Cityboy by Geraint Anderson

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Geraint Anderson worked in London’s financial district, the City for several years, and when he had had enough of that, he first wrote a series of anonymous articles for a magazine and then wrote this book to air the dirty laundry of the City.

This doesn’t sound half bad, however, Geraint Anderson isn’t exactly a master of truth-exposing, eye-opening writing, and he isn’t a present-day Dostoyevsky, either, someone capable of accessing all the hidden corners of the human heart and revealing just what kind of moral-killing and soul-crushing practices go on in the world. Anderson is a rather neutral, nothing-special writer – his writing lacks life and sparkle, he’s extremely repetitive, and his humor is forced and bland most of the time.

The subtitle – Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile – refers to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and indeed, Cityboy’s main character (Anderson himself) does drugs almost as enthusiastically and is paranoid almost to the same extent as Raoul Duke (or Hunter S. Thompson), but the similarities end here because – as opposed to Thompson – Anderson doesn’t possess a remarkable sense of humor or a truly feverish and insane imagination, moreover, he’s not as talented a writer as to be able to give sufficient shape to the creations of his ordinary imagination or his paranoid visions.

So as regards the debauchery, drug-doing, orgies and general assholery of the protagonist’s life as Cityboy – this story-line is painfully dull. Anderson, for example, relates how absolutely awful and embarrassing it was when he – totally shitfaced and wasted – ran into his future boss who was accompanying his daughter to the Glastonbury Festival, and yes: I can imagine that meeting your boss when you’re shitfaced can be quite awful and embarrassing, but it’s sure as hell that Anderson isn’t able to make me feel how and why this was awful for him. That’s it for the hard-partying stock-broker story-line then.

The other main story-line is the truth-exposing and soul-searching one. It’s about the dark deeds of banks, stock exchanges, and all kinds of other institutions in the money business; and about how the once normal people who work in this business all become amoral, inhuman, extremely competitive zombies, working 70 hours a week, equally obsessed with making and wasting money. Oh well – yes, I believe it can be like this, this life, but it’s nothing I didn’t already know, and more importantly: the way Anderson narrates this, it doesn’t make me experience neither the 70-hour workweeks, nor anything else.

Anderson, by the way, quit the money business a while ago, and in the afterword he says that, after all, it’s not money that matters, but love, family and friends. Yeah, sure. And this isn’t a sarcastic “yeah, sure”. This isn’t a sign of my agreement, either. This is a sign of my complete lack of interest.

Anyway, Anderson is not without brains, and he possesses a minimal amount of self-irony, too. And the things he says about the workings of the banking world are most probably true, and those things could normally throw me straight into a fit of rage and despair. However, this book doesn’t induce rage or despair in me, and I cannot work myself up into a fit because Anderson – regardless of his topic – can’t kindle any sort of emotion in me, save indifference. But at least I learned that when a boring writer talks about exciting or unsettling topics, the result is still boring.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

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Herman Koch’s novel deals with interesting topics, and it’s not a bad novel, I just can’t decide what Koch wanted with all this. (What could the poet have wanted to say? And if he wanted to say that, why didn’t he just go ahead and say it?)

Theoretically – I think – this is a novel about moral dilemmas with some cynical criticism about modern life as a side dish. After a while, though, it seems more like a rather terrifying and morbid story of insanity (something in the same vein as Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy or Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy) than a story about moral choices. I’ll get to why this bothers me, but first a bit about the story.

The framework of the novel is a dinner, during which two brothers and their wives – after a whole lot of sidetracks and deliberate avoidance of the topic – finally get to talk about the thing that’s on their mind. The question is this: what, if anything, should they do about the unfortunate situation that on a drunken night out, their kids (two boys of 15) killed a homeless woman who was sheltering in front of a cash machine and thus prevented the kids from being able to withdraw money?

