Monday, December 9, 2013

Jenga Horror

Kate Maruyama, Harrowgate

Let us pause in reading’s pleasures, and toast publishing’s most underrated writer: the guy who does dust-flap synopses for mass-market novels. This uncredited mensch must tell just enough of somebody else’s story to make us want to buy the book, but not so much that we feel we’ve already read it. Particularly when novels like Kate Maruyama’s debut balance on a lattice of secrets, it’s tough not to divulge everything.

Michael Gould was stuck in Canada when his wife suffered premature labor in Manhattan. Arriving late, he finds his wife Sarah and son Tim waiting at the Harrowgate apartments. But why won’t his formerly gregarious wife leave the flat? Why does she appear distraught every time he fetches groceries? And who is Greta, Sarah’s new friend and mentor, whose cheerful smile hides a personality like a carnivorous twelve-step coach?

Maruyama superficially co-opts Stephen King’s classic family horror model, though she attempts something far more complex, with mixed results. She launches with the sort of hallucinatory twist that M. Night Shyamalan would use to clinch his films, but then she keeps going. I thought I’d spotted the big climactic reveal on page 29 (seriously), only to discover, this was only Act One; Maruyama had bigger plans afoot.

Describing her plot, though, feels risky at best. Ever play Jenga? If you have, you’ve spent time prodding pieces, knowing that touching the wrong one would cause a collapse both calamitous and embarrassing. This book is like that. Maruyama cantilevers numerous narrative bricks into an edifice so intricate and subtle that it’s hard to determine which is the central plot. She handles conventional stories in unconventional, cliché-defying ways.

Michael wants to commence normal family life. He wants to change diapers and rock the baby. But having their son brings out Sarah’s dark side: alternately outraged and tearful, baby Tim colors their relationship. And when Michael ducks out for supplies or mail, he inevitably returns to find Sarah tear-stricken, fearing she’s been abandoned. Michael’s confusion only deepens when Greta apparently has his flat key, and hijacks his marriage.

But while Maruyama’s plot suddenly reveals multiple facets and upends readers’ expectations, her prose lumbers solemnly, sometimes failing to notice important moments. Like a diesel engine in February, Maruyama’s writing awakens by degrees, not so much seizing readers as slowly building power. She has no climax as such, but builds an overwhelming sense of dread. Whether this constitutes incremental Shirley Jackson-ish horror, or merely bores, readers must decide individually.

Where horror happens, it happens because Maruyama submarines common white bourgeois expectations of family and domesticity. Rather than settling comfortably into incipient middle age, Michael finds everything he thought he knew about himself challenged. His marriage, his aspirations, and even the ground beneath his feet become questionable. If the American dream is comfy hominess, American horror arises from discovering home is founded on a lie.

Not everyone will appreciate this novel. Maruyama’s languorous prose requires an investment from readers, which not everybody will appreciate. She doesn’t really gain traction until nearly page 100, and I contemplated stopping, though I’m glad I didn’t. Maruyama deliberately courts an audience willing to sit patiently, observing events unfold. Anyone looking for airplane reading will find her leisurely pace and lack of spectacle tiring.

More prominently, Maruyama’s narrative proceeds in a juddering, episodic manner. On her website, Maruyama describes herself as “raised on books and weaned on movies,” but her pace more resembles Dark Shadows, Twin Peaks, and other semi-horror TV classics. She never really achieves that HP Lovecraft moment of overwhelming agony; instead, it feels like she’s withholding something special for the next episode. I found this limitation harder to work around.

If Maruyama’s story makes sense, it makes sense for readers who eschew that “holy trinity” of rising action, climax, and denouement. It’s more like listening to Philip Glass: we don’t seek blatant themes, we absorb patterns below the level of consciousness. Maruyama gradually erodes our foundations, until we realize we’re standing on sand. This novel lacks a succession of big, dramatic moments; it’s the Chinese Water Torture of contemporary horror.

Rereading myself, it appears I’ve been awkwardly cagey about Maruyama’s actual story. Like the back-cover copywriter who misrepresented this novel by omission, I want to avoid spoiling her story. Because despite Maruyama’s severe limitations, this is a good novel for its intended audience. Cerebral horror has become much harder to find these days. If Maruyama’s debut succeeds, hopefully it will usher in more that share her sense of compounding dread.

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