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Micaela Morrissette reviews
The Exquisite
by Laird Hunt
242 pp. Coffee House Press. US$14.95. 1566891876 paper

This review is about 6 printed pages long. It is copyright © Micaela Morrissette and Jacket magazine 2007.

The company of phantoms


In present-day New York City, a homeless man — or say, a man-child — or say, a hazy, nebulous, non-threatening entity named Henry, is hospitalized, having been run over by a flower truck. He does some reading, he submits to the terrifying kindness of a fellow patient, or perhaps struggles with a demon; at any rate, he interacts on some level with one Mr. Kindt. Who diminishes by degrees. Who sometimes has to scream. Who will crawl into bed with Henry to watch TV.


Or, say, having been run over by a flower truck and hospitalized, Henry leaves the hospital to commence a friendship with a generous but terribly vulnerable individual, one Aris Kindt, whom he later murders. And the namesake of whose namesake is the petty thief whose post-execution autopsy is the subject of Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Which is also a subject of great interest to W.G. Sebald in his book The Rings of Saturn, which Henry likes to read. As are herring, which Mr. Kindt likes to eat.

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Or, for example, having shambled his way through the murder of the mysterious but darling Mr. Kindt — who probably did not swim the length of the lake at Cooperstown with his hands tied behind his back, who may have loved to play Operation, who might or might not have had his primary organs tattooed on his skin by the beautiful Tulip, who perhaps liked to sit in the dark and watch his heartbeat, or lack of it, make its way across a monitor — Henry is now incarcerated in the hospital. (In this final scenario, the existence and/or sequence of Henry’s encounter with the flower truck is debatable.)


But Henry is sweet, vague, and moves in a miasma. One would not wish to press him. We know he is telling us all that he knows. Who could know everything there is to be known? Or make that demand of another person? What he knows he tells pleasantly, quietly, sadly, winsomely, gratefully. He is a murderer. Or a mock-murderer. Or a thief. Or a melancholic. He is a good person to have sitting beside you in silence and in the night.


The Exquisite is much touted as a neo-noir of Manhattan’s East Village, and Hunt does make the occasional gesture toward noir, for reasons best known to himself, but probably bearing on Henry’s employment, by Mr. Kindt’s caped colleague Cornelius, as an assassin in a mock-murder service, a therapeutic business venture popular among Manhattanites in the period following September 11, 2001, or as Henry likes to say, with typically hollow, cavernous understatement, ‘the events downtown.’ Hunt writes, for example: ‘The knockout and all her nice proportions arrived a few minutes after I did. She was wearing a maroon slip, a black leather bomber, pink-tinted glasses, and a kiss-my-ass grin that she tore off and tossed in my lap as she sat down.’


But sentences like that writhe uncomfortably, or at least self-consciously, in the text of the book, like a fake grin on a stark, pale face. Noir has infinitely more to do with an overall atmosphere and tone than with cliches or with subject, though a little death, at least, is held to be more or less indispensable to the genre. Where noir is bleak, Hunt is wistful; where noir is tough, Hunt is perplexed; where noir is violent, Hunt is dreamlike; where noir is black, with shafts of shining steel, Hunt is grey, misty, with a silver opalescence. More typical of the author’s tone than the passage quoted above is this:


I know something about polar bears because once Mr. Kindt, who came often in his white slippers and light-blue gown after that first night to visit, and who proved at first to be very kind, very sweet, and more than a little amusing, watched a program on them with me…. We watched polar bears ride walruses, trying to kill them, hurting them terribly and being hurt terribly in return, and we watched polar bears carefully lick their tiny cubs…. We also watched them swimming both from above the surface of the water and from below. From below you could see the handsome reflection of the white bears on the water’s surface, so that it seemed they were swimming, simultaneously, in two places — one as lovely and as ghostly as the other. We watched and watched, wishing, we agreed, that the program would never end. At one point, Mr. Kindt made some sort of a high-pitched growling sound. I did the same. Neither of sounded remotely bearlike…. Mr. Kindt flipped over on all fours and cut capers on the bed. I’m a polar bear hunting prey, he said. I laughed … In short, it was the sort of program we enjoyed.


