Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Past Isn't Even Past

Poppet (2013) by Mo Hayder: Mo Hayder's troubled, brilliant DCI Jack Caffery continues his Major Crimes work in Bristol in this satisfying horror-procedural. Caffery again and again finds himself investigating cases that seem to be just this side of the supernatural, and Poppet keeps that going. Caffery also has a couple of problems to deal with from previous novels, but these are explained well enough that one doesn't need to have read a previous Caffery novel to understand everything that goes on.

Hayder gives us multiple third-person limited narrative focuses for Poppet. The narrative is handled deftly (though Boy, are some of the chapters short!), with Caffery and mental-institution worker AJ being the main protagonists. AJ calls Caffery in when events at his privately funded institution seem to get dangerously weird. And they are dangerously weird, and have been intermittently for years.

Poppet does a number of things tremendously well. Foremost is its sensitive treatment of catastrophic mental-health issues both through the sympathetic, haunted AJ's interactions with his patients, and partially through Poppet's plot, which does not go where it seems to be going. Hayder should get some sort of prize for not giving us the same old mentally ill boogeymen and women, or for not simply dressing up yet another impossible Joker and unleashing him on her novel.

Terrible things do happen, and marvelous things, some of the latter verging on the supernatural without necessarily getting there. Throughout it all, Caffery -- isolated, alcoholic, workaholic -- holds himself together as he also strives to follow the labyrinthine thread to the truth. Highly recommended.

Hey Nostradamus! (2004) by Douglas Coupland:  So we have four narrators for the four sections of Hey Nostradamus!: Cheryl, Jason, Heather, and Reg.  They narrate their parts of the story in 1988, 1999, 2003, and 2004 respectively. Cheryl and Jason were high-school lovers in 1988. Heather is Jason's girlfriend in 2003. Reg is Jason's religious fanatic father. A horrific 1988 Vancouver high-school shooting which vaguely anticipates Columbine sets the narratives in motion.

Coupland's characterization of the four narrators is deft and sympathetic, or at least empathetic. The 1988 school shooting is portrayed with a mixture of horror, black comedy, and crazed heroism on the parts of some individuals, including Jason. The media frenzy afterwards, the desire to canonize some individuals, the problems of recovering from such things -- these are all marvelously conveyed.

Douglas Coupland doesn't always get his due as a major novelist because, like Kurt Vonnegut, his novels are so easy and natural to read that the whole thing can seem effortless. Perhaps even too entertaining. Perhaps, given the often bleak but also often laugh-out-loud comic touch Vonnegut and Coupland share, the novels can seem glib.

Hey Nostradamus! isn't glib. But it goes down so smoothly that one can perhaps be forgiven for finding it too entertaining to be taken as a serious novel. But it is serious. If there's closure, it's faint and conditional and human and humane. The plot takes turns at several points that are genuinely shocking in their unexpectedness, though they always remain this side of plausible. 

Morally, the novel suggests that moral or religious certainty, the certainty of absolutism, can be horrifyingly toxic. It also suggests that people can change, but not always, and not always in time for that change to be meaningful to those for whom one changed. All this comes in that compulsively readable Coupland manner, funny and witty and floating on a vast ocean of sadness. Highly recommended.

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