the universe is so strange. i was sick for a couple weeks (koff, koff) and for a few of those days, i was too sick to even read (i know – it was DIRE!), so i watched a lot of movies, including one that i did not have high expectations for at all, but i was curious about its well-publicized “OMG twist!” ending. and it was pretty bad. but i was glad to have seen it so i could discover the surprise on my own and not come across it on the careless internet. and once i could read again, but was still too sick for anything else, i decided to continue my spoiler-prophylactic junket and read this book, which i’ve owned since it came out in hardcover, noticed the VERY polarizing responses it inspired on here, and knew was a very “OMG twist!” book.
and wouldn’t you know it, the movie i’d watched and this book turned out to be about the same damn thing. which is why i can’t even tell you what the movie was. so i don’t know if it was because i had just seen a movie with the same(ish) elements, or if this was when my illness-superpowers began to stir, but yeah – i pretty much called the thing early on in the book. not 100%, but the biggest chunks of it.
which didn’t necessarily ruin the book for me, but there wasn’t much to it, apart from the reveal. the writing was wooden, and awkward enough that i thought it might have been translated, but nope. and the tone is hard. it’s alienating to a reader; distancing. it’s too preoccupied by abstractions, theoretical musings, it’s just too cerebral for a book this short (just over 200 pages) and for this genre, straddling the cusp between horror and thriller. to me, for a spooky book with this low of a page count to work, it can’t begin in such a languid way. it has to be punchy and intense, something that grips the reader by the throat and immerses them into a sensory whirlpool, giving them no time to step back and collect their thoughts or be anything other than engaged, startled, invested. this is a road trip book, and almost the entire first half is as uneventful and hypnotic as a long car drive, full of highway conversations of the most pompous and affected kind:
Jake passes the slow-moving pickup in front of us. It’s black, old. We’ve been following that truck for a while, pretty much for the entire story. I try to see the driver as we go by but can’t make him out. There haven’t been many cars with us on the road.
“What did you mean when you said all memory is fiction?” I ask.
“A memory is its own thing each time it’s recalled. It’s not absolute. Stories based on actual events often share more with fiction than fact. Both fictions and memories are recalled and retold. They’re both forms of stories. Stories are the way we learn. Stories are how we understand each other. But reality happens only once.”
This is when I’m most attracted to Jake. Right now. When he says things like “Reality happens only once.”
“It’s just weird, when you start thinking about it. We go see a movie and understand it’s not real. We know it’s people acting, reciting lines. It still affects us.”
“So you’re saying that it doesn’t matter if the story I just told you is made up or if it actually happened?”
“Every story is made up. Even the real ones.”
Another classic Jake line.
“I’ll have to think about that.”
“You know that song ‘Unforgettable’?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“How much is truly unforgettable?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure. I like the song, though.”
“Nothing. Nothing is unforgettable.”
“That’s the thing. Part of everything will always be forgettable. No matter how good or remarkable it is. It literally has to be. To be.”
“That is the question?”
“Don’t,” says Jake.
and that’s a whole page of the book spent on…that. it successfully creates a hazy, pseudo-intellectual stoner mood, but is that the most appropriate atmosphere for a book like this, listed here as “horror, thriller, mystery, suspense?” passages, pages like this provide zero tension. and this is what we get for (nearly) the entire first half of the book. there are some spooky lumps studding the word-porridge, and they do cause the readerly hackles to stir in inquiry, but then we’re dragged back into muuusings:
”There’s something about modernity and what we value now. Is there a general lack of compassions? Of interest in others? In connections? It’s all related. How are we supposed to achieve a feeling of significance and purpose without feeling a link to something bigger than our own lives? The more I think about it, the more it seems happiness and fulfillment rely on the presence of others, even just one other. The same way sadness requires happiness, and vice versa. Alone is…”
“I know what you mean.”
not spooky, just tedious.
so far, a two-
star cat book. but then, about halfway through, it escalates exponentially into scenes of such incredibly grotesque theater they feel like david lynch on a sugar high. and those sequences – everything from the farmhouse to the dairy queen – are absolutely perfect. it’s not a big chunk of the book, but it’s fantastic, and it’s what made me give it an extra star cat. it is so creepy – a blend of real and surreal and overt and implicit and the tension is 100% on point. and if this energy had been nursed and maintained throughout the book, it would have been gold. but here, it’s such a sharp escalation, it doesn’t really feel earned, and then after the dairy queen, it continues at a frenzied, manic pace, but it isn’t as inventive – it’s just ticking off the expected horror movie beats until the moment of ta-daaaaa, which i’d already surmised, and which is a fun OMG, but is not, i do not think, accurate or convincing once the shock cools. i am no expert, but i think some liberties are taken that prioritize dramatic payoff over how things go in the real world with stuff and things.
not a successful horror novel or thriller, but i can’t deny it’s got some wicked memorable, queasy-making scenes.
oh, and not to be a noodge, but since this book is so self-consciously precise and smartypantsed, it should know that thomas bernhard is austrian, not german.