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An Interview with Ed Brubaker

Sep 18, 2012 in Comic Books, Writing

This week, our friends at Marvel publish the Classified Edition of Incognito, collecting, with bonus material, the first two volumes of the acclaimed, hard-boiled series Joe Hill describes as “what the albums of the Black Keys are to rock and roll and the pictures of Quentin Tarantino are to film.”

Our celebration of this truly bad-ass bind-up continues with an exclusive interview with writer Ed Brubaker. Check back tomorrow for an excerpt!

The idea of a bad guy disguised in plain sight is something that is universally frightening, is this where the idea of Zack Overkill came from?

I think part of it actually came from trying to figure out what the flipside to my and Sean Phillips’s series SLEEPER would be. That was about a good guy pretending to be a bad guy, so this would be about a bad guy pretending… something. I wasn’t sure yet. I came pretty quickly to the idea of supervillain Witness Protection, which to me, seemed like for some of these guys would be worse than prison.

Megan Abbott said recently that the line from Double Indemnity “I did it for the money and the woman. I didn’t get the money. I didn’t get the woman.” sums up noir. Incognito certainly adheres to this formula, what it is about noir that is attractive to you?

I’m not entirely sure. I guess because all of us, at some time or another, feel like everything could just fall apart. Or feels desperate. And I like stories that play into that. And there’s a certain mythic inevitability to noir stories. You watch all the parts of the story moving, and you know they’re going to end somewhere bad, but you can’t look away. You hold onto some desperate hope that your “hero” will somehow get out alive, if not intact.  I think Double Indemnity is the perfect example of why noir works — at the beginning of the movie (I can’t remember if it’s the same in the book) you already know everything has gone wrong, and yet you just want to see what happens anyway.  So much of film and tv and books and comics these days are about attempts to surprise readers or viewers, and while that can be fun, showing the aftermath first removes that, and allows you to just write from the characters, if that makes any sense.

One of the great things about the INCOGNITO series how well it incorporates the shades of grey between “good” and “evil”—something quite rare in comics even today. Where on the spectrum would you place Zack at the beginning and the close of the story arcs in Incognito: The Classified Edition?

I think at the beginning of the story, he’s a bad guy. An amoral prick at best. It’s a black comedy in some ways, so I played it for humor, but he’s not a guy you’d want to know. His best friend is the office drug addict and thief, after all. I think by the end, he’s been dragged through the wringer to the point where he feels just used by everyone on both sides — the good guys and the bad guys.

You’ve said elsewhere that you’re a big Hammett and Chandler fan—what’s your favorite of each of their novels? Did you draw on these writers or the work of other novelists in writing INCOGNITO?

I think the only conscious influences on INCOGNITO would be old pulp mags – Doc Savage and the Shadow — and Philip Jose Farmer’s A FEAST UNKNOWN.

My favorite Hammett and Chandler — Hammett it’s probably the Continental Op stories, and I love Red Harvest, of course. With Chandler, probably the Long Goodbye, although they’re all good. I even love his letters, which have so much of his dark humor in them.

When we first meet Zack Overkill, he’s powerless—just another office drone fighting boredom. What was it like to write a character with a life so run-of-the-mill, yet capable of such extreme superhuman acts without the restraints placed on him?

A lot of fun, really. I loved making a normal life feel like a trap. And I loved that even after he got his powers back, he still had to go to the office everyday, which made it even worse. I think that’s what makes these stories work, in the long run, is seeing him in his “secret identity” in both lives. Like in Bad Influences, when he has to live in an apartment building and deal with nosy neighbors.

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Under the Influence

Sep 17, 2012 in Comic Books, Guest Posts

This week, our friends at Marvel publish the Classified Edition of Incognito, collecting, with bonus material, the first two volumes of the acclaimed, hard-boiled series that Joe Hill describes as “what the albums of the Black Keys are to rock and roll and the pictures of Quentin Tarantino are to film.”

