Friday, May 16, 2014

Exposing the lie of consistency (Books - The View from the Tower by Charles Lambert)

A cursory look at Charles Lambert's Any Human Face or his new The View from the Tower and you might believe that he writes thrillers set in Rome which, rather than playing with the history and the grandeur of that stage set of a city, expose its seamier side. But the thriller, in Lambert's case, seems more a container for a story in which the main character's action becomes, through the arrival of a crisis, to uncover something that changes everything they thought that they knew.  Lambert's books are about how we face the unexpected.  Now, any good mystery does deal with the unexpected, but the difference here is that Lambert is not just willing to deal with the uncomfortable feelings this evokes in the protagonist, I would go so far as to say, that he courts and exposes those uncomfortable feelings, that they are the point of his novels and that the thriller is a form he appropriates, perhaps so that his novels about being uncomfortable might be widely read?  Perhaps simply because discomfort stems from the unknown.  Perhaps I should ask him!

Lambert sets up the unexpected by first drawing us a picture filled with the details that make the life that becomes upended.
By the time they reach the car they have both fallen silent. In any case, everything was organised before they left the flat.  Helen will shop for that evening because Giacomo, their oldest friend, is coming to dinner with his new wife.  As usual, Frederico has planned the meal and written the list of items Helen has to buy.  He's decided to keep it simple: cold cuts, veal liver and artichoke, summer fruits and cheese. On the way to the ministry, he will tell the driver to stop off in one of the narrow streets nearby, where he will pick up some Stilton from a shop that imports it directly.  This evening, Helen will set the table and fill up glasses while Frederico cooks and serves. He always cooks; it relaxes him after work.  Helen will sit at the breakfast bar with a glass of wine and listen to his stories of the day's events at the ministry, of people who form an intimate part of Frederico's world and a less intimate part of hers.
Only he won't cook and she won't listen, because Frederico will be murdered - something you will find out within the first 15 pages of the novel.

What is so unlike a thriller, is that Lambert spends his words on the verisimilitude of human behavior, creating a strangeness of thought like that of Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.  A strangeness that makes characters feel like people, only while Didion's voice has an American plainness, Lambert's, being English, is somewhat more elegant and indirect. 
Yvonne has barely looked at Helen since she came into the room and was introduced.  She'd taken both of Helen's hands in hers in a gesture that struck Helen as ecclesiastical, as thought she were performing a benediction of some kind.  That's what Giacomo did this morning, Helen finds herself thinking.  Perhaps it's a French thing he's picked up.  Yvonne is tall and thin, not the type Giacomo normally chooses.  She wonders for a moment what Frederico will think of her, whether she'll appeal to him, then remembers Frederico is deal and flinches as if she's been slapped across the face.  She lets this knowledge seep into her once again, this sense of being here and not here, as though she is also in a place on which Frederico is still alive.  If only she knew where it was.
Lambert isn't unconcerned with plot - we do find out what happened - but only because Helen needs to know so badly.  This novel is less concerned with crime per se than with secrets. Helen's secrets about what she was doing when Frederico was murdered.  Secrets Frederico kept from almost everyone he knew.  This novel is about the things that people hide so that they can keep a sense of consistency about themselves.  The unexpected information that surfaces from the baring of secrets elicits violence both literal and figurative that allows The View from the Tower its place in the crime genre, but what's special about it is the way Lambert's plot exposes to Helen the lie of consistency she expected of herself, her husband, her whole life.

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