Review: The Vanishers, by Heidi Julavits

tumblr_m0f2nacjQW1r5ik1zo1_400>>Published: March 2012

>>Finally got around to it: February 2013

I was wearing my silver party boots, though I now considered them simply boots. The last party I’d attended I’d been felled by such a gutting attack of vertigo that I’d been forced to spend the night in the stairwell of the hostess’s apartment building, the flights of steps throbbing above me like a stressed vascular system. The last date I’d been on I’d bled from the mouth when kissed. My last visit to a restaurant I’d spent voiding my intestines in the unisex bathroom. Whereas I’d once been able to infiltrate other people’s lives and heads while I remained unknown to them, now the opposite was true. Everyone was an impenetrable stranger to me, while I proved a livid advertisement for myself. My symptoms were an ugly secret I couldn’t help but share. Save to go to my job or the occasional doctor appointment or yoga class taught by the soothing adherents of a Canadian named John, I’d become a hermit. If I could not prevent the nausea, the insomnia-provoking pricks of light on the insides of my eyelids, the canker sores, the explosive bowel, the numb extremities, the swollen joints, the eczema-covered hands, I could at least limit the unattractive way that people came to know me when I was anything but alone.

***

Julia Severn is a student at New Hampshire’s prestigious Institute of Integrated Parapsychology—colloquially known as the Workshop. The Workshop is a school for psychics, and Julia was, upon entry, considered one of their more talented recruits. Early in her academic career, Julia is assigned the role of stenographer to her mentor—the much-despised Madame Ackerman, who sees in Julia’s talent a threat to her own standing within the school and the larger psychic community. While documenting Madame Ackerman’s regressions, through which she is able to psychically transpose herself into different times and places, Julia’s gifts are revealed to the jealous matriarch.

Fearful of her protégé’s power, Madame Ackerman inflicts upon Julia a vicious, debilitating psychic attack, which leaves the student a washed-up, self-medicating mess living a pointless New York existence working as an exhibition model for a flooring company. In the months following the attack and her dropping out of the Workshop, Julia is propositioned by a mysteriously aggravating young woman named Alwyn and an academic named Colophon to help track down a missing avant-garde artist, Dominique Varga, who may or may not have known Julia’s mother—who killed herself when Julia was only a month old—for a brief period of time. Along the way, Julia encounters vanishing films—a sort of recorded suicide note, videotaped farewells for those wishing to remove themselves from reality—psychic rehab centres, and unexpected academic success at the hands (and mind) of her toxic self.

There are a great many more details and detours along the way, few of which hold any sense of urgency or self-reflection. The Vanishers succeeds entirely on the strength of Julavits’s sly, sardonic tone—which also, ironically enough, plays a significant part in its undoing. Make no mistake: the language is fork-tongued and often amusing (far too few authors make use of the always-delicious “mendacious”), but what begins as an exciting, altered perspective on the paranormal-made-real becomes, during the book’s third of six parts, decidedly mundane and seemingly disinterested in its own characters.

“The past is not the past if it always present. Memory is an act of murder.”

The Vanishers is in many ways about the many faces of memory—how it is at once illuminating, deceptive, destructive, and manipulative. Psychics, in Julavits world, are (forgive me) the mediums for this exploration. Their abilities are sorely underused as a means for merely dissecting the tricks of memory and how it is so frequently distorted by the frustrations of family. It is also about mothers and daughters, specifically—mothers pushing away their daughters, daughters becoming their mothers; mothers killing themselves, daughters killing their memories of.

It was honestly difficult for me to pull more from this title than what I’ve written above because, interestingly enough for a book about emotional and psychic penetration, I found it to be rather emotionally distant—so much so that I felt distracted by its chilly exterior. No single character felt accessible on any level. The book’s writing, while obviously lovingly crafted, trades depth, momentum, and vulnerability for humour and a plot overburdened, in the end, by detail and quick transitions of location and circumstance.

