2 Stars - Recommended Lightly
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Released: 2013 (paperback release this April)
Guest review by Drew Broussard
The Short Version: Esme Haas hasn't been the best mother. Or wife. Or spy. Her husband runs a cult, which may or may not have ties to North Korea, and she's trying to keep her daughter from finding out who her father actually is - and when a hostage-taking goes awry, it leads everybody to the breaking point.
The Review: I apologize if you've heard this one before, but once upon a time... I saw a production of The Threepenny Opera at my alma mater. Despite being well-acted and featuring an interesting & engaging design, the show seemed impenetrable. It was as though there was a scrim hung between the stage and the audience, effectively creating two separate rooms - the story played out in a self-contained fashion and before long the audience was distracted to the point of feeling as though they were, well, in a separate place from the folks onstage. Not terribly conducive to a good theatrical experience.
And this novel feels the same way: as though there was an indefinite scrim between the action and myself. I never found a way in and as a result, the whole thing felt like it was happening somewhere nearby instead of right here in my hands. And I can't quite figure out why. I think, at the end of the day, it has to do with stakes - I never really felt like there were any.
This is an odd thing to say about a novel whose central set-piece involves the prolonged siege of a cult-leader's house in Cincinnati. Inherently, that's a high-stakes situation. Similarly with the North Korea bits, the recruitment of the spies, etc etc. It's all stuff that should zip off the page but instead I found myself just sort of dumbly clomping forward through the action. We jump from moment to moment without ever getting anywhere remotely close to the characters and Thurlow & Esme especially both feel wholly made-up - so there's no sense of who we're meant to root for or side with or anything like that. I'm all for the wacky - in fact, after this recent span of more serious fiction, I could use some wacky (which this novel does, objectively, deliver - more on that in a moment) - but not at the expense of believing in the characters' existence. Zaphod Beeblebrox has two heads, the Librarian of the Unseen University is a wizard-turned-organutan, and James Bond should rightly be dead from either combat or drinking... but I never, when I'm reading their stories, believe anything other than their existence. They are real characters in the context of the world that is laid out between the endpapers whereas not a single person in this novel (except, strangely, Martin the makeup-man/butler/assistant) felt remotely real. There was no way for me to associate with any of them because they felt like constructs instead of characters.
I will give the book this: conceptually, there's some fun stuff happening. An underground city of vice in Cincinnati? Cool. Too bad it only really appears in the last 75 pages and only glancingly at that - although that seems to be one of the big takeaways from the novel, which should really just serve to point out the problems with the rest of the book. Similarly, Esme's whole super-spy thing is hilarious. Her ridiculous costumes and disguises should play raucously... but because we don't care about her or believe in her, they fall flat. Even the wacky plot she hatches to both spy on and defend Thurlow feels inherently interesting - but it just isn't in the execution.
Rating: 2 out of 5. Perhaps I just wasn't in the appropriate mood or mindset or something - but it feels like (as with that production of Threepenny) there is something interesting going on and I just can't get to it. There's an artificiality to the book that undercuts the imagination that went into dreaming up the story. Even Thurlow's cult, The Helix, is an interesting concept: we're all so lonely, let's join together to be less lonely - but it's almost there as an afterthought. Based on the end of this novel, are we meant to understand it as the story of an odd couple? Because it feints often enough to other things (cult novel, spy novel, slapstick comedy) that I just can't buy it at whatever face value it's trying to achieve. I really hoped for so much more. [ed. note on Threepenny - I actually really like that musical and know that there's something interesting going on when I watch it.]
Drew Broussard reads, a lot. When not doing that, he's writing stories or playing music or acting or producing or coming up with other ways to make trouble. He also has a day job at The Public Theater in New York City.