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ALL QUIET ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

A journey through Purgatory takes amusing, appropriately elusive form in this mordant second novel by the English author of The Restraint of Beasts (1998). Mills’s suggestive title alludes both to its (nameless) narrator’s unfulfilled hope of journeying overland through Europe to India, and to Erich Maria Remarque’s classic fictional account of the wholesale slaughter of an entire continent’s young manhood. The story—told in a flat, affectless voice perfectly suited to its rural milieu—begins when its protagonist, “on holiday” at a lakeside campsite, accepts temporary work as a handyman for the phlegmatic Mr. Parker. All the narrator knows is that “Tommy” Parker is “into buying and selling”—farm machinery and oil drums—and is known locally, especially at the pubs the narrator visits nightly, for his terrible temper. One task after another (painting a fence, rowing boats broken loose from their moorings across a lake, taking over a milk run), accepted in lieu of paying rent, binds the narrator more firmly to the place he keeps planning to leave. Before realizing how acclimated he’s become, he’s an essential member of his favorite pub’s darts team, and the compliant drudge who does homework for Mr. Parker’s teenaged daughter. A hard rain on the day of his planned departure stalls his motorcycle—and Mr. Parker’s firm hold on him grows stronger. Warned that he must finish all the tasks assigned him “before Christmas,” the narrator gradually understands that, like the unidentified “one who was here before you,” his is not to reason why, but to work as ordered, then pass on to whatever lies ahead (some very pronounced images of descent and conflagration judiciously scattered throughout the closing pages, pretty clearly indicate where he’s going). Both Pilgrim’s Progress and the nearly forgotten allegorical novels of T.F. Powys (e.g., Mr. Weston’s Good Wine) come to mind. Still, this is an original and haunting creation: a vision of Judgment whose very opacity gives it impressive symmetry, comedy, and power.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1999

ISBN: 1-55970-495-0

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Arcade

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1999

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

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 SECRET HISTORY

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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