Saturday, November 28, 2009

Lots of decidedly implied violence: 'The Impossibly' by Laird Hunt

A wise man once said 'we are all of us unreliable narrators'. Actually I thought I was that man, but it looks like a guy named Frank Wu, who has more Google juice than I do, has also said this. People (myself included) are always deceiving themselves as to their own flaws and shortcomings, or re-shaping the narrative of their lives, perhaps to improve employment or sex partner prospects. This can even be found in a perverse negative way amongst people at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings trying to out do each others' stories of hitting bottom, or among Born-Again Christians trying to convince people they were the worst sort of scum of the earth before they saw the light, perhaps to make the change in their life seem more dramatic, or to convince 'bad' people that they are inferior to the convert in terms of their capacity for badness.

Given this fact we can forgive the narrator of The Impossibly for at times contradicting himself, even sometimes admitting a retelling of a particular story is more what he wants to believe happened than necessarily what actually happened. It's also important to take into consideration that as a freelancer working for some shady international crime syndicate, years of training have made him very reluctant to provide details about some of the ugly violence he's been involved in. The book is full of violence, but there is none of the gleeful graphic goriness found in, for example, a Tarantino film. Consider this retelling of a dinner with his colleague and perhaps friend, John:
We do not, sir, have turkey, nor do I have for you an explanation.
And all I am asking for is an explanation.
Please leave.
We did, finally, and following something a little like the interaction I have just described, get our turkey - they had some, by chance it seemed, in the freezer. Neither of us at the end of eating it entirely believed it had been turkey, but it had been called turkey with maximum enthusiasm by the man whose head John had placed in the sink, and it had been appropriately garnished, so we didn't complain.
Our narrator's life, as it turns out, is not particularly glamorous. He spends a lot of time lying on the floor listening to the river, and attends to mundane tasks like finding the paperwork required in order to get his washing machine serviced.

He meets a woman who has trouble coming up with the word 'stapler' (perhaps English is her second language - it's not clear), and they fall in love for a while, which it becomes clear is a high point in an otherwise entirely unsatisfying life. Together with his new love, his friend John, and her friend, Deau (yes, 'John Doe' - and these two people are the only people with names in the entire book) - he takes a trip to a town in the country, which everybody very much enjoys, and a good time is had by all. Unfortunately prior to the trip he's given an assignment, which he at first accepts, but later backs out of. He also manages to put the wrong address on a package before sending it, another screwup that pisses off his boss.

He is then 'disaffirmed', a punishment involving humiliation and considerable violence. Again, nothing is spelled out, but it seems he was burned repeatedly, and ultimately stapled (with the aforementioned stapler) to the table.

He and the woman separate, he takes a job in a bakery and gets very fat, sings opera, wears shorts, and, as is always the case in these kinds of stories, gets drawn back into the organization. He seems to meet the woman again and re-connect with her, but it's unclear. Identities become more fluid and uncertain. Hats and sunglasses feature prominently. This part of the book culminates in his participation in a particularly horrifying event involving a feather duster, red duct tape, a 'miniature computer' (this was written in 2002 - it'd probably be a smart phone now), and following orders delivered by intercom in a pitch black room filled with people 'none of whom knew who had been chosen or who was coming or what beyond unpleasantness would occur'.

By this point both narrator and reader are quite disoriented and it becomes increasingly difficult to piece together what exactly is going on or what happened. Not that this difficulty is a bad thing necessarily - sometimes for example upping the difficulty level on a videogame makes it more rewarding, and humorless unimaginative types who demand linear stories devoid of ambiguity will have given up before page 10.

Our hero, such as he is, is sent to live in retirement - a perk described in brochures for the organization, as he recalls. His basic needs (food and shelter) are provided for by mostly unseen people, but he still hasn't left the violence behind -
It was into something like this last that I went late one evening to witness, and in a small way to participate in, an event. It was not a nice event - there was a lot of white rock and then the white rock became splashed with red - but it was diverting. At one point, after I had, more or less symbolically, taken a turn with the mallet, I remarked to another individual that what they event lacked in subtlety it made up for in vigor. Yes, it's colorful, the individual said. I feel like I've gotten some exercise. Yes, definitely, I think the upper portion of my forehead is damp. Yes, mine too. I won't dream at all tonight. Or if you do it will be pleasant. Why is that? No one knows.
Our narrator goes on to conduct an investigation to determine the identity of his assassin. As the book draws to a close, much is revealed, and there is a shock at the end - the magnitude of the shock will depend on how well the reader has been keeping up, and, indeed, on how the reader has chosen to make sense of the events.

I've read the book twice - something I rarely do - partially because I was fascinated with Laird Hunt's style and enjoyed the absurd sense of humor our hapless narrator possesses, and partially, I admit, to take another stab at making sense of the thing. Having done that, there is now a storyline I confidently believe is the 'true story', but that's not really the point. It's possible another person could read the book and have a different version of the story which they firmly believe is what happened, and that's perfectly OK with me. The book is like life that way - a series of almost random events described by unreliable sources, and our minds, desperate to see patterns, create patterns where there may be none.

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