Hill’s essay on INCOGNITO follows. Go check out INCOGNITO now! We’ll have more from Brubaker and the INCOGNITO series as the week continues.

I hate it when comic creators get bitching and moaning about how their art form doesn’t get the respect it deserves, isn’t honored the way theater or painting or mainstream literature is honored, and all that blah-de-blah-de-fucking-blah.

Oh, go cry a river somewhere over your twenty-year-old copies of Maus and leave me alone.

Then there are these card-carrying boys of Fanboy Nation who want to establish a “read-comics-in-public” day, to make comics seem more socially normative.

Fuck that.

I don’t want comics to be respectable. I don’t want everyone proudly looking at them in public. I want reading comics to feel dirty and unhealthy and transgressive, to feel like sin, like a visit to the whorehouse, or a secret fight club, or maybe both at the same time.I don’t read comics, I do comics, like shots, four-color grain alcohol slurped out of the White Queen’s dainty navel; afterwards she can slap me around  a little and tell me how she’s going to punish my wrongdoer. I didn’t put my money down for a moving literary epiphany. I dropped my cash to see badass women cavort in fetish costumes while fighting evil, to watch brutal men strangle monsters with their bare hands, to see a city block leveled (if not a whole city), and to have a front-row seat as malformed monsters of evil are sliced in half by their own death ray machines.

Don’t get me wrong. I am often engaged, enthralled, and moved by the redemptive experience of high art, as it is found in films like “Rules of the Game,” a book like Malamud’s “A New Life,” or a comic like “Fun Home.” It’s just that I don’t seem to be compulsively drawn to that kind of thing. What really gets my pulse jacked are stories of grime and punishment, lawlessness and disorder, the bad and the ugly(hold the good).

Stories of this ilk grab me like a magnet grabs iron shavings. The creators of such work are blood-slicked  MMA fighters, in a world where to fight at all is increasingly seen as barbaric, and embarrassingly out of step with the times. If I was a more sensible man, governed by more sensible, forward-looking notions, I’m sure I would invest my time in better mannered, more tasteful art forms. But my deepest enthusiasm has always been reserved for the creators that speak to my nerve-endings.

I suppose it’s a failing; I have always had compassion for the wrong people. Continue reading ›

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Jim Thompson: An Appreciation

Sep 12, 2012 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

The e-book Jim Thompson’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME, the novel Stanley Kubrick deemed “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered,” is on sale for just $2.99 for the Nook, Kindle, and the iBookstore. Now is the perfect time to introduce yourself to one of the great classics of twentieth century crime fiction–at a bargain price, and including an intro from Stephen King.

Looking for even more of an introduction? Check out the below essay on Thompson from our very own Joe R. Lansdale.

Jim Thompson has been called a dime store Dostoevsky, but an oil field Faulkner might be more accurate. He wrote not only about the common man, he wrote like the common man, with words full of raw truth mixed with sweet and sticky lies; wicked stories written with a glass of whisky at his elbow.

I had never heard of Jim Thompson growing up. And this surprises me. I read all manner of novels by all manner of writers, and a writer like Thompson was just my meat, but it wasn’t until Stephen King commented on him, that he hit my radar.

Not long after that, I saw Thompson’s work everywhere, and I dove in. As a fellow Texan, same as a I had with the work of Robert E. Howard, another Texan, I recognized people I knew. Howard gussied them up in loin cloths and gave them swords, made them melancholy heroes, but Thompson’s characters were contemporary, and though melancholy for the most part, were considerably short on heroics. They were the dregs of society; little people with dreams too large for them to hold; dreams they drove all over the highways of their ambitions like a drunk at the wheel of a muscle car with bad tires.

There is no one quite like Thompson in low or high literature. He was his own man, and stories like THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE GRIFTERS, and, well pretty much everything he ever wrote, are as unique as the pattern of a snow flake. They are his snow flakes, and they are soiled and stink of cheap liquor, but you will find no other like him. Many have tried to imitate him, but have only brought the literary equivalent of loud horns and dirty laundry to the game.

