Arts & Entertainment

Dark Passages: The Anxious Fiction of Emily St. John Mandel

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Crime fiction, for good or for ill, adheres to a discrete series of states. Order out of chaos — that's the mystery novel, hard-boiled or cozy, in a nutshell. Chaos out of order — that's the ethos of noir. Those existential constraints are equal parts limiting and liberating. But when the world itself refuses to stick to these scripts (Eyjafjallajökull, anyone?) and a healthy dose of escapism can't quite convince people that God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, something a little more ambiguous, even ambitious, is called for.

Emily Mandel's two novels to date are essentially crime fiction viewed through a series of cracked, opaque mirrors. Her much-lauded debut novel "Last Night in Montreal" (Unbridled: 248 pp., $15.95 paper), had it stayed within the comforts of genre lines, would have been a straightforward account of a Philip Marlowe-style private detective with a big secret on a perpetual search for a parental kidnapping victim.

That storyline would have made for a fine first effort, but the reading experience of "Last Night in Montreal" is more rewarding for the multiple vantage points on offer, shining a veritable halogen lamp upon that grown-up girl's obsession with disappearance and reinvention, those left baffled by her actions, and the general nagging feeling of not being who you're supposed to be or making the right decision — or the wrong one.

Mandel's talent is clearly visible from the get-go, but what's more pleasing is the added strength and control of her far superior sophomore effort, "The Singer's Gun" (Unbridled: 288 pp., $24.95). Lingering narrative tentativeness and some wobbly sentences have all but disappeared here, as carryover themes of identity confusion and fractured relationships and newer explorations of pervasive corruption and moral quagmires deepen and ripen. The net effect is akin to an Eric Ambler novel with greater development of internal consciousness for multiple protagonists.

Twentysomething Anton Waker, especially, could be the reincarnation of Ambler's early, cusp of World War II protagonists, at least on face value. A Harvard degree, a doting cellist fiancee and a middle management job with a water supply company all place him firmly in respectable territory. So why is it that his wedding to said cellist, Sophie, keeps getting postponed? Why has he been reassigned to a subterranean office and all but stripped of anything to do? And why, when Anton does finally marry, does he turn what's supposed to be an Italian honeymoon into a solo extended visit on the remote island of Ischia, waiting, Godot-like, for a message that may or may not come?

As Anton grows accustomed to suspended animation, life continues apace — and coughs up revelatory curveballs — for those in his direct and peripheral orbit. A State Department investigator alternately searches for Anton and wonders if doing so consigns her daughter and husband to eventual abandonment. A former coke dealer reeling from the loss of his wife accepts a paid courier job on a whim, blithely ignorant of violent consequences. An academic grows sexually distant in the comforts of long-term love while a young Ukrainian woman searches for understanding in the most confining of spaces.

We learn the most about Elena James, a young transplant from the tiny northern outpost of Inuvik, who needed five flights to get to New York and would need the same to be deported if her fake passport didn't hold up to scrutiny. Elena's permanent state of anxiety leads her down all manner of morally questionable garden paths, eventually clashing and merging with Anton's trajectory. Her state of mind is all too apt at a time when America is neck-deep in debate about immigration reform and identity politics, and what it means to be both native and foreign.

Mandel takes those questions to another level by connecting Anton's quest for his true self against the shadowy aims of his own family. "Sometimes you need to improvise," his father Sam advises, "I mean that sometimes regular channels aren't open to you, and then you have to improvise. Find your own way out." That version of the American dream, however, subverts the so-called linear relationship between hard work and success through the shortcut of criminality and corruption. Add the seductive charms of Anton's near-age cousin Aria — more the child of his parents than he is — and the cavalier attitudes they have about his trying to transcend the family business make a great deal more sense.

No wonder then that Anton is plagued by a recurring dream involving "people disappearing into thin air: alone on the abandoned dream island he wandered from house to house and then out to the empty piazza, the silent beach. Out onto the pier where the abandoned boats bobbed gently in the dead sea, through abandoned houses, abandoned cafes, the abandoned restaurant with four chairs and a bottle of wine set up at a table, the whole abandoned dream landscape suffused with dread."

That last line is the key to "The Singer's Gun": the characters desperately seek and reach for that one true nugget that will transform them from mere husks in the grip of a larger fate into free-standing human beings. Some will, some will not, and whatever answers they wish for will be couched in permanent suspension, never definitive one way or another. The beauty of the novel is that its key truths are those the reader arrives at on his or her own, without the help of a straight-line narrative or a dominating perspective. Instead, Mandel feeds off of our need to make connections, even when the pattern they form doesn't really exist. We start with anxiety and end with it, thrumming in the background for us to listen in - or ignore, at both cost and reward.

Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at http://www.sarahweinman.com. "Dark Passages" appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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