I almost always enjoy an eerie, existential thriller, so I had fun reading Emily St. John Mandel’s The Singer’s Gun, a sparely told novel about identity, truth, escape, and the law. Mandel tells the story of Anton Waker, a man unhappy to have been born into a family of criminals; he has particular difficulty with his cousin Aria, with whom he’s worked selling false identity papers. Anton is missing and under investigation at the beginning of the book, and Mandel tells much of his story in flashbacks.
There’s lots to admire in The Singer’s Gun, but the highlight for me was Mandel’s combination of clean writing and stripped-down settings: New York City, where Anton lives, felt especially empty and lonely. That may be partly because Anton is banished to a mezzanine-level dead file room early in the book when it seems he’s being fired from a water systems consulting company. That development is devastating for Anton, a guy who saw office work as an appealing alternative to illegal activity, “This will sound strange, I mean, I know it’s crazy, but I always wanted to work in an office.” He admits to having a “corporate soul,” though he won his job based on falsehood.
Mandel gradually reveals Anton’s relationships with his wife, Sophie, and secretary, Elena, uncovering layers of lies. Everybody seems to hide papers that would change how others would perceive them, and most of the relationships – particularly between Elena and her boyfriend, Caleb, dulled by antidepressants – feel wary, dispassionate, and even adversarial in a slow burn way. I suppose it’s a corollary that there’s lots of drifting in The Singer’s Gun: when Anton tries to escape his fate on an island (can any man be an island in our era?), he meets others attempting the same.
Of course Manhattan is an island, too, something Mandel doesn’t let us forget, both through the criminal act that triggers the investigation and the end of a darkly comic scene at a restaurant, where Anton and Aria help celebrate Anton’s parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. After a toast and a glance at his chicken parmiggiano, Anton thinks, “Behold the holiness of my family, serene and utterly at ease in their corruption, toasting thirty years of love and theft in a restaurant on an island in a city by the sea.”
Yes, there is a gun, yes, there is a singer, and yes, Mandel does follow Chekhov’s advice: a gun fires. But I won’t say where, when, how, or on whom. I’ve gone light on details because I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone who might decide to read it… but I will say it’s filled with many wonderful touches from Mandel, who beautifully balances harsh realism with a slightly schematic, off-kilter atmosphere as she shows us the painful and strange ways that identity and rules affect our choices in life.
Disclosure: I received a copy of The Singer’s Gun from publisher Unbridled Books at BookExpo America; Emily St. John Mandel signed it for me. I enjoyed speaking with Emily and Unbridled publisher Greg Michalson during BEA. Thanks to both! I should also mention that The Singer’s Gun won an Indie Booksellers Choice Award on May 23, 2011.
Up next: Ingrid Winterbach’s The Book of Happenstance.
Photo credit: mistereels, via sxc.hu.