Friday, March 28, 2008

The Exquisite

There's a line between dreams and reality and Laird Hunt's The Exquisite staggers across that line, leaving the reader wondering which side is which. Everyone has a hidden life and no one is ever eager to reveal the truth. As Henry, the narrator, says, "Once upon a time I was someone then that stopped." Everything is explained in roundabout ways to leave the reader wanting to know more and only occasionally discovering what might possibly be the reality of the situation. Even when the truth is told it is difficult to embrace as Henry isn't the most trustworthy narrator--the reader is never sure if he's dreaming, hallucinating from medication, in a mental ward, or living a real life.

The Exquisite takes place in New York, mostly the East Village, not long after the terrorist attacks--there is no exact date and the event is only vaguely referred to. The scenery is poetically described, even if the reality of it isn't quite so scenic. The story of Henry revolves around Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson, from which Aris Kindt obtains his name (or perhaps from which his namesake obtains his name). Through Mr. Kindt, Henry meets the others--Cornelius, The Knockout, The Contortionists--and joins in their business endeavor that involves mock murders, paid for by the victims.

The novel shifts in time--each chapter is a specific time that seems to flow between in a hospital and walking the streets of New York. In both times the characters are the same but different. There is a distinct possibility that Henry is delusional and sees the same people or he just confuses people with similar characteristics. Unraveling the mystery surrounding identity is part of the experience of reading Hunt's novel.

Although confusing at times, Laird Hunt makes The Exquisite an enjoyable read. The wandering narration of Henry is an intriguing voice no matter how unusual the thought process. There is plenty of dark humor--jokes about death, murder, love, and herring. And although the herring is repeatedly mentioned, there is never a distinction if it happens to be red.

As the reader bounces between worlds, there is always something to pick up on. Whether it's a dream or reality, there's something significant. The mockery of murder leads to a double life, just as the discussions of Mr. Kindt's past lead to ambiguity. "[F]ake is funny, don't you think? Fake is like Steve McQueen and the movies--there's always a little real there too."

Laird Hunt is also the author of The Impossibly and Indiana, Indiana.


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