The Mysterium:
A Novel of Deconstructionism

by Eric McCormack,
272 pages,
ISBN: 031211320X

Post Your Opinion
Plague Journal
by Allan Casey

A FEW breathless reviewers have compared Eric McCormack to Garcia Mdrquez, Poe, even Kafka. One or two have jettisoned him straight into the literary cesspit along with pornographer-hacks such as Bret Easton Ellis. Such polemics will be lost on readers of The Mysterium, a species of detective novel, albeit with serious philosophical underpinnings, that isn't likely to upset any literary applecarts. McCormack's earlier penchant for gross horror is subsumed here by a more palatable macabre flavour that weaves a dizzying, but not dehumanizing, spell. As a surrealist, McCormack remains as deft an alchemist as the puissant villain of his novel. But if it's Kafka you want, read Kafka.

"Telling truth," as the characters in The Mysterium repeatedly point out, "is only possible when you don't know very much." Thus the detective-narrator in this story of historical sleuthing is utterly ingenuous. In fact, he's not even a detective, but a reporter of very junior rank who finds himself the only journalist in a Scottish mining town whose citizens are mysteriously dying en masse.

Life in the hamlet of Carrick changes forever with the arrival of a strange hydrologist, "a Colonial" by the name of Martin Kirk. The story is convincingly set in the wild, foggy moorlands at the north end of "the Island." McCormack serves his surreal objectives with his conscious use of such archetypal nouns: it's never Edinburgh, but "the Capital"; "the South," rather than England; "the Continent," not Europe. (Such signifiers also say something of the author's academic biases, though exactly what it's hard to know. A short passage in the novel discussing some of the new theories in criminology - a facile and not very funny send-up of deconstruction - introduces us to such absorbing coinages as "Criminifier" and "Criminified.")

Pedantry aside, the plot unfolds headlong. Vandalism with a kinky undertone besets Carrick shortly after Kirk's arrival. Kirk earns the town's suspicion by nosing too deeply into its murky past. He's particularly curious about the wartime deaths of a score of POWs in the local coal mine. Meanwhile, he becomes entangled in a love triangle with Anna Grubach, the antiques dealer, and Robert Aiken, the town druggist. When the stakes escalate to murder, then suicide, and finally an exotic plague, the town is cordoned off by the military, and an ascetic English policeman ("a Reeve from the South") takes over the investigation.

Reeve Blair invites the young reporter Maxwell to Carrick for an exclusive story. Under the Reeve's guidance, Maxwell tapes interviews with each of the dying townspeople about the events leading up to their dire predicament. In a weirdly comic touch, the mystery disease afflicts its victims with wild speech disorders before it kills them: one speaks in reverse, while another bellows his testimony so loudly that Maxwell must wear ear protectors during the interview. Maxwell's tape transcriptions comprise the bulk of the narrative. Added to them is the written testimony of the druggist Aiken, who is ultimately charged with mass murder, since he alone remains impervious to the plague. Together, they tell a sordid tale of a town with a history of evil stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, all these narratives-within-narratives are delivered in the same fictional voice - Maxwell's which tends to distance us from the characters and blurs the distinctions among them. Nor is The Mysterium satisfying as pure detective fiction. Kirk's connection to Carrick, the fate of the POWs, Aiken's troubled love life - Maxwell fits the puzzle together not by thrilling deductive power, but merely by trotting about town with his tape recorder. In the end, the only mystery left for Maxwell to solve is his own involvement in the story.

But McCormack is a commanding stylist, and in The Mysterium he sets a mood as pervasive as the Upland fog. The soupy weather and the darkness never seem to dissipate fully, the most seemingly obvious appearances cloaking mystery:

At the dim reception area to the left of the lobby, a huge rat was bent over gnawing at some papers. The rat looked up, miraculously transforming itself into Mitchell, the owner, at his bookkeeping.

The Mysterium, in the end, is less a detective story than a subversion of the genre in which "truth" or "facts" are tangible commodities. No sooner have we digested the pat conclusiveness at the end of the story than the narrator drops an epilogue in our laps that disintegrates all our knowing. Mastery is transformed into mystery. Certum est quia impossibile. McCormack's The Mysterium is a brave conceit, in that it's as apt to annoy as to inspire. Whereas we expected to uncover truth somewhere near the end of the story, we realize we lost it in the Carrick mist near page one.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us