Review: A Murder of Crows, by David Rotenberg

cvr9781439170144_9781439170144_hr>>Published: March 2013

A smile crept over his face. Yeah, time to get back at every one of them who put him in shadow, who rejected his brilliance. Who refused him admission to their damned club. Well, I’ll grant you all admission—admission to hell.

And as he watched the third act he thought of how simple it was to make an explosive device—kid’s stuff really. But where to put it? That was the question: where to put it?

Then he saw the mob gathering onstage to hear Anthony’s speech over Caesar’s dead body—and he knew. A mob gathered to listen. Oh, yes. Universities have such gatherings once a year. We surely do.

He ran the three necessities for a crime in his head:

Motive: in spades.

Means: you bet.

Opportunity: he’d have to work on that. Bombs need to be planted. And what would a professor be doing digging in the ground or lifting platforms. No, he’d need an assist with that.

Then he remembers the janitor who’d given “unwarranted attention” to bouncy Marcia and smiled… and to his surprise he felt comfortable in his theatre seat. He had lots of room; it fit just fine.

***

Decker Roberts, acting instructor, truth-sensing synaesthete, and valued NSA asset is back in A Murder of Crows, the second of David Rotenberg’s Junction Chronicles trilogy. Fourteen months have passed since the incident with Yolles Pharmaceuticals in The Placebo Effect. Decker continues to seek information about his estranged son, Seth, who is suffering from a rather aggressive cancer of the bladder. This time Decker is called upon by the NSA to help solve the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11—the bombing of an Ancaster College graduating class (and by association, the decimation of America’s scientific elite).

A Murder of Crows wastes no time tossing readers back into the mix, immediately re-introducing Decker, his sometimes duplicitous best friend Crazy Eddie, and NSA hard-ass Yslan Hicks as the book’s protagonists. The story begins with Decker on a job in Las Vegas. Crazy Eddie is still trying to win back his daughter, Marina, and to do so he’s got to make a play against a particular bastard of a lawyer named Ira Charendoff. Charendoff and Decker have a history, so in order to clear the playing field and keep the NSA off Decker’s back at the same time, Crazy Eddie sends Decker off to South Africa. Following the attack at Ancaster, the NSA tracks down Decker in South Africa and “encourages” him to return to the United States, using his son’s whereabouts as a fantastically manipulative bargaining chip. The novel also introduces a number of new characters via quick, sometimes half-page chapters—characters such as: Ancaster student and scientist Grover Cleveland Rabinowitz, who is preternaturally obsessed with the mysterious lumps of microwaved faecal matter that appear on campus from time to time; Walter Jones, Esq., an Ancaster janitor whose rather simple behaviour becomes creepy and stalkerish with little pushing; and Viola Tripping, a psychic medium who is presented, troublingly so, as simultaneously a woman and a little girl in both appearance and mannerisms.

Like the first book in the series, A Murder of Crows plays fast and loose with the concept of synaesthesia. In some cases, it flat-out makes up its own definitions. The synaesthesia presented in this book is less the phenomenon we know it as (a crossing of the senses wherein some people can smell words or see colours and shapes with music or taste certain letters and syllables, etc.) and something far more… supernatural. In fact, it’s entirely supernatural—the character of Viola Tripping is in fact a medium for speaking to the dead, which has absolutely nothing to do with synaesthesia, or for that matter, reality. When Harrison says at one point, “We really don’t know sweet fuck all, do we?” he’s right—the rules of what is and what isn’t synaesthesia in Rotenberg’s world are still not clear.

As problematic as The Placebo Effect was, A Murder of Crows has an even greater number of issues. Most of them are continuations of problems that existed in the previous title: the film- and pop culture-based asides are just as prevalent and still add little if anything to the characters, only now they are matched by political asides (commentating on the position of “the whites” in South Africa, Julian Assange’s guilt or innocence, and the timely idiocy of Sarah Palin’s “death panels”) that feel less tied to the characters and more as if they are a product of the author breaking the fourth wall to tell us how he feels about the world. Many of the side plots introduced in the first book are finally resolved here, such as why Garreth Senior has such a hate-on for Decker, and why Seth wants nothing to do with his father—though in the case of the latter, it’s an answer that comes too little too late, as what could have been used in the first book to better frame their troubled relationship lands with more of a “it’s about bloody time” than an “oh, I get it now.”

Building further on the problems from the first book is the strange and out of place racial insensitivity on display when describing the almost magical connection most Africans seem to have to the planet, or the very free-flowing anti-Muslim language used in sections describing suspects in the attack. None of it meshes with the otherwise popcorn vibe of the book. Rather it feels at odds with what’s been provided, as if deliberately used to exoticize the “other” (further exemplified through Decker’s relationship with Inshakha, who appears to know a great deal more about the world than she lets on).

There is also insensitivity displayed towards women and size and sexual attraction. For example, the one character openly referred to as a bitch is also repeatedly referenced for her ample size, as if that is condemnation of her personality. To go even further, the novel makes special note to point out that the twisted, borderline insane killer has a thing for bigger women, as if that were another point of perversion on a character who has already been revealed as a murderous stalker with a scatological obsession.

And what is it with this book’s preoccupation with piss and shit? Every time it managed to pull me out of the narrative—especially when it is used in moments to exclusively de-age or dehumanize characters, such as when Viola is introduced via the immortal words, “I’ve made a poopoo.” It rang entirely false.

From the unrealistic and all-too-simple decision (made with Dr. Claw-like aplomb) to murder dozens of innocent professors and young adults made by two childish villains who feel short-shafted by life, to side narratives that are never given enough room to breathe or feel essential to the story or characters, and an overwhelmingly childish tone that can be at time politically patronizing and frustratingly obtuse as it vacillates between fear of the other and “fuck the rich and entitled, they all deserve to die,” the second book in Rotenberg’s trilogy is more coherent from point A to point B than the first, but shares all the same problems and then some.

Perhaps, though, the single greatest problem so far is that after two books in this series, I still don’t feel I know who Decker is—what he feels, what he thinks, or for that matter what any of the characters are feeling or thinking. The closest we as readers come to gaining a greater understanding of Decker is through his all-too brief relationship with Tinnery in South Africa. She is able to cut beneath the surface of Decker, if only for a moment. That brief encounter aside, Rotenberg’s characters are still frustratingly thin—a problem that stems in large part from the breakneck pace of each very short chapter. The basic structure of A Murder of Crows is restrictive—offering brevity of time, place, and thought that does not allow for any one personality to grow or shine in an organic way.

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