Review of The Cutting Room by Mary Watson

Cutting Room_2Title: The Cutting Room
Author: Mary Watson
Publisher: Penguin Books
Published: April 2013
Genre: psychological thriller
Source: Penguin Books SA
Rating: 8/10

Writing a plot summary for The Cutting Room is difficult – the novel doesn’t follow the chronology of its events. Putting them in chronological order for a plot summary feels disingenuous, because that’s not a proper reflection of how the novel feels to me. But all summaries and reviews are inaccurate in some way; keeping that in mind I might as well go ahead.

Lucinda is a cutter. She doesn’t cut herself with blades – she cuts and edits film – but the sense of menace and the hint at harm and self-harm are not to be ignored. For the second time in their marriage, Lucinda’s husband Amir has disappeared. The first time he went to do ‘research’, and left without saying a word to her, only sending an sms to say that he was ok. This time, Lucinda suspects that Amir has actually left her for good, although she has no way of knowing for sure because he hasn’t communicated with her at all. Their marriage had become strained, and Lucinda finds Amir too inscrutable to understand what exactly has gone wrong. Is it her fault, or is it something else?

Lonely and frustrated, she fills her days with work, dinner parties, and nights with trendy, pretty boys at bars in Long Street, Cape Town. Her nosy, paranoid neighbour keeps worrying about how vulnerable she and Lucinda are, as two women living alone in the crime-ridden Cape. Lucinda finds this annoying, but one night she is attacked with a knife in her bedroom.

Trying to get on with her life, Lucinda joins an old friend on his latest project – a documentary about a supposedly haunted house in the small town of Heuwelhoek. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, and yet the house draws parallels with the figurative ghosts in her own life, and the problems that continue to haunt her.

As I mentioned, the actual story isn’t as linear as this plot summary. To read it is not so much to read a story in the traditional sense but to view a collage of characters, relationships and themes. The narrative jumps back and forth between pasts and presents, Cape Town and Heuwelhoek. In the present, Lucinda tries to live a life where Amir – like her own safety – is an uncertainty. When it segues to the past, we see the before and during of their marriage. At times the narrative goes back even further, to Lucinda’s childhood. The haunted house in Heuwelhoek has its own narrative arc, with stories told about the various people who lived there.

In this way, this novel has multiple facets. It’s an intimate psychological study of Lucinda. It’s depicts her understanding of her relationship with Amir. It’s a supernatural mystery with a touch of horror. It’s a tapestry of life in Cape Town, a mixing pot of cultures and histories but also a “Janus-faced city” (17) with its combination of wealth and poverty. It’s a story about intruders, whether they’re criminals breaking and entering in the city of Cape Town, or ghosts disrupting homes and lives.

We never learn when the first scene of the novel takes place, but it sets the tone for what follows. In it, Lucinda sees a burglar on the wall between her house and her neighbour’s. He’s holding a DVD player and a brick. She calls out to him; he makes as if to throw the brick at her, but it’s just an act of mockery and he runs away laughing. In real time this scene would last about thirty seconds, but it takes up several pages as we’re plunged into Lucinda’s interior world. Some of her thoughts are random and a bit silly – she’s impressed that this man jumped onto this high, narrow wall and wonders how criminals train to master their craft; she compares her stereotypically sinister image of criminals with the ordinary person before her; she thinks of how he looks like the Oros man with his big belly and orange T-shirt; she thinks about how much she hates the Oros man “with that bloated rubber dominatrix suit. That sinister smile. His round dead eyes” (3). When her mind focuses on the reality of the situation, she is scared but also annoyed – this man intruded on her Sunday morning and now she’s a witness to his crime. She has been infected by someone else’s problem. It reminds her of a similar, haunting experience as a child. She is, to an extent, in danger, but the burglar uses her vulnerability to humiliate her.

What comes across here are the themes of crime and intrusion, the psychological narrative style in which the story is related, and a brief but illuminating idea of who Lucinda is as a person. The way you can be shamed by what other people’s sins. This kind of detailed interiority makes The Cutting Room a relatively dense, demanding read, but also a rewarding one. Watson’s writing is impeccable: her combination of choppy and run-on sentences mimics the nature of Lucinda’s thoughts, and the details with which she weaves her stories and characters are captivating.

