- John Colapinto
- Patrick Crean Editions
- 394 pages
I recently lent Undone to a co-worker, because it is the kind of troubling book a person needs to press on others. A couple of days later, he wandered back over to my desk. "Undone is making me feel icky," he said. "But are you still reading it?" I asked. "Oh yeah," he said. "I can't stop."
No question, Undone casts a very specific spell: It enthralls and horrifies simultaneously. It's a hard book to have a clear opinion about. Quite apart from any stylistic judgments, there is the subject matter – it's a pseudo-incestuous thriller, a noir that, like Francine Prose's Blue Angel and Philip Roth's American Pastoral, details the unravelling of the moral American man and his world.
That he is American is important because the undoing that John Colapinto chronicles depends on a specific cultural climate. (It is this same cultural climate that has caused Colapinto – a New Yorker staff writer – much grief in finding a publisher for his novel.) It depends on a culture in which desire is simultaneously elicited everywhere around us in hypersexualized advertising and videos, and yet feared to the point where schools have "abstinence only" sex-ed classes and young celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers once wore "purity rings" to prove their virginity. In this world, moderate amounts of illicit desire, even just imagined without being realized, come under punitive scrutiny. Honest conversation about desire is squelched and each of us carries our idiosyncratic lust around like it's an unstable explosive.
Undone's story revolves around Dez, a psychopath whose fetish is teenage girls on the cusp of womanhood; his charge, Chloe, whose mother dies on the first page, immediately evoking Nabokov's Lolita; and Jasper Ulrickson, an upstanding novelist whose memoir about life with his locked-in wife (able, poststroke, to communicate only with her eyes) has vaulted him to talk-show stardom. After catching him on Tovah in the Afternoon (a kind of Oprah-Sally Jessy hybrid), Dez hatches a plan to relieve Ulrickson of his fortune by having Chloe pose as his long-lost daughter and then entrap him.
The inevitable disaster exerts a magnetizing force, drawing the reader forward at hurtling speeds to an intolerable climax. Our own urgency and hunger for the story is upsetting perhaps precisely because it mimics the hero's troubling lust.
Colapinto paints Chloe as a girl-woman extremely fluent in seduction who, underneath it all, is an orphan seeking a home. Ulrickson is a compassionate man in a sexless marriage who wants to do the right thing. Dez's manipulations set them on a collision course – manipulations that strain the reader's credulity. But Undone isn't trying to be credulous, I don't think.
Initially immersive and slow, the novel pulls the reader in and keeps her close to the narrators. With the right author, anything, no matter how cliché in outline, can become a riveting read, and Colapinto's writing for most of the book is a pleasure: confident, accessible, propulsive. However, his careful pacing suddenly jolts into fast-forward for the last 100 pages, which are whipped through so quickly and in such broad strokes that both violence and justice are reduced almost to parody.
The sentimentality of the story also seems highlighted as a result. Yet it's hard to tell if he is sending up the sentimentality or indulging in it.
Unlike Prose or Roth's books, Colapinto's never quite transcends being genre fiction, by which I mean, not only does the work thrill more than convince, it also feels as if the Big Question at its heart is unclear. Genre fiction is fine, but when the writer deals in such volatile subject matter, you hope the writer's got a damn good reason for it.
Is Colapinto, in the noir tradition, trying to warn us that, under a thin veneer of civility, we are all (or perhaps only men) on the verge of tipping into amorality? Is he suggesting that we shouldn't judge sex offenders too harshly because we may each be capable of the same thing? It's unclear. If this is nothing more than a "will he/won't he" story, are we riveted readers any different from the viewers of Tovah? The jacket copy cites the story's similarity to Othello, as if evoking the Bard could counterbalance the threat of sensationalism.
It's a bit baffling: Why would a writer trade in such high stakes if he had nothing massive to say? To make the story indelible and all the more gripping, I suppose. If this is its aim, it succeeds.
Still, the book's greatest quality may have nothing to do with whether it succeeds at being "literature" or not, but rather how willing it – and its publisher – is to take a risk. For all the work's darkness, this willingness is a bright, hopeful light.
Lisan Jutras is a Globe and Mail editor.