The Vanishers is a portrait of an intriguing idea painted with simple, clean strokes, when what I really wanted, what I felt this novel sorely needed, was a little mess and imprecision—an emotional core revealed, unhidden behind such delicate craftwork.

Review: The Dinner, by Herman Koch

12234107-large>>Published: February 2013

Above all, you saw them laughing. That was the moment when the collective memory came into play. It was the key moment—the laughing boys demanded their place in that collective memory. In the top ten of the collective memory, they came in at number eight, probably right below the Vietnamese colonel summarily executing a Vietcong soldier with a bullet through the head, but perhaps even above the Chinese man with his carrier bags trying to stop the tanks at Tiananmen Square.

And there was something else that played a role. The two boys were wearing knit caps, but they were upper-middle-class boys. They were white. It wasn’t easy to say how you could tell. It was hard to put your finger on it—something about their clothing, their movements. The boys down the street. Not the kind of trash who torch cars in order to start a race riot. Comfortably enough off, well-to-do parents. Boys like the ones we all know. Boys like our nephew. Like our son.

***

This is what happened. These are the facts.

Two brothers and their wives meet for dinner. The first brother is a semi-successful political candidate and minor local celebrity; the second, a history teacher forced into a sort of voluntary early retirement due to a psychological condition implied but never directly described. First, of course, are the gracious hellos and how-are-yous, with a smattering of chatter about the location, what’s good, what isn’t, which new films are masterpieces and which wine should be tasted. Gradually, the conversation changes: the two families, as it turns out, are tied together by blood—the brothers, of course, and the very real blood on the hands of their two teenaged sons.

Serge Lohman, the Dutch politician, his brother Paul, the narrator, and their wives—Babette and Claire, respectively—have come together to solve a problem that if mishandled could tear both families apart. Rick, Serge and Babette’s son, and Michel, Paul and Claire’s son, have done something unforgivable: they’ve taken the life of a homeless woman sleeping in the shelter of an ATM. Sure, they didn’t mean to kill her—maybe they only meant to injure or humiliate her—but she’s dead all the same. Even worse (from the perspective of the two families, anyway), an X-factor in the guise of Beau, Serge and Babette’s adopted son from Burkina Faso, threatens to expose the criminal actions of the two boys.

The Dinner, Herman Koch’s sixth novel, is a study in animalistic behaviour. The novel is divided into the five “acts” of a meal: Apertif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, and Digestif. From the Apertif it’s clear there exists a great deal of animosity between Paul and Serge. Serge, it is implied (and later made clear), is quite full of him self. He embraces the little bit of local fame he’s acquired in his sharp political ascent like a child with their hand in the candy bowl—always wanting another piece. Though his private family life is never expressly shown, not even in flashback, the reader is given the impression that Serge is an island within his own home. Even his wife Babette seems more in his shadow than not in the novel’s first half.

Contrasted with Serge, who is always acting the part he wishes more than anything to play, Paul is unable to hide the man he is—honest, family-oriented, and dangerously quick to boil. His anger, covered more extensively in the novel’s second half, is reflected in his son. On the surface, the psychological issues at the core of Paul’s anger have cost him his career; diving a little bit deeper, it becomes clear that Paul’s issues and their potentially hereditary nature are of greater importance to the story than possibly anything else.

It’s Claire, however, who is at once the most surprising, interesting, and reprehensible character in the story. It’s her willingness, as a wife and mother, to do damn near anything to keep her family together that provides the novel with its most gripping emotional moments.

My experience with The Dinner was uneven, but ultimately fulfilling. It was difficult, at first, to find a sympathetic foothold with any of the characters. We have two sets of parents, a great deal of behind-the-back bickering, and two children who have not only taken a life, but don’t seem too shaken up about it. What gives them cause for remorse is not what they’ve done, but that they’re being blackmailed by Beau; in an age where children are stupid enough to record their criminal acts with their smart phones, remorse seems like an unfortunate luxury for these two young killers.

