John Luiz's Reviews > Exley

Exley by Brock Clarke
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's review
Jan 09, 2012

it was amazing
Read from December 18 to 26, 2010

I understand why this book garnered some negative reviews. If you're looking for a straightforward tale, told by a reliable narrator, you won't find it here. But if you want a departure from conventional storytelling (without any of the quirks of overly "post-modern" techniques), then you might find this book worth the ride. The novel is about a boy who can't accept his reality -- that his parents have separated and he's lost touch with his father. He is now convinced that his father went off to Iraq, but got injured and is lying comatose in a VA hospital in Watertown, New York -- the setting of the novel A Fan's Notes. The father was a big fan of Exley's book and modeled his life after Exley and the boy is convinced that if he brings Exley to his father, he'll be able to save his father's life. But the boy's mother doesn't believe him, and she brings the boy to a psychiatrist to help him stop fantasizing and creating what she believes are elaborate ruses to convince her he's telling the truth. The psychiatrist is no ordinary psychiatrist. We learn that he's a social misfit, and we discover right off that something's not quite right with him because he has a crash on the boy's mother and initially his only interest in treating the boy (whose name is Miller, but 2ho is mostly referred to as just M. in imitation of Exley's style) seems to stem from his desire to interact with her. Things get more and more complicated from there.

The chapters switch back and forth between M's point of view and case study notes taken by the psychiatrist. As each chapter unravels, the story functions like a series of Russian nesting dolls, where you assume each time you've gotten to the bottom of things, but you can never be sure. One minute you think Miller's telling the truth, another you think his mother is right and that his story is all just a fantasy. Facts that you thought were true are pulled out from under you, as you discover you too have been the victim of the boy's need to fantasize. The psychiatrist provides good comic fodder because he starts to unravel. In an attempt to get to the truth, he starts to follow the boy and even breaks into his house to read the journal he's told write. In doing that, he even steals some letters written, we think, by the father from Iraq to his son, which the mother's been hiding because she believes Miller fabricated them. You're constantly kept guessing as the story gets more complicated and the stakes get higher. Later on, the psychiatrist takes on the persona of Exley, and it's not clear whether it's from lunacy or a brilliant to attempt to help Miller cope with what the psychiatrist realizes would be an unacceptable reality. Exley's biographer, Jonathan Yardley, is even brought into the story as Miller tries to sort everything out. The closing is heart-wrenching and pays off in a big way the effort you made to keep poring through what at times is a perplexing story. You'll be left feeling heartbroken for those of us who have to cope with untenable realities and sympathetic to the extent we can all go to create fantasies that make those harsh realities livable.

There's some serious "meta" stuff, and deep thinkers (of which I'm not) will have a lot of fun with how the story's bigger themes play into the whole notion of fiction. There's a lot of playing with words. The psychiatrist insists on being called a "mental health professional" because he doesn't like all the pejorative nicknames for psychiatrists -- in the belief that the words we choose can somehow shape the reality we live in. There's a whole examination of whether the stories we create for ourselves can become reality -- and Exley is the perfect vessel for that exploration. He wrote a "fictional memoir" (what is that? after all) and created a persona -- the fun-loving drunk who had disdain for all in the world he disaproved of -- as if that story and persona could become his reality. So in other words, if you're patient with the unconventional storytelling approach here, the book offers plenty of rewards.
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Glenn Russell Hey John,

That is one excellent review of Exley you have written here. I just did write a review myself you might want to check out. Anyhow, too mad more people didn't read your review and comment - really a terrific analysis - thanks.

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