The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Variations of Truth: Naomi

Yea many posts ago, I told you that a friend of mine was publishing his first book (cue thunderous applause).  It comes out in September, and I got my hands on a preview copy.  Have no fear, Gentle Readers, I also bought it in hard cover.  My friends need royalties, too!  

So herein is my review of his yet-to-be-published novel (September 10th, by the way).  I am going to try to be semi-professional and refer to him by his last name, as I would any author.  It feels funny, though, not to call him “Kevin.”  Ah, the perils of knowing nifty famous people!
Any Resemblance to Actual Persons is an extraordinary novel.  It mixes genres, paints emotional landscapes with subtlety, and creates an intimate connection between the reader and an unlikeable first-person narrator.  This novel is not escapist.  It is not “fluffy.”  It is not literary dessert; it is a good steak, worth lingering over.  This is a serious work of bookish merit, and Allardice makes you work for it.  It is also bitingly funny and terrifically written:

"I hoped that there was an accident up ahead.  While that might sound sadistic, let me explain: If the traffic was slowing because of an accident, that meant that once we passed the accident, things would speed up again--and there is really nothing as satisfying as suddenly having free rein of the open highway after being packed into a traffic jam, the pleasure almost sexual in its tense-release combo.  Plus, an accident would mean that someone had suffered the appropriate consequence for making the rest of us late."

 Writing a plot summary, even a teaser, is difficult with this novel.  Ostensibly, it’s a cease and desist letter to a publisher.  Our letter-writer is Paul McWeeney, whose sister Edie has a book coming out in which she accuses their deceased father, Hollywood scriptwriter George McWeeney, of being the Black Dahlia killer.  Edie’s accusations come from “recovered” memories elicited by her therapist-boyfriend.  Paul insists that Edie is a deeply troubled woman searching for notoriety and acting out against a distant father figure.  As the letter continues, however, we find that Edie is not the only McWeeney with a flawed need for recognition.
While Any Resemblance is technically an epistolary novel, it feels more like a journal or a therapy session.  What begins as a legal letter quickly evolves into a confessional conversation with…the reader? Himself? Both, really, as Paul seems incapable of understanding that other people are worth listening to.  His self-absorption is impressive and his total ignorance of what a pompous bore he actually is informs nearly his entire missive.  

Paul McWeeney is a community college English professor whose own unpublished novels languish in slush piles everywhere.  He is pedantic, socially awkward, and overly critical of others while entirely ignorant of his own flaws.  He lives his life as if he were a character in a novel (O the irony), continually acting as if he were being observed.  For example, he is "aware that a lesser known work by a canonical author is the best public reading material since the author's name immediately commands respect for the reader but the unfamiliar title proves that I'm not just some unlettered man in an adult education class, that I'm already familiar with the Great Books list and have now branched out."  Of course he can’t understand why people find him difficult and emotionally unavailable, even as he disconnects from life around him to do things like critique furniture-as-social-commentary.  Losing his few friends and his job in his quest to derail his sister’s book, his instability becomes more and more apparent.  His obsession with the past and with clearing his father’s name distracts him from the present.

Certainly the narrative of poor mutilated Betty Short (christened the Black Dahlia by the press) is the reason behind this novel.  Her story, however, as pervasive as it is in the text, is secondary to the insights into Paul’s psyche.  Perversely (and deliberately), as the letter continues and Paul’s obsession becomes more compulsive, the reader becomes more interested in Paul, and less in the murder mystery both McWeeney children are determined to solve (one to demonize, the other to canonize their father).  

The most intriguing thing about this novel is its multiplicity of truths.  It is a palimpsest of history and fantasy, each layer of story overwritten by the subjectivity of the narrator.  At times, the reader interprets a passage where Paul parses Edie’s reading of their father’s (debatably) autobiographical novel.  And of course, no one knows the objective truth, and each character reads the facts differently.  This book has so many layers of fiction over objective facts that Truth-with-a-capital-T is a rare commodity.   It is a paean to the instability of memory and experience. 

McWeeney seems blissfully unaware of this instability, sometimes admitting to his reader that he "stole" a passage from his semi-autobiographical novels.  Once, after recounting two versions of a childhood memory, he admits "I prefer the version as it is in [my] novel."  Naturally, when he discovers that his sister has been using their father’s unpublished manuscript in the same way--as a replacement for actuality--he is furious, insisting that she can’t be telling the “truth.”

I had great fun unraveling McWeeney from Allardice, as one is deeply unlikeable, and the other is a delightful guy.  It’s great fun to watch Allardice crawl into the mindset of a sonofabitch.  It is an intriguing experience, reading a book like this written by a person you know relatively well.  Sometimes it makes the jokes funnier, and sometimes it makes the pathology of a character (especially an unsympathetic character) creepier!  I’ve enjoyed watching Allardice use moments from his own past and his own family as springboards for invention. 

Allardice’s insights into 40’s Hollywood and contemporary Los Angeles are keen, and with good reason.  He himself has a past in “the industry,” despite growing up in Northern California.  His grandfather was an Emmy-winning writer who worked for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, among other projects.  Allardice has used his insider knowledge of Los Angeles and his gift for invention to craft a layered, fascinating portrait of a man who is so determined to shape the world to his liking that he almost completely separates himself from reality.  

It’s a hell of a book.  And it’s been longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.  Support a burgeoning artist, and treat yourself to a great book.  It’s worth working for. 

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