Saturday, April 27, 2013

Retrial

My Lord, members of the jury, the great Internet public, we are gathered here today to re-examine the case against one Gilbert Adair, author of The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, a crime against humanity posing as postmodern literature. When he was placed on trial on the first day of November in the year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eleven, the evidence was overwhelmingly against him. But in the meantime, influential bloggers such as Sergio from Tipping My Fedora pressed the case in Adair’s favour and demanded that it be re-examined. And so we bring the late Gilbert Adair back to trial to examine A Closed Book, a 1999 novel that Sergio regards highly enough to put on his “Top 100 Books” list.

…Okay, I’ve established a connection to my previous Gilbert Adair review, so I think I’ll stop the fake trial here. My original review was a very angry rant written as though I were putting Gilbert Adair on trial for crimes against humanity. He died about a month after I published the review, and I have not changed a word of that review: it stands as an example of just how furious a bad book can make me. However, it seems like putting him on trial all over again would probably be in bad taste… especially since A Closed Book is actually pretty good.

Here’s the story: Sir Paul is a famous writer, the kind who wrote all sorts of books targeted primarily at individuals who wanted to talk about how clever they were. But he hit it big with one mainstream novel, and since then he’s had quite the following. Only a few years ago, he was involved in a tragic accident in Sri Lanka, one which left him not only blind, but without any sort of eyes, period. Now Sir Paul wants to get “back in the game”, so to speak, and so he hires John Ryder as his amanuensis: he will dictate his novel, John will take it down on his Mac computer, and it will all slowly take shape.

To be more specific, Sir Paul is dictating his memoirs, and he wants it to be an unusual autobiography, a kind of culmination of his career as a professional writer. John eagerly agrees to the terms of employment and the two men set down to work together. But right from the start, there’s an odd sort of tension in the air. Without an initially obvious Sinister Situation, Gilbert Adair manages to maintain an eerie sort of tension and suspense throughout the novel, and it only gets more and more palpable the further you get into the novel.

Adair’s greatest achievement, however, has got to be the novel’s structure. He traps the reader into Sir Paul’s situation by telling the entire novel in dialogue. Any descriptions are the ones spoken out loud to Sir Paul. There are no he saids/she saids (yet it is quite easy to keep track of who is saying what). A moment of silence is indicated by an empty line. And it all adds up to a fascinating effect, forcing the reader to share Sir Paul’s blindness. There’s even an interesting bit in the end where Adair, speaking through Sir Paul, explains why he wished to write a novel in such a way.

That being said, Adair’s publishers have got some explaining to do. You see, by the midway point of the book, it’s clear that something is not right and that Mr. X has got to be behind it. A few other clues that the author dropped made me squirm, and I thought to myself “Oh, God. Please don’t do the ending I think you’re going to do.” But I looked at the plot description and took comfort in the publisher’s hyperbole, which assured me that Adair would come up with “an eleventh-hour twist of which Agatha Christie herself would have been envious”.

This, ladies and gentlemen, was a lie. The “twist” they are referring to is the first one that came into my head. I’m no Agatha Christie, and my skills at solving detective novels are far from great. That being said, I’m not just making this judgement based on “it didn’t fool me”. This twist is quite simply like nothing Agatha Christie ever wrote. You can make the argument that it has shades of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to it, but that’s precisely the problem: it’s got shades of the twist, without the full-out I-can’t=believe-that-just-happened ingenuity of the moment. Despite being an interesting idea the book did nothing with it. In addition, shades of Adair’s “I’m just too clever, aren’t I?” attitude make it through to the ending – it’s not quite as infuriatingly self-worshipping as The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, but we’re approaching the same ballpark.

That’s just one half of the twist. The other half is detailed to a sickening degree and seriously made me want to vomit. That’s part of the point, but because of a major running theme throughout the book, the whole thing feels just plain wrong on so many levels. It made me feel unclean, as though my parish priest had caught looking at dirty pictures during Mass. (I refuse to give more of a hint because then I’d give the whole show away.)

That being said, the point about the ending is that it is supposed to make you feel sick and disturbed, so in a way I give kudos to Adair – he achieved his desired effect. Unfortunately it’s a highly unpleasant effect and one that is easily anticipated. As someone who was ready to have his mind blown by a twist I never saw coming, I was thoroughly disappointed.

A far more accurate comparison would be to the novels Anthony Berkeley wrote as “Francis Iles”. Just like Before the Fact, by the halfway point of the book you know where everything is headed and its failure to surprise you can be a major letdown. But I liked this book more than Before the Fact. It had a genuinely novel approach to the writing and I was intrigued by the proceedings instead of being annoyed. Even when I figured out where everything was headed I found myself engaged and hoping that Adair would manage to surprise me. All in all, A Closed Book is certainly worth your time, but only if you’re expecting an Anthony Berkeley-like thriller as opposed to an ingenious twist-ending story à la Christie. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but I do think it was quite good.

3 comments:

  1. Ponied up for a copy from Amazon on the back of this, I'll be demanding my money back from you if I don't like it! Haha

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    1. Well, I think this is a fairly enjoyable book. I spelled out my criticisms in a vague way, but I think people will enjoy it more if they approach it as the thriller it is instead of expecting a detective story a la Christie like I did. Whatever my flaws as a reviewer may be, I always give an honest opinion -- which has resulted in me swallowing my words more than once in the past!

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  2. I'm glad you fely basically warmly towards it and that you fel Adair achieved his aim - and I think you are right that to push it as a Christie-like book is a mistake; Berkeley/Iles is clearly much more appropriate all round. The main innovation is clearly the style and there a genune cleverness there that I probably responded to more than you - Very honest review chum.

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