April 25, 2010
It is dangerous to summarize an Emily St. John Mandel novel.Spoilers would abound in any description, but also a synopsis of Mandel’s thriller/mystery plots would risk trivializing or reducing this immensely talented writer’s work.I’ll limit myself, therefore, to saying that The Singer’s Gun, Mandel’s sophomore novel, is about a man named Anton who grew up with parents who sold stolen goods.Anton himself has worked with his beautiful and cold cousin selling fake passports, but has hankered after the “straight” life and tried to attain it.Of course he finds—as all characters find in fiction, and indeed most people find in life—that it is entirely difficult to outrun your past, and if you are serious about doing so you will probably need to make some pretty unpalatable sacrifices along the road to freedom.
What might be more pertinent, however, would be to say that The Singer’s Gun is about that road: a varied and complex exploration of the journey to the ideal of Freedom, entering the consciousness of a number of different characters ranging from Anton’s mistress’ to the Fed tracking him down.The Singer’s Gun offers readers a rich and strangely likeable protagonist in Anton, but really it is “about” the cost of escape, because—though she has written only two books to date—it is already fair to say that “escape” is Mandel’s theme, as “sex” is Gaitskill’s or “Jewishness” is Roth’s.
At this point, Emily St. John Mandel is still a name unfamiliar to the general public, but to avid readers of indie-press fiction, her rise has been meteoric.Her debut novel, Last Night in Montreal, gained such popularity and acclaim in literary circles that it felt virtually impossible last summer to get on Twiter without reading another rave from a lit blogger or bookseller.Skeptical, I took Last Night with me on vacation last August, and was duly blown away by Mandel’s facility with language, evocation of atmosphere and mood, and ability to keep a reader voraciously turning pages while never “dumbing down” substance or style in a sacrifice to plot.Here is the thing: every once in awhile you read a new writer and you just “know.”I vividly recall that same feeling when first reading Dan Chaon’s short fiction, submitted to Other Voices magazine.I remember thinking, as I did with Mandel last summer: “Okay, I know the publishing industry is crashing and burning all around us, but still, let it burn: nothing can stop this writer from becoming a star.”
Such a debut can be a double-edged sword.Remember The Lovely Bones?Breathless, the public awaited Alice Sebold’s next book.Then came The Almost Moon . . . a novel that received mixed reviews, but enough bad ones that USA Today publicly spanked Sebold for daring to follow her illustrious debut with such drivel.While most writers would love to face this “problem,” such high expectations from critics and the public alike can seem impossible to fulfill on a sophomore effort.Think Donna Tartt.Think Jonathan Safran Foer.
Accordingly, The Singer’s Gun has come out to what can only be described as an “abnormal” amount of fanfare in indie circles.In a clever marketing campaign, Mandel’s publisher, Unbridled Books, has the back of her galley covered in blurbs not from other writers but from booksellers, each more loaded with praise and exclamation points than the next.And I’ve got to admit: in the face of such superlatives, again I was skeptical.
So it is with a certain amount of surprise, chagrin, relief and excitement that I say: The Singer’s Gun is an even better novel than Last Night in Montreal.Both are that rare bird of literary novels where the pages turn themselves.But while Last Night relied strongly on mystery and mood, forming an elliptical series of evocative snapshots, The Singer’s Gun is richer, meatier, striking far more notes—it takes those moody elements and raises them (the stakes and the craft) so that what emerges defies categorization.We begin almost in a dystopian comedy that is truly, darkly hilarious.But soon enough, Singer’s Gun becomes a character study, too.A travelogue.A meditation on guilt and redemption.A family drama.A love story.An exploration of moral ambiguity.And yes, throughout it remains a page-turning thriller, with beautiful prose sharp and clear as ice.
Ice.Hmm.As tempting as it is to have an all-out love fest with Mandel’s work, I do have to point out that she has a bit of a penchant for “ice queen” female characters.If Last Night in Montreal had any weakness, it was that its central character, Lila, came off as so detached it was hard to bond with her—hard to understand, precisely, the obsession a number of other characters in the novel felt for her, even though their motivations seemed believable enough on paper.Lila was beautiful and enigmatic, but like the glamorous heroine/villain of an old Bogart film, she never came off quite as “flesh and blood,” and the reason for her anesthetized numbness was revealed so late in the novel that it did little to make Lila’s skin read as warmer to the touch.In Singer’s Gun, Mandel encounters no such obstacles with protagonist Anton, a messy, contradictory, fully-feeling character whose voice and personality rises clearly through the third person narration and who manages to come off as intensely likeable despite his continually questionable choices.However, the female characters in Singer’s Gun still seem to be falling prey to the ice queen syndrome, from Broden, the female Fed tracking Anton, to Sophie, Anton’s wife (who, incidentally, is described by the narrative in ways that would make her seem highly emotional, but when she actually appears on the page at moments of high tension—such as finding another woman in her apartment stealing her cat—comes off more as aloof and remote), and most profoundly, Aria, Anton’s cousin and former partner-in-crime.To say that Aria never seems to sweat, to bleed, to do anything that would sully the pristine white of her furniture, seems more true than this reader would have liked it to be, considering her centrality to the plot. While stylistically effective in a noir sort of way, Mandel’s impeccably mannered, self-possessed women can lack deeper resonance, and especially given the roving point of view she manages so deftly, I’d have appreciated a closer look inside Aria in particular.In fact, even the novel’s comedic moments (of which there are many) tend to be “given” to the male characters, as though the women are too cool for laughs.
But this is the wonderful thing about being born in 1979, isn’t it?Mandel has already written two better novels than many writers produce over the course of a lifetime, and she has had the immense good fortune of the literary public recognizing her fast and early for the exceptional talent she is.At this point, small grievances about one aspect or another of her books seem almost petty—likely to be corrected before her 35th birthday!—so that sometime twenty years from now, Last Night and Singer’s Gun, some of the most celebrated fiction of their seasons, will be referred to as the “early and more immature work” of Emily St. John Mandel.One can hardly imagine what this prodigious writer is going to do next.
Other novels of escape and reinvention I recalled while enjoying The Singer’s Gun:
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon.On virtually every “Best of 2009” list in the country, Dan Chaon’s gripping and haunting novel of identity theft is very much the literary big brother of The Singer’s Gun.Chaon is one of the most gifted writers of our time, so if any fan of Mandel’s has not yet read him, that should be quickly rectified.The wonderful thing is that Chaon’s many fans are just as likely to appreciate Mandel.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.The seductive and independent Sabina is one of contemporary literature’s most memorable “escape artists” and a literary foremother of Mandel’s characters.Kundera, too, has returned to themes of what it means to be trapped geographically, to feel the compulsion to escape any ties—physical or emotional—that bind us, and the complex role of eroticism in the quest for freedom. And despite the old Czech master’s less-than-eager reception from some feminist factions, I would also posit that few writers have gotten inside the female psyche (of a certain place and time) better than he does in this novel.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.Billed as “one of the great crime novels of the 20th century,” this genre bender riveted fans of literary and mystery fiction alike.Like Anton, Tom Ripley also found himself reinventing and escaping in Italy.
Rules of the Wild by Francesca Marciano. Decadent expats in Nairobi snorting coke in toilets and sleeping around . . . and in their spare time working as “hack” journalists who cover brutal African wars.This guilty pleasure read is actually crafted with a kind of Hemingway-esque minimalist precision, blending chick lit sexual drama with truly profound issues of escape and identity.