For Robert Pendleton, a professor clinging to tenure and living in the shambles of his once-bright literary career, death seems to be the only remaining option. But his suicide attempt fails, halted at the last moment by the intervention of Adi Wiltshire, a graduate student battling her own demons of failure and thwarted ambition. During Pendleton's long convalescence, Adi discovers a novel hidden in his basement: a brilliant, semi-autobiographical story with a gruesome child-murder at its core.
The publication of Scream causes a storm of publicity: a whirlwind into which Adi, Horowitz and the still-incapacitated Pendleton are thrust. The novel is treated as an existential masterpiece and looks set to bring its author the success he's always sought – when, ironically, he is no longer in a condition to appreciate it – until questions begin to be asked about its content: in particular about the uncanny resemblance between Pendleton's fictional crime and a real-life, unresolved local murder. Enter Jon Ryder, a world-weary detective who could have walked off the pages of a police thriller, and the hunt for the murderer is on.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Michael Collins is the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. His work has garnered numerous awards, including a Pushcart Award for Best American Short Stories and The Kerry Ingredients Irish Novel of the Year. His novel The Keepers of Truth was short listed for the Booker Prize and the IMPAC Award. Collins is also an extreme athlete and is currently training for The North Pole Marathon in 2006. He lives in Seattle.From The Washington Post:
WARNING: English teachers should not read this novel except under close supervision. Do not mix with alcohol or annual evaluation. If you experience dizziness or feelings of sympathy with the protagonist, do not induce vomiting or self-recrimination. Drink milk and watch Sandy Dennis in "Up the Down Staircase." Seek professional career advice immediately.
The rest of us can consume Michael Collins's new novel about a suicidal English teacher somewhat more safely. But only somewhat. Death of a Writer is as caustic as it is brilliant, a concoction of academic satire, German philosophy and literary criticism mixed up as a haunting murder mystery that will leave you disoriented -- and deeply amused.
After Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, Richard Russo's Straight Man, Jane Smiley's Moo, et al., the comedy of academic life is so well documented that to read those books cover to cover would take longer than paying off your student loans. But Collins's addition to this genre is strikingly smart and decidedly darker, a "glimpse into the gallows of despair that permeated the academic world," as one character puts it. Indeed, Death of a Writer burns with the heat of a million college blue books going up in flames.
We're introduced to E. Robert Pendleton, a clinically depressed, habitually recalcitrant English teacher at Bannockburn College. Founded by a wealthy Russian émigré industrialist, Bannockburn has since grown into a "venerable cradle of mediocrity . . . sold at exorbitant prices to talentless drones of despairing, wealthy parents." Pendleton arrived 22 years ago in a desperate effort to find employment after his career as a writer of experimental fiction fizzled.
Although he is apparently secure and comfortable in this intellectual pasture, "all was not as it seemed here," Collins writes. His employment history has been spotted with periods of erratic -- possibly psychotic -- behavior. Only tenure and medical leave have allowed him to retain his job. He has written nothing for years, and his life is a "failure bestowed with a title, with a bronzed nameplate on a polished oak door. It was that nightmare where you tried to run but your legs wouldn't carry you, tried to scream but nothing came out. That was the sort of silence that belied the long corridors of academic ease."
Disgusted with the "self-sustaining machinery of critical analysis" and "the incestuous nature of literary reviewing" (ouch!), Pendleton "felt at times like a priest turned atheist who continues to preach from the pulpit because there is no place else to go." In a moment of severe depression inspired by the arrival of a bestselling hack from his past, Pendleton knocks back a bottle of pills with vodka and consigns his meager literary corpus to a sweet, perpetual graduate student named Adi Wiltshire.
But once again, nothing goes as Pendleton has planned. First, he doesn't die; instead, he suffers a massive stroke. Second, while caring for him out of a deep sense of misguided guilt, Adi finds an autobiographical novel, called "Scream," hidden under his stairs. It's a discovery that finally awakens her moribund research skills. Collins doesn't let us see much of "Scream," but he lets us follow Adi's earnest analysis of the novel in a marvelous sendup of literary theory and academic masturbation. A weird homage to Stephen King and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, "Scream" describes Pendleton's various conflicts with members of the faculty, his tortured challenge of God's existence and finally his ghastly murder of a 13-year-old girl.
Convinced of its genius, Adi submits "Scream" for publication, and, in a marvelous lampoon of the machinery of mass marketing and critical commentary, it becomes a cause célebre, a sensational bestseller: "Nietzsche meets Charles Manson." Pendleton finally garners all the fame and prestige he always craved but now, sitting in his wheelchair drooling, cannot enjoy or even, perhaps, comprehend.
Collins certainly could have sustained this wicked satire to the end, but after the first section the novel switches to a gritty police procedural. A hardened detective named Ryder, haunted by his own demons back home, arrives to look into the alarming similarities between "Scream" and an unsolved child murder that took place around the same time Pendleton completed his novel. His investigation takes us deep into the grisly details of forensic medicine, child abuse and domestic violence in a small Midwestern town, never letting us forget that in this fertile soil is spawned "the new gothic of Jasons, Freddys, and Carries."
Ryder's inquiry is endlessly exciting, spinning through possible perpetrators and competing explanations, and even provoking new murders designed to stop him. In a dizzying whirl, each of these characters (including Ryder) becomes an object of suspicion. If it weren't so good, so creepy and unnerving, this shift away from academic satire would be disappointing. But in fact what Collins does by supplying us with this indeterminate story is lure us into the act of interpretation, both literary and criminal. At the start of Death of a Writer, we're smirking at the esoteric irrelevancies that fuel critical studies, but by the end of this frightening mystery, we're left wondering about intentionality, the anxiety of influence, the transmutation of stories, the stability of signifiers, the tension between fiction and autobiography as though these were matters of life and death -- which of course they are.
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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