Emily St. John Mandel’s follow up to Last Night In Montreal is really starting to pick up some advance steam among the independent booksellers, and her growing fan base. I stumbled on her debut a while back and have been a big fan ever since. The Singer’s Gun is a decidedly more adult affair, and in a way signals a writer who is growing up, or in this case, coming out into the light. Everything about this story is non-linear, which confirms what I already knew: that kind of storytelling not only works, but is something that can sell. We’re treated to a pulp flashback and flash-forward as Mandel introduces us to a half dozen characters right out of the gate, and she hints at something bad, like a subtle kind of noir, which isn’t ashamed of it’s pulp origins. Mandel is flexing her cinematic influences (the rights to this should be scooped up) and her love of someone like Jim Thompson.
In her first book she really made the skin stand up on my neck with a kind of Twilight Zone feel to the situations she created, which is effectively haunting to say the least. Anton, and Aria, the brother sister team of thieves in The Singer’s Gun seem dead set on breaking the rules, and if no one finds out, they haven’t done anything wrong, or so they think. These two perfectly-drawn sad sacks are selling fake passports, and Anton extends his thievery to a college degree from Harvard, which sets him on the path towards Elena, a meek and wafer-like secretary who eventually comes into his world when they are thrown together in an office building in Manhattan. Aria turns up once in a while, as the narrative jumps around, comfortably, (she’s like a pebble in Anton’s shoe) from the past to the future, each sequence an important piece of the whole, but you don’t know it at the time. We’re treated to wonderfully vibrant scenes in Italy, which are just amazing, really striking a sense of place; Mandel captures what it’s like to be an American traveling in that area, and what it’s like when you go south of Naples. Between Anton and Aria, and Elena, we get into the minds of people who don’t really know who they are, who they want to be, and by the time we get to the island of Ischia off the coast of Italy, we’re watching these characters figure it all out, slowly, and sometimes, they never really seem to get it right.
Anton is on the run from Aria, well, he’s doing one last job for her, and it needs to be done while he’s on his honeymoon, in Italy. He’s marrying a woman who doesn’t want to be married, and they’ve postponed their wedding a number of times. Elena is on the run from a special agent, who wants to get Aria behind bars, this agent, is quickly and efficiently rendered, and poignant, as she is missing her own daughter. In both books, Mandel writes about parenthood with striking fluency, and what it feels like to be abandoned, or forgotten about by someone who is supposed to love you, either a wife or child, or distracted husband. Earlier sections of this story take place in an office building which is frighteningly accurate. This part of the story reminded me so much of a great little book called Waste by Eugene Marten. There is a kind of wild desperation, a sense of death and almost morgue like atmosphere, which is impossible to write unless you’ve worked in a place like that.
It’s hard not to run out into the street and tell everyone I know about this book, Emily is such a great writer, really operating at a high rate of speed, and she’s only in her early thirties. The book is published by Unbridled Books, a great independent press everyone should check out. -JR