During the conversation, the parents touch upon several serious and highly ambiguous topics. They discuss how much a homeless person’s life is worth compared to the life of an upper middle class boy; who might be accountable for the actions of a couple of underage boys; and whether parents are supposed to be punished for the actions of their children.

All this moralizing is a little bit too direct and not intriguing enough for me – what’s more interesting is the investigation of the motivations of the individual parents, and the question why some of the parents want to keep this event a secret, and why some of them want to come out in the open. And then there’s a kind of solution, which is, again, not too compelling.

And it’s not too compelling because as the story moves on, more and more emphasis is laid on the fact that the narrator, Paul (one of the fathers) suffers from some kind of mental illness, and the moral questions suddenly seem of secondary importance compared to his illness. I have mixed feelings about this. I partly feel that it’s a rather cheap solution to toss up all the big and serious ethical questions and then basically say: “But Paul is sick in the mind, so the questions aren’t even valid.” Partly, though, the depiction of Paul’s mental state is unsettling and terrifying, and being in his mind and seeing the world through his eyes is a truly uncomfortable literary experience (and this I mean positively).

Still – it might have been better (for me definitely) to choose between the ethical tale and the story of an insanity and write only one of them. It would have made for a stronger novel.

Different Seasons by Stephen King

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King claims in his afterword to this book of four novellas that he’s not very good at writing delicate and elegant prose – and I agree with his self-assessment. What he’s good at, though, is writing stories, and whenever I read or re-read one of his books, I tend to enjoy his writing a lot.

The first novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is mainly good because it’s the basis for the film. After re-reading the novella, I quickly watched the film again, too, and I concluded that I liked the film better than King’s text. It seems to me that the film allows sufficient time for things to develop while the novella feels more rushed, and the film is more balanced than King’s prose. The film wouldn’t exist without King’s novella, though, so I don’t complain much.

The second novella, Apt Pupil is the least successful one in the book. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to compare the novellas to each other, as King says in the afterword that the book is made up of stories that have nothing to do with each other and there’s no underlying organizing principle here, so it’s possible to talk about each story on its own. However, seeing that they are actually in the same book, and given the fact that I tend to read stories in a book in the order in which they are presented, it’s hard for me to ignore what comes before and after a particular story. So: both in comparison with the other novellas, and viewed on its own, Apt Pupil isn’t very good.

It’s an extremely long, convoluted, meandering story that deals with a lot of issues but manages to avoid dealing with the essence. The story is about a war criminal, an old Nazi hiding in the United States, and about a high school boy who develops a morbid fascination with the horrors of Nazi death camps. And yes, it’s horrifying: what a sick imagination can do, and it’s painful to see what emptiness and perversion lies behind the everyday, perfectly average, perfectly American nice-boy façade of the main character. However, in this topic I’d rather recommend American Psycho – because that’s much better than this story.

The third novella, The Body is my favorite from this book. It’s an excellent story about young kids on the brink of adulthood, about going on boyish adventures, about growing up, about the loss of innocence. And I mean the innocence of the mind here: that transient state, that last moment, week, summer when we’re all still just kids – fooling around, pretending to be heroes, adventurers, explorers; when it doesn’t matter yet whether our friends are jerks or not; when girls haven’t yet come into the picture; when no-one cares yet what the future will bring.

And the way King depicts this fragile and fleeting period is beautiful, lyrical and perhaps even delicate and elegant at places. In any case, he manages to move me to tears a couple of times (and not with the awfulness of his prose, like in Apt Pupil).

The last novella, The Breathing Method is a paranormal story, not exactly horror, more like an exercise in the uncanny. It’s nicely wrapped up in another, equally mysterious framing story, and while it’s not the most innovative mystery story ever, it’s strangely captivating and magical. I think King can be great when he doesn’t try to be too intellectual and artistic, and he doesn’t do that here – he only tells a story. And he’s really good at telling stories.

