I’m a reader, not a writer, although I do believe there is a book in me somewhere. I’m not convinced anyone would want to read it but I am convinced someone has already written it! Perhaps that’s why I’m an avid reader – I’m trying to find it and spare myself the job?
Even then I resented my status as passive reader, starstruck consumer. Already the satisfaction of feeding on words must’ve been wearing a little thin. And so I was writing my own book, the purveyor of fantasies and not just their silent witness. Given the choice of wielding the spoon or meekly opening my mouth, I knew what I wanted.
Wielding the spoon is not so easy. Where to find inspiration? What about kidnapping a successful editor, holding him prisoner in a purposely adapted cellar and asking him to edit your novel? It’s an act of desperation which becomes even more desperate when your novel is about what’s happening in real life …. and you can’t show the script to the kidnapped editor because then the game will be up.
From the moment Evan Ulmer kidnaps Robert Partnow, the plot does not follow his expected trajectory. Firstly, Robert Partnow is unexpectedly passive. Secondly, the media circus which surrounds his disappearance uncovers some unsavory secrets and the editor decides he’s better off where he is, leaving Evan with an unexpected burden, the sheer responsibility involved in keeping someone holed up. Thirdly, Evan suddenly becomes emotionally involved with a fellow writer, whose name Promise, heralds a better future for her than for him. And fourthly Evan can’t show Bob his script for the reason already mentioned.
Sounds contrived? Not at all. Tearjerker is metafictional and successfully so. It’s also very funny.
Insights into writerly angst:
I always knew my heart would fail while I was deciding whether a comma or a em dash gave the appropriate illusion of pause.
Wry moments of brutal truth. Evan in conversation with a new acquaintance:
Promise tells me you’re writing a book.
Yes, I said.
What’s it about?
It’s about failure, I said – trying for spontaneity.
Is it autobiographical?
Clever moments of anticipatory reflection as Evan struggles to complete his novel.
Punishment has a way of playing out like a foregone conclusion.
The danger with comic novels is that the joke wears thin and they begin to sag. As indeed does Tearjerker but that’s perfectly in keeping with the central conceit of its being written by a fictional midlist author who is not in complete control either of his material or his life. Despite the dilemma, Evan has to hand over his manuscript to Bob, as his captive becomes familiarly known. Indeed at the very moment that his relationship with Promise is about to live up to its – er- promise, he confesses and reveals the secret in the cellar. At which point the dynamic of the novel changes and Evan is on the downward slope to his punishment; a forgone conclusion, maybe, but certainly not as anticipated.
On first reading, I awarded this novel 3 stars as I found it thoroughly enjoyable, smiling wryly in many places. On reviewing, however, I have positively chortled at selected highlighted passages and I’ve decided to keep the book as a pick-me-up for future rainy days. And that deserves an extra star.
This post is part of the Spotlight Series on Graywolf Press. Full tour details here.