Some preamble: I was fairly daunted when I was asked to jump in and cover A Book A Day… for a post. As a habitual reader of his site, I was intent on ensuring that I got the full Emmet O’Cuana experience by following the house rules and reviewing a book that I had completed over the course of a twenty-four hour period (this was despite Emmet giving me close to a month’s notice to put this post together). With that, I diligently set about settling down to enjoy Fred Hoyle’s science-fiction standard The Black Cloud; before abandoning it in a fit of disinterest as I moaned to my wife about ‘diagrams having no place in a novel’. I’m being harsh – The Black Cloud is undoubtedly a good book, but I was struggling to keep focussed on it enough to finish it in a day.
With this realisation, things were looking grim for my contribution to ABADTICS (which is a great acronym), and I soared dangerously and embarrassingly close to turning in a review of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, knowing that I could at least cover it in one afternoon, possibly fifteen minutes if I didn’t stop for tea and biscuits. Scanning my book shelves, I was drawn to John Colapinto‘s About the Author – a book I picked up in my teens, read once and then recommended to everyone else for the next eleven years. For all the books that have come and gone in my personal library over the years I’ve never considered parting with it, based on one memorable reading of it in what seems an age ago. With that in mind, I was interested to see how an older, wiser and infinitely more cynical version of my young self would find it.
For reasons that will become obvious, I find it difficult to write about Stewart. Well, I find it difficult to write about anything, God knows. But Stewart presents special problems. Do I speak of him as I later came to know him, or as he appeared to me before I learned the truth, before I stripped away the mask of normalcy he hid behind? For so long he seemed nothing but a footnote to my life, a passing reference in what I had imagined would be the story of my swift rise to literary stardom. Today he not only haunts every line of this statement, but is, in a sense, its animating spirit, its reason for being.
About the Author tells the story of lothario bookstore clerk Cal Cunningham. Cal prides himself on his aspirations of bestsellerdom but lacks the literary inspiration to achieve it, so when the opportunity to pass his dead roommate’s manuscript off as his own work of genius, he does so with little hesitation and to wild success. In true ‘…but the past ain’t through with you‘ fashion however, the decision haunts the rest of this story. Wielding themes of identity, envy and ambition, in hindsight it shares much in common with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, but differs in that this thriller expands to more psychological Hitchcockian proportions. As our hero spirals further out of control in his quest to keep his misdeeds secret, he finds himself living a proxy of the life of the man whose work he stole, and refreshingly things escalate in a way that never seems forced or trite. Most of the supporting characters are lightly sketched to varying degrees of effect – a rambunctious literary agent comes across just right in his one-note shallowness, but he’s the only character that truly works in spite of not being fleshed out. That said, there’s enough conflict in our main character’’s actions and thoughts – the story is told from Cunningham’s viewpoint – for Colapinto to sink his teeth into, and it makes for a compelling read overall.
The envious and ambitious traits of the lead character certainly struck a chord with me in my latter-day blogger guise. One thing that surprised me as I reviewed this retrospectively was how I interpreted the protagonist’s actions when I was younger – Cal Cunningham is no longer some enfant terrible anti-hero as I once saw him, in fact now he just strikes me as a pretentious jerk. Whether this is a concious choice by Colapinto or not, I’m not sure, but the fact that the book works despite my dislike of its hero is testament to the author’s plotting and ability to ratchet the tension from zero to panic in a stroke. Hollywood agreed to an extent – a film adaptation has been languishing in development limbo since publication despite a script from the reliable Patrick Marber.
About the Author remains to this date John Colapinto’s sole fictional novel, and that in itself is a shame. A substantial cut above your beach holiday thriller fare, it’s well worth seeking out and heartily recommended. However, heroically reading a book in a one day and then blogging about it I’ll leave to the professionals.
Colin Bell writes over at It’s Bloggerin Time – go pay him a visit.