★★★★★ The Serialist and ★★ Mystery Girl are the first two books by David Gordon, and I read them back to back after randomly coming across the tasty, fresh quirkiness of The Serialist and digging it right down to the bone. What bright and confrontational dialogue, I thought, what depths of philosophical darkness served up with such irreverent smirk.
Unfortunately Mystery Girl pretty much sucked, though it aped its predecessor in almost every way that counts, following a very similar recipe with just a few of the ingredients switched out (see table at the end for these substitutions).
It didn’t work, and Mystery Girl turned out to be a story largely devoid of any stakes or purpose, orbiting a case of coincidence way too huge to forgive (though Gordon does attempt to explain it). I came very close to giving up reading it halfway through.
But The Serialist is great. The protagonist, Harry Bloch, is an aimless douchebag hack writer, so thoroughly chewed-up and spat-out by writing that he pretends to be a 60-year old woman, even to the extent of dressing up like her for cover jacket photos, to maintain his pen name identity for a series of vampire books.
He has so little pride that he accepts payment to write a 16-year old schoolgirl’s essays, under the guise that he is her tutor, while at the same time allowing her to act as his agent.
Brilliant. This is not even the plot, but it’s already great. I love this lovable loser, because although he certainly is a loser- his wife has left him to marry a successful literary novelist, while penning a book of her own- and he is also a total pushover- letting the 16-year-old largely run his life- he is actually quite good at being a loser. He has fans, he does make money, and his books are out there on the shelves, connecting people.
So he’s a loser, resigned to his lot in life (as he says eloquently in one parenthetical, imaginary conversation with his ex-wife- “I am not a fuck-up. I am a failure.”), but he is not completely pathetic. He’s self-piteous but not lavishly so, enough that he laughs at himself, and laughs at other people laughing at him, though there is a certain point beyond which he will not be pathetic.
He is also smart, witty, and happy to be disliked. He doesn’t need other people, rather they seem to gravitate towards him, albeit they are misfits- the 16-year old girl, a big gay florist, maybe some others I don’t remember. He is liked.
So I liked him. He had given up on a certain kind of success after life ground him down, and that’s acceptable, but he had had some success. He was also a writer of popular porn (probably much like David Gordon himself).
We learn all this in a few witty, neat chapters, then the story starts proper, when an opportunity comes his way that he can’t ignore. A serial killer, one who cut up bodies and posed them in grotesque arrangements, now in prison, likes his porn writing and wants Harry to ghost-write his biography.
It only gets better from there. Every scene is a zingy conversation back and forth with a wide variety of nutjobs, as Harry Bloch gets rattled around like a pinball in the machine, holding his own, lashing out at times from his position of wounded (zero) pride, but getting respect along the way.
There are zigs and zags, gruesomeness, some virtuoso turns at first-person ‘reported speech’ via letters or transcribed interviews, and a lot of neat puzzle-solving, noiry thrills, and philosophical musings, all leavened with a healthy dose of self-knowing humor.
I recommend The Serialist strongly.
Then there is Mystery Girl, which I don’t. It hits on almost all of the same gimmicks that The Serialist did, but almost none of them work. The protagonist Sam Kornberg is also a failed writer, but this time he’s a real failure. He writes annoying, experimental fiction that no one wants to read, churning it out like an addiction, and surprise, nobody reads it. He has no connections with the world, he can’t even hold down a job. He had a hot wife, sweet Lord above knows how, who he disregards and loses at the start of the book.
He is unrepentantly a loser. At the same time, he is the same character as Harry Bloch. He exhibits the same self-knowing humor, the acceptance that he is a loser, a failure, only this time it is really true, and we really know it.
He is the Harry Bloch character who refused to ‘sell-out’ to genre, but it’s only made him miserable, hoarding his books (Toilet is the name of one of them, so-called because as the ‘story’ goes on various plots and characters get ‘flushed,’ only to all swirl up as the novel backs up and they all get crapped out at once) like self-pitying wounds, to sob over and lick when he feels pathetic.
So I didn’t like him. What made Harry an acceptable loser made Sam no fun to be around. It turns out later on in the book he actually does have some oddball friends, much like Harry, which made him a bit more likable, but not by much. There is also a very fat detective, a cross between Poirot and Sherlock Holmes perhaps, whose introduction in the story kicks off the plot.
But what plot? For a long, long time there were no stakes involved and little clear movement, other than whether Sam would get his wife back. But since this is a kind of thriller, that’s far from enough. The titular Mystery Girl may have been mysterious to the fat detective, but I didn’t care. Why should I, I’d been given no reason to. For a long time I am given no reason to care, but instead just schlep on with this depressing loser doing mindless stuff for reasons he doesn’t understand.
There’s none of the witty confrontational conversation of the first book. Rather, there are long turgid recitations of various character’s backstories, pages and pages of guff about people we care nothing about, while Sam sits and listens like a wet cabbage. Where it worked in The Serialist, because the guy in question was a serial killer and we wanted to know how his mind worked, here it was just boring. I skipped large sections just to get things moving.
The mystery turns out to be about a film. This is not a spoiler, really. I felt like I was reading Paul Auster‘s The Book of Illusions again- a book I really hated, which went on and on about how this certain set of movies were so important and moving, and why did the ‘auteur’ have to burn them all before he died?
Then the book stopped, abruptly, thankfully, and my duty was done. I do not recommend it. Avoid.
And now, a table that displays all the components of both books that follow virtually the same recipe:
|The Serialist||Mystery Girl|
|Protagonist is a failed writer||Harry Bloch- genre/porn hack writer||Sam Kornberg- unpublished experimental novelist|
|Protagonist’s wife left him||Check||Check|
|Protagonist’s wife involved with much more successful man in a similar field||Check- she married him||Check- she used to be married to him|
|Protagonist has goofy friend who does anything for him||Claire, the 16-year old agent girl||Milo, the Clerks-esque loser who runs the video store|
|Protagonist has goofy gay friend||Check, gay guy who plays Harry’s ‘Duke’ pen name||Check, lesbian who runs the failed book shop he worked at|
|Protagonist dresses like a woman||Like his mother||As a disguise|
|Protagonist hooks up with hot young woman who is way out of his league, drawn together by circumstance, and they get it on.||Check, one of the murder victims’ family.||Check, a woman caught up in the ‘plot’|
|Protagonist solves case by happenstance of simply being in right places at right times||Check, he only does stuff after the main plot plays out||Check, he doesn’t really do anything at all but follow orders|
|Long sections where one character talks direct to camera||Check, at end, but at least it made sense||Check, at end, but didn’t even make sense as no one to talk to|
|Series of interactions / interviews with odd balls, along with their personal histories||Check, but fun and sharp and confrontational||Check, but dull, stodgy, and uninterrupted|
I could go on, but I think that’s enough. I’ll look out for more by David Gordon, but I won’t hold my breath. Producing something as fresh and fun as The Serialist cannot be easy. Hopefully he won’t just serve us another re-run.