Debut author Pick’s Kafkaesque postwar tale about an American student at the University of London who’s a highly unreliable narrator.
In 1956, Paul Scudery, a young man from Rhode Island suffering from chronic anxiety but a healthy libido, travels to London to study British history. Impressionable and insecure, he gets caught up with England’s fading Communist Party while joining rioters in firebombing the offices of the Daily Worker. Soon, the American Embassy recruits him to spy on the local party leader, Jane Falmouth, whose daughter or niece—it isn’t made clear—becomes his lover. But was he recruited? Did his girlfriend dump him? And did he accompany fellow boardinghouse student Rolf to Vienna to volunteer at the Hungarian refugee camps, or did he stop in Mannheim and spend the week with another lover? Paul obviously has a problem separating reality from fantasy—or, perhaps, he is living in parallel universes, as Dr. Victor, his unaccredited analyst, suggests. As the young man’s accounting of events is increasingly at odds with that of his friends, it becomes clear the reader can no longer trust him. He is studious and polite; he is sexually aggressive and explosively violent. Which is the real Paul? Even his landlord’s dog alternately cozies up to him and attacks his ankles. Maybe he has a doppelgänger, as the hapless Dr. Victor speculates, or perhaps he’s simply suffering from an identity crisis. Author Pick has concocted a twisting narrative that reveals secrets and then tears them apart. His writing style is alternately lush and clipped, full of sentence fragments: “With the thought, I felt the first drums. Not drums. Something pounding in my head. Beyond my head. My heart struggling to remain confined within itself.” He has deftly created an atmospheric England in the 1950s—a setting that is the most reliable aspect of the book. Fittingly, toward the end, Paul’s philosophy professor turns to Jean-Paul Sartre and his theory that “reality is what the individual makes of it.” Readers may find themselves nodding their heads in agreement as the story flits from dream to reality to a climax that rapidly plunges to an existential conclusion.
Strangely compelling despite (or because of) the unreliable narrator, this novel will intrigue fans of the unconventional and exasperate those who expect tidy endings.