The Short Version: Brother and sister pot-growers Paul and Lacey Hansen find a headless corpse on their property. After disposing of the body, it shows up again two days later – and they get drawn into a mystery that consumes their whole town. No one is who they seem and the plot is… well… unpredictable. Meanwhile, former couple Lisa Lutz and David Hayward are writing the novel in alternating chapters… and they don’t entirely agree with each other’s methods. Hence the rather unpredictable plot – and the staggering body count.
The Review: Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Family has a special place in my heart. Her rather unique style, the zany family life she creates, and the footnotes all come together to give me a warm fuzzy feeling of enjoyability when I read any of those books. I was intrigued – and a little concerned – when I heard that she was taking a break from the Spellmans and writing another novel… with someone else. Who doesn’t have equal billing on the cover. I was worried.
Of course, it turns out the disproportionate billing is just part of the game played over the course of this book. It is presented as “true life” without edits or anything – the novel, the email correspondence between the two, and the footnotes they used to mark up each other’s chapters. I’m not convinced that there wasn’t a healthy dose of fiction in the ‘real life’ subplot, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. This is an example of metafiction at its finest – and it is at its finest because the authors have created a book that isn’t about the plot or the characters or the writers themselves… but about the act of writing, the creation of the book. Paul and Lacey are pretty forgettable characters, as are nearly every other character who crops up. Sook might stick around the longest in my head and (I have to be honest) he’s the fault that I kept forgetting this book was set outside of San Francisco. I felt like it would’ve been a great Louisiana mystery. Yes, there’s a little bit of a Sookie Stackhouse thing in my head there. Deal with it.
The plot is a bit similar to a higher-profile “young kids growing pot” novel that I haven’t read yet (but it was in the Tournament of Books so a) it is on my list and b) I feel as though I can speak with some authority.[…..]) called Savages – but the plot becomes rather convoluted rather quickly as the two authors turn to sniping at each other via their text. Lacey is clearly Lisa and Paul clearly David – there are multiple references to “communication was never our strong suit” as the two siblings grow further apart during the hunt for the killer. Even the ending email to David reinforces the surrogate theory. So perhaps there was a slightly uncomfortable amount of using this book to hash things out – I didn’t mind.
I kept reading each chapter mainly to see what crazy thing was going to happen and then what the email exchange had to say. David’s large-print “Dick & Jane” chapter and Lisa’s hilarious “fuck you. seriously, fuck you.” response are a perfect example – the most compelling relationship in the novel was that of the two authors. Each time Lisa killed someone or undid one of David’s plot twists, you could feel the frustration – and the same for whenever David turned the plot from what seemed to be its natural course. I do admit, I liked Lisa’s plot choices better… just because she was hysterically dry whenever she used one. Lacey’s really rude “are you sure they’re dead?” questions every time someone else died, the way that characters like Sook became this mashup of completely ridiculous character traits because they weren’t allowed to erase something that had been established, and Lutz’s continued “what about that plane crash?” questions were just a few of my favorite recurring things.
Unfortunately, as much fun as the book is (especially for the literary minded – this might make an excellent off-beat AP English novel… just a thought, any teachers who might be reading this…), it does have some pretty huge flaws. In fact, I already pointed the biggest one out: the authors are more compelling than the characters. The book, if you excised the emails/footnotes, would be kind of… well, I don’t want to say bad…. but…. it’d be an airport novel. In the most clichéd and ‘offensive’ use of that term. Fast, pulpy, and pretty forgettable. I don’t have a single IMAGE locked into my mind from this book – I’m sure that in a few months, I’ll barely remember any of it. The writing is great, don’t get me wrong – but it lacks a certain focus. It feels almost as though the authors put a bit more thought into the book as a whole than the actual component parts.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Weaker than a Spellman novel and ultimately far less satisfying – but an entertaining and enjoyable literary novelty nonetheless. The collaborative novel can either succeed smashingly (see: Good Omens, Pratchett & Gaiman) or fail miserably (many, many others) – this lands squarely in the middle. It is not a true ‘collaborative’ novel – more like a ‘combined’ novel, a serial novel where the author was flipped for each installment. It has its charms – but they are ultimately fleeting and so I can’t really rate it any higher.