Ever since Sidney Sheldon spooled a sheet of Boise Cascade into his old manual typewriter, every movie maker has wanted to write a book. In the back matter of his second novel, The Disappeared, MR Hall admits he started novel writing because it lends him perceived legitimacy. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as such; Stef Penney proved a good writer is a good writer, regardless of medium.
But Penney and Hall learned the difference between writing media. Books, which tell their stories with language and operate on a slow-moving part of the audience’s psyche, are not interchangeable with the screen. TV and movies, based on images and movement, speak to our reptile brains, which is why Will Ferrell is no PG Wodehouse. TV writer Kevin Fox, who produced Lie to Me, one of my favorite recent shows, proves that knife cuts both ways.
You can read Fox’s debut novel one of two ways. If you treat it like the suspense thriller the marketing boyos purport, you have an anarchic mishmash of stereotypes, boilerplate storytelling techniques, and short, frenetic scenes better suited to the big screen than to fixed type. If you treat it like a Monty Pythonesque satire of the thriller genre, then the confusing formulaic building blocks become part of the joke. I just can’t tell which approach Fox intends.
On his twenty-first birthday, Sean Corrigan inherits the journal of an uncle he didn’t know he had, along with a stack of cash, an airline ticket to Ireland, and a sacred mission to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, several pages are missing from the journal—apparently the pages containing the most important secrets of his fugitive uncle’s life. Every time Sean buttonholes somebody relevant to the decades-old mystery, he repeats some variation on this dialog:
“Your uncle bore some dark, threatening secrets.”
“Can you tell me about him and his secrets, please?”
“It doesn’t matter, and it’s not my place to tell.”
It got to where I couldn’t decide who I wanted to slap more, Sean or his various interlocutors. On the one hand, Sean’s frustrating passivity made me want to grab his lapels and shout at him to grow a pair. On the other hand, everyone around him wants to burden Sean knows something about him, to the point where it strains credibility. Dick Nixon wanted to hang Uncle Mike out to dry, and Sean never heard that story? From anybody? Ever? Please.
The bog standard foreshadowing becomes so tedious that the book descends into parody territory. Sean reads the entire journal in one sitting, yet releases it to us in dribs and drabs, so not only does everyone know more than Sean, but Sean knows more than us. The story intercuts between the past and present so furiously that you can hear the soap operatic organ music at scene changes. No character steps outside safe movie stereotypes at any point.
Fox offsets this shortcoming, at least somewhat, with his Mamet-like language. Because this novel alternates between two first person narrators, it would be easy for a writer unused to differing voices to write both parallel narratives in largely the same voice. Instead, Uncle Mike speaks like a hard-bitten cop from the Cool Disco age, while Sean really does sound like a confused Clinton-era slacker. And both speak like they’re talking, not typing.
Unfortunately, this virtue underscores my problem with the rest of the book. Fox creates a story that caroms through its paces with the clip of a TV miniseries. Characters who supposedly loom large in the protagonists’ lives exist only in glimpses brief enough to fit in a single take of film. Life-altering exchanges take only one or two pages. This is TV pace, not novel pace. The characters speak so well because Fox is writing TV dialog.
With its concise scenes and eager clip, I bet this would make good television. It easily mixes gothic suspense, police procedure, family drama, and even comedy. The language is so natural and easy that it would require very little adaptation. And, though it’s too long to compress into a single feature film, the TV miniseries format would let the camera explore Fox’s subtle, mordant world view.
But this book, as a book, is either a joke notable for masterful deadpan, or the reductio ad absurdum of its genre. Because of the author’s background in TV drama, I think he means it seriously. But that can’t be, because it’s so banal. Okay, then, joke it must be. Wokka wokka.