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.

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GINA FRANGELLO is the fiction editor of The Nervous Breakdown. She is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (forthcoming from Algonquin in Feb 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is also the Sunday Editor at The Rumpus, and was the longtime editor of the literary magazine Other Voices, as well as the co-founder and executive editor of its book imprint, Other Voices Books (now an imprint of Dzanc Books). Her short stories have been published in many lit mags and anthologies, including A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, and Fence, and her essays, journalism, reviews and interviews have appeared in such venues as the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post and the Chicago Reader. In her nonexistent spare time, she runs a writing program out of Mexico, <a href="http://www.othervoicesqueretaro.com/" Other Voices Queretaro.

16 responses to “New to the Party: The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    Thanks for the detailed review, Gina.

    Mandel’s portraying “ice queens”, as you’ve noted about her female protagonists, connects with issues Kristen Buckley has raised in her “The Mad Ones” article.

    Kristen wants female characters to quit being “likeable”. She wants them to be like they are…..and she knows that many women are distinctly unlikeable, at least at times. They get mad and show it. They don’t try to “make nice”. They don’t suffer fools, flatterers or ineffective folks. They compete to win and don’t mind taking hostages. They argue, demand their way, and defend themselves meaningfully and powerfully. In other words, they act “like men”.

    Male protagonists gain readers’ approval if they are *heroically humane* and/or *humanely likeable*. The connection is the “humanity” part. We readers want to have a hero who fundamentally makes morally sound judgments and acts to carry them out. If he smiles a lot and makes others feel good, that’s ok, but it makes us a bit suspicious that he lacks substance because he seems too much “like a woman”. Can a female protagonist, then, like “frozen” male protagonists, gain readers’ approval by just being heroically humane and not particularly likeable? Conversely, can a male protagonist gain approval if he seems to doubt himself, cries, and desparately needs emotional support, fails in his missions?

    Yes, I think so. We’re talking about how to create a “round” character instead of a “flat” character, and though readers react differently to male and female characters, a female character can be portrayed sympathetically to the readers if she rants and raves and runs over others’ toes—-so long as she’s doing it for the sake of moral issues we approve.

    In other words, if Betsy Protagonist curses and outmaneuvers Ginger or George Antagonist in order to secure more pay for pensioners and poor people, readers will be happy. We approve “Robin Hood” or “Roberta Hood”, and we don’t have to know her/his “inner conflicts” or her/his backstory. We just need to know that the hero is Doing The Right Thing.

    Regarding male protagonists, what some TNB authors already know and demonstrate in their writing, is that BOTH males and females are strong/weak, happy/sad, angry/accepting. Two TNBer novelists have created sympathetic male protagonists with all the preceding characteristics: Brad Listi in his _Attention. Deficit. Disorder._ and Richard Cox in his _The God Particle_ and _Rift_.

    Having recently received more TNBers books, I’ll be eager to see their portrayals of protagonists, as well.

  2. Hi Judy–I love it when a comment is this long and meaty!

    Buckley certainly makes a lot of good points that many of us in the publishing industry have been concerned about for a long time, yes. The rise of “chick lit” in particular has homogenized female protagonists in a really limiting way: funny, plucky, triumphing over all adversity, easy to root for, insecure, self-deprecating, attractive . . . in my own view, this Oprah’s Book Club or chick-lit brand of female heroine has very much infiltrated literary fiction over the past 10-15 years in a way that seemed less true before. Literature is full of both male and female characters who are not traditionally likeable, or who do things that appear to defy the gender norms, but “popular” fiction much less so . . . gender roles are quite rigid in pop or genre fiction, and my fear is that recently, this is starting to impact serious fiction too, in terms of what the corporate publishers view as “marketable” or what will make them money.

    I don’t actually think that’s what I was talking about with Mandel’s characters, like Aria, however. This isn’t a point I want to hammer in too hard, because I don’t want my admiration for Singer’s Gun or Mandel’s writing to end up devolving into nit-picking her portrayal of women, but I guess I would say that I worry she just doesn’t let us get inside her women as much as she does her male characters, and I wonder why this is. In Last Night in Montreal, Lila was much more inscrutible and held at a distance than either the detective tracking her or the ex-boyfriend who went to Montreal to find her. In Singer’s Gun, Anton is (in my view) the most complex and fully drawn, multi-faceted of Mandel’s characters to date–he’s really so wonderfully rich, and so funny and poignant, despite not being a “good” guy–but Mandel does little to make us understand Aria or her choices/motives, on which so much of Anton’s fate hinges. Her women feel more stylistically drawn (i.e. a bit of a noir, sexy, mysterious stereotype) than fully “round” (really, I hate that term.) Elena in Singer’s Gun was a richer character, so again, I’m not trying to go overboard with this generalization. But it seems a bit of a pattern in the two books. I’d like to see the pattern lessen, rather than be perpetuated, as this young writer’s career goes forward. I feel like it could start to feel a bit repetitious. The way she drew Anton proves what she “can” do. I’d like to see more of her characters striking as many notes, or digging as deep, as this one.

