Saturday, January 27, 2007

BOOK: The Exquisite by Laird Hunt

The Exquisite by Laird Hunt
Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2006

Using an unreliable narrator is tricky – dangerous and enticing for the novelist. It reeks of literariness, and can become a crutch used to save a shaky story, mask a writer’s lack of control over the narrator, all of which makes Laird Hunt’s masterful use of such a narrator in The Exquisite, Hunt’s third novel, all the more impressive.

One of the effects of the unreliable voice is distance, freeing the reader from any necessity of identifying with or liking the narrator, and that serves Hunt well. The story’s narrator and protagonist is Henry, a mentally unstable, larcenous drunk drawn into a world of odd characters, ersatz murders and twisted identities. Henry is the type of person interesting at a distance, repellant up close.

And yet, even this was insufficient risk for Hunt. The Exquisite is pointedly post-9/11 fiction, set mainly in Manhattan in the aftermath of “the unpleasantness downtown.” The fall of the towers was the catalyst for Henry’s descent into homelessness and fractured self. But, because Hunt handles 9/11 so tactfully, with bits of imagery and brief asides, focusing not on the event itself but with its aftermath, the novel rises above the clambering mass of mediocre art that horrific day has inspired.

Henry, his frail grasp on reality shattered by the terrorist attacks, wanders the city until he is discovered and befriended by Aris Kindt, an enigmatic old man with a fetish for herring and an interesting proposition – help him carry out fake murders of paying customers, themselves so rattled by the attacks as to need to face their own deaths in more detail and proximity. Told concurrently is Henry’s stay in a hospital, of which Mr. Kindt is also, or so it seems, a patient.

Hunt uses the intertwined narratives to exert Henry’s unreliability to its maximum benefit. In the early going, characters sharing names and attributes (though whether they are in fact the same people remains open) shimmer in and out. Job’s identity in particular is fluid, appearing as bartender and orderly and occasionally others, becoming so indistinct as to appear to be more a role in Henry’s head to be filled than a real person. And then there is Tulip.

Tulip’s name is drawn from the novel’s other key figure: a Rembrandt painting called “The Anatomy Lesson” (full title “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp”), which details a seventeenth-century etching of the autopsy of the corpse of a man named, pointedly, Aris Kindt. The painting sits at the center of the question of Mr. Kindt’s identity, as well as serving for the inspiration of Henry’s hospital’s institutionally cold Dr. Tulip, and by extension the winsome Tulip that binds Henry to Kindt.

Above all, however, this novel is engaging, even riveting. Hunt’s language is both tight and evocative, and the themes of death and identity are well-served by Henry’s rambling, troubled, all-but-self-loathing voice. Hunt weaves dark comedy and intricate thematic exploration into a dynamic read that rises above the categories it might otherwise fall into.

reviewed by Jim Jewell, 500 words



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