Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper

Though at times maligned in literary realms, thrillers are remarkable for exemplifying just what books are capable of doing to us. For demonstrating the book's incredible power, and how it is strange that we take for granted a stack of paper with printed symbols that is terrifying. Film is entirely different, I think, or at least bad movies are, which take full advantage of their ability to startle us. Whereas literature has to be more subtle. More subtle than even a good film, because writers have less at their disposal-- only words. To create a mood, a grip, the twists and terror, and then to do all this, but write well also? For prose to be surprising and inspired, characters well rounded, scenes to be properly evoked, the story fresh and original, and unbearably real and unbearably awful, and all this has been Andrew Pyper's marvelous feat in his new novel The Killing Circle.

This was a novel that kept me up very late one night, too terrified to turn off my light, and too impatient to wait until morning to see how it ended. The grip beginning with the novel's prologue, with Patrick Rush, a single father, at a drive-in movie with his son. The son disappearing on his way back from the snack bar and, frantic with worry, Patrick looks for him admidst the maze of parked cars, in the light of the terrifying movie on the screen before him, snippets of sound audible as he rushes from car-to-car. Venturing further out into the farmer's fields surrounding, with no sign of his son, and however urgent is all of this, Patrick is also somehow resigned: "I know who has done this," he says. "Who has taken my son. I know its name."

In the next chapter we're taken back four years to when Patrick, an aspiring novelist and dissatisfied television critic, joins a creative writing circle. The circle comprising five other rather eccentric souls, and led by Conrad White-- the novelist nobody has heard of--, Patrick quickly realizes there isn't an abundance of talent among them. And yet the story by a member called Angela captures his attention. Angela, whose face "never sharpens into full focus, like an unfinished sculpture in which you can recognize the subject is human, but beyond this, taken at different points of view, it could be a representation of virtually anyone."

Her story is a ghost story, the story of a girl haunted by "a terrible man who does terrible things", and the story starts to get inside Patrick's head. Or rather he plants himself inside of the story, if there is any difference between such situations. The story's impact upon him only intensifying when a local serial killer's crimes start taking on eerie connections to the narrative. Patrick begins suspecting a member of the circle may be responsible, sensing himself in danger, and setting himself up as a suspect as well.

The creative writing circle is an ingenious device here, in "reality" the work from such groups often blurring lines of fact and fiction (i.e. "Write what you know.") The writers' stories suggesting (or betraying?) odd biographical details, misconstruing perceptions, providing for inadvertent and inappropriate therapy sessions (as well as terrible fiction), and a strange misplaced intimacy. Friendship or rivalry? And no one is ever quite as they seem, sometimes you're even hoping this is the case. An atmosphere that absolutely fosters Patrick's Rush's paranoia.

This blurring of fact and fiction continues throughout the book, explored by Pyper in a variety of ways, also highlighting how it is that scary stories come by their power. By being just possible enough that you've can't disbelieve it, that there really might be a monster hiding under your bed. So heightened was the mood of this story, the depths of its realism, I considered the monster-- I really did-- and Patrick Rush's own experience was analogous. Could there really be a shadow following him home through the alley, somebody at the window, footsteps on the stairs? He knows it sounds crazy, and yet...

This novel is functioning at levels I've not got a full sense of yet, meta-meta, and I am sure that a character is called "Conrad White" must be some kind of joke I just don't have the punchline for. Also notable is the Toronto of the novel, as vivid and electrified as Maggie Helwig's in Girls Fall Down, and as well featured as that in Katrina Onstad's How Happy to Be. Satirizing literary and media culture, whilst on a deeper level exploring the limits and danger of imagination.

So much is also going on beyond the tension, the whodunit, the fear. Pyper's novel an exploration of story, the nature of story and our lives as stories. Says Conrad White, "We avoid speaking of stories as stories for the same reason we avoid contemplating the inevitability of death. It can be unpleasant. It can hurt." Patrick unwilling to admit his own story, perhaps still stunned by the death of his wife, and so in place of his story is a void of sorts. A void he fills by appropriating Angela's story, that of "the terrible man who does terribly things." The ramifications of this theft are manifold, and awful, becoming the motivation for whatever it was that snatched his son, leading Patrick into the darkest corners of both society and himself.