The OF Blog: Richard House, The Kills

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Richard House, The Kills

'Monkey, Paul.  Think monkey.  Change the codes, those codes are yours, no one else will notice.  That's the first step.  Second – and this is important – I want you to erase all of the personnel information you have on Stephen Sutler, anything non-financial, anything extra-curricular, private emails, anything like that, and when he comes in tomorrow, I want you to follow his instructions and divide the funds marked for his project into four new operational accounts.  Sutler has the details for the new accounts.  He has it all worked out.  Do exactly what he asks.  Make those transfers, and make sure the full amount assigned to HOSCO for the Massive leaves your holdings.  Divide it however he tells you into the four new accounts:  one, two, three, four.  Load them up.  In addition, he has a secured junk account, and I want you to attach that junk account to your dummy highway project.  Fatten it up with two-fifty, let him see the amount.  Show him the transfer.  That's five accounts, Paul.  Four accounts attached to Stephen Sutler, and one to the highways.  I want all five of them loaded.  Do you understand me?' (p. 11)

Richard House's 2013 Booker Prize-longlisted The Kills (2014 US release) is a strange sort of book.  It walks (struts?) like a thriller, has a few non-quack-like staccato bursts like one, yet it is something more and less than the sum of its four book-length parts.  It is a tale of a series of shady operations that take place in Iraq after the American occupation and there are a number of mini-mysteries that transpire over its 1000+ pages.  Yet the order of the presentation of these four parts can have an affect on how the reader understands what exactly is happening behind (and in front of) the scenes.

The Kills centers around a man who is now known as Stephen Sutler.  Receiving codes that will provide him access to over $50 million, he manages to elude discovery by law enforcement and those with whom he had conducted some shady business.  Just who is/was Sutler?  How was this heist pulled off and just who has an interest in finding him, dead or alive?

At first, these questions would seem to lie at the heart of an expansive thriller, yet House makes some curious decisions that undermines this premise.  His four narrative parts play fast and loose with narrative time and character presentation.  On the whole, his jumpstart, flashback, seen through another camera lens/angle approach makes the reader pause in her consideration of what she has just read.  His layering of perspectives does add to the character depth, although for those readers who expect a more "traditional" thriller that requires little more than just anticipating ahead a handful of pages instead of digesting what might not have really happened a hundred before, it initially can be a rough adjustment.  Yet by the end of the fourth part, if read in order that is (House has constructed this book so readers can read any of the four sections in an order of their choosing), there are some intriguing revelations...and more than a handful of continued mysteries.

Structurally, I was reminded of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, not just in the number of interconnected sections, but also in how some of these parts interact with each other.  From Russian gangsters to a more stylized look at Sutler's character, to a fictitious book, also called "The Kill," from which a movie has been derived, there are layers of commentary on contemporary society and its pop cultures that House explores to some depth.  For the most part, these commentaries heighten the narrative's pull, making it easier to read through the sometimes dense descriptions, as the reader wants to learn more about these possible connections between the book/movie and Sutler's actions/motives.  However, there are times where it felt a bit convoluted, as though House had constructed things so intricately that the narrative begins to flag in places due to the weight of its many moving parts.

Yet despite these occasional structural flaws, The Kills was an enjoyable novel to read.  There is a suitable amount of action for those who enjoy thriller-type stories, while the characterizations and ancillary social commentaries were for the most part integrated well within these four distinct sections.  One of the better action-oriented books I've read this year.

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