Saturday, June 7, 2014

A meta-thriller for our self-reflective age (Books - The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker)

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (2014) is the American fiction debut of 28-year-old Swiss writer Joel Dicker.  Published by Penguin, who furnished my copy, it is a thriller, originally written in French.  After becoming the phenom of the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, it was translated into 68 different languages, ok maybe not 68, but probably everyone working for the U.N. could have read it, and after selling 2 million copies who knows, perhaps they have.

In The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair Marcus, a young author, is facing writer's block in trying to produce a second novel for a fast approaching deadline, after a wildly successful debut.  He goes to the small town of Somerset, New Hampshire to visit Harry Quebert, his college mentor, who is accused of the murder of a teenage girl after her body is discovered in his back yard, the original manuscript of Quebert's most successful novel buried with her. Marcus, determined to clear Quebert's name, sets about investigating the 33-year-old crime and generally making a pest of himself.  As he uncovers old secrets, he finds in them the subject for his second book.

The novel is well plotted, with plenty of twists and turns and a neurotically nervous energy that allowed me to burn through its 600 pages in a weekend.  The theme is tried and true: ambition and the way it clogs the arteries of artistry.  Quebert doles out to Marcus artistic nuggets of wisdom in manly running and boxing metaphors.
Anytime you have doubts about what you're doing, go outside and run.  Run until you can't run anymore.  Run until you feel that fierce desire to win being born within you.
There is enough faux artistic insight in this book to spin off a writer's manual.

I have read comments on the sophistication of the book's structure.  There are at least four narratives interacting in what is otherwise entertaining summer reading: Quebert's novel, Marcus's novel, a backwards reveal of Quebert's words to Marcus, and the meta-novel we are reading about Marcus's writing his book about the Quebert affair.  There is a cleverness to the books within books structure, but anything approaching sophistication is undone by several choices.

The structural conceit is insecurely telegraphed to the reader.
"...I'm calling because I have an idea."

"An idea?  All right - I'm listening."

"Write a book about the Harry Quebert affair."

"What?  No, it's out of the question.  I'm not going to exploit Harry's troubles to relaunch my career."

Unfortunately, most of the novel's secondary characters are caricatures. Marcus's Jewish mama is a particularly unfunny rendering
" you think it's right that I should find out from a magazine that you're with this girl?  What kind of son does that to his mother?  And guess what?  Just before you went to Florida, I go to Scheingetz's - the hairdresser's, not the butcher's - and everyone in the salon is looking at me strangely.  I ask what's going on, and Mrs. Berg , with her head under a dryer, shows me a magazine she's reading;  There's a picture of you and that Lydia Gloor..."
A good deal of the promotion for this book emphasizes that Dicker spent his childhood summers in the U.S., although the book was written in French and translated by Sam Taylor.  Dicker's ear for American dialogue was clearly schooled in 1980s television sit com.  The narrative is hamstrung by some of the clumsiest dialogue writing I have read in a long time.
"Don't call me Mom here,"  Tamara ordered.  "This is not some country inn."

"What should I call you, then?" Jenny asked.

"Don't call me anything.  You listen to my orders and you obey them slavishly with a nod of your head.  There's no need to speak at all.  Understood?"

Jenny nodded.

"Have you understood or not?" her mother repeated.

"Well, yeah, I I have understood, Mom.  I was nodding, I - "

"Very good, darling.  You see how quickly you learn.  All right, then, girls, I want to see you all acting servile..."

"I know Harry has a crush on me, Mom.  And I'm pretty sure I'm a big part of his new book. No, Mom, your daughter will not be serving bacon and coffee all her life.  Your daughter is going to become someone."

"I do!  And not only that, but there is an incredibly hot actress waiting for me on my balcony! Ha-has - this is just unbelievable!"  Life is sweet, Harry.  And how about you?  What are you up to tonight?"
These hardly warrant hyperbolic claims of brilliance.  But what Dicker renders with verisimilitude and skill is the insecure ambition of the young writer - it feels as though it comes from a real place.  In fact, this is not only Marcus's second novel after an award winning first, it is also Joel Dicker's. What made the Chinese box structure 'click' was wondering just how much of Joel Dicker's story was in Marcus's.  This is a contemporary, meta-fictional concern that would never have flown for Charles Dickens or George Eliot, because the writer was not a visible part of their writing.  As I read I thought, would this novel work if I were not reading it as a popular success? I am holding in my hand a hefty volume that has sold millions of copies, the second novel of a successful writer about a successful writer who is afraid he will not complete his second novel.  Is there any doubt that he does?  What is skillful, is the number of surprises Dicker still manages to spring upon the reader.  The question is, was Dicker like doubting Marcus as he wrote this book, or was he cockily smiling to himself about a literary gimmick that amounts to a self-fulfilling prophesy - but only if the book is a success. 
"Make a wish, Marcus! Make a wish!"

"I wish that I will succeed in life," I replied.

And I thought that a shooting star, though it could be beautiful, was a star that was afraid of shining and was fleeing as far away as possible.  A bit like me.
Hardly, Marcus/Joel, hardly. 

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