of timing is completely off, like he has no idea how a real person would sound if thrust into the scenarios Gottlieb creates for his characters. I'm not going to cite an example because dialoge culled out of context can be made to sound foolish regardless of its author, but the lack of authenticity causes a deep mistrust for the individual putting words in their mouths.
4) Exposition of Convenience. Over and over again Gottlieb will tell us something that hadn't been mentioned before and, cognizant of the lapse, he'll launch into a set-piece of exposition and then never mention it again. He does this at several key junctures, like when he tells us that Christmas is coming. He also does it with plot points. He'll makes use of a minor character and then abandon her as soon as she fulfills her function in relation to Nick. One never gets a sense that the characters have a life of their own.
5) Unlikable Characters. It's one thing to have an unlikable narrator, but the whole cast of characters is made up of shitheels you wouldn't want to sit next to on a plane. The only character I liked was Nick's wife, but only because she lays into him with a savagery reminiscent of Carmela Soprano. If ever there was someone in need of the business, it's Nick. Even the "villain," the weasely childhood friend of Rob's who secures a book deal for an expose about his death, is more likable than Nick by a factor of ten.
6) Conflating Withholding with Suspense. The main surprise at the end of the book, the carrot that keeps the burro going, is not something that Nick uncovers or learns. It's something he knows on page one but chooses not to divulge. I myself have written stories guilty of much the same thing. Sometimes this is okay. This is not one of those times. Some narrators are decietful and duplicitous. You can't trust a thing they say. Nick, however, belongs to that species of supplicant who will tell you what he had for breakfast in excruciating detail, right down to the number of crumbs left on the plate, yet we have to slog through to the end to find out what he's known from the beginning. It just doesn't get any cheaper than that.
Yet, for all its flaws, for all its maddening excesses, I couldn't put the book down. As much as I bitched and moaned, I couldn't tear myself away. I was reading so intently that people would come up to me just to ask what I was reading. Then, when I reached the end, I was caught completely off guard, didn't see it coming at all. So I ask myself, was this a good book? Heaven's no. Was it a good reading experience? Absolutely. I honestly don't know what to make of this discrepancy other than to tip my cap to Mr. Gottlieb. (less)
In my youth, I was obsessed with stories about innocent men wrongly accused and packed off to prison. After some adventures in Morocco as a young adul...moreIn my youth, I was obsessed with stories about innocent men wrongly accused and packed off to prison. After some adventures in Morocco as a young adult, this obsession morphed into tales of naive travelers getting in over their heads in foreign countries hostile to Westerners. Michael A. Fitzgerald's Radiant Days took up this theme beautifully in 2007 and now we have David Francis's Stray Dog Winter.
The first half of the novel flips back and forth between the story of Darby Bright, a young Australian painter who journeys to Moscow in the early 80s to visit his half-sister, Finola. The second storyline deals with Darby's youth and the curious events that led to Fin's mysterious arrival and more sudden departure from the Bright household in Victoria in southeastern Australia.
Darby Bright is unabashedly gay, making Moscow with its barbaric policies against "blues," KGB speak for "homosexes," a very dangerous place to be. When it's revealed that Finola might be up to more than she lets on, Francis slowly starts turning the screws, ratcheting up the tension. Is Finola in trouble? Is Darcy being followed? Why are there microphones in the seat cushions? Darcy's discomfort blossoms into paranoia and fear, forcing him to make some hard choices between family and fleeing for safety.
Francis writes with a kind of unhurried elegance that allows the reader a clear view of the characters even when they are entangled in webs of deception -- partly of their own making, partly a product of a truly terrifying autocratic regime. The descriptions of Moscow in the winter, particularly while Darcy is on the run -- alone, frightened, and hopelessly overmatched -- made me feel physically cold while reading the novel. One feels both Darcy's vulnerability and the KGB's dread power in equal measure. Though Stray Dog Winter is not a thriller per se, it is a book about the perils of sheltering secrets from yourself as well as from those you profess to love.
David Francis will be reading at Vermin on the Mount, an irreverent reading series in the heart of L.A.'s Chinatown on Sunday, April 5.
My review at Bold Type just went live, but since they don't seem to be archiving the new material I'll just go ahead and post the whole review below....moreMy review at Bold Type just went live, but since they don't seem to be archiving the new material I'll just go ahead and post the whole review below. Here goes:
The Manual of Detection is a mystery in the purest sense of the word: elusive, strange, and immensely compelling. Though Jedediah Berry borrows freely from Dashiell Hammett's The Continental Op, this is to hardboiled detective novels what Alice in Wonderland is to children's picture books.
Charles Unwin is a clerk at a detective agency with a Kafkaesque hierarchy. Each clerk is assigned to a detective, and Unwin has spent the last 20 years scrupulously assembling reports for Travis T. Sivart, who is something of a celebrity for the cases he's cracked: "The Oldest Murdered Man," "The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker," and the infamous "The Man Who Stole November Twelfth."