Thompson was his own man. Sad and dark, oozing rotten sex and rotten dreams, all of it touched with a kind cheap carnival atmosphere; the kind where the bolts on the rides shake and it‘s best to keep your hand on your wallet. A writer primarily confined to the literary back alleys of cheap paperbacks written in bursts as dynamic as the spewing of an oil gusher.

He was, for better or worse, the great and unique, Jim Thompson.

Joe R. Lansdale

Nacogdoches, Texas

Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than a dozen novels, including THE BOTTOMS, A FINE DARK LINE, and LEATHER MAIDEN. He has received the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Edgar Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, and eight Bram Stoker Awards. He lives with his family in Nacogdoches, Texas. Mulholland Books will publish his next novel, EDGE OF DARK WATER, in March 2012.

Over the next year, Mulholland Books will be publishing Jim Thompson’s entire body of work in e-book format for the first time. THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE GRIFTERS, AFTER DARK, MY SWEET, A SWELL-LOOKING BABE and THE NOTHING MAN are now available–look for the next batch on Christmas Day.

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The Assumption

Sep 11, 2012 in Excerpts, Fiction, Guest Posts, Popcorn Fiction, Short Stories

Dresden to go (cc)Via Popcorn Fiction, a superstar actor has big secrets in his past in this touch of noir from Ralph Pezzullo, co-author of HUNT THE WOLF: A Seal Team Six novel written with Don Mann.

He saw her face in his mind’s eye and there was no mistake. Pale and pleading. Desperate. A ghost with pale red hair floating to the surface of his consciousness.

More like an ache. An awful reminder.

Gil Naylor cranked up the stereo in his vintage Mercedes coupe as it climbed the narrow streets of the Hollywood Hills.

Then he saw her again. This time, smiling. Teasing. Beckoning him further like a siren. “Help me, Gil. Please, help me.”

Entering through the elaborately carved Spanish door, the ruggedly handsome forty-nine-year-old actor crossed directly to the bottle of Asombroso Reserva Del Porto, poured a shot and downed it.

Beyond the patio and pool he watched the sun drop like a mustard-colored fizzy into the blue ink ocean. The tequila slammed down his throat like a fist.

And the image vanished.

Replaced by familiar sounds and faces as the house came to life like it always did when he entered. Jagged sparks of energy ricocheted off the terracotta tiles and yellow stucco walls, into the lavender tiled kitchen, and beyond.

Jenny, his live-in girlfriend, responded, hurrying in from the gym in a black tank top and shorts, abs taunt and glistening, nipples at attention. Tara, his personal assistant stuck her head out of the upstairs office and called from the balcony. Continue reading ›

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The Lineup: Weekly Links

Sep 07, 2012 in Weekly links

Contrasted ConfinementIt’s been a great summer summer at Mulholland Books, and we topped it off with our August publication, SHAKE OFF by Mischa Hiller, which received glowing praise from the likes of Kirkus, PW and Booklist, as well as great reviews from blogs like the Murder By the Book Blog, BestsellersWorld.com, Tzer Island, and The Review Broads.

Now that Labor Day is behind us, BREED has hit bookstores! The perfect literary chiller to kick off the fall season, written by National Book Award winner Scott Spencer under the pseudonym Chase Novak, BREED has been getting strong reviews from the likes of Janet Maslin in the New York Times, who proclaims the novel “reads like the work of a serious writer with keen antennas for sensory detail,” Brian Truitt of USA Today, who calls the novel “a thrill to read.”

Transit ads for BREED are now featured in New York City subway cars! We like the look of them so much we can help but share them…

In wider news, the Toronto International Film Festival has been taking place this week, and LOOPER, which arrives in theaters across the country later this month, recently kicked off the proceedings in stellar fashion. Check out this talk with writer/director Rian Johnson (also the writer/director of BRICK, a Mulholland favorite) and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis if you’re in the mood for a good conversation (just skip to the twenty-minute mark!)

