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The Truth about
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B : equal parts endearingly enthusiastic and inept
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The complete review's Review:
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair most resembles one of those old-fashioned musical films where a small-town-USA group of teens gets together to put on a show: taking an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, stuffed with the incongruous, lots of off-key singing, with countless things that go wrong and a bloated, misshapen story that veers off unpredictably on tangents, but where the naïve bunch who are in way over their heads somehow pull it off -- maybe something that's not really objectively good but still manages to be satisfying.
I want to write a great novel, with great ideas ! I want to write something unforgettable.He's looking for effect, rather than art; he has no ideas, just a desire to put on a show .....
At least Harry calls him on it: "Your overambitiousness always did get on my nerves", and briefly one hopes there might be hope. Well, not really; only twenty-some-odd pages in, it's already clear that the writing will never quite make the grade. In any case, Goldman (re-)embraces Harry-as-mentor -- to the extent that each of the thirty-one chapters of the novel -- presented in countdown/reverse order ... -- is preceded by a nugget of writing wisdom Harry offered Goldman. Because that's all it takes, of course: a by-the-numbers how-to guide, making for a ready-to-assemble number one bestseller. (Don't laugh -- Goldman's efforts may seem unconvincing, but Dicker's, after all, delivers as promised -- it may not be: "a great novel, with great ideas", it may not even be "something unforgettable", but, damn, it sure sold a lot of copies.)
[The advice Harry offers is so bafflingly fatuous one wonders whether Dicker is having us all on; a favorite is:
"Harry, how long does it take to write a book ?"The only thing missing would be Goldman having each Zen- (or, as some critics have suggested, Paulo Coelho-)like insight, separately framed, hanging on his writer-studio-wall ..... (And I remind you again: this work was a finalist for the highest French literary prize.)]
Fortunately, Goldman doesn't need to rely on Harry's words of wisdom to get him over his writer's block (fortunate, since they don't really seem to help him much). Instead, reality intrudes -- and, yes, Goldman winds up selling out completely: instead of writing a grand work of fiction he turns to the lowest level of writing, the tell-all non-fiction exposé. The Truth about Harry Quebert. (And then, because that didn't quite work out as planned, the follow-up, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair.) Because for all of Harry's babbling, the real inspiration lies in his backyard, where, in the summer of 2008, they dig up the remains of Nola Kellergan, a girl who disappeared in 1975, when she was fifteen. Despite being so close to Harry, Goldman had never heard about Nola -- and could not know that, as Harry admits:
Nola was the only woman I ever loved, and, unfortunately for me, she was only fifteen. But it was love, for God's sake -- you can't control love !In fact, Harry was planning to elope with her that August night in 1975, hightailing it to Canada (and then decorously waiting until she was eighteen for them to get married ...). While his relationship with the underage girl was apparently not well- or widely-known back in the day, the evidence is seen as overwhelming (it doesn't help that the one thing found with her was an inscribed copy of the manuscript of The Origin of Evil), and Harry is hauled away, brought up on charges of kidnapping and murder, and soon facing the death penalty. [New Hampshire is, conveniently, a state that still has the death penalty, but given that they executed all of three prisoners in the entire twentieth century, and that the last state execution was in 1939, Harry really shouldn't have had that much to fear. From a legal perspective it also seems almost impossible that anyone could have thought the capital murder charge would stick -- even if they could somehow hang the murder charge on him, proving that Nola was kidnapped (the necessary aggravating circumstances here to make the murder capital) more than three decades after the fact is a near-impossibility (and, even just on the initial evidence, would have been a stretch back in 1975, too). But, of course, Europeans expect the American justice system to be unconscionably harsh, the death penalty awaiting practically every accused murderer ..... So too, throughout, Dicker prefers the big (movie-ready) scene -- the disgraced official led away in handcuffs after confessing to a(n admittedly awful) crime -- rather than worrying about legal and procedural niceties (the New Hampshire statute of limitations was over even for that crime; another charge (interfering with a police investigation) would probably have been the more important one in this instance, etc.).]
To all the world it looks like: Famous author murdered his young Lolita ! This is a big deal. A case that attracts national attention. Or, as Dicker/Goldman puts it -- because you can apparently never lay on the hyperbole thick enough --:
This was the biggest scandal in the history of publishing.Goldman believes in his mentor, who claims his innocence (well, about everything except wanting to run away with a fifteen-year-old), and he feels a sense of duty to him: "Without him I would never have become the writer I am now" -- dubious praise indeed in the mind of the reader, still rolling his eyes, but meant sincerely by the successful -- or once (less than two years ago ...) successful writer ...... Eventually Goldman also gets roped into writing a book about the whole case, so he plays at investigating.