Unwin's world is thrown topsy-turvy, however, when he is unexpectedly promoted to the rank of detective himself. Convinced there must be some mistake, he tries to sort things out, only to discover that his new supervisor has been murdered and Detective Sivart has disappeared. (For those sleuthing at home: The fact that his name is a palindrome is most certainly a clue.)
Armed with only a handbook titled The Manual of Detection, Unwin descends into the bowels of the city to confront Sivart's nemeses: Jasper and Josiah Rook, conjoined twins who were forcibly separated; Cleopatra Greenwood, a singer whose voice lulls its listeners into dreamland; and the biloquist Enoch Hoffman, who has learned the secret of infiltrating dreams. But the cryptically worded manual offers more warnings than counsel: "If you are not setting a trap, you are probably walking into one."
At first blush, the comic-book villains and meta-fictional high-jinks may seem at odds with one another, but Berry's masterful mingling of the frightful, the fantastic, and the absurd makes his debut a delight to read. After immersing yourself in The Manual, you may even think twice about what your own dreams are trying to tell you.
***Sidenote that may interest only me. In the cafeteria where I work that services about 2,000 employees there's a book drop deal where you can take or leave books. Today, I found one of Oakley Hall's Ambrose Bierce western mysteries. I've been wanting to check one of these out since I finished Warlock not too long ago. In this particular novel, Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades, the chapters are titled with a single word followed by its definition from Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary. Very similar to the organizing principle that governs The Manual of Detection... (less)
Epileptic is an interesting portmanteau of family history, artistic development, and medical memoir. I bought Epileptic sight unseen off the internet...moreEpileptic is an interesting portmanteau of family history, artistic development, and medical memoir. I bought Epileptic sight unseen off the internet because I wanted to see what a graphic artist would do with epilepsy as his subject, and David B. doesn't disappoint. His vision of his brother's seizures and the devastating effect they have on his family is hugely compelling.
The illustrations are done in black and white and David B. does marvelous things with ink. Fantastic creatures crowd the page, pushing the human figures from frame to frame. The lines are crude, the images two-dimensional and bold. He uses a great deal of ink so that there is often very little white space in the frame. (It suddenly occurs to me that Epileptic reminds me of early woodcuts by Artemio Rodriguez.) This style, with its fantastic beasts and dream-like imagery, is well-suited for the psychological journey we embark on with David B.
Although the work is visually arresting, the narrative arc is spotty. Most of the story is devoted to David B.'s childhood in France, which is largely devoted to the family's unsuccessful (and often very kooky) attempts to find a cure for his brother. However, the main character is the artist, and while we learn enough to know that things don't work out for the epileptic, the author leapfrogs from childhood to adulthood, glossing over many milestones and important transitions. As the book tilts toward a conclusion, David B. pulls the reader out of the dreamlike world he's invented in favor of descriptions of actual dreams, which isn't the least bit satisfying. FThus, I've rated the book a "3" even though most of the book is worthy of a "4" and the visuals deserve at least that much. (less)
So far so godd. My complaint with a lot of books on craft is the lack of academic rigor that goes into organizing the material: lists of books conside...moreSo far so godd. My complaint with a lot of books on craft is the lack of academic rigor that goes into organizing the material: lists of books considered, citations for recommended titles, etc. This has all that and more. (less)
J. Robert Lennon's fourth novel starts out in a familiar territory, but quickly strays from the path, following signs and markers from ghost stories a...moreJ. Robert Lennon's fourth novel starts out in a familiar territory, but quickly strays from the path, following signs and markers from ghost stories and fairy tales. Eric Loesch has returned to rural upstate New York to renovate a house on a large parcel of land he has purchased. Although it's not clear why Loesch has come home, it quickly becomes apparent that something is very wrong. The forest behind his house beckons, but it rebuffs Loesch's efforts to explore it with inexplicable hostility. When he does manage to penetrate the perimeter, Loesch quickly finds himself disoriented in a dark and preternaturally quiet wood, calling to mind stories of New England's haunted forests. He's infatuated with an elusive and seemingly sentient white deer, but the discovery of a malevolent presence in his domain threatens to upset the peace Loesch craves.
Or does he want something else? At home, Loesch goes about his business with admirable efficiency, but his interactions with the people in town range from brusque to outright offensive. Some believe family secrets brought him back; others suspect he's involved in an infamous military scandal; but everyone agrees that he's wound too tight. When his search to learn the identity of the land's previous owner reveals that a mysterious figure owns a strange castle in the heart of his property, Loesch all but becomes unhinged.
Castle is a masterpiece of mood with an atmosphere suffused with dread. Even the discovery of a pile of moldy old books is freighted with the hysterical realism of Gothic horror. Loesch's isolation and decline are reminiscent of Irish Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea — the story of a man whose view of the world and his place in it dominates the narrative but proves to be utterly unreliable.
In the second half of the novel, Lennon weaves the multiple strands of Loesch's bizarre past with the strange hell of his present. In many respects, Castle mines the same territory as Paul Auster's Man in the Dark, but is a vastly superior book. Not every novelist has the courage to embrace a protagonist who has deceived himself in precisely the same way thuggish theocrats deceive their citizens. (less)