Most importantly, noir must have an element of the heroic, even if that’s manifested in an anti-hero. It must guard its tragedy jealousy, like the most precious of treasures. It must button its coat firmly over its quaking stomach, throw back its blasted shoulder, redden its trembling lips. It must be private, its sorrows limping away like wounded animals to hide themselves in the underbrush, with only the faintest quaking of leaves betraying to the hunter what lies beneath.


The Exquisite is in every sense the inverse of that aesthetic. Tremulous, mournful, lovable, and guileless, its mysteries are in large part not elaborately hidden but merely confusing. Its villains are too straightforward to be sinister; even the contortionist twins, ‘whose job … during such jobs, is, when/if necessary, to hold people down,’ who move in ‘hideous, freaky, fascinating circles,’ are, by virtue of having externalized their contortions, somehow absolved of any inner twistedness.


There are no sick, deep-down moral kinks, no pungent, rotting corruption. There is evil, suffering, and fear, but despite the team of assassins, the heavy hints of duplicity in Mr. Kindt, and the foul, ravaged ghost of Henry’s dead Aunt Lulu, the death and misery that descends lightly but envelops wholly, like soft rain, or a cloud of dust, is somehow without agency, a sad, sad inevitability.


Noir, however, nightmarish, also has a sense of immediacy and danger that is utterly absent from this book. In its place is a floating detachment. Hunt deals directly with dreams both in his afterword and in the fiction itself, but one of his techniques both reinforces the dreamlike quality and, paradoxically, makes it impossible to choose between dreams and reality. This is the twinning of his characters.


The actual twins, the contortionists, exist only outside the hospital, in the world where Mr. Kindt is neither a disturbed patient or a disturbing figment, but Henry’s friend and eccentric benefactor (if also, possibly, a terrifying criminal mastermind, traitorous and betrayed). But most of the other major characters have counterparts, or are counterparts.


The beautiful, taciturn Tulip, who ‘does things’ for Mr. Kindt, is mirrored in Dr. Tulp — not the Dr. Tulp of Rembrandt’s painting, but Henry’s doctor in the hospital, an enigma with perfect, tiny ears that look like ‘little curled-up hands.’


‘Job, who goes by Anthony, a.k.a the second murderer,’ whose name is also perhaps really Anthony, but who may prefer to be called Job, is a bartender who, Henry discovers, was a mock-murderer before Henry, but was disenchanted with his very first murder, which was ‘Fucked up. Bizarre. Unpleasant. Messy. Yuck.’ He is also one of Henry’s caretakers at the hospital, with whom Henry enters into a partnership to steal and distribute medicines.


Cornelius has no counterpart at the hospital but, like Dr. Tulp, he can be found as Cornelis de Jong in The Rings of Saturn, explaining the connection between beet sugar and the fine arts.


The effect of this twinning is to make it impossible to choose between realities, or between dreams, or to divide reality from dream. Certainly a reader upon whom the charm of the story has completely been lost can argue that such-and-such a figure at the hospital or in Sebald’s book emerges as such-and-such a figure in Henry’s fantasy. But this would deny the hospital its own dream-state. More seriously, it would overlook what this over-population does for Henry: it keeps him in good company.


Nowhere is he wandering lost and alone and inconsolable, for here is Anthony, there is Job. Whether these are the same person are not, they can assure Henry that he is somewhere. Not only: as he is here, so then are they here; but also: as they are there, so he is really there with them. Here is Dr. Tulp, unforgivably slicing Henry with her operating tools; there is Tulip, carving Henry with her tattoo implements. Both, in effect, are giving him the pinch famously required to wake up a dreamer if he is, in fact, asleep.