Speaking of films, it’s been a minute since we shared trailers of films we’re looking forward to–are you following THE MASTER, or Tarantino’s latest, DJANGO UNCHAINED?

Did we missing something sweet? Share it in the comments! We’re always open to suggestions for next week’s post! Get in touch at mulhollandbooks@hbgusa.com or DM us on Twitter.

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The Real Cats Behind the Ridge

Sep 06, 2012 in Uncategorized

Today we celebrate the publication of Michael Koryta’s THE RIDGE, now available in paperback in bookstores everywhere, with the below essay from Koryta included as bonus content in the new edition.

Don’t miss the novel that James Patterson calls “one of the scariest and most touching horror tales in years!”

One of the truly wonderful things about the business of writing is getting the chance to step into a different world and see it through the eyes of those who inhabit it. The Ridge was already written and nearing publication when I went along as an observer on a big-cat rescue, largely out of curiosity. It was an experience that left me wanting to step out of the observation role and lend some sort of help, because the animals are amazing to be near and the people affiliated with the center are compelling to work with. Over the course of a year I had the chance to participate in several rescues, offering the kind of involvement for which I am qualified: grunt labor, frequent mistakes, and a plethora of dumb questions.

Along the way, over several thousand miles and through several states, I gained hands-on experience with one of the most impressive animal-rescue operations in the country. I have just come back from helping with the rescue of a pair of lions from a refuge in the Kentucky mountains. Talk about full circle. I haven’t heard reports of any blue torches nearby. But I kept my eye out, I assure you.

The big-cat rescue depicted in The Ridge is a fictional recreation  of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana. The center is currently home to cats of nine species, ranging from six-hundred-pound tigers to a six-pound Asian leopard cat. “Home” is the key word, because that is the main purpose for the center’s existence. Founder and director Joe Taft, who opened the center in 1991, wanted to provide a permanent home for big cats who had been abandoned or abused or were otherwise in need. At the time, he thought his mission would be a success if he could provide homes for 100 cats. He estimated there might be that many needy cats in the country.

He was wrong.

The current number of cats at the center is 227. In 2011, the rescue center took in 25 cats from six states. Reviewing my notes from the year, I estimated that for each cat that was taken in, at least five more requests could not be met due to limits of budget, time, and space. Taft guessed it was closer to ten, and I’m sure he’s right. It’s his phone that rings, and it rings often.

The center only takes in cats who are in need of a home. These situations are varied. Some cats have been confiscated by law enforcement; others come from refuges that have exceeded their capacity or their ability to deliver care; and some are personal pets, their owners overwhelmed by the reality of caring for a huge, hungry, potentially dangerous animal. Continue reading ›

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Genesis

Sep 05, 2012 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

Scott Spencer wrote BREED under the pseudonym of Chase Novak. Keep reading to find out why.

When, after writing ten novels, a writer decides to publish under a different name, there will inevitably be some curiosity about what is behind the sudden change.

Thinking about my becoming Chase Novak, three things occur to me.   The first is, I have always (and I mean always) wanted a second identity.  I could go on and on about why, but, really, isn’t it more or less self-explanatory –and practically a universal fantasy?  (In other words: wouldn’t you like to be someone else, and also remain yourself?)

The second thing that occurs to me is that I have been assuming new identities my whole writing life.  Especially when I write novels in the first person, in which the narrator does all he can do to make a reader believe that “I” have burned down my girlfriend’s house, or run for Congress, or that someone very much like Bob Dylan is “my” father.