Lucinda is a complex character who I empathised with, admired and disliked all at once. In some ways she’s similar to me – a coloured woman from Cape Town with her fair share of insecurities. Coming from a historically impoverished background and a troubled childhood, she is now sophisticated and financially comfortable, but deeply conscious of keeping up her desired appearances. If she seems cold at times, it could be because she prides herself on being able to be “aloof and unemotional”. When people ask about Amir’s absence, she tries to be nonchalant, never admitting how shamed and lonely she is. I particularly like this anecdote about her cravings for KFC and what it says about her character:

 Lucinda, then approaching thirty, wanted to be stylishly grown-up; she wanted to be sophisticatedly disaffected. The only thing was that every now and then she craved Kentucky Fried with the same intensity that Rapunzel’s mother wanted those radishes in the witch’s garden. She needed the deep grease and she wanted to lick the small bones clean. But she hated going down into the KFC wearing her little boutique dresses – the smell of refried oil absorbed into the expensive fabric and her hair. She felt stared at. Sturvy. So she would slip into an old tracksuit and head down to the Main Road as if in disguise. It became a secret; it just didn’t fit in with the deli and boutique culture she was working so hard at. (41)

“Sturvy”, by the way, is coloured Cape Town slang for “snooty” and its one of the scatterings of slang that Watson has woven into her depiction of the city. She doesn’t explain it, which might be a bit confusing for international readers, but which I thought was great, as explanations tend to distance you from the culture.

Anyway. Lucinda struggles with being alone, not only because Amir has disappeared but because she simply doesn’t know what to do with her time at home. Her work has made her hopelessly impatient:

Lucinda was getting used to manipulating time. She was becoming adept at making it lengthen and contract at will, at the click of a mouse. But it meant that she no longer knew how to wait. That she who had once waited and waited (for Cat to come home from school, for the princess, for her mother to get out of bed, her father to call) had lost the art of sitting something out. Lucinda’s sense of time no longer followed the wise circle of the clock. Instead, it had become a timeline that could be revisited. She could jump from the beginning to the end; she could sever anything that lingered unnecessarily. Except she couldn’t really. And later she realised that she, like software she knew so well, could also play a loop: have one small moment repeat endlessly. To see it relentlessly without reprieve. To know the details, each frame, but to be unable to change even a fraction of a second. (42)

She repeats those small moments by reliving happy memories of her relationship with Amir, to the point where those “comforting memories were worn thin from being taken out and lingered over on too many evenings in with a glass of wine” (14).

It’s quietly tragic, but this isn’t actually a particularly sad book. Lucinda’s narratives – and the book as a whole, in fact – are laced with a sense of menace that elevates the novel from dreary domestic drama to psychological thriller. There are countless details and stories that involve or suggest violence and cruelty or carry the threat of the supernatural – ghosts, witches, the tragedies of the past claiming victims in the present. It’s not something I can properly articulate in the space of a review – the effect is subtle and cumulative, so a few quotes won’t really convey the unsettling tone of the whole.

It’s interesting to note though, that crime isn’t the primary source of menace. Yes, the novel tackles the issue of crime in South Africa, but it doesn’t resort to the relatively simplistic depiction of fearful citizens preyed upon by vile criminals. Rather, crime is one aspect of a more complex consideration of fear in general.

One depressingly memorable moment is when, as a child, Lucinda is walking home with her sister Cat and they hear a woman screaming:

Lucinda thought, rape. Because that was the scariest thing. That’s what they were always warned about. Be careful when you walk home because you might get raped. Don’t go to the caravan park because you might get raped. (44)

Almost as scary as rape itself is the idea that a child would immediately think of rape when she hears a woman screaming. That says a lot about the kind of society that Lucinda and Cat grew up in. But the incident quickly becomes very different: when the woman emerges it’s revealed that she’s screaming for hep for her drowning brother. Lucinda and Cat only stare at the woman in shock, until she runs off looking for someone more capable. Then the two girls just walk on, and Cat immediately starts talking about their library books. Lucinda is more disturbed – was there really a drowning man? Has it got anything to do with the legend of a dead Princess who drowns children in the vlei? She never finds out what really happened and the incident haunts her for years. The unknown is just as threatening as regular crime, at least for Lucinda: ” While she minded gangsters very much, she was more frightened by things she couldn’t see, things that touched a nerve” (54).

