Laird Hunt, The Exquisite
Publisher: Coffee House Press
September 2006, 242 pages, $14.95
to give the simplest description of Laird Hunt’s labyrinthine The Exquisite: It is a novel of many stories, plots intertwining, boundaries never clearly drawn. The book’s misleading jacket description begins: “In the wake of 9/11….” True, the story is set in a wake, and while that gives it the bumpy, tossed-about quality of an unsure future, the book cuts out the tragedy and drama of actual death, choosing instead to express the oppositions through a kind of comedic noir. Death, in this novel, looks more like a dance than a dirge.
Though 9/11 is left purposely unstated, the imagery and aftermath of falling buildings and pervasive dust occur across many pages. Hunt attempts to sidestep the pitfalls of the Post 9/11 New York Novel, which is beginning to prove a genre of its own, and a predicament to many who wish to write present-day fiction about New York , the East Coast, or even the United States , without dating their work or forcing an unwieldy historical interpretation. Most fiction writers–perhaps more suited to human emotion than human event–tend to shy away from such a task. Instead of approaching the subject directly, Hunt wisely chooses to represent the unspoken event in the context of the narrator’s confused life, interacting only impersonally with world events, as do most citizens of the world.
…I got sort of swallowed up by certain parts of New York , not to mention certain events, and for quite some time wasn’t presentable at all. The days and nights that compose this period seem now to have been poured into a bucket and tossed into the East River , so that every time I go looking for them it seems as if I am slipping out to sea.
Details of 9/11 are told somewhat coyly, often through friends or overheard dialogue, and the attack itself becomes an elephant in the room, central perhaps to an overarching idea but never directly stated. It is perhaps the only way a Post 9/11 New York Novel can be told for the next fifty years.
The novel can stand alone without historical context, though I would be remiss in writing a review without dedicating at least the above paragraph to important but perhaps transitory global obsessions. The novel itself is a maze of detail and mystery, a book that does a straight-faced impression of the crime noir genre it riffs. It is a novel obsessed with the truth, that gives pages of plot description before doubling back and insisting it was all a lie. The secrets of The Exquisite lie in translations, in character names and seemingly unattached behaviors. Readers could read the book as a mystery novel (curled up on the couch on a rainy afternoon) just as soon as they might approach it as a literary deconstruction (bible in one hand, laptop trained to reference sites). It’s the kind of novel which doesn’t require another reading, but which reveals more on the second and third careful looks. It is, in that sense, the best kind of novel.
The hardest-nosed literary critics might insist that inserting mystery distances the reader almost as much as a narrator who is truthful to himself as often as he is to everyone else–that is to say, not often. The same critic would resent that fact that a physical description of the narrator isn’t provided until page 70 (“To tell the truth, husky’s probably not a bad way to describe me now”), and is retracted on page 75 (“He certainly wasn’t overweight. Just like I’m not”). The type of reader who would be offended by these shifting truths might rightly be annoyed by this book, which thrives on the red herring and the dead end. Falsification, as one character insists, sits at the center of everything.
That said, the novel is not at all an exercise to read, particularly if the reader can let go of some of the conventions that make much modern fiction honest, forthright, and dull. The Exquisite is a marvel of comic work that maintains a tenderness in approaching murderers and maniacs. The narrator, a sullen criminal, redeems himself with qualities that make him painfully human. The criminals around him have their own stories, interwoven as the plot is with careful lies. The herring snacks one particularly endearing character loves may be emblematic of the red herrings placed carefully throughout the work; however, as with any fine symbolic narrative, they work just as well as fish.