This is the End: Justifying Murder

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Title: A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain

Author: Adrianne Harun

Genre: Fantastical Fiction

Publishing Info: February 2014 by Penguin Books

Jukebox: “They build it up just to burn it back down/the wind is blowing all the ashes around/ oh my dear god what is that horrible song they’re singing.” There is a lingering static in the background of Arcade Fire’s “Rococo,” either created by the screech of guitar strings and drums, or my imagination. A Man Came out of a Door in the Mountain has the same lingering sense of uneasiness, that something is coming but is entirely unobserved until it’s directly upon us.

This is the end. This is the end. This is the end (okay, not the Seth Rogen movie). I turned the last page of Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain and those were the words going through my mind. Throughout Harun’s debut novel, there were many points where the words in front of me began to blur and condense into this four-word chant. Because this is a story about a dead-end town and people close to a dead-end. I’ve always imagined that once I finish a book and close it, the characters’ lives still go on, just unread and unobserved. I judge if an ending is successful or not on whether I can wholeheartedly believe that characters have a future they can look toward (Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, for instance). But after I put Harun’s book down, I wasn’t convinced. Actually, I was very confused. Nothing that happens in this book really assures me that anything changed after I finished the story. The focus of A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is on five seventeen-year old best friends living in a small town in British Columbia: Leo, our Kitselas/Haisla/Polish/German narrator, Jackie, a big-boned Native girl working at the local camp kitchen, Ursie, who works at the local motel, Bryan, Ursie’s brother, and Tessa, who acts as a replacement mother for her large family. These characters are tied together by their hatred and fear of Gerald Flacker, leader of the gang who dominates the entire town with a thriving drug business, drunken brawls, and just plain intimidation. The entire story plays on the desire of the five friends, Bryan in particular, to get rid of the gang and all the trouble they bring, to finally have some power over the bad guys and also over their own futures. 

This desire to get rid of a villain who is plainly preventing everybody else from living a normal life strongly resembles Andre Dubus’s short story, “Killings”, in which the narrator Frank longs to avenge his murdered son by punishing the murderer once and for all (I recommend the Academy Award-winning movie based off of the short story). In both stories, the villains are regular faces around the small towns, totally unavoidable and totally untouchable, it seems. When I compare these two stories, it’s clear to me that Dubus does the better job in conveying the confusion, guilt, and moral grey area that is always present in a story that strives to justify murder.

Harun has the confusion and the greyness, but it’s more like a thin haze surrounding her entire story. Every time I thought something concrete was going to happen, the description dissolved into pieces of emotions and actions. I felt like there was a missing sentence Harun was withholding from me in order to understand exactly what was going on through the characters’ minds, let alone what exactly was happening. Dubus has the same problem, namely convincing us that violence is the only way out of a problem, but he is more successful because he is smart about clueing us in on how events in Frank’s backstory influences his every inner conflict about his future actions. Simply put: Cause and Effect. With Harun’s writing, I could never find that cause and effect. Things just seemed to happen for no reason, or a character would act a certain way as if possessed by a strange entity.

Granted, Harun does not hide the presence of an unseen “devil” throughout the book. In fact, she addresses it repeatedly, with Leo, the narrator, referring to it in the second chapter as the driving force for all of the crazy events in the town:

I want to yell: Look Sharp!  For as Uncle Lud might say, the devil could find a soul mate in a burnt teaspoon and he sure as hell can choose whatever forms suit his purpose…Look Sharp! As if that might have altered every part of the day the devil first arrived to meet us–the bunch of us–in person.

Harun establishes her unseen devil at the very beginning. And she continues its presence through short, periodical chapters called “The Devil Plays With a Telephone,” or “Laundry Day for the Devil.” So it’s not a secret that something unusual is happening to these kids in their dead-end town. I just think the explanation of what is happening to them is done poorly. Some people may call it magical realism, this vague influence of an anti-Deus ex machina figure, but I just call it confusing.

Then there are moments where Harun’s writing is spectacularly beautiful. Especially when she describes the simplest things:

Her laugh was a lucent bell, a golden peal I swore I saw arc and ripple in the shimmering air before its chime faded away.

Her writing definitely has its shining moments. Her prose reminds me of Lindsay Hill’s stream-of-consciousness style in Sea of HooksAnd to her credit, Harun’s novel was easier to read than Sea of Hooks (that one took me 2 months, vs 2 days), perhaps because of the shorter chapters and length (349 vs 273 pgs). However lyrical her writing may be, it’s not enough to keep a fragmented plot and weak character development glued together.

Speaking of the characters, I was also disappointed by how much I didn’t learn about them. After reading 273 pages about their lives, I still didn’t know much more than what the Amazon blurb says. The most interesting perspectives are of Ursie and Leo’s individual lives. Ursie’s job as a maid in the local motel, frequented by drunkards and gamblers and all-around no gooders, kept me happy, even with small details like Ursie’s love of Diet Bubble-Ups:

 Ursie admired the long-necked bottles and the frostiness Albie’s old soda machine achieved, and despite the odd aftertastes, despite her inevitable preference for Diet Bubble-Up, she savored every brand and would spend several considerate minutes before the soda machine each afternoon. Sometimes she was still gazing at the machine when Bryan’s old truck with its often-loose fan belt screeched into the lot.

