The Singer's Gun
by Emily St. John Mandel
(Unbridled Books, May 2010)
Full disclosure: Emily St. John Mandel lives in Brooklyn and I often run into her at literary events; she is an extremely likeable person and has been wonderfully supportive of Greenlight. And Unbridled Books is, in my opinion, one of the best of the crop of new independent publishers who are figuring out the best way to make this old-fashioned book thing work in a new economy, on a sustainable scale, building on the relationships between customers, booksellers, and publishers. So I was predisposed to like Emily's second novel, especially given the embarrassment of riches of bookseller quotes included in my galley.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, like it I did -- but that doesn't mean the book itself is not an astonishing surprise. I read it one day when I was so sick I actually did have to spend most of the day in bed, so my memory of the reading experience is a little like a fever dream -- though that may not be entirely due to my state of health. Mandel has managed a heady, indeed dreamlike mixing of a sort of literary soul-searching amidst the ennui of modern Everyman life, and a rich and strange, violent and dangerous and globe-spanning storyline. If the tone is reminiscent of the post-Franzen and McSweeney's school of alienation and drift, the story is almost a boy's adventure novel, or one of the darker practitioners of thriller writing (Vachs or Connelly). It's disorienting and haunting, addictive and thought-provoking, and it doesn't go away when you're done reading.
I like the way I summarized the plot on the Greenlight website, so I'll repeat it here: "From the sinister warehouses of Williamsburg to the soulless shining office towers of Manhattan to the sun-kissed ennui of the island of Ischia, Emily St. John Mandel traces the fortunes of would-be ex-criminal Anton and his associates through moving and astonishing interludes." Anton is one of those anti-heroes you find yourself almost unwillingly drawn to, in spite of his seeming inability to actually do what he wants or care for those he cares about. The fact that he finds something resembling a happy ending is perhaps the novel's biggest surprise, and it's not without its own attendant complications.
But for me the most powerful thing about Mandel's second novel are the odd, very dreamlike images that have stayed with me. A shipping container full of scared Russian girls sitting in a circle, waiting for someone to let them out. A basketball on a dirty, glass-strewn Manhattan roof, surrounded by those shining office buildings. A white hotel looking out on the beach at Ischia. A warehouse in Williamsburg full of salvaged treasures. And of course, the image in the title, which is such a huge and weird and unexpected plot point that I didn't realize its significance until I finished the book and turned it over to look at the front again. I'm not going to steal from you the shock of that discovery -- you'll just have to get deep into Mandel's strange and haunting and very real world and find out for yourself.
Note: Emily St. John Mandel reads at Greenlight Bookstore tonight, May 16, at 7:30 PM. You can RSVP on Facebook, or just show up.