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

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I read an exquisite short story by Ben Marcus once (“The Dark Arts”), and ever since then I’ve been curious to find out whether he can be as great in more pages as he was in the couple of pages of that story – whether he could consistently write such precise, associative, well-crafted (but not over-crafted), just-right sentences. (Which is by no means easy.)

And to my great delight: He can.

It was already obvious while I was reading “The Dark Arts” how well Marcus can shape language into any shape he wants, and how well he can create layers of meanings and associations, and the same is true here. And in fact, it’s even more interesting here as one of the main themes of this novel is language itself, and how language is completely useless.

The Flame Alphabet is the story of a double apocalypse of language and meaning – a personal one, and one affecting humanity as a whole. The story is about a mysterious epidemic where the language of children becomes toxic for adults, and everyone who’s exposed to this language slowly starts to wither away. Later on the situation gets even worse: even the language of adults becomes poisonous for other adults. As a result, adults slowly give up on language, or only resort to using it when they absolutely must, after administering special protective serums, while children, who are immune to the poison, are quarantined so that they cannot harm others with their language.

Why does language suddenly become toxic? The narrator quotes different theories and sources, according to which language has always been a poison – an imperfect, harmful tool, hardly adequate for communication, something which slowly kills both the person who uses it and the one it’s used on, something children can still use freely only because they haven’t yet been exposed to a sufficiently (mortally) high dose of it.

Throughout the story, the narrator (a determined, self-doubting father, who’d do just about anything to be reunited with his quarantined daughter with the venomous tongue, whose words are slowly killing him and his wife) mentions lots of everyday examples to illustrate the deadly nature of language.

He recalls, for example, how he hadn’t been able to understand his daughter or his wife, not even when language was still supposedly functional. He recalls the times he used language in a way to hurt someone with it. And he also recalls how mind-numbingly boring, disturbing, almost physically painful other people’s words can be.

Language can be like this: forever evading meaning, irritating, hurtful – and Marcus makes these real-life language problems, others’ deadly boring speech into really deadly.

But no matter how imperfect language is, its absence has serious consequences. As I said: it leads to both personal and large-scale deterioration. As regards the latter: the epidemic gets to a point where no-one can speak safely with anyone any longer, and where even words and meaning transmitted through radio waves, books, traffic signs or even more simple means lead to immediate illness. By this stage, society starts to disintegrate, and those still alive either become recluses, refraining from using language, or start to desperately look for their lost, quarantined children even though they know that their reunion will be fatal.

And as for the personal disintegration: the narrator doesn’t want to be a lonely hole-dweller, but he doesn’t want to die, either, just so that he can speak once more with his wife and daughter. Instead, he tries to find a cure: a language, or at least a sign that would enable the three of them to communicate without making them ill. The novel is partly about his quest for this deeply personal language only designed to be understood by three people in the world. But while the narrator is looking for this new language, he’s constantly aware of the crumbling and disintegration of the old language – and most importantly, he’s painfully aware how much of his humanness and his personality was built and depended on language and on the constant interpretation of signs.

So the ultimate question is: can you survive this loss with your sanity intact?

Just Kids by Patti Smith

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Just Kids is about the friendship/relationship of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; and about the way the two of them became artists; and about how it felt being a young artist in New York at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s.

Let’s start with the question of how someone becomes an artist. I know very little about this process (though I have some hunches), but the way Patti Smith describes her first relevant memories already makes it clear that she had the desire to create something from very early on in her life. Her first memory is this: she describes how once as a very little girl she was walking with her mother and suddenly saw a swan. She had never seen a swan before but she immediately got excited, and her mother – sensing the little girl’s wonder and excitement – told her: this is a swan. But Patti felt this word is not good enough, not precise enough, and she felt a great desire to say something about the swan, to find the best way to express what she sees and what she feels about it.

It took several years for her to find her very own ways of expression, yet it feels to me that  from her earliest years she carried the possibility in herself to become an artist. But becoming an artist wasn’t fast and painless, and she herself often doubted whether she possessed the necessary talent and persistence.

