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He was both veiled and exact. Selective, but not averse to giving a suggestive illustration. “Multiple killers have a thing, a way to kill effectively that they use over and over again. It’s like anything. We all do it. We use what works, and usually it’s the easy way. A killer learns on the job. He gets better at it. But he’ll do it the same each time. These two homicides were different. Different styles.”

I never really take the time to explain why I am a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To me it’s a shibboleth. You either know why, or you don’t and nothing I can say is going to help. But let’s pause for a moment. One of the things about the show that I enjoyed was how much it poked fun at the faux-romanticism of vampire culture, that obsession with vampirism as a metaphor for transgressive sex. The figure of the vampire symbolises the union between sex and death. It is recognizably human, but also monstrous, unclean and threatening. Yet despite its ‘Otherness’ (oh yes I have read many academic papers on vampires – they’re terribly amusing, you should investigate them for yourselves) the vampire is also seen as a romantic figure, sexually attractive because of its forbidden nature.

Along comes Buffy The Vampire Slayer the television series, which presumably attracted fans at least initially who were convinced on some level of the above and only for the show to rubbish that whole notion of vampires. I even recall the protagonist Buffy Summers dismissively stating: “See, this is what I hate about you vampires. Sex and death and love and pain — it’s all the same damn thing to you”.

This brings me to today’s novel, which even in the title marries sex and violence.  The protagonist Frannie complains at the story’s opening about her difficulties in teaching her English Lit. college class. Language fascinates her, the shifts and changes in local idioms. New York itself is a heaving metropolis of mutating language, such that she finds herself stopping and querying her own students on what they are trying to say. She has begun work on a dictionary of vernacular phrases, drawing attention to the number of slang words used to describe differences in race and gender, with a particular focus on female genitalia.

One evening in her local bar, she finds herself lost in the basement looking for a bathroom when she happens upon a couple performing a sex act in a secluded space. The man’s face is hidden to her, but she notices a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. He sees her, but does not interrupt his partner, allowing Frannie to watch. Embarrassed she retreats and goes home.

Later that week a detective visits her at home. A young woman has been murdered in Frannie’s neighbourhood. The description matches that of the woman she saw in the bar’s basement that evening. She keeps this to herself, for she has noticed the detective has the same tattoo on his wrist. Frannie rapidly becomes obsessed with the detective, an Irish-American divorcee whose vulgarity disguises a quick wit. With him she feels increasingly uninhibited, their relationship competitive both sexually and in their contest of wills. Has she fallen for a murderer?

Susanna Moore‘s novel prides itself on its uncensored use of language. The dialogue has the same uncaring regard to political correctness as the aggressive sex scenes. This points to the disinterested stance of the academic, seeing the substance of life as simply another stylistic quirk. Frannie is unable to separate her own circumstances from the literary experiments she sets her students. Her growing sense of fear and suspicion regarding Molloy only serves to heighten her attraction to him.

I reviewed a book with similar themes back in August, Dorothy Parker’s The Monkey’s Mask. That book also satirised the disaffected lives of academic theorists by introducing murder to the proceedings, but far more successfully than here. Another point of comparison for me was Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Testament, which also treated of idiomatic language overcoming the civilised veneer of collegiate discourse. Burgess was quite funny in his observations though, whereas Moore seems happy to merely present lists of offensive phrases. Parker’s writing was far more comfortable with its eroticism. Moore again seems to be trying to shock. The ‘loving submission’, of Frannie to her lover/potential murderer just removes any interest for me in her eventual fate.

Tiresome, pretentious and nonsensical.

My parents had not met Mr and Mrs Grace, nor would they. People in a proper house did not mix with people from the chalets, and we would not expect to mix with them. We did not drink gin, or have people down for the weekend, or leave touring maps of France insouciantly on show in the back windows of our motor cars – few in the Field even had a motor car. The social structure of our summer world was as fixed and hard of climbing as a ziggurat.

I have this sad memory of my dad deciding to take the family on a spontaneous holiday to Connemara in Co. Mayo. No bookings were made and as far as we could tell there was no real plan either. We were just packed into the car and set off on the road. During the trip he began to tell us stories of his first trip out west, after he had left school I believe, the friendships he had made and the strange characters he had encountered. We even travelled out to the same B&B he had stayed in as a lad. Dad left us in the car to arrange for our rooms. My mother was very quiet, which of course only added to the tension.

When dad emerged he looked defeated. The landlady had not even remembered him. There were no rooms available for a family. We wound up staying in a cramped single room in Salt Hill just outside the centre of Galway city for a few days and then retreated to Dublin.

Memory can be a treacherous thing you see. The narrator of John Banville‘s novel, Max Morden, wrestles with the memories of his youth, that he tries to return to in order to have some small reprieve from the pain of the present. They often cheat him though, his recollection of events stopping and starting as he is forced to correct himself. So much of what he remembers is lost to the intense fog of emotion that he endured as a teenager, his infatuation with the Grace family still felt intensely after all these years.

The narration itself is not neatly stacked between the present and the past. Often his memories will be spurred on by an unexpected association with his present-day musings, and vice versa. Max himself is yet another one of Banville’s dissolute academics, men of letters, outsiders (Kepler; Mefisto) – whose minds are occupied and overcome by abstract thoughts that have shoved out any chance of seizing happiness in the moment.

As such the story yo-yos between his current life as a grief-stricken widower, alienated from his only daughter and frustrated with his progress on an artistic treatise on Pierre Bonnard; and his memories of the Grace clan, bound up with feelings of class envy and arousal for the women of that family. He is a man haunted, emotionally stunted by the experience, his numbed (and courtesy of a prodigious consumption of alcohol, even more numbed) reaction to his wife’s death the result of his failure to face the events of his past. His creative failure reflects the lack he feels within him:

I was trying to write my will on a machine that was lacking the word I. The letter I, that is, small and large.

The Graces themselves are an unusual family, even allowing for their social superiority to Max and his former friends from The Field (whom he quickly abandons for the company of the Grace children). The son and daughter, Myles and Chloe, shared everything, a result of the boy being a mute. His sister shares with him the experiences of someone who can communicate with this outside world. They are like twins, separate from everyone. Carlo Grace, the father, is a loud and gregarious sort, with a conspiratorial sense of humour that strikes Max the child instantly as ‘masonic’, even ‘satanic’. Mrs Grace, or Connie Grace as Max comes to think of her in the throes of his passion, becomes his fixation, with the disapproving gaze of au pair Rose acting as a barrier against the boy’s desires.

Max’s pursuit of higher learning as an adult can be seen as an attempt to raise himself to the social station of the Graces (there but for the Grace of God…), but it is also an escape from the tragedy that befalls them.

Brutally honest, a fine addition to the canon of this most European of Irish writers.

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