What Hunt actually says about dreams in his afterword is:


[The collage element of the novel helps], it is hoped, to make no bones about the partially dreamt quality of Henry’s New York (not to mention his experiences therein). All of our New Yorks, after all, are partially dreamt. Many, like Henry’s, are shaped by the brilliant dreamers who have been there before us.


Hunt’s explicit reference is to the extent to which The Exquisite is an homage and a pastiche of sorts, particularly to Sebald, but to sundry other works of the imagination as well. He has created Henry’s fictional environment, not from a ‘real-world’ study, but from other fictional environments, which themselves may depict other fictional environments. That he has also placed Henry in New York is not the contradiction it may seem, for Hunt believes that New York is the construct of construct, the fiction of fictions, the dream of dreams.


There are several passages about New York in the novel. There are descriptions, shockingly accurate in the midst of so much soft-focus, of certain streets and parks and pizza parlors, and of the denizens of the East Village: the vintage wardrobes of the young, the cheerful but off-hand dye-jobs and piercings, the ridiculous mawkish decrepit hoodlum-esque flavor of the old. There are extended interludes: the ‘New York is swell’ interlude, and the ‘there are two New Yorks’ passage, which harkens back to other themes of duplicity and multiplicity. It is Henry’s theory of two New Yorks that Mr. Kindt (in the hospital) likes best.


There are two New Yorks. One of them is the one you go out into every day and every day it smacks you in the face and maybe you laugh a little and the people walk down the street and trucks blow their horns and you are happy or you are not, but your heart is beating…. [You then negotiate Prince (cabs), Elizabeth (oak branches), Lafayette (heartbeats), Astor Place (vista), Crosby (factories), Broadway (shop-infested), Houston, Third, Bowery, and so on, before] … you subtract yourself from the proceedings, leave the cabs and chain link and cell phones outside, and, thinking of steam and rubble, drift. Down dark, windswept hallways, across empty, public spaces, past vanished water-tasting stations and stopped-up springs … into the second New York. The one in which a heartbeat is at best a temporary anomaly, a troubling aftershock, an instance of unanswerable déjà vu. Which is much bigger than the first, and is for the most part, in your current condition, inaccessible to you, you think, although sometimes, like sitting in the bar drifting, or lying on your bed surrounded by lights and strangers, you can catch a glimpse.


Having drawn this severely unambiguous dichotomy between a real New York of landmarks, details, action, and a mysterious second New York, a state of mind, Henry compounds this criminal clarity by going on to admit: ‘Little windows that opened into this New York number two were of course omnipresent in the ward.’


But before readers are spurred to anger, to suspecting that a trick has been played, that Hunt’s delightful, hypnotic prolongation of that peculiar dual state of just waking up, of being equally asleep and awake, of being neither asleep nor awake, of being both tangled in a half-vanished dream and groping in an unfocused reality, was simply a psychological riddle the answer to which is that Henry is certifiably if maybe only temporarily mad, Henry says:


Mr. Kindt … very much liked my theory of the two New Yorks, which he calculated became a dizzying sixteen million New Yorks if there was one of each for every New Yorker. I told him I wasn’t sure if there was, in fact, a complementary New York for each of its inhabitants, or if it was just the pair of them, one size fits all and everyone on fucking top of each other in both.


And we are back in the merry company of phantoms, in which the dream is equal to the reality and the reality is an exact fit with the dream, in which people haunt the streets and haints people the corridors, where there’s no firm footing but where, somehow, almost no one is irrevocably hurt, and where it is impossible to put your hand through Job without smacking up against Anthony’s firm if doubtless bony chest.


It’s a lovely, teasingly frustrating inter-existence, and it bears out the idea that Henry is a human character placed in a fictional world. In that world the experience of living is like nothing so much as the experience of reading: not quite like life, definitely not unlike life, fuller than life, flatter than life, closer than life, farther than life, equal to life in every respect, perhaps, but definitely not life itself. Yet not, under any circumstances, death.

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