As the story progresses, however, the narrative becomes less about what Michel and Rick have done and more about Paul: Paul’s unnamed psychological condition that, had it been caught while he was still in the womb would have warranted an abortion; his violent beating of the principal at Michel’s school; when he attacked his brother years ago for stepping over a line regarding toddler Michel’s care while Claire was in the hospital. Paul is very much the centre of this story—his on-a-dime rage is the star around which everything else orbits, including, possibly, his son’s own violent tendencies.

The five-course structure is effective, though I found myself disappointed, to some degree, by the Main Course—which, as one might expect, makes up the bulk of the novel. The Apertif and Appetizer sections offer—forgive me—a rather delicious setup. The Main Course reveals through extensive flashbacks the reason they’ve gathered at the restaurant, detailing not only the crime itself but also the shared and often tumultuous past between Serge and Paul. This approach to the Main Course also reveals the book’s most obvious shortcoming: the lack of interplay in the here and now. There is of course conversation between the two sets of parents over the dinner table, but it is not extensive; most of the narrative’s meat is handled through flashbacks and non-linear asides, which extinguishes a fair amount of the tension from around the table. It’s likely this is a problem of expectations on my part, but given the fantastic setup and the obvious just-below-the-surface animosity between the two brothers, I’d hoped for perhaps more verbal sparring than I got in the end. It’s an interesting reversal of the norm—more is shown than said, and for once I found myself wishing that things had been different.

However, what’s left unsaid in other areas is to the novel’s benefit. I’m speaking of Claire’s illness, of the finer details of Paul’s mental history, and of the final solution for the situation with Beau. Koch holds back these details to better play to the novel’s emotional strengths, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill these gaps with more uncertainty and nervousness than any amount of detail ever could.

As previously mentioned, if Paul is in many ways the heart of the story’s many problems, Claire offers its most unnerving solution. She takes on the role of a mother lion protecting its young. For most of the evening it feels as if Claire is playing a second hand of cards, working just behind the scenes to help construct an airtight alibi for Michel in case their evening out proves ultimately fruitless. When the lengths she is willing to go to are finally revealed… the slow and subtle way the reader’s perception of her transforms over the course of the novel is disturbing to say the least.

They are, in essence, a family of sociopaths. Claire is the strongest, the most willing to compromise her conscience for her family’s well being. While Paul and Michel are possibly driven to their more animalistic behaviour by their genetics, Claire has made a choice. There’s little doubt by the novel’s end that she would kill if necessary to protect her “pack.” As a result, I found myself at times torn on how to feel. It’s easy to be at least somewhat sympathetic at first for two parents desperately trying to keep their family from falling apart. But as their histories and contingency plans come to light, it’s clear how morally compromised both Paul and Claire have truly become.

The Dinner reminded me from the outset of the Roman Polanski film Carnage, based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. In the film, two sets of parents come together to settle a schoolyard dispute between their sons. The conversation quickly devolves into insults and name-calling, and we see how quickly even the most seemingly mature, put-together adults can channel their inner brats. Carnage is a deeply sarcastic, slightly cynical look at the childishness and competitiveness of adults, and how that behaviour is so clearly reflected in their offspring. The Dinner, while similar in its on-the-surface conceit, masks childishness with irresponsibility and amorality, and competitiveness with the overwhelming instinct to protect one’s family unit at all costs. While Carnage dabbles in cynicism, The Dinner swims in it. It’s difficult by the end to want anything but pain and misfortune to befall Paul and his family for the lengths they are willing to go in order to protect the two children from being found out—because it was only one homeless woman, right? No need to throw away another pair of lives when just one has been taken. And Beau? He’s expendable—after all, he’s not blood, not really.