And, finally, Chase Novak stepped forward because “he” was willing –and eager! –to go places in a novel that Spencer would not have been able to reach.  Spencer is limited by the fact that he stands atop (or perhaps is buried beneath) the high, tottering stack of pages he has already written.  Novak has nothing on his mind but a mania to follow the nightmare logic of his most troubled thoughts and memories.  In other words, Spencer could not have written BREED.  It was up to Chase.

CHASE NOVAK is the pseudonym for Scott Spencer. Spencer is the author of ten novels, including Endless Love, which has sold over two million copies to date, and the National Book Award finalist A Ship Made of Paper. He has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, and Harper’s.

BREED, praised by Janet Maslin of the New York Times as “a foray into urbane horror, chicly ghoulish, with a malevolent emphasis on family values, is his debut novel as Chase Novak.

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Dark Inspiration

Aug 29, 2012 in Books, Guest Posts, Writing

Echo Railroad Bridge over Sabine River, north of I-10, Orange, Texas 1031091315BWI can’t think about Edgar Allan Poe without thinking about my life, because he was there in dark spirit, in my room and in my head. He was out there in the shadows of the East Texas pines, roaming along the creeks and the Sabine River, a friendly specter with gothic tales to tell. It was a perfect place for him. East Texas. It’s the part of Texas that is behind the pine curtain, down here in the damp dark. It’s Poe country, hands down.

These thoughts were in my mind as I toured the Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. The Center, at the University of Texas at Austin, is celebrating the bicentennial of Poe’s birth with an exhibition that includes original manuscripts and illustrations. Looking at these artifacts, it occurred to me that Poe reached out from the grave and saved this East Texan from the aluminum chair factory. I know there are those who will say working in an aluminum chair factory is good honest work, and I’m going to agree. But I will say without hesitation and with no concern of insult that it damn sure wasn’t work of my choosing, and that it takes the skill of a trained raccoon and the I.Q. of a can of green beans, minus the label, to get it done.

Like Sisyphus forever rolling his rock uphill, I feared I would spend my time on Earth matching up aluminum runners, or linking chain to be pinned together by hissing and snapping and cutting and crimping machines, which in turn would be forklifted away in shiny piles of bent rods and flexible seats. Something to be sold and brought out on hot days at barbecues, and on hot nights to give mosquito-attacked, beer-drinking drive-in theater patrons a place for their butts to nestle.

Continue reading ›

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Start Reading Breed by Chase Novak

Aug 27, 2012 in Excerpts, Fiction, Mulholland Authors, Uncategorized

Next month we publish the hotly anticipated horror novel from Chase Novak, the pseudonymous debut of Scott Spencer’s alter ego hailed by Stephen King as “The best horror novel I’ve read since Peter Straub’s Ghost Story…by turns terrifying and blackly funny…a total blast.”

Copies are already on their way to bookstores–but you can start the wild ride right here. Let the buzz begin!

Part One

 

Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father

–Leviticus

It’s well known—part fact, part punch line—that people in New York think a great deal about real estate. In the case of Leslie Kramer, she actually was aware of the house Alex Twisden lived in before she had ever met him, or even knew his name. Leslie would often pass by the house on days she chose to walk to Gardenia Press, where, though single and childless herself, she edited children’s books.

The house was a piece of pure old New York, from before taxes, before unions, back when the propertied classes had money for the finest stonework, the finest carpentry, and for a multitude of servants, including people to put straw in the streets so the wagon wheels of passing merchants would not clatter on the cobblestones. It was a four-story townhouse on East Sixty-Ninth Street, an often-photographed Federal-style dwelling made of pale salmon bricks, with windows that turned bursts of light into prismatic fans of color framed by pale green shutters.

