Monday, March 3, 2008

Books: The Exquisite, By Laird Hunt

This is a weird little book. It snuck into my reading list by means still unidentified, and, though I snickered at the tag line "an East Village noir" printed on the back cover while reading it, it nevertheless left an aftertaste of unsettled-ness that could only be attributed to its noirishness.

The narrator is a likable young thief who has somehow lost his girlfriend, his apartment, and, quite likely, his mind. He spends his days alternately visiting the apartment of a strange old man whose interests include anatomical antiquities, herring and crackers, and a fetching young woman named Tulip who naps in his bedroom, and lying in a hospital bed watching nature programs on television with another incarnation of the same old man (which hospital, we slowly begin to gather, is an insane asylum). At the hospital, Tulip is reincarnated in the lovely Dr. Tulp, and Job the bartender from the narrator's "outside" life is reincarnated as Job the orderly inside the hospital walls.

To darken this parade of doppelgangers, the old man introduces the narrator to a friend his who runs a small ring of hit men. . . who enact simulated murders; they hire the narrator. He performs a number of such attacks on a variety of clients, and is then asked to do the murder (simulated, of course, as they all are) of his own friend and benefactor, the old fish-eating man, who is terribly excited about it. Everything goes according to plan, until it's done, and our narrator is arrested for an actual murder; his friend and benefactor is actually dead; documents and accessories have disappeared; our narrator has been framed. The book ends.

And what are we to make of the parallel stories? Is the plot simply non-linear? Did our narrator actually meet an old man, engage in simulated murders, and then find himself in an institution after being caught for a real murder, which turns out not to be a real murder after all, since the old friend is resurrected and present in the same institution? Or, has our (delusional) narrator been in the institution all along, and merely dreamed up everything—the old man's anatomical antiquities, the acrobatic twins that assist in the simulated murders, and the night of sexual escapades to which Tulip finally acquiesces—while wasting away in his hospital bed, waiting for medication? The book is prime raw material for a David Lynch film, in which people are and aren't quite the same as other people, and which frustrate me to no end.

Hunt writes with an exquisite (no pun, I swear) poeticism, which ensnares the reader in the heady inscrutability of the plot, drugging one, in a way, against the ability to clarify or argue, dissipating logic. It's good. He does it well.

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