The Dinner is a case study in zero accountability. Perhaps the most damning example of Paul and Claire’s moral grounding (or lack thereof) is that it’s Serge, the politician, who offers the most moral, responsible solution of the night. Yes, it is absolutely self-serving and he is in turn willing to throw his child to the wolves (and most likely put the first and final nails in the coffin of his own career), but it is still the right thing to do. And his solution is fought tooth and nail by those wanting to protect the pack at all costs.

Review: Remember Why You Fear Me: The Best Dark Fiction of Robert Shearman

remember_cover>>Published: October 2012

>>Finally got around to it: February 2013

He went into the spare room. She’d been through the cupboards, there was debris all over the bed. From an empty shoebox she’d found his heart. She was holding it in one palm—he’d forgotten how, in death, it had grown so small and wizened.

“Put that back,” he said. “That isn’t yours anymore.”

“Look,” she said softly. “Look.” And she began to stroke it. She blew on it gently.

“It’s not yours,” he said, uselessly.

And as he watched, the rock cracked. Pink tissue broke through the stone and bone. “Look,” she said again. It was struggling, and then it managed a beat, and once it had managed one, it seemed all too happy to beat again. “Look,” she said, and kissed it. The last of the rock crumbled away at her touch. “I love you,” she said. “Look. I love you. Look how much.” And she offered his heart out to him, as good to new.

Dazedly he reached for it. She smiled, nodded. He took hold of it. Looked at it, as it swelled with new life. And then he dug his fingernails in, dug them in deep, dug ’til it bled. “No,” she said. And began squeezing hard, so that one of the ventricles bulged then burst. “No, stop!” And ripped it apart, tearing at it, pulling off gobbets of it, showering them on to the spare room carpet.

“I told you,” he said. “It isn’t yours. You gave it back.”

***

Remember Why You Fear Me: The Best Dark Fiction of Robert Shearman collects twenty of the World Fantasy Award-winning author’s most accomplished short stories, fourteen of which have seen previous publication between 2006 and 2012.

Shearman has had to date a rather illustrious writing career; he’s won several playwriting awards, has been associated with England’s Royal National Theatre, and worked on the BBC series The Chain Gang and Doctor Who. His short fiction is no less respected, having taken home the British Fantasy Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and as previously mentioned, the World Fantasy Award. The stories collected in this publication, many of which have been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award, run the range between magical realism, surrealism, flat-out horror, and the not-so-plain, not-so-ordinary, dark and dreary crevasses of the imagination.

Death, children, family, abandonment, and legacy are the core unifying elements among the stories collected in Remember Why You Fear Me. In “Mortal Coil,” when everyone in the world learns the hows, whys, and whens of their inevitable deaths, a young man without a funeral of his own to look forward to becomes a reluctant executioner; the mother of “So Proud” is giving birth to furniture and appliances she neither wants nor has use for; the divorced father at the centre of “Cold Snap” grows apart from his son when his ex-wife and the new man in her life divide his attention, and a contract with Santa Claus written long ago has tragic, antler-ific consequences; “One More Bloody Miracle After Another” focuses on a two-year-old girl’s immaculate conception and her mother’s furious, controlling nature; and “The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World” depicts the harsh reality that approaches all too suddenly when one abandons faith for fact, when children decide to extricate themselves from their parents’ influence in order to craft legacies of their own.

Shearman’s voice has tremendous range, inhabiting each tale in unique, often unexpected ways. Most notable in this regard is the second story in the collection, “George Clooney’s Moustache,” which is told from the perspective of a young girl, her age never specified, who falls in love with the man who has abducted her. As Stockholm syndrome takes effect, the captive becomes the captor, spurned by the man’s apparent lack of affection. The story itself is childish in tone, and because her age is deliberately obscured, it’s not clear how much time passes over the course of the story. The block paragraphs and run-on sentences are indicative of a mind that has never fully matured. The loss of innocence is palpable and unsettling.