Patti Smith arrived in New York in 1967, without a dollar to her name, with only the conviction that she didn’t want to be a factory worker at home. For a while she lived on the streets, then she found a job, and soon after she met Robert Mapplethorpe. The two of them immediately formed a life-long friendship and moved in together right away. Mapplethorpe was still invisible at that time, but as opposed to Smith, he never had the slightest doubt about the quality of his work, and he was tremendously self-confident. Smith and Mapplethorpe then went on to create art together, they continuously supported and inspired each other, and slowly they found their place in the art world of New York, and finally found success, too.

However, Just Kids is not your classic American success story following on the theme of poor-but-talented country kids working hard and thus becoming successful. This is too personal, intimate, and honest a book for that, and by the way – Patti Smith never underestimates the role of luck and coincidences in achieving success. By luck and coincidence I don’t mean that you have to be at the right place at the right time, you have to build networks, or anything like that – I mean simply how life-changing it can be for someone to receive the words, the inspiration, the support, the belief she desperately needs in a tough moment – in a moment of indecision, in a moment when she doesn’t know whether her work matters at all, in a moment of crisis.

Another reason why this is not a typical success story is that Smith for a long time couldn’t even figure out what would constitute success for her, and where her true calling lies. It also took some time for Robert Mapplethorpe to start to concentrate on photography, but for Patti Smith the road to becoming a musician was even longer and more tangled. Following the milestones of this road is a greatly interesting read – I read with fascination how she figured out the things she could and wanted to do, and the things she couldn’t or didn’t want to do.

For instance, she had a couple of roles in different plays, and finally drew the conclusion from her forays into acting that she liked being onstage, but she didn’t like being someone else onstage – she didn’t like separating her real and artistic personality, so she promptly decided that the next time she’d only stand on a stage if she could be herself there.

Besides the difficulties of becoming an artist – and perhaps I should have started with this – the other main theme of this book is the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is a memorial to their two-decade friendship, and it was written in the first place because before his death, Mapplethorpe made Smith promise that one day she’d write their story. And the way Smith wrote their story is deeply touching and beautiful. The whole book is very delicate, but the sections dealing with Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe are especially pure, sublime, and gentle. I won’t even go into more details about this – my words for this could never be as good as the words of Patti Smith.

And there’s still more to this book. Patti Smith didn’t only concentrate on her art and on Robert Mapplethorpe during the 60s and 70s: even though she was quite awkward in bigger groups of people, she still managed to learn about all the iconic places (such as the Chelsea Hotel, which was home to many artists, or Max’s bar, which was where Andy Warhol and his group used to hang out) and get to know lots of iconic figures (Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Gregory Corso, Sam Shepard, William S. Burroughs, and so on) of the New York art scene. Her recollections about these artists, and in general her stories about life in New York in those decades are sometimes funny, sometimes deeply sad – but they are always vivid and riveting. So it’s clear from reading Just Kids that being a young artist just then, just there must truly have been a unique experience.

Patti Smith writes wonderfully – about everything; she’s emotional, sober and transcendent at once. And Just Kids is a beautiful book, completely devoid of any sentimentality – it’s a delight to read.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

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Recently I’ve started to wonder how and why fiction works. Actually, I first started to wonder about this about 20 years ago, when I first joined the adult branch of the county library and without any proper transition period after children’s books, I started to read books which probably weren’t at all appropriate for my age, and which soon shook my naïve, childish ideas about how books are and can be written.

Several years passed since then, but through all those years, it has never occurred to me to try to look up the answer to the question of how fiction works online. A while back, however, in a free moment, I tried what happens if I ask Google how fiction works. It seems the question intrigues others, too – turns out there’s even a book with this title, by James Wood.

As I had further free moments at my disposal, I looked up this book – could it be the one that answers my big question? Could it be a good read for me, perhaps one fine day when I don’t feel like reading fiction, but I feel like reading about fiction. (It’s impossible for me not to feel like reading about fiction.)

