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Hunting for Laird Hunt

“I thought a thought but the thought I thought was not the thought that I thought I thought,” said Harry.

In Ray of the Star, Laird Hunt masterfully creates an alternate universe, a place made strange by simply exaggerating the world in which you and I live.  The book opens with sinister overtones of mysterious crimes, an accident, and guilt.  Harry has a sleeping disorder, Restless Leg Syndrome, and occasional bouts of visual aphasia, and the narrator suggests we might be entering “an endless Tarkovsky movie.”  Harry flees his home and his past in the American Midwest and heads for a more picturesque and dangerous city much like Barcelona, where he passively ricochets around until he at last becomes snared in someone else’s web.  On a boulevard much like Barcelona’s La Rambla, Harry discovers an avenue of living statues, those silver-and gold-painted mimes who perform on city streets for easily amused tourists.  But here, in Laird Hunt’s city, the living statues take their work more seriously and have an uncertain symbolic presence, and they are the subject of constant debate for a trio of foul-mouthed “connoisseurs” who observe and critique their performances.

Harry becomes taken with Solange, who performs as an angel on the avenue of living statues and who, after the loss of a lover, now paints herself silver rather than gold and sheds silver tears.  In order to better woo Solange, Harry joins the corps of living statues as the Knight of Woeful Countenance (the reference, of course, is to Don Quixote), at which he is a woeful failure, managing only to resemble “some kind of laminated hobgoblin or gigantic duck.”  His next tactic is to take up residence inside of a papier-mâché Yellow Submarine (yes, that Yellow Submarine), which permits him to observe Solange from close up.  For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the tenor of Ray of the Star changes dramatically midstream from noir science fiction, full of menace and dread, to a quirky and comic tale of living statues, talking shoes, and ghosts who return to their daily lives.  It’s a risky and curious change, and some readers will find that it threatens to undermine Hunt’s darker message about the mysterious and possibly shameful past that haunts Harry.

In addition to this questionable mood swing, Hunt also has a tendency, which I found baffling, to give the narratorial voice an intensely elevated vocabulary and syntax.

Solange and Harry emerged from the latter’s apartment contentedly aware that their exchange of confidences, no matter how satisfyingly thorough, could reasonably be thought of as no more than an additional incipit in what – barring any unforeseen accelerant – would require a whole cascading series in order to move them toward the something they had not, during their discussion of the matter, been quite willing to articulate, though we might reasonably infer that the potential of an intense acquaintance bolstered by duration was under discussion, meaning that high spirits were the order of the evening as they set off for the boulevard to recuperate and stow away Solange’s silver costume and Harry’s Yellow Submarine…

In another context, this nerdy, language-bound narrator might be very effective, but here the jokey bombast  struck me as counterproductive.  This was one of several tactics that left me feeling that the purpose of Ray of the Star was increasingly becoming mangled.  Each chapter, for example, consists of a single “sentence” that is usually three to four pages long, although, in fact, each “sentence” is really a string of sentences cobbled together with commas.  These artificially convoluted sentences, combined with Hunt’s pretzled grammar, seem to be saying something Joycean about the interconnectedness of everything.  But, for me, it all added up to a pervasive arbitrariness in Ray of the Star that I found problematic.  Hunt is a writer who can convincingly pull readers into dark territory that they might never have ventured on their own.  The opening pages of Ray of the Star are powerful, mysterious, unpredictable, and intensely risky, and when I returned to the beginning after finishing the novel I was even more astounded at what Hunt had pulled off in those early pages.  Unfortunately it seems to me that quirks of subject and style eventually loom too large, distracting the reader from the books’ real strengths.

Ray of the Star includes three full-page photographs.  There is no indication if these are actually to be considered part of Laird Hunt’s text or if the designer placed them as chapter breaks, although each image does relate to an object discussed in the section that follows it.  The largely gray photographs of a bell, a glass of liquid, and a clothes hanger have the stark and haunting simplicity of of X-rays of ordinary objects.

Laird Hunt, Ray of the Star.  Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2009.

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