Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Helen on "Departure Lounge," by Chad Taylor

From the glaring mistake on the jacket copy to the unsatisfying and unclear ending, New Zealand writer Chad Taylor’s short, gritty novel left me confused.

The story centers around and is narrated by a petty thief named Mark Chamberlain, who’s afflicted by anomie that the author evidently wants us to understand stems from the unexplained disappearance years earlier of a high school friend and squeeze, Caroline May. (Note to whoever wrote the jacket copy for Europa Editions: the thief is MARK, not GREG—Greg is the ARTIST, who’s not much more than a walk-on. Jacket copy matters: because of what I now know was an error on the inside front flap, I spent the first half of the story wondering why the other characters were calling the thief “Mark” and anticipating that at some point the story would reveal that he was using an alias, which, of course, never happened. As I wrote a while ago, I was similarly confused by a misleading plot characterization on the jacket copy for “The Girl on the Via Flaminia.” Surely neither author nor publisher wants readers to start out confused?)

I’m all for excising unnecessary verbiage and showing over telling, and Taylor is good at both in the short, terse sentences of his story. But I could have used either a bit more showing or some good, old-fashioned storyTELLING to fill in the story’s gaps.

Much of the momentum from the book’s powerful beginning, in which Mark plays pool with Rory Jones, a slimy real estate developer and speculator whose apartment he then robs, goes to waste, since Jones never reappears and Taylor never connects Jones with the rest of the plot. (Note to Publishers Weekly: Jones is NOT Caroline’s father—he just happens to live in the same building as Caroline’s now-deceased parents.)

Taylor neither shows nor tells us why Mark and Caroline’s other surviving friend, Varina, remain so affected by Caroline’s disappearance. We get hardly any idea of Caroline’s personality, and, from the narrative, Mark never did, either. Taylor never reveals what, other than proximity, formed the basis for the friendship between her, Mark and Varina. Maybe she was more than an inconsequential adolescent booty call for Mark, but I didn’t get the feeling that she rose to the level of a lost love, either.

At one point, about halfway through, Taylor seemed to be leading the reader to conclude that Mark and Varina knew why Caroline had vanished. I eagerly read on, only to find that that wasn’t the case. Taylor clearly wants us to understand that as adults, notwithstanding that their lives have wildly diverged and they haven’t been in contact in many years, Varina and Mark retain some deep connection. I guess that’s supposed to be because of Caroline, but Taylor never shows or tells us enough about their teenaged interactions to justify that conclusion.

Late in the narrative, Mark says “I had stepped into other people’s lives and walked through their homes, but I hadn’t been looking for their secrets: I had been checking on mine. I had been looking for Caroline since she left us all.” Mark’s insight into what’s going on within himself comes on the heels of Varina’s remark to him, “After all this time we’re exactly where Caroline left us. And that’s the problem: we’re all still in love.” Those are nicely turned sentences, and they sound as if they’re supposed to be profound. Unfortunately, Taylor never gives us enough background to understand why.

Though this short novel didn’t work so well for me, it also provides material for praise, and I’m not sorry I read it. This noir story—a genre I haven’t sought out for reading—held my interest throughout. Because Taylor so effectively got into Mark’s head as he explained the work and mental processes of a thief, I became really uncomfortable as I read it, wanting to take this fictional character by the shoulders and shout at him, “Stop! What are you DOING with your life?!”

Indeed, Taylor is a skillful writer, and I’d expect that he’ll only improve with practice. Furthermore, the book is a fine opportunity for those of us on the other side of the planet to read a novel set in Auckland, a rarity in US libraries or bookstores, and get a sense of that faraway city; once again I find myself renewing my gratitude to Europa Editions for bringing more international writers to US readers. And Taylor’s novel has put me on track to the Europa Haver level! I’ve now read “Heliopolis,” “Cooking With Fernet Branca” (still to be reviewed), “French Leave,” “The Girl on the Via Flaminia,” and “Departure Lounge,” for a total of five Europa Editions books since accepting the Challenge, surpassing my original, deliberately modest, Ami goal.

Fellow Challenge participants and others who have read “Departure Lounge,” did you like it better than I did? Did I miss something? Can you help me appreciate it more?