So I read an entertaining and gently sarcastic review about Wood’s book (this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/books/review/Kirn-t.html?_r=1), which convinced me that I probably won’t (and don’t want to) learn the answer from James Wood. But – the author of this wonderful review happened to mention this book by Denis Johnson, claiming it’s a messy masterpiece. I’ve never heard about this book or Denis Johnson before, but my curiosity was immediately kindled. I happen to love messy masterworks a lot.

And now I’m so glad because Denis Johnson’s slightly connected short stories didn’t only blow my mind (I kept re-reading the stories even while I was reading the book), but they also taught me a lot about how fiction works. Or rather: I learned (again) that lots of things can work in fiction, and that there are no rules. Which is pretty encouraging.

Like I said, these stories are connected, but only in the sense that they take place more or less at the same place and same time, and they are all narrated by the same person. The narrator is nameless, but we learn that he’s known as Fuckhead to his friends. And we learn a couple of other details about him: that he’s in his twenties, he’s an alcoholic and a heroin-addict, that he is married and has girlfriends on the side, that he doesn’t refrain from aimless, unplanned violence (he doesn’t have plans and goals, anyway, and in most cases, he only thinks about violence), that he’s completely lost in the world, and that he has a heightened sense and appreciation of beauty. And – indirectly, and hopefully – we also learn that most probably he managed to survive his wild years, because sometimes he writes in a way that suggests that he’s looking back from a more mature age to the period when the non-stories take place.

The non-stories are centered around simple and/or brutal events, start in medias res, and usually end in nothing (and nothingness). In one story, for example, the narrator accompanies his girlfriend to the abortion clinic, and then takes the train to travel up and down in the city because he has nowhere to go. In another story he runs into an old drinking buddy who offers him a bit of work – so they go and steal the cables from an abandoned house, and then go on drinking with the money they made. And in another one the narrator and his buddy decide to split from the hospital where they work, and they go for a drive around the city, kill (a rabbit), save lives (the lives of bunnies, for example), get lost and see angels in the September snow – but then it turns out that the angels are, in fact, the shadows of actors on the screen of an open-air cinema.

How and why this is good – I have no idea. Words are put one after the other in a way that it’s good. I think – literature is like this, at its best.

But I can’t rest – how and why is this good?

Perhaps it’s good because of its shamelessness. These short stories are shameless. Drunk or drugged up hallucinations; paranoid fear of the real nature of things; melancholy musings about the sadness and unknowability of the world; the wild desire for beauty; the hopelessness of the days where all you do is wait for happy hour; the feeling of youthful invincibility; absolute helplessness and lethargy; unexpected tenderness and equally unexpected cruelty – these are all here, simultaneously. And all these are here as a matter of fact. No need for explanations. No need for apologies.

And this is one reason why it’s good. Because of the lack of explanations. The temptation to explain things away, to be logical and consistent is hard to resist. Johnson resists, which is awesome. Here it’s quite possible that in a moment of extraordinary tenderness you’re cradling little bunnies on your belly, making plans to feed them with sugary milk until they grow up – and then in the next moment or hour (perhaps after a drugged blackout) you find that you fucking forgot about the bunnies and accidentally crushed them to death.

I’m amazed by this – that Johnson dares to be just as fucked up as his narrator. That here it’s not a question of life versus literature, but literature equals life.

Which is, by the way, not always sad, miserable, and tragic. From time to time, this book is extremely funny, and not just from time to time but very often it’s beautiful and poetic.

And, again by the way – Denis Johnson is the writer who can capture whole lives in a single parenthetical clause:

(through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a – wham, the noise and dark dropped around your head – tunnel)

And being a devoted fan of parenthetical clauses, this is one more reason I feel deeply in awe of him.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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When I was reading The Goldfinch a few months back, I enjoyed it so much that I embarked on all kinds of crazy schemes and did a number of other things just in order to put off the moment when I reach the end. The same thing happened now; I removed myself from the vicinity of this novel for several hours at length, but the day was long, and the novel, sadly, short, so I couldn’t make the pleasure last too long.