    I don’t think Mandel writes ANY characters who would fall into the stereotypes Buckley is talking about, though. This is part of why she’s such a good writer. They rarely (male or female) “make nice” or “do the right thing” or even the wrong thing for the right reasons, precisely. They are all harder to pin down than that. The issue seems more how CLOSE Mandel allows readers to get to or inside particular characters. It’s an issue of authorial distance and of intimacy.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Thanks for your “meaty” response, as well, Gina!

      Neither do I want to nitpick these authors, yet I find the spinoff of issues fascinating and pragmatically important to us writers; hence, I’ll persevere and assume we’re using the authors as partly emblematic of the large issues.

      You say: “The issue seems more how CLOSE Mandel allows readers to get to or inside particular characters. It’s an issue of authorial distance and of intimacy.”

      Perhaps an author doesn’t allow readers to get to or inside a particular character because, understandably, she struggles with presenting her own feelings and thoughts via the protagonist who likely resembles her more than the other characters. She may find it easier to write her feelings and thoughts into a male character or subsidiary female characters, thus freeing herself from feeling that she’s revealing herself.

      • A good point indeed. It’s certainly true that fiction writers, whether or not this is true of Mandel, often end up revealing more of themselves through characters who seem most “different” from them, because it is easier to do so without feeling like you’re bleeding all over the page for public consumption, so to speak.

  3. Gina, I was at the FOB today and I had this book in my hands, but now I feel a fool for not having bought it! After reading your review, I surely will get this book. I was too distracted by the cover of the Granta Sex Issue next door. Your writing, whether a review or fiction always reminds me that I need to try harder–with what? well, when it comes to literature, writing, reviewing . . . I’d say I love it when I’m inspired by others and you’ve always been one of those people to me, Frangipani. So, thanks for the review and I so look forward to seeing you out in LA soon! xo

  4. I’m so excited to see you in June, girl! And I’m jealous that I missed the LATFOB, too. Did you see Tod and Stacy? Wish I’d been there.
    The Granta Sex issue is indeed distracting. Quite a cover, too, that.
    I predict many opportunities to pick up Singer’s Gun. This book is going to be all over the place. I suspect Unbridled will not be able to hold on to Mandel for much longer either, before the big boys start volleying offers of serious money her way . . . though of course maybe I’m wrong about that. It’s so lovely to see an indie publisher hitting it out of the park this way. So cool for both them and their author.
    Thanks for your beautiful words, too. xx.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Damn it! More books!

    I haven’t read any St. John Mandel, but now I’m going to have to duly inscribe her name on my ever-growing list…

    Good review, Gina. Deep, solid, and encompassing the surrounds of the book as well.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Those of you who read on Kindle, both of emily St. John’s Novels are available.
    here is the site:


    Gina, you certainly sell me a lot of books!

  7. One more book for the road trip this weekend! Thanks, Gina!

  8. Cool! I’m getting so excited to meet you soon! BTW, a student of mine has reviewed your book on TriQuarterly Online–it went live today.

  9. I’m so glad you’re writing these book reviews–always a joy to read!

    What was J.S. Foer’s second novel? I can’t even recall.

    And, I love the Ripley books by Patricia Highsmith. Also love Strangers on a Train, which she wrote. Am wanting to read a great mystery now. Anything you’d recommend?

  10. The second novel was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It got much more mixed reviews than Sebold’s Almost Moon, and some critics lauded it. It was an ambitious novel with a complex structure and technique. But it also received quite a bit of negative criticism, and a lot of people said it seemed awfully similar in plot to his wife, Nicole Krauss’ novel History of Love, which got a more unilaterally positive reception from critics. Nobody I know who read J.S.F.’s second novel liked it anywhere near as much as his first, though obviously “people I know” isn’t really a representative sample.
    History of Love is an utterly stunning read, btw. If you haven’t read it, you should. It even does contain a bit of “mystery,” though it is not a mystery per se.
    I’ve always meant to read more Highsmith. One of my former writing profs was obsessed with her and always brought up her work in relationships to . . . well, anything anyone should have been doing better than they were.

  11. […] failed newspapermen, the diminished men throughout Mandel’s fiction, getting inside heads, Gina Frangello’s influence on The Lola Quartet, attempts to write characters with a singular identity, introspective writing, […]

  12. […] failed newspapermen, the diminished men throughout Mandel’s fiction, getting inside heads, Gina Frangello’s influence on The Lola Quartet, attempts to write characters with a singular identity, introspective writing, […]

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