Greek Tragedy in Manhattan
By Christopher Hacker
Soho Press, 368 pages
To review Christopher Hacker’s debut novel in the conventional manner—introducing the characters, summarizing the plot, then weighing in with critical judgment—would do this stunning, unsettling book a tremendous disservice. The Morels must be experienced to be appreciated, if indeed appreciated is the proper word; it is a harrowing tale of a damaged soul struggling with his past and at the same time the portrait of a monster who inflicts devastating harm in the name of art. The novel itself is laced with philosophy, literary theory, and moral questions. It concerns a troubled genius named Arthur Morel who writes a novel about a troubled genius named Arthur Morel, as told by a hapless sidekick whose name (like Hacker’s own) happens to be Chris.
In 1999, Chris runs into an old chum he can’t quite place while waiting for an elevator in a Manhattan apartment building. The man whose name Chris can’t recall shows Chris a picture of his wife, Penelope, and son Will, and casually mentions that he’s recently published a book. Chris hunts the book down and goggles at its blurbs; suddenly, it all comes back: “Astonishing. Unflinching. I formed a silent chord with my right hand, bringing each key down slowly, to the bump of the key bed. It seemed Arthur hadn’t changed a bit.”
Arthur, it turns out, was the musical wunderkind at the Upper West Side conservatory he and Chris both attended as teenagers. An extensive flashback describes Arthur’s spectacular (and revoltingly sophomoric) self-sabotage during the climactic moment of his senior performance. His novel, naturally, is brilliant but disturbing. By its shocking conclusion, Chris realizes, “Arthur has achieved that sleight of hand the best authors make us fall for: We want things to work out for the narrator, whatever kind of person he turns out to be. It’s jujitsu, using the natural momentum of a reader’s desire to see his protagonist’s desires fulfilled to launch us over the line into this transgression, to want this transgression, in a sense.”
But the book Arthur is working on now—The Morels: A Novel—makes his first novel look tame. “I’m not going to be your conscience or your censor,” real-life Penelope tells real-life Arthur, after he begs her to vet the unpublished manuscript. “I don’t care what it’s about. Do you love me? Do you love Will? Does this story change that? No, so go forth and publish.”
The Morels begins with Arthur Morel, disenchanted with marriage and fatherhood, writing emails to himself asking why, when he knows he is blessed with a wonderful family and material success and good health, he is filled with dread and doubt. This auto-correspondence liberates the fictional Arthur; even troubling memories (an erotic encounter with another boy when they were both nine, for instance) are suddenly easier to cope with: “Airing dark truths helps lighten his spirit; and writing obsessively these long dark weeks cures him of the need to write obsessively to himself.”
Writing functions as therapy, in other words: Art soothes Art. And yet something so disturbing occurs in the novel’s final pages that it impels real-life Penelope (who has stubbornly insisted on waiting to read the book until it appears in print) to drop her copy and run halfway across Manhattan to make sure Will is safe at school. What has Arthur written? What has his fictional alter-ego done?
The reader is kept in the dark for another hundred pages, but there is no temptation to skip; indeed, so skillfully does Hacker manage our mounting dread that we find ourselves unable to stop reading even as we wish we never had to discover what lies ahead. Like a tidal surge that creeps forward by inches, the effects of The Morels are, at first, scarcely felt. Penelope finds the novel unsettling and hurtful, but she’s willing to accept it as a work of fiction.
Eleven-year-old Will, though not precisely forbidden to read it—Arthur and Penelope practice a particular brand of laissez-faire child-rearing that eschews parental controls—has apparently decided to wait until he’s older. But Penelope’s parents, whom Arthur privately derides as philistines, are catastrophically undone. They try hard to come to terms with the book—could Arthur be writing metaphorically? Exploring the dark recesses of the id? Coping with childhood abuse? Seeking the most effective way to épater le bourgeois? In the end, Penelope’s father explodes: “What kind of smug, self-indulgent—I’m sorry, Penny. I can’t pretend anymore. It’s disgusting, what he wrote. Where is the self-respect? The decency?” He sues Arthur for defamation.
By now the reader will have guessed that an act of incestuous pedophilia is the big secret of Arthur’s novel-within-a-novel; what is astonishing is the way Hacker manages to furnish the explicit particulars while leaving intact vexing questions that trouble not just his readers, but also Arthur’s. When the civil case against Arthur metastasizes into a criminal charge, Hacker sends the narrative into a tightly controlled spin.
What actually happened in Arthur’s real life remains ambiguous. Arthur’s own ghastly childhood—he was raised in squalor by drug-addled hippies—cannot justify, excuse, or even explain his subsequent behavior. Nor can highfalutin notions of the purpose and function of art. “There seemed no good explanation—the death of literature, The Satanic Verses, the French book on catharsis—all the intellectualizing in the world couldn’t get at the specificity of that hallucinatory scene,” Chris says. As the novel marches toward (and, eventually, away from) Arthur’s trial, guilt and innocence somehow become irrelevant. What matters in The Morels—as in Greek tragedy, whose precise machinations fascinate Arthur—is the damage itself. This is an extraordinary book.