Thursday, February 24, 2011

100 Books 12 - Anthony Neil Smith's CHOKE ON YOUR LIES

Choke on Your Lies - Anthony Neil Smith - Amazon Digital Services

My last book in this challenge featured an irritating narrator; this one merely features an unlikeable one, albeit one whose own skewed sense of self leaves him with a hilariously vast set of blind spots about himself and others. The reader, so amused at this, can almost forgive him for being a self-centered, self-pitying jerk, for being an incredible snob, for being a clueless sissy and an asshole.

Almost. Choke on Your Lies, in other words, has a far nastier narrator than does poor old Moby Dick, but where Ishmael's bad habits made me long for the damned book to be over, Mick Throoft's faults, though far more severe, were not aggravating enough to make me want the book to end at all. And that's damned impressive.

Furthermore, I know author Anthony Neil Smith (DocNoir on Twitter), after a fashion, and he is nothing like this nasty piece of work he's written -- except maybe a bit more particular in his tastes than many -- and yet I absolutely believe in this awful character Smith has created; Mick's voice and thoughts never ring false. I believe in Mick Throoft as a real and believable character, and I believe in all of the other equally unsavory, hateful, spiteful, tasteless, power-mad, lustful, pretentious bastards with whom he associates.

Overall, I believe in Mick's best friend Octavia, the only person to emerge from this narrative with any claim at all to my sympathies despite the fact that I've spent the bulk of the novel disliking her just as much as I have everybody else.

Smith's novel is a thoroughly unpleasant experience of a read, one that made me want a shower after finishing it, and I loved every word of it, not just because it's fun to watch bad people behave badly and, to a degree, get their comeuppance, but also because it's fun to see bad people enact a carefully constructed, intricate and fascinating plot, or interwoven series of plots. Smith says his book is an homage to Nero Wolfe, and while it has little of Wolfe's urbanity and dash, it has all of his intelligence, cynicism and clarity about human behavior and the weird impulses that drive it.

It's also dripping with depravity, which a reader who thinks she's wandered into an updated sort of country house mystery in an academic setting may find slightly shocking, but at which a habitual reader of modern crime fiction will likely snicker. These professors and poets think they're pretty hot stuff under their tweeds.

Caught up in all of this is our poor narrator, Mick, who makes light of his own transgressions, yet has been too wrapped up in them -- not as occasions for guilt but as proof that he is an Artist -- to notice that everyone around him not only knows his little secrets but makes even lighter of them because they're really sinning, all over the place. Their homes, offices, even their public hangouts would be a CSI nightmare, loaded with gooey DNA and other tawdry clues at a level even Gus Grissom himself would find daunting. Mick is shocked -- shocked! -- to learn of all of this, even as he sort of wishes the rest had thought him cool enough to join in the ickiness.

But while Mick tells the tale, the story really revolves around Octavia, his angry, genius-smart, morbidly obese power broker of a foil. Everything he is not, including piercingly self-aware, it is she whose resources that crack the cases, whose amazing mind, twisted though it is by a lifetime of pre-emptive loathing of the rest of the world before it can loathe her, that penetrates the tawdry secrets that have made Mick's life such a mess. She is a monstrous and terrifying presence through most of the novel, but when her weakness is at last not only revealed but exploited, her dissolution into tears and need is the book's only moment of genuine pathos, and is as affecting as anything you're likely to read this year, even if your list includes the death of Little Nell. It's not just a matter of lo how the mighty have fallen, but of seeing the real Octavia at last, the damaged, vulnerable, passionate woman whom Mick has always known but who disappeared into a world of wealth, leverage, sex (news flash: big fat ladies have sex, too, and a lot of it, maybe even more than you!) and marijana smoke.

And though, as I've said, the reader spends most of the book being heartily glad not to be Octavia's best friend, when she gets her last laugh, the reader shares it sincerely.

I, for one, want to read more of her adventures. Especially if she ditches the poet.

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