Dark Passages: Can you trust what you hear?
I should admit up front that my favorite narrators tend to be unreliable. While other readers seek comfort or order, a breather from life’s everyday chaos and bad news, I like having my consciousness pricked by protagonists who don’t understand their motivations and actions as we do, who behave in ways that seem perfectly logical to them but utterly horrifying to others and who operate in a space of perpetual truthiness. Joan Schenkar’s recent biography of one of the most gifted equilibrium-shifters, Patricia Highsmith, was so brilliant in revealing, with skin-ripping clarity, the deep, throbbing neuroses of a person capable of creating such a creature as Tom Ripley.
Crime fiction’s wide terrain makes plenty of room for such untrustworthy sorts. Read Ira Levin’s 1952 debut, “A Kiss Before Dying,” and stand in awe that such a young man (22 when he wrote the book) could burrow deep into the mind of an out-and-out sociopath. Or take one of my all-time-favorite works of mystery fiction, “In a Lonely Place” (1947), Dorothy B. Hughes’ masterful exploration of a serial murderer so believable in his self-deception that he is utterly baffled by the thought that the type of women he gravitates to for killing might be the same ones who defeat him. More recently, Jason Starr has staked this same territory to prove a larger point about the never-ending anxiety of living in concentrated urban spaces like New York City. When you’re constantly in transit, on the move or hustling, who has time for petty things like empathy?
But unreliable shouldn’t automatically translate into unlikable. Sometimes that’s the case, but the writer who genuinely pulls such narrators off understand there is a whisper-thin line between a charmer and an evildoer, and that charisma can’t overcompensate for darker impulses. Which is why I must single out two young writers, both in their early 30s, who already have this wonderful dichotomy down cold.
A protagonist who introduces himself with the declaration that the only thing “I truly considered mine” is a bust of half of Nieztsche’s head might fall under the category of unreliable narrator. And indeed, Joseph Geist, the burned-out Harvard philosophy doctoral student who narrates Jesse Kellerman’s “The Executor” (Putnam: 342 pp., $25.95), has ample reason not to be trusted -- dumped by his live-in girlfriend, brushed off by his thesis advisor, at the end of his financial rope and a little too full of himself, he’s rife for self-delusion and a tour of a David Goodis-like noir carnival.
Except that’s not quite what happens, and those readers who have had the pleasure of reading Kellerman’s earlier work -- especially his previous psychological novel, “The Genius” -- well know that the greatest gift he has is for upending the expected, molding conventional story twists into sneakier, more surprising land mines. Geist is not doomed by fate; he seizes upon each minute opportunity to transform himself into someone worthy of a half-headed idol by first being up to the task of entertaining an elderly Austrian lady named Alma Spiegelman, who places an ad in the Harvard Crimson looking for someone of conversational leisure, able to engage her on an intellectual level.
But each instance of carpe diem acts like a lab rat experiment of diminished pleasure and reward and increased tolerance for more savage emotions, and the stately Cambridge townhouse lined with musty old books (in one curious aside, Geist declares that he will never own an e-reader “because a row of books is more than a compendium of information. It’s a map of all the places your mind has been, a group of friends standing silently by to comfort you.”) becomes a great test of Geist’s inner core of morality, a two-player game whose opponents keep shifting. At last, we learn how much he is capable of, how bottomless is his well of philosophical seeking, how mixed up he is about correlation and causality, especially when human lives are involved -- and how capable and assured Jesse Kellerman is in depicting the disturbing intersections of psychology, philosophy and murder.
Where Kellerman’s prose style is silken sheen covering deep existential skeletons, Angela S. Choi’s sentence structure apes blunt force trauma. “Hello Kitty Must Die” (Tyrus Books: 258 pp., $14.95 paper) is for people who cackle and gasp at the book’s opening line -- “It all started with my missing hymen” -- and are compelled to move on. For those who recoil, well, that’s your loss, but Fiona Yu doesn’t really care what you think or if she’s offended anyone.
It’s not hard to understand where she’s coming from: Fiona is 28, rising up the corporate law chain by working an associate’s brutal schedule of billable hours, exceptionally smart and well aware of it, but because she lives at home with her tradition-obsessed parents hellbent on keeping the old Chinese ways intact (leading to many cringe-worthy scenes of Fiona on dates with guys who should never, ever have been let out of their parents’ basements, so to speak), her attitudes are more than a little warped. Like going to a specialist in hymen-restoration because she regretted its mechanical removal. Or hanging out with said specialist because it turns out he was her best high school chum. Or keeping her parents in the dark about her increasingly nocturnal activities.
Choi wields her satirical blade at a host of targets, such as the oh-so-American need for material wealth, socially inept losers propped up as great catches because of ethnic concordance and female peers who are considered more beautiful because they bleach their skin, and cut themselves with razors and act like the docile, wide-eyed titular cartoon adorning merchandise around the world.
The real triumph of “Hello Kitty Must Die” is that it refuses to apologize for Fiona’s behavior and never offers clear-cut explanations for her pole slide down into amoral adventure. As for where she ends up, let’s put it this way: I fully expect Fiona to make partner in a decade or so, and by then there will be new rabbit holes for her to explore and exploit to the fullest.
Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at https://www.sarahweinman.com. “Dark Passages” appears monthly at https://www.latimes.com/books.
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