This is such an amazing novel.

I guess it’s already a separate sub-genre, the kind of novel that’s based on supposedly found footage, and that describes the events from multiple points of view, and besides the events themselves it also contains their (possible) interpretations. It’s a wonderful technique which often makes me doubt the trustworthiness of the characters, and makes me question not only the mental workings of the characters, but my own powers of understanding. Additionally, it also makes me read with bated breath until the very last page because any moment might reveal an important detail that can put things in an entirely new perspective.

The novel tells the story of a brutal triple murder that happened somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, in 1869. Roddy, a young village boy (who is, according to some people, highly intelligent and articulate, and according to others, not completely right in the head) one fine day ups and kills the village foreman, and a couple of other people, too, who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I won’t go into the questions of why and how – the novel deals with all of that, and I wouldn’t want to take away the pleasure that arises from disentangling (then further entangling) the motivations of the characters and the connections between the events.

The novel comprises mostly of Roddy’s memoir written in prison, of a summary of his trial, based on contemporaneous newspaper coverage, and of a case study of a famous criminal psychologist-anthropologist, and then there’s also a couple of coroners’ reports thrown in, and a preface where the author describes how he came across Roddy’s case (this story is also fictitious, of course).

The novel deals with the questions typical in these cases: how different people remember the same thing; who is trustworthy; what makes something believable; and why we tend to trust someone more than someone else.

These are serious questions, and the novel treats them seriously. For instance, it’s highly thought-provoking why everyone believes one of the trial witnesses, a pretty neighbor from Roddy’s village who – despite her village background – looks and behaves like a city dame, and why everyone doubts the words of Roddy. The short answer: even though both the neighborhood lady and Roddy are very articulate, and they both employ a rich vocabulary, the lady is attractive, while Roddy is – as it’s often mentioned – a seedy-looking village type, and no-one expects him to be an intelligent language user (or even to have a brain).

So the novel gives ample opportunity to think about how prejudices work, especially since the criminal psychologist, Mr Thomson (who was a real person), who writes a case study of Roddy’s crime, concentrates heavily on the question whether Roddy, based on his physical characteristics, is a criminal type or not.

Besides all the serious topics, though, this is a fascinatingly ironic novel, which continuously questions the authenticity of all the documents and story versions it contains. For instance: in connection with Roddy’s memoir, it’s mentioned that even if no-one would have thought that a young boy from a remote village could write so well, so elegantly, one shouldn’t forget that village schools provided a surprisingly high-quality education to children in that era, and that Roddy was an eminent pupil. And just when I’m almost ready to believe that it might have indeed been possible for Roddy to write the way he writes, I realize that he often uses the kind of grammatical constructions and expressions and writes with a learned eloquence that would put persons with even the highest academic degrees to shame – and then I start to have serious doubts whether village elementary schools could have been so amazingly good, or if Roddy is not the author of Roddy’s memoir, after all.

And then: like I said, one part of the novel is a summary based on the newspaper coverage of Roddy’s trial, and other documents. So – it’s based on newspaper articles written by journalists who regularly retired to the neighboring pub during the breaks of the trial, and didn’t exactly refrain from consuming alcohol there. And it’s based on commentaries made or offered by people who were not at all well-versed in the intricacies of the law, by people who were seriously prejudiced or actively wished Roddy harm. And so on. So the question is: how much can we trust a summary (which is a kind of interpretation) that’s already well-removed from the original events and that’s based on other texts (that were also interpretations)?

I have no answer, of course, but this is another fascinating topic the novel makes you think about. So yes, this is a mind-boggling novel, and a deeply satisfying and enjoyable one at that.

