Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Review: Hidden Camera
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended
Publisher: Dalkey Archive
Every once and awhile, I stumble across a blog post or lit magazine article listing "the best books you're not reading". I discovered Hidden Camera by just such a list, though you'll have to forgive me for not remembering who wrote it and where I read it.
How this book flew so far under my radar for so long (it was originally published back in 2003, and rereleased in 2005) is beyond me, since it's right up my alley in terms of writing style.
This cerebral novel takes place over the course of just one evening - beginning when our rather bland, home-bodied narrator returns home from his job as an undertaker and carrying him through the night from one strange destination to another. This creepy scavenger hunt of sorts starts when our narrator finds an unmarked, unaddressed envelope stuffed into his door, requesting his presence at the Film Archive for an unnamed showing that takes place within the hour. Curious, after spending much of that hour mentally deconstructing the intent of the mysterious envelope and it's even more mysterious origins - our narrator heads out on foot to see what it's all about.
Upon his arrival, he discovers only one other person in the theatre, a woman whose face is obscured by a rather large brimmed hat. And the show they came to watch? Why, it's a movie of him sitting on a park bench during his lunch hour, reading a book, completely unaware that his is the subject of a hidden camera.
Once the film ends and the house lights come back on, in a state of confusion and mortification, he realizes that the woman is no longer seated beside him. In fact, she is no longer in the theatre. Baffling as that is, he is even more baffled upon noticing another unmarked envelope that sits on his lap inviting him to a second hand bookshop across town in less than an hour, and he suddenly becomes convinced that the hidden cameras are still rolling.
And so our narrator begins the seemingly endless and increasingly curious journey from bookshop, to zoo, to underground elevator, to a church and it's odd tombstones, all at the silent request of two strangers..... and all because he refuses to lose face and walk away from the opportunity to redeem himself in the eye of the camera, and in the hopes of encountering the woman in the large brimmed hat again.
This book is one incredibly amazing mind-fuck. Taking place almost completely within the mind of our undertaker, we experience everything in much the same way he does. There is very little conversation at all; in fact, our narrator takes extreme measures NOT to talk to anyone as he heads from one place to the next.
Is he going nuts, you wonder? Can this shit really be happening? Has he died, perhaps, and this is some freaky ass purgatory - which would be hilarious since he informs us that he doesn't see a link between death (something he is intensely close with) and birth (something he has no experience with, disregarding his own, which he cannot recall)? Or a dream? Yes, it must be a dream, right?!
The writing is wonderful; reminiscent of my favorite author, Jose Saramago, similar to him in the way he weaves an entire story out of one small, trivial thing.... In this case, an envelope tucked into a doorjam. Had the undertaker chosen to throw it away, like so much unwanted advertisements and junk mail, the story would have ended before it even began. It's the ease at which Zoran Zivkovic tells us the story, the pace at which it unravels itself, the subtle tension that eats away at your insides.. he hooks you before you even realize you took the bait.
Reader, beware.... look no further lest ye wish to be spoiled.....
You have been warned!
I have my theories. Knowing that our narrator is an undertaker and that he has strong beliefs - due to his line of work - that there is nothing after death, I found myself beginning to view the two strangers as ghosts before I was even aware of it. They seemed to know his every move, they seemed to anticipate what he would do next, and where he would end up. They are capable of moving silently, quickly, of setting up and breaking down "sets" without being seen or heard. They create impossible scenarios for our narrator, and yet they are possible because he is experiencing them. It just seemed otherworldly to me. In this light, it felt quite like a Christmas Carol, simply substitute Mr. Scrooge and his crappy attitude towards the human race and replace him with our narrator and his failure to see that there is activity after death. I saw these two strangers as the ghosts that show our narrator the error of his ways... instead of whisking him away from location to location, they tease him with envelopes and get him to go of his own accord, bait him with his own curiosity and polite manners.
Then I began viewing our narrator as the ghost. Perhaps he had died at work, and his spirit returned home to find the envelope - in a Sixth Sense kind of "I don't know I'm dead and I continue to believe I am still living" sort of way. The envelope then being a way to tether his spirit and force him to perform tasks, and come to terms with his own death, in order to cross over to the land of the dead. The woman in the large brimmed hat then being his spirit guide, a living person who was helping him cross over. And still, this sticks to my theory of him being shown that there is activity after death, since he is the ghost, the one with post-death experiences....
The ending was quite ambiguous and though that usually bothers me, for this book I was ok with it. Because while it doesn't tell you exactly what the heck was going on all night, it certainly makes me feel like what I thought was happening, one or the other of my theories, is still a possibility.
Have you read this? I would love to find out what you think of it, and what you took from it.