Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rose-coloured Reviews The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper

In this review, I *will* make an effort, but my feints at objectivity are probably going to be even lamer than usual. For something actually insightful, try The Walrus or Pickle Me This.

Though I'm not much of a reader of serial-killer thrillers, I did really love this book for craft of language, for plotting, definitely for voice. But if Mr. Pyper started experimenting in the former of toaster-oven instruction manuals, I'd probably take at least an interest in that, too. I've been a fan since I read his first book, a collection of short stories called Kiss Me (click on the link just to see the book cover, my favourite book cover ever), way back in 2000 (it came out in 1996--I'm always behind). In truth that collection of literary fiction remained my favourite of his for a long time, as the mystery/thrillers he wrote after, though very very good, never resonated with me as deeply. Until The Killing Circle came along and blew everything else out of the water.

Full disclosure: when I found that this novel centres on a writing group and their teacher, I was very very alarmed. I love writing about writing and about learning to write (ooh, Lynn Coady's Mean Boy), but I also love *learning to write,* and to this end, once took a class *from* Andrew Pyper. He was a great great teacher, and my work came really far in those three months, but there were still a lot of moments in that class that could easily be parodied, if one were searching for material. I've stayed in a wonderful writing circle with three of my classmates, and we all thought, uh-oh.

Of course not. Although this book is about the profound ambiguity between story and life, it's also about the trouble that lies in store for (or from) those who cannot tell the difference. The authors *in* the story lie to themselves and to others about the definition of fiction, but the author *of* the story has an amazingly assured hand.

Much has been made about this book being a roman a clef to media politics in this city and this country. The central character, Patrick Rush, works at *The National Star* and the leader of the writing circle is "Conrad White"--hee? I don't know much about newspapering and I never did figure out who the snippily successful managing editor at the paper was, let alone Mr. White. Easier to enjoy were some of the broader jokes, about "The Quotidian Award...awarded to a the work of fiction that 'best reflects the domestic heritage of Canadian family life'...A rainy-day parade of stolid farmers and fishermen's widows," as well as the endless reality programming about transforming your neighbours' homes.

Those sort of jokes are quite fun, but parodies and veilings of reality are, in this book, far less interesting than the stuff that's simply real: things about the city of Toronto, and how writing works. Pyper wrote a groovy article in the Star about city as character in this book, and it truly is one. The alleys that Patrick runs down away from shadowy figures are not just scary-novel devices but actually real alleyways I know and love, off Queen near Palmerston, others closer to the lake. The Rosedale subway station and the nearby ravine. Kensington. All these places are both instantly recognizable and suddenly terrifying as they make their transition from real-world to fictional-world.

And that's the brilliant thing about the book--it's actually about that process, how writers bring bits and pieces of reality to fiction and transform it into something not more or less but entirely different from the sum of its parts. Writing is a huge act of faith, I think it is and I guess you sort of have to in order to do it. Author Pyper gives the writer his or her due, but character Patrick gives the writer far more, something close to godlike incantatory powers--"Waiting for a way to tell the one true story that might bring back the dead." And it is in this obsessive over-estimation of the lessons on writing that put the book into terror territory.

It's wrenching, I gotta say. Gory, but also psychologically very very weird and disturbingly intimate. The central character is not violent, but he's not a lovely person at all times, either, and the crimes for which he is culpable, and his justifications for them, give us weird insight into the mind of the murderer. And that freaked me the hell out. If the prose weren't so good (and, just when you're white-knuckling the spine, so funny) and the story so tightly plotted and surprising, I would not have made it to the dark dark ending. This isn't "my kind" of novel, but the really good writing is beyond genre, and I think *The Killing Circle* qualifies.

I can't talk much about the plot, because most everything is a twist or a turn that affects everything but you don't see it coming. Or at least, I didn't see *anything* coming; possibly if you are more familiar with serial-killer fiction (I hear there's lots) you might not be so startled by everything. I can't necessarily recommend this book to you; it's creepy and sad and certainly does not redeem one's faith in mankind. It's gripping, though, and you could learn a good bit about writing by reading it.

Maybe try only reading it during the day.

Don't wanna see it on my windowsill

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