Besides all this, this novel is funny. Not exactly satirically funny, and not even funny in the way when we laugh in our pain – its brand of humor is more like something I’d call “village-style Kafkaesque”. What I mean by this is that the humor mainly arises from the absurd, exaggerated conflict between the village authorities and the simple men, and even though here the authority figure isn’t faceless and nameless, and he’s supposedly approachable, the same things happen as in the worst Kafka nightmare: the rules don’t make sense, the authorities select their victims seemingly at random, but after the damage is done, it’s impossible to say whether the authorities really behaved irrationally, unfairly, and cruelly, or if it’s the supposed victim who behaved in a paranoid fashion, and no-one in fact wronged him.

And still besides: this novel isn’t only a pleasure to the mind – it’s a deeply emotional experience, too. It’s possible to feel for these characters, to worry about them or root for them, and I simply love it – when a novel has real characters.

The Riders by Tim Winton

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I first read this book back in 2013, around the time I moved here, and I can still recall the creepy feeling I got from it back then. I could all too easily imagine the premise of the story: how the protagonist tries to follow someone’s traces throughout Europe and how he gets increasingly unhinged as a result. I was all the more freaked out by the fact that I knew some of the places mentioned in the novel, and they appeared to me in this book just as unfriendly and unknowable as they appeared to the protagonist.

The protagonist of the novel is Scully, a friendly and mild-mannered nice-guy, who spent the previous years with his wife, Jennifer, and their daughter, Billie moving around Europe in search of a good livelihood. What this really meant was that Scully worked day and night, while his wife – sensitive, artistic and hailing from supposedly aristocratic stock – tried to realize her potential – without any apparent success.

At the beginning of the story, though, it seems that the tiring and frustrating years on the road are almost over, and the family is ready to settle down. They bought their future dream home in Ireland, and the only thing left to do is for Scully to renovate the derelict house while Jennifer and Billie go back to Australia for a short while to tie up the loose ends. Things seem to go well – the house gets nicer by the day, and according to the telegrams, Jennifer and Billie just can’t wait to finish up their Australian business and move into their new home. On the big day, however, only 7-year-old Billie gets off the plane, and she’s unable to express what had happened to her mother. So Scully, half out of his mind with worry, and Billie, locked into a shocked silence, set out to find Jennifer.

Father and daughter visit all the places where Jennifer might be, from Greece through Paris to Amsterdam, and of course their mad trip around Europe is partly an inner journey, and at each step, some kind of “truth” is revealed for Scully: things he might have suspected earlier, had he not fooled himself for years with the idea that despite all the difficulties, his life with his adored Jennifer is basically perfect. During the trip, Scully reaches the edge of his sanity while he’s trying to come to terms with the idea that what he considered to be a happy family life was perhaps something else entirely.

Tim Winton masterfully depicts both Scully’s unsettled and helpless state of mind, and that creepy sensation when everything and everyone – so familiar, trustworthy and friendly earlier – suddenly turns against you. Because this is what happens here: the small Greek island, where Scully used to feel safe and happy, now resembles a prison, not a home; the old friends he contacts in the hope of finding something about Jennifer’s whereabouts pretend they know nothing (or perhaps they really don’t know anything?); and even Jennifer herself – even though she leaves occasional clues, as if she were hoping to be found – behaves in an alien and hostile manner.

And even though at first it seems that the question is what happened to Jennifer, as we get nearer the end, this becomes less and less important: the “real” Jennifer gives way to the idea of Jennifer, that increasingly blurry image Scully tries to find, while not even being sure anymore whether he really wants to find it, or if it’s only his stubborn and desperate obsession with an ideal that urges him to move on and on.

Of course I won’t describe the end of the story. Suffice it to say that this strange novel – a combination of a family drama, a crime story, a thriller, and a philosophical work pondering metaphysical questions – doesn’t end in a soothing way. What it ends with is a sense of unease, a sense of fear induced by the realization how quickly the familiar can become unfamiliar, and how easy it is to get to the edge, in every sense of the word.