The line between art and sanity blurs to oblivion when a delusional novelist composes what he believes to be his greatest work of art.
The question of just what constitutes art is at the center of debut novelist Hacker’s densely constructed puzzle of a story, but, boy, does he make you work for it. Our Everyman narrator doesn’t have much of a story himself: Chris is a film editor who is just barely muddling his way through mid-1990s Manhattan. But he’s absorbed by another’s tale when he accidentally reunites with Arthur Morel, a schoolmate. Both were child prodigies at a prestigious music academy, which Chris remembers with awe as the site where Arthur gave a command performance, followed by a literal defecation in front of his fans. These days, though, Arthur is a writer, married to a high-end bakery chef named Penelope and odd father to a son, Will. What makes Arthur so odd is his nearly fanatical devotion to the concept of writing as performance. In fact, his new novel is called The Morels and is religiously faithful to his life, with one exception. The novel’s denouement features a graphic sexual trespass against his son. “[I]t’s not a mystery,” Arthur tells Chris. “It’s not a romance, or what have you. This is—excuse the pretentiousness of saying it—literature. I’m looking for good, for true, for dangerous. This is my mandate, my only mandate. There is no formula. It’s a direction, the vaguest sort of destination, a kind of compass that, if I know how to use it, will show me the way.” As events unfold, Arthur’s elaborate defenses start to crumble. Hacker is a fine writer with a promising head start, but the narrative’s dizzying construction and meta-on-meta layers of obfuscation and posturing do start to get wearying by novel’s end.
The air of talent lingers on this debut, but it’s far more interested in self-reverie than being interesting.