Not every story in the collection is especially horrifying. Point of fact, some are downright comical… until they’re not. For example, “Damned if You Don’t,” which imagines a Hell so overpopulated that the dead are sent back to the world above as shades of their former selves and Hitler’s dog, Woofie, befriends his Hell-sent roommate, Martin. And why was Woofie sent to Hell? For being Hitler’s dog and nothing else… certainly not the tacit approval of death and genocide he offers Martin near the story’s end. Because as Woofie said to Hitler one fateful day, “If you’re going to Hell for one Jew, then why not for a hundred? For a hundred thousand. For six million. If you’re going to be damned anyway, at least be damned for something impressive.” Ridiculous. Absurd. And chilling.

The strongest titles in the collection are “Good Grief,” “Pang” (the strongest of the lot, in my ever so humble opinion, and the one quoted at the top of this review), “Favourite,” “Featherweight,” and “Clown Envy.” The latter is also the most terrifying in the collection… because fuck clowns, that’s why.

Most impressive is how with such limited space for each story Shearman managed, on several occasions, to really get under my skin. It was never with the more horrifying case studies (but seriously, fuck you, clowns), rather I was undone by the most obvious knife wounds of humanity—small cuts that unexpectedly grazed the surface of some of the more poignant tales: by Alex’s attempts to blame the death of his drunk-driving wife on the woman she accidentally killed in a head-on collision in “Good Grief;” or the quiet, sad serenity of one man witnessing the premature death of the family he never got to develop in “Featherweight.”

“Blue Crayon, Yellow Crayon” is the most esoteric in the collection, yet still strangely uplifting. However, as much cannot be said for “Elementary Problems of Photography (Number Three): An Analysis, and Proferred Solution” and “Jason Zerrillo is an Annoying Prick,” the only weak entries in the entire collection.

There are still several stories in this collection I’ve not touched upon, and each and every one of them is worth your time. This is the first of Shearman’s writing I’ve been exposed to, and it will not be the last. Remember Why You Fear Me: The Best Dark Fiction of Robert Shearman is a strong collection of genre fiction—one of the strongest I’ve come across in some time.

Review: The Demonologist, by Andrew Pyper

The-Demonologist-cover-230x347>>Published: March 2013

“There are things in this world most of us never see,” I find myself saying. “We’ve trained ourselves not to see them, or try to pretend we didn’t if we do. But there’s a reason why, no matter how sophisticated or primitive, every religion has demons. Some faiths may have angels, some may not. A God, gods, Jesus, prophets—the figure of ultimate authority is variable. There’s many different kinds of creators. But the destroyer always takes the same essential form. Man’s progress has, from the beginning, been thwarted by testers, liars, defilers. Authors of plague, madness, despair. The demonic is the one true universal across all human religious experience.”

“That may be true, as far as anthropological observation goes.”

“It’s true because it’s so pervasive. Why this one shared aspect of belief for so many, for so long? Why is demonology more common than reincarnation, more than sacrificial offerings, more than the way we pray or the houses of worship where we congregate or the form the apocalypse will take at the end of time? Because demons exist. Not as an idea but here, on the ground, in the everyday world.”

***

David Ullman is a Milton scholar teaching at Columbia University—a man whose career and life have been devoted, in large part, to the study of Paradise Lost. In spite of his academic interests, David is an atheist, a self-proclaimed “demon expert who believes evil to be a manmade invention.” His family is coming apart at the seams; both he and his daughter Tess wear a black crown of melancholy that unites the two of them, while simultaneously driving a wedge between Dianne, David’s wife, who has been cheating on him with another member of the Columbia University faculty.

To maintain his equilibrium, David confides regularly in his closest friend and fellow professor, Elaine. The two have a sort of intellectual affair—something they both need, but will not consummate. When Elaine reveals that she’s dying of cancer and Dianne decides to move out of the home she and David share, David accepts a mysterious proposal from a frighteningly gaunt woman who shows up one day at his office to fly to Venice and employ his knowledge as a “demonologist.” He takes Tess with him—it’s a chance for both of them to take a break from their familial concerns. It’s not long after their arrival in Venice when, during David’s consultation, a malevolent spirit takes Tess hostage. Possessed, apparently, by a demon, Tess throws herself into Venice’s Grand Canal. No body is found after several days of searching. Upon arriving home again in New York, David embarks on a North American journey following various signs and demonic occurrences in the hopes of tracking down the demonic spirit that has taken his daughter from him.

Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist borrows heavily from The Da Vinci Code’s DNA: a lone scholar, with assistance and moral support from a plucky female companion, uses a career’s worth of dedicated knowledge to unravel a potentially world-changing mystery. Unfortunately, it shares many of The Da Vinci Code’s problems, too.

The comparison is predictable, but The Demonologist is a stereotypical summer popcorn flick: there’s an immediate fun factor to the novel, but the more I pause to think back upon its story and characters, the less depth I find. The subject matter is engaging enough—ultimate evil is on the rise and one man is fighting through it for the sake of his daughter’s life. However, even with such seemingly high stakes, there is little perceivable threat or gravitas in the pages of Pyper’s novel.

The problems begin with the characters. Though thankfully more tonally mature than Brown’s Robert Langdon, David Ullman is, for the most part, rather stilted and emotionally unconvincing. He describes what he’s facing and going through—his fears, frustrations, and bouts of depression—but never are we really shown the effect all this has on him, never does he seem like a person coming unhinged by the impossible events happening to and around him. Even his attempted suicide in the wake of his daughter’s disappearance feels like a decision made for plot and not because it’s something the character would do—it’s a perfunctory action, not earned, and lacking repercussions to his mental state. The other characters don’t fare any better; Dianne’s one solitary burst of emotion following Tess’ apparent death rings hollow and feels very matter of fact—a detail supported by how effortlessly she’s dropped from the narrative.

More egregious than the character problems, however, are the narrative conveniences within The Demonologist. Without giving too much away, the manners in which certain clues are handled (or mishandled, as the case may be) is often simple to the point of robbing the novel of its tension or excitement. The appearance of the numbers at just the right time on the television, or how David works out the clues about the sunshine state, and the how-did-he-find-them-so-fast appearances of George Barone, a man pursuing David on behalf of an organization that may or may not be the Catholic Church, are all so easily and deliberately tossed into the narrative that I felt cheated as a reader. We’re not on this ride with them, figuring out the clues alongside the protagonist; instead, we as readers are two steps removed, watching a television show about a roller coaster ride we wish we could experience for ourselves. A mid-novel murder-suicide plotline is by far the most effective and unsettling set piece in the entire story, and the only time when the atmosphere of evil was effective at drawing me in.

While I had some fun with this novel in the moment, I’m left with more questions than answers. David’s expertise feels largely inessential to the plot, as his analysis of Milton never dives as deep as I would have liked; it feels less critical to the story and more useful as the décor around which the plot is structured. George Barone’s rationale, and the rationale of his employers (which is more or less “if it ain’t broke, why reveal it”), doesn’t offer a credible sense of threat. (And if it’s so critical to stop David from doing what this evil wants him to do, why would a Church with, well, more money than God send just one man to “take care of business?” Seems to me, when fending off the ultimate evil of the world, you might want to pull out all the stops…) And for that matter, the ticking clock hovering over David’s search for Tess lacks the same sense of threat. It never feels as if it has taken an emotional toll on David. It simply is what it is.

The Demonologist is undone by unfortunately diminishing returns. It never goes as in-depth into the literature or mythology as I’d hoped, preferring instead to skim the surface of Paradise Lost while focusing more on a rather directionless-feeling road trip with the occasional shock-for-shock’s-sake encounter tossed in along the way. David, in the end, seems very much the same as he did in the beginning, and the speed at which the final set of revelations are made is quick to the point of feeling rushed. Ultimately, David’s journey to find some sort of personal faith failed to convince me. Perhaps the upcoming feature film will find a better balance between character and plot, but I remain sceptical.