It was one of the few residences on this block that had not been broken up into apartments, and the only house in the neighborhood owned by the same family since its construction. It was one of those places that seem immune to change, ever lovely, and ever redolent of privilege and the provenance that justifies the continuation of those privileges. The front of the house bore a polished brass plaque announcing the year of the house’s construction, 1840. The window boxes were almost always in bloom, with snowdrops in the spring, and then with tulips, impatiens, geraniums, and various decorative cabbages, some of them so unusual and obscure that often passersby would stop on the sidewalk and wonder about them. The light post next to the eight-step porch was entwined with twinkling blue lights twelve months a year. Recycling was set out at the curbside inside of cases that once held bottles of Château Beychevelle or Tattinger’s.

Twisdens have been born and have died in these rooms. The first President Roosevelt dined there on several occasions and once famously played the ukulele and sang Cuban folk songs for a dinner party that included the mayor, the ambassador to the Court of King James’s, and a Russian ballerina who, it turned out, was embroiled in an affair with the host, Abraham Twisden. Twisdens who practiced law and medicine lived here, political Twisdens, bohemian Twisdens, drunken and idle Twisdens, one of whom lost the house in a card game on West Fourteenth Street, a debt that was nullified by the sudden death of the lucky winner, who turned out not to be so lucky after all.

Alex was raised in this house along with his sisters, Katherine and Cecile. Their world was this house, with its mahogany globes the size of cantaloupes on the newel posts of every stairway, with wedding-cake plaster on the ceilings, and wainscoting in the parlor, and the library, and antique Persian carpets of red and purple and blue and gold on the wide plank floors, rugs knotted by little hands that had long since turned to dust.

Katherine lives now as a Buddhist nun in Thailand and has renounced the family; she has a brain tumor that has shortened her temper but seems not to be shortening her life. Cecile died at thirteen, of a staph infection following the removal of her appendix, and when their parents died in Corfu, in 1970, the house on Sixty-Ninth Street passed without contest directly to Alex.

In point of fact, it was the house that brought Alex and Leslie together in the first place. One drizzly spring morning, Alex noticed her stopped in front of his house, and he said, “Haven’t I seen you before?”

“Oh, I like to stop here. It’s on my way to work. And it’s such a beautiful house.”

“I’m afraid I’m its prisoner,” Alex said. “I just don’t like anyplace else in the world half so much.”

“I can see why,” Leslie said. The ends of her blunt-cut auburn hair touched the dark red, rain-spotted wool of her coat. She had the plain but lovely face of a pioneer; he could imagine her sitting at the back of a covered wagon, looking longingly east as her family headed west. Her eyes were bright green, and though she was smiling, there seemed something temperamental, easily wounded about her.

Alex, dressed for work in thousands of dollars’ worth of English tailoring and, even in a more overtly social situation, tending toward the reticent, surprised himself by asking, “Would you be interested in seeing the inside?”

From there to courtship to wedding was a mere five months and it did not escape Leslie’s attention that some people (well: many) thought of her as Alex Twisden’s midlife trophy wife. Never mind that she loved him, and never mind that (of this she was certain) he loved her, and never mind that she was almost thirty (well: twenty-eight) and had an excellent (well: good) job at a great (well: up and coming) New York publishing company—the fact that she was seventeen years younger than Alex, and that he was wealthy, and childless and probably (well: definitely) in the hunt for an heir, made Leslie a trophy wife, which, in the parlance of well-off Manhattanites, suggested she was practicing some high-end, socially sanctioned form of prostitution.

But now the shining trophy wife has a very significant ding in her. She has been trying to have a baby for three years, which is why she and Alex are currently sitting in the annex of Herald Church on West Ninetieth Street, a depressing, claustrophobic, smelly, badly lit, terrible, and depressing (yes, it is worth a second mention) basement in which they are attending the biweekly meeting of the Uptown Infertility Support Group. As Leslie looks around at the scuffed linoleum floors, the plasterboard walls, the strip lighting, and the metal folding chairs, she uncrosses and recrosses her legs and tries to read the expression on her husband’s long, narrow, solemn face. But he is as unreadable here as he is when he rides the elevator to the top floor of the Erskine Building, where the venerable firm of Bailey, Twisden, Kaufman, and Chang go about their hushed business, a kind of law that seems to Leslie far closer to accountancy than anything she has ever seen on TV. In TV law, lives hang in the balance, wrongs are redressed, and the system blindly gropes its way toward justice. At BTK&C, all that matters in the orderly transfer of property, and the golden rule seems to be “Don’t ever touch the principal.”