Dicker seems to have read his Hardy Boys-mysteries; that's certainly the level of investigation here. Indeed, Goldman is perhaps the worst amateur investigator ever in a work of contemporary fiction. He's not so much bumbling as mindless, unable to put two and two together, and with zero follow-through. When he comes across a fact (or what looks like one), that's pretty much good enough for him. Look into it any further ? Why bother ? Check out the surrounding and background information ? Why bother ?
Goldman gets friendly with local Sergeant Perry Gahalowood, the gruff but lovable; "African American with hands like bear paws, wearing a too-tight blazer that revealed his powerful, stocky build". They banter as mismatched investigators in buddy movies do, the too-white intellectual from the big city who has led the soft life versus the conveniently darker-skinned down-to-earth country policeman, the policeman distrustful of the outsider at first but then accepting that he too has something to offer ..... An early exchange is pretty typical:
"What could I learn from the autopsy ? Actually, do you say autopsy when it's just a skeleton ?Gahalowood not only shows remarkable restraint in not demonstrating with an actual bat on Goldman's own person, but actually gives the writer some good advice -- vital, since Goldman shows himself to be extremely advice-reliant throughout, and pretty much incapable of coming up with a sensible idea on his own. Gahalowood tells him:
Good cops don't focus on the killer ... they focus on the victim. You need to find out about the victim.The victim -- at least the one everyone is interested in -- is Nola Kellergan. She disappeared 30 August 1975. A woman, Deborah Cooper, called the police twice that night, once to say she thought she saw a girl being chased by a man, then not too much later saying that the girl was now in her house -- but then, apparently, the attacker found them. When the police got there Deborah Cooper was dead and Nola gone.
Nola was the daughter of Reverend Kellergan; the family had come north from Alabama six years earlier, in 1969, when Nola was just nine. In the summer of 1975 she worked in a local diner. Harry Quebert, a struggling writer from New York with one self-published book to his name, decided he needed a change of scenery, and came to Somerset, renting a house way out of his league, but making a grand impression on the locals. And he and Nola apparently fell for each other, hard.
Goldman begins nosing around, looking into those events of more than thirty years ago -- despite immediately finding himself warned off by notes left for him, and then some rather more emphatic suggestions that he go back where he belongs ("Threatening letters ?" his cartoonish publisher swoons; "That's great ! That'll really help sell the book. Imagine if someone tries to kill you -- you could add another zero to the sale figures right away. Two if you actually die") -- and he pieces together parts of Nola's life that summer. As noted, he's not very good at this, so he only sees the parts and doesn't really get the bigger picture. Harry also doesn't really help much by not being completely forthright about his relationship -- and, indeed, coyly and ridiculously there's not even any discussion of just how intimate he and the young girl got. (The ick-factor is kept very much under wraps by Dicker/Goldman; so, for example, when Nola wants to be more open about their relationship, the level of discussion doesn't go much beyond Harry reminding her: "Nola, you're fifteen ... and I'm thirty-four. People would be shocked".)
Perhaps the only really good use of the Harry-Quebert-words-of-inspirational-wisdom® that preface each of the chapters is about two-thirds of the way through, when Harry tells Goldman:
The danger of books, Marcus, is that sometimes you lose control of them.Bullied by his publisher, Goldman has only had a tenuous hold on his book anyway, but it's a nice twist when Dicker allows him to really lose control over it and what follows. It gets worse when the book is actually out there, but certainly the locals aren't happy with Goldman once the first hints of what he's been writing come out. And though he thinks he's onto the truth about the Harry Quebert affair ... well, not so fast, young fella .....
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair isn't really a murder-mystery, or the story about a man and the one, great lost love of his life. It is a story of betrayal. Betrayals, galore. Above all, however, it is a story of writers and writing -- and, as part of that, of image versus reality. Part of the problem, then, too is that naïve and young Dicker/Goldman want 'writing' to be a certain thing -- "Everyone loved you when you were a great writer", Goldman's mother laments, not even two years after publication of his first book ... -- but the writing on show here, and the successes of Goldman's books give a very different impression; the ones he completes in trying to clear up everything Harry Quebert-related seem barely more than hurried-journalistic tell-alls. Harry's homilies -- "Writing a book is like loving someone. It can be very painful" -- resound for all the wrong reasons and in all the wrong ways. The truly subversive lesson of the conclusion is an amusing about-turn, but leaves the book a rather hollow shell (a justification for why it reads so hollowly even before the reader is aware of what's coming ?).