Leo’s own struggles at home, to please his mother by finishing his online physics course and avoid going to mining college, also deserve a shoutout. When he assesses his self-worth, concluding “Yeah, it seemed to me that I was all bleak suggestion,” not only does it describe a lot of teenager’s fears of going nowhere, but it also addresses the stagnancy of the entire town.

Another thing to consider is that I may have missed the entire purpose of this story. It may have flown right over my head. I was certainly left feeling like I was missing the bigger meaning. Harun states in her acknowledgments that this story “was sparked by outrage over the ongoing murders and disappearances of aboriginal women along Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears…The story veered into a more fanciful narrative after a dinner party discussion of good and evil.” But the plot about girls disappearing off the highway barely comes into play throughout the story. Yet I understand how difficult it is to describe a situation where not even the main characters know exactly what has taken hold of them, let alone try to portray all the shapes and forms in which good and evil manifest.

A hazy novel, which for me never managed to go above a low, steady pulse of unrealized potential.

Rating: 5 – eh: choppy plot and character development, but the story has some interesting parts and a few redeeming characters

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An Experiment

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Title: Sea of Hooks

Author: Lindsay Hill

Label: Fiction

Published in: November 2013

Jukebox: “The Great Gig in the Sky” by Pink Floyd has a complex backstory: the song started out as just an instrumental track. Then Alan Parsons brought in singer Clare Torry to layer her voice over the instrumentals. At first, she had a tough time understanding what the band wanted, but once it was suggested she think of herself as an instrument, magic happened. The moment when Torry begins singing is like an awakening, and Sea of Hooks has many of those moments.

This novel is an experiment. Can a story of a boy rise up out of the ashes of messed up dreams, one-liner revelations, and familiar metaphors? Can we understand a person through pieces and snippets randomly dispersed throughout the pages of this book, or do our minds only function and analyze in a neat, chronological order where everything is spelled out for us?

So one can see from those heavy questions above why it took me about two months to finish the novel. It was a not a comfortable read: lots of backtracking and scratching of the head. The entire novel is written in paragraphs, each with a title. Some have continuity, some are impossible to understand as anything but a stranger’s memory. But even though the entire novel is split up into messy stream-of-consciousness paragraphs, they are all connected as one larger story. Hooked together, one might say.

Despite the eventual tying together of all the paragraph’s topics, the novel’s fractured structure, among other things, ultimately prevents it from working as a cohesive entity. The traditional plot (yes, it’s there, if barely) is also boringly dramatic: alcoholic father + OCD/depressed mother = messed up childhood for Christopher, the main character. These characteristics are important and effective in a lot of other esteemed literature, but all I see in this set-up is the desire to make characters interesting by making them severely messed up. I know when a character is well-designed because I care about her/him/it (Barney, Arya Stark, Nick Fury). Sadly, I don’t really care about Christopher, or his parents. It’s an easy line to cross, balancing genuine characters and keeping readers interested.

Consequently, it’s better to think of Sea of Hooks as many wonderful yet disparate parts rather than a convincing story. Many of Lindsay Hill’s trains of thought are beautiful, not only for the ideas they engender but because Hill writes prose like poetry. Two of them stand out:

1. In the first half of the novel, there are several paragraphs called “Christopher Reading.” It’s never clear whether Christopher is autistic, dyslexic, or whether his mind just sees things differently, but it’s like he has so much imagination that he can’t read. Reading requires a certain amount of reining in your own imagination to follow the author’s path. Christopher lets his imagination ride off into the sunset and thus his mind is everywhere but the book in front of him:

He would pass through the page, barely brushing its sides as he fell through, and then he would come up a long way away in the teeming open water of thoughts and words and images and memories, and the little guided tour provided by the book was lost to him, but the Wonder Ocean was found.” (110)

2. The second train of thought, with paragraphs titled “The City of Messengers,” also deals with the inner workings of Christopher’s mind. As a boy, Christopher has a habit of collecting random trash: crumpled receipts, keys, and anything else he finds on the street. He collects these “messengers” because he believes that each object is contributing to a larger message. The problem is, Christopher never completely finds out what it is. Though this specific train of thought is very vague, I see Hill’s point: Christopher sees meaning in everything. Apparently he is an amazing bridge player and bond trader because of this unique “sight.” That’s why the novel had to be written in this bizarre paragraph fashion: the all-encompassing message that Christopher is always looking for is the same as Lindsay Hill’s goal in writing this book: every paragraph is a messenger with an individual message. All Hill hopes for is the possibility that his sea of messengers will give the reader one great big message at the end.

Well, I finished the book, and I don’t know what the message is. Maybe I didn’t read carefully enough. Or maybe Lindsay Hill hasn’t figured it out either.

There’s one statement later in the novel that describes the value of Sea of Hooks. In a paragraph called “You Can’t Walk the Sun With Your Fingers”, Christopher is looking at a box full of things belonging to a friend’s dad who disappeared and abandoned his family:

 Many of the things were unremarkable, but mixed among them, many fine things shone, many very fine things, things very valuable and rare.

Sea of Hooks may not be a masterpiece, but the amount of abstract thinking in this novel is at least convincing. Maybe time will help bring Lindsay Hill and Christopher’s musings together.

Rating: 6 – okay, but it could be better: would recommend with qualifiers; many inconsistencies that raise my eyebrows.