Neither Alex nor Leslie really wants or needs the psychological or moral support of other couples dealing with infertility. They attend because it is Alex’s theory that these meetings, aside from being sobfests and weirdly twelve-steppy in their confessional nature, operate as a kind of clearinghouse for information about fertility treatments and fertility doctors. So far they have not met anyone who has done anything different from what Alex and Leslie have tried, often at the very same clinics, with the very same doctors, and even with the same kindhearted nurses. Tonight’s meeting was particularly useless. Two of the nine couples in the group have already separated—infertility can wreak havoc on a marriage—yet both the husbands from these defunct unions continue not only to show up for meetings but to dominate the discussions. The Featherstones, a chubby, cheerful duo—he a second-grade teacher, she a pastry chef—want to share their fabulous news. Chelsea is, or at least was, pregnant, and even though she miscarried in the third week, both the Featherstones are ebullient, feeling they have their problem, if not defeated, then at least on the run, and they somehow induce the group to share their excitement. As the basement echoes with applause, Leslie pretends to look for something in her purse, and Alex simply sits there with his hands folded in his lap.

When she looked over at him he silently mouths the words I love you.

*** Continue reading ›

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A Review of Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off

Aug 23, 2012 in Guest Posts

This review first appeared at Grift Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

I thought I’d burn through Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off, but I read the first half at an incredibly slow pace, partly out of necessity (I was moving) and partly because the narrative demanded my attention in a way I hadn’t expected.

The first chapters are weighted down with exposition about Michel Khoury, the book’s narrator, a young PLO operative whose family was murdered by extremists at a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. The short, Sallis-like chapters kept me reading when my attention waned. My first impression was that the book was trying unsuccessfully to balance being a spy novel and a history lesson. But those early chapters are merely a foundation for a story that gets moving around 70 pages in and then is impossible to put down once you reach the halfway mark.

Michel is an agent for a man named Abu Leila, who has taught him all that he knows and has become his surrogate father. I won’t go into great detail about their relationship except to say that what at first seems ordinary is later revealed as the great mysterious core of the book. Michel believes that he, as Abu Leila’s pawn, is working to resolve the Middle East conflict peacefully. Needless to say, nothing in this book is that easy.

Part of the book’s charm is that there are no simple heroes and villains. We have questions about every character that we meet, including Michel, who—in a couple of very surprising scenes—uncovers his true motives for becoming an intelligence agent. When he’s forced to go rogue and face his demons, Michel becomes even more intense and complicated.

One of the most compelling characters here is Helen, a young postgraduate anthropology student who Michel lives next door to and falls in love with. Helen, even more than Michel and Abu Leila, was a mystery to me as I read. I wondered about her motives constantly. Was she an agent? What was her endgame? When I realized I had taken on Michel’s anxiety about her, I felt that Hiller had succeeded in a significant way.

The book is, in some ways, about paranoia. Early on, Michel tells us how he sees the world: “Everyday objects must be considered potential concealers of microphones or cameras. Every person you meet could either be an agent waiting to get close or a possible recruit to the cause. Every woman that talks to you wants to trap you with the promise of sex. Every postcard has a hidden meaning. Everybody behind you could be following you, and it is your job to shake them off.” I was put in mind of Trelkovsky in Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (based on Roland Topor’s novel) in terms of how Hiller portrayed Michel’s pathological alienation. Unlike Trelkovsky, though, Michel’s search leads him away from madness. Ultimately, Shake Off is all the things it’s billed as—infectious, thought-provoking, and entertaining—because Michel is a character who exposes the dark complexities of being human.

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