The ghosts, whether real, imagined or figurative, cut deeper than any incidents of crime. They are born of intimate, unsettling secrets, they bring personal insecurities into sharp relief, they kindle obsessions. I particularly enjoyed the ghost stories of the house in Heuwelhoek. They raise more questions than they answer, but they get under your skin. As a genre fan I was hoping Watson would make the supernatural horror story a bigger part of the novel. I wasn’t unhappy with what she did, I just wanted more of it, with a more satisfying resolution.

But the book is primarily and Lucinda’s relationship with Amir and the mystery of his disappearance. This is probably not a good choice if you’re looking for sheer story – the book is packed with stories within stories, but the main arc of narrative moves quite slowly and isn’t especially exciting. The appeal lies in everything around the core narrative – the characters, their histories, the writing.

I was captivated, but if I have an any complaints, it’s that yes, the novel does drag in parts. As Watson mentioned in a Q&A with Penguin, The Cutting Room is a very reflective book rather than a typically fast-paced thriller. The challenge was to balance reflection and action. For the most part, I think Watson balanced it very well, not with guns-and-chases sort of action but with gripping stories and intriguing encounters. Nevertheless, Lucinda’s problems start to become tedious in the last third or so and I really wanted to hear more about the Heuwelhoek house instead.

Niggling aside – The Cutting Room is good. Very good. It’s one of the most sophisticated South African novels I’ve read and a classily macabre work in its own right. Recommended.

Review of The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

Title: The Devil in Silver
Author: Victor LaValle
Published: 21 August 2012
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Genre: literary fiction, horror
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Pepper was just trying to be someone’s hero when he got arrested and sent to New Hyde, a budget-strapped mental institution in Queens, New York. He’s not mentally ill, but that doesn’t matter. On his second night, a monster breaks into his room – a beast with the head of a bison and the body of an old man. Its eyes are white and veined with red, its matted fur reeks, and its feet have hardened heels that clop like hooves. Pepper and his roommate are paralysed with fear, and saved only when angry staff members burst into the room with tranquilizers to put an end to their screaming.

Pepper wishes he could blame it all on his drug-addled mind, but everyone on the ward knows about the monster and some believe it to be the Devil himself. Worse, the beast is actually a patient, protected by the staff no matter what it does. It’s kept on an isolated ward behind a massive silver door, but at night it breaks out and preys on the other patients. Trapped in New Hyde and terrified, Pepper rallies some of his companions in a plot to kill the beast. There’s Dorry, an octogenarian who’s been on the ward for decades; Loochie, a 19-year-old girl with anger-management issues; and Coffee, a Ugandan immigrant who spends every cent he can find making calls to the government to warn them about the Devil in New Hyde.

To carry out their plan, the group must deal with the staff, their meds, their own fears, and the mental institution itself. What follows is not a conventional horror novel. It’s not particularly scary in the way we typically understand horror to be scary – giving you gut-clenching scares and making you nervous about being alone in the dark, often using a story splattered with gore. The Devil in Silver has a bit of that, but rather than call it literary horror, I’d call it a literary novel about horror and fear. It is scary, but in the way that the unbelievably twisted realities of modern life are scary.

For example, The Devil in Silver is partly a novel about appallingly inefficient public service systems (as I write, I realise this sounds dreadfully boring, but rest assured, LaValle is a better writer than that). Pepper doesn’t end up at New Hyde because anyone thinks he’s crazy; no one does. He was trying to be a hero by helping a neighbour with her troublesome ex-husband. He got into a fight, and when the cops intervened, he punched one of them. It was an honest mistake – the officers were in plainclothes and Pepper had no way of knowing who they were. Not that they care. They arrested him, but doing the paperwork would mean working overtime without pay. Instead of taking him to the station, they took Pepper to New Hyde and make him someone else’s problem, as they’ve done many times before.

The chief psychologist is well aware of this habit, but according to the law he has to keep Pepper under observation for three days. However, from the moment Pepper is brought into New Hyde, he’s ensnared in a system that sees him only as a “case history, a new admit awaiting diagnosis; a subject. After an hour, Pepper was, officially at least, a mental patient”. And “mental patient” becomes the category that defines Pepper’s existence, at least to the staff members who now control his life.

To be treated like a patient is to be treated “[w]ith rules that defied all common logic; people employed to help you who are unable, really, to even hear you; the sense that the system’s goal is only to keep trouble contained”. Keeping “trouble contained” means doping patients until they’re little more than shuffling, slurring half-wits, so Pepper is forced to take heavy meds from day one. To refuse medication, is to throw yourself into an illogical loop:

“You have the right to refuse,” [the orderly] said. “But refusal is taken as a sign that you’re illness is in control of you.”
“What if I’m refusing because I’m not ill?”
Miss Chris almost barked. “If you was healthy, you wouldn’t refuse!”