Marcus could and should have seen the truth about Harry Quebert before; the exact nature of it is so ridiculously complicated as to have been out of reach to him (and to the reader), but the essential part is surely something that can be seen coming from near the get-go (though admittedly Harry's own stance and some of his evasions make it a bit harder to remain consistently securely convinced). Parts of this -- the murder-mystery, the explanation(s) whodunnit -- get a bit silly, and much was out of Goldman's (and the reader's) reach until it conveniently fell into place. Still, there are a few pieces he should have picked up or gone to collect a bit earlier, a few questions he should have asked. Dicker is no master of the misdirect -- he doesn't play entirely fair -- and some of what the story hinges on is of the ridiculous why-didn't-he-see-it sort, but this plot is so over-the-top elaborate that it almost works (there's so much keeping reader's busy that the holes don't entirely trip things up).
Dicker does manage the quite impressive feat of making a story about a love-affair between a man in his mid-thirties and a fifteen-year-old girl almost anodyne. There's some local shrieking about how awful such an unnatural relationship is, but perhaps because it never appears -- or is displayed -- as real, where all we have is Harry's descriptions of his longing and a bit of time spent together with the girl, it doesn't really seem very offensive. But then, as noted, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair isn't really about their relationship, or her murder. (There is only one description of a sexual act in the novel, and mention of another, and these are unsavory -- but they're also so clearly parts of the puzzle, with a rationale that seems failry obvious (not that Goldman sees it, not for the longest time) that one can just check them off as just another part essential to Dicker's over-complicated plot.)
It is noteworthy how poor the (would-be) romantic relationships in the novel are. Gahalowood seems to be the only one in a healthy relationship: Goldman is unattached, and even if Harry had found the love of his life, let's face it, that wasn't exactly an ideal one; another couple finds one of the partners regularly drugging the other into a deep slumber, while a homosexual couple doesn't feel comfortable revealing their relationship. And don't even ask about Nola's parents (as, apparently nobody does ...).
It's also remarkable how very much the characters and atmosphere seem foreign-(i.e. US-)pop-culture inspired: Dicker may have summered in Maine frequently, but his characters -- the lawyer, the publisher, Goldman's mother (her conversation, thoughts, and actions a spitting image of George-Costanza-of-Seinfeld's-mother's) -- come straight out of the tacky American TV shows of yesteryear. It make for a faux-America that's just that weird tad off (and exaggerated in a way Americans wouldn't exaggerate). Longtime French-resident Sam Taylor might also not have been the ideal choice to translate this -- unless the intention was to keep that goofy, slightly off-key sound to the whole thing intact (and you can see why they might have wanted to do that -- really fixing this would have been a load of work). So, for example, a homosexual character explains he: "belonged to the other side"; surely, whatever the euphemism is, it's not that ('bat for the other side', or more likely: 'play for the other team', but surely not 'belonged').
So there's a lot that's wrong with The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. (It's over six hundred pages, too -- have I mentioned that ? -- and much of it is not well-paced (though there are a couple of decent pivots).) Looking at it more closely, it sounds pretty terrible -- and I assure you, it could be taken apart much more and it would not be a pretty sight. And yet it has some things going for it, and you can (almost) see why it's been such a success.
Dicker writes with the sincerity and earnestness (and immature talents) of a small-town teen with stars in his eyes, and just as one smiles at and excuses many of the failings of the show the kids put on, so too Dicker's novel, even with (or because of ?) its Mickey-Rooney-level dialogue, has enough to it to to make you smile.
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair isn't a good book -- god, no it really isn't -- but its badness can, for the most part, largely be ... overlooked, if not forgiven. (It's one of those books you don't even want to call 'flawed', because that doesn't even begin to describe it (though it could: man, you could use this as a text for a writing-lesson tutorial in what-not-to-do-and-how-not-to-do-it for a whole semester) -- but it also doesn't really matter that much here.) You could do worse for a summer beach read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 26 May 2014
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Swiss author Joël Dicker was born in 1985.
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