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A vivid rendering of the psyche of an unregenerate murderess breathes life into this impressive if typically irritating sixth novel from the prolific author of such postmodernist misfires as AVA (1993, not reviewed) and Ghost Dance (1996). Narrator Bernadette O’Brien, incarcerated in the Georgia prison where she—ll be executed, describes in an “elaborate confessional” (which she also calls her “death book”) her troubled upbringing (in Irish-Catholic working-class Fall River, Mass.), precocious brilliance (which led her to Harvard at age 12 and early eminence there as a professor of physics), and—in hair-raisingly explicit and vainglorious detail—her seduction and then murder of two of her prize students. Maso tells Bernadette’s lurid story in a calculatedly disjointed narrative that leaps forward and back in time and is composed of fragmentary remembered experiences and conversations, classroom lectures, diagrams (which mischievously parody scientific and mathematical formulae), poems, aphorisms, and amusingly grandiose quotations—and misquotations (mostly from Shakespeare). What emerges is a superb portrait of an unwanted daughter born to a 40-year-old mother and alcoholic father, and of a grieving sister (whose brother Fergus went to Vietnam and found “an untimely, violent demise in an absurd cause”)—a sister who would steel herself to become a powerful woman impervious to indignity and loss. That’s all to the good; what isn’t is the tiresome reiteration (familiar in Maso’s fiction) of diatribes against American materialism, complacency, and intolerance; “the peculiar behavioral habits of the heterosexual”; and, more generally (and more stridently), the ways in which men exercise power over women. The final pages, though, where Bernadette’s rages are subsumed in her intimations of solidarity with other women prisoners and of reunion with her brother, are the most affecting Maso has written. Maso’s still a writer burdened by an agenda, but here she’s grounded her protagonist’s fulminations in a recognizable reality and in a manner that makes this at once her most convincingly textured and technically accomplished novel. (Author tour)

Pub Date: May 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-525-94307-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1998

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The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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