Nurses and orderlies are quick to punish any disobedience. Refusing meds means Pepper doesn’t get to eat, because the staff don’t see why he should resist:

The doctor says you need to take your meds, so why not take them? You can’t leave until the doctors believe you’re improving. They won’t believe that if you’re not dosed up. And maybe the damn things are even helping you act like less of a wackadoo. So why not do it? Why not? Why not? Why not? In this way, not evil, even understandable in a way, Terry justified denying Pepper his dinner.

It’s not that the staff members are sadistic. Rather, they function according to a certain “philosophy of life: certain types of people must be overseen”. And, at a more fundamental level, they fear the patients. Any sign that they’re starting to function like normal human beings is treated with deep suspicion because it means they’re not taking their meds. Pepper’s natural belligerence immediately counts against him, as does his frustration and attempts at resistance. When he makes the stupid but understandable decision to escape, the staff members descend on him with tranquilizers. When he eventually wakes up, his three days of observation have turned into weeks of incarceration, and he’s not allowed to leave because the chief psychologist has decided that he’s mentally unstable. Not only are they ruining his life, but he’s trapped in a hospital with a monster who kills people with impunity.

It’s an unbelievably unfair situation, not only for Pepper but for all the patients. But this kind of injustice is a quintessential feature of horror stories, and of life – the way terrible, painful things happen to people who don’t deserve it. It’s terrifying in its own way, not because of the monster but because most of this isn’t even unrealistic. You will balk at the appalling way New Hyde is run, but there’s no comforting assurance that this is pure fiction.

In fact, LaValle is trying to make a point about the insanity of American society, as he explains in an interview with The Huffington Post:

Well, I do, at one point in the book, have a character say that our country is basically an asylum now, and she calls the place The United States of New Hyde. […] And I’m certainly, in the book, trying to wrestle with the idea that the country feels like it is really going crazy at this moment. Going crazy specifically with fear. The thing that is sort of dogging the characters throughout, is fear. And fear warps our understanding of reality and even our ability to see reality clearly.

The idea that fear warps our sense of reality comes up often. The patients offer several theories of the Devil on the ward, but you don’t know if any of them are true, or if they’re sparked by myths and horror stories. The staff members don’t seem to see the beast that the patients do, but then again they view all the patients as monstrous in some way. And societies at large fear the people they dehumanise, usually foreigners and minorities. But this is a symptom of a larger problem. As one woman says, “Hard times make people scared. And scared people see monsters everywhere.” The fault lies not with the supposed monsters that people see, but with unseen ones, like the unknown owners of New Hyde who earn massive profits at the cost of the people they’re meant to help. As LaValle explains it in his interview

it’s like that old saying: the greatest trick that the Devil ever pulled was to convince people that it didn’t exist. And so there’s two devils in the book: there’s a Monster, and a larger Devil. One who is down on earth, and one who’s actually pulling the strings.

I haven’t said much about the story, but even though it wasn’t what I expected, it’s still a compelling read and the themes do not overwhelm the narrative. If anything, LaValle has balanced them perfectly, so that each enhances the other. There’s a lot of tension, some violence and tragedy, quite a bit of humour, and a dash of feel-good stuff. And yes, there’s a bit of gore, but nothing to get too squeamish about. The way computers are used at New Hyde made me cringe a lot more than the blood did. I mean, consider this:

She had a stack of old files, and she hadn’t logged in one page of the stuff in over an hour. That poor woman was just tapping the Tab key over and over. She planned to do this for six more hours, until her shift ended.

LaValle has a slightly odd, punchy, but easy-to-read writing style full of parentheses that he uses to add colour and depth to his characters and set the tone of the culture. Even though the novel is set almost entirely inside one building, we still get an impression of the cultural “all you-can-eat, mix-and-match buffet” that is Queens. There are a lot of comments about race, class and the way people relate to difference. For this, LaValle uses an omniscient narrator, and the focus frequently flicks away from Pepper to give us an understanding of the other characters.

Overall, it’s a well-crafted, socially conscious and entertaining novel with a lot of insight. I’d recommend whether or not you like horror.

Buy a copy of The Devil in Silver at The Book Depository