||Serial Killer amidst Deadly Monotony
by Ann Diamond
The people of Blind Crescent are watching each other. Normal North Americans, each in his own universe of anxious consumerism. It's our worst suburban nightmare: a world where only the rich can afford to be thin; where desperate single moms can choose from a wide range of junk foods with which to stuff the children they sometimes forget to name; where divorced dads can juggle an array of younger girlfriends, their first line of defence against overweight ex-wives.
It's also a world where the visual overwhelms every other sense, where consciousness centres on a flickering screen reflected off the aluminum siding of the house next door-a universe of boredom and dread just begging to be blown away by the only character with a sense of purpose: the elusive highway sniper.
Author Michelle Berry has taken Hollywood's sturdiest clichT-the lone serial killer-and turned him into a wraith squatting in the basement of a house on Blind Crescent, where the former owner committed suicide. Has the killer moved in, perhaps, because the neighbours deserve to die? The more we learn of their lives, the more we hope they will.
On Blind Crescent, people sometimes ponder life and death, but given their embalmed condition maybe they needn't bother. Call them Canadians: putty in the hands of a writer who despises and belittles them more than she may even realise. Like clay pigeons at a sideshow, they've been set up for a fate that never quite arrives.
While they keep on endlessly talking, we pity and put up with them, all the while wishing them a quick death. Killing them off one by one might at least have resulted in a rudimentary plot. It's easier, though, just to let them repeat themselves ad infinitum.
A keen observer, Berry lays bare her characters' states of surrender, their frailty and isolation. Unfortunately, there are so many of them, and they all seem so alike at the core, that during the first fifty pages or so I struggled to stay awake even as I admired the crispness and intelligence of Berry's writing. I couldn't help noticing too that behind the sometimes cynical sneer, lies compassion and warmth for the failed creatures who populate her novel.
Berry might have consigned a few of them to the background, turning them into minor characters, while focusing on just one family and its particularities. That way, instead of viewing a collection of miniatures, readers could get absorbed in a single household, magnified and meaningful. That doesn't happen because this is an anti-novel. There are no protagonists, and no real antagonists. Characters don't really evolve or grow wiser-the author's vision has defined them as incapable of movement. What keeps them going is repetition: of phrases, tics, evasions. Their paralysis is a metaphor for everything in our world that is breaking down but still goes on limping from one day to the next. Built into the anti-novel format is an assumption of vacuity, the conviction that none of this matters, that no one's life can ever rise above the utterly bland and predictable, that the only character worthy of attention is the presumed serial killer who has moved into the empty house of the ex-neighbour who hanged himself.
It's the human condition in microcosm, strangely bereft of thought or imagination; a world of instant sensation, brand names, trivial judgments. The girl next door is known for her tight little stomach. Her brother Gavin has pimples, and pounds his basketball against the pavement as he ponders the mystery squatter at the end of the street.
Each resident sees signs of the stranger in their midst, but remains crippled by circumstance: widowhood, divorce, old age, childhood, adolescence, and various states of co-dependency. Suspense slowly turns to fog and resignation as we plough through dialogue so vapid and random it might have been taped by accident.
The reader-turned-spectator waits for something to explode. It's as if, like some extremist, Berry has declared ordinary people the enemy merely for going about their daily business of survival. Dramatic irony builds for a while, then diffuses. The reader must imagine what these characters cannot see or express. My guess is few will labour through 200 pages of this horrible, smirking normalcy. Berry finally comes up with an ending which is not exactly a climax or a resolution, but a teasing hint at some mysterious causality, based in the past and lurking under the meaningless present.
Undoubtedly she is an accomplished, confident writer. A dedicated anchorperson at the disaster scene of contemporary life, Berry pays homage to the Creative Writing mullahs by placing a high premium on factual observation at the expense of emotional payoff. In one of the novel's few affecting scenes, the snobby Jill crosses the street to apologize to Holly, her fat, clinically depressed, single-mom neighbour, whose world revolves around diapers and toddler snot. Later, when Jill goes home, drunk on cheap boxed wine, she has changed. Everyone on Blind Crescent observes this transformation, albeit cluelessly, through their front windows. Like an oasis in a desert, the scene stands out, relief from the relentless sameness of the narrative.
I hear Michelle Berry's fans saying, "But that's the whole point-that life has no point." I'll bet these fans are pretty young, because I knew that already. How could I not? Blankness blares from the television I haven't turned on in a long time, from the pages of newspapers I no longer buy, from glossy magazines I ignore at the dentist's office. It surrounds me at the grocery store as I wander through the packaging in search of something edible. We disabled veterans would rather let youth deconstruct the message between the bar codes.
Are humans so controlled by advertising and media that fiction is becoming irrelevant? Are novels the servants of marketing and photography? Can a bunch of conformist caricatures really be funny for more than a few pages? Flaws are endearing, but when I'm trying to read a novel should I be overwhelmed by feelings of contempt for the people in it? I'm asking because it's just too easy to hate these physically challenged, mentally underdeveloped denizens of a dumbed-down, paved-over wilderness.
Blind Crescent is an easy book to put down, or throw across the room. Oddly, it's also a book that comes back to you when you're submerged in the bathtub, trying to forget it. So I found myself re-imagining Berry's world and the characters who, in retrospect, seemed more alive off the page than on. Maybe there's a hollow resonance in tales where so much is simply left to innuendo and understatement.
Maybe all this emotional distancing is a natural response to the onslaught on our sensibilities, or the price we pay for our "prosperity". Still, I'm dumbstruck by the omnipresence of surface in the landscape Berry is trying to satirize. Perhaps she's more suited to writing vignettes than novels.
Only in the aftermath of finishing Blind Crescent did I start to appreciate the void at the centre of it. My imagination added qualities it doesn't pretend to have, as irritation made way for a sense of unrealized possibilities. Isn't real life full of them? And isn't it often the ghosts of unhappy people-losers, after all-who stick around and haunt the living?
This might even be what Berry intended.