When I was hunting for Crap Looking Books, I almost glossed over Andrew Klavan’s Man and Wife but found myself drawn back to it. The cover is unassuming to the point of being inconsequential, a passive, calming scene that could belong to any novel without having much affect on the interpretation of the story. This could be an Iain Banks, or an Ian McEwan, or an Iain Hollingshead, or even a book written by someone with a different forename.
We have a tree. We have a lake. We have sky. Nowhere on the blurb or jacket notes is there any mention of these three things. All the front cover gives us to go on is the suggestion that “Maybe if I had loved her less there would have been no murder.”
Putting aside the poor grammar, this set up is acceptable on the surface. It doesn’t give too much away and it puts the hooks into the reader or potential buyer a little… but it’s also an insulting abuse to the craft of… cover making.
Consider the following possible replacement texts:
“It was an ordinary summer until the Nazis fell from the sky.”
“Perhaps if I’d been less bored I wouldn’t have sat on it.”
“Finally, I knew the way to San Jose. And I’d been away so long…”
“It was the day my eyebrows started talking to me.”
The lack of relation between the story and the cover lead me to think there was simply nothing in the story worth putting on the jacket, no defining image or moment that could be represented visually.
I expected a lot of very ordinary characters in ordinary locations, and a predictably generic sense of some secret beneath everything that turns out to be not exactly the secret that the protagonist expected. A gun will make a dramatic and striking appearance, and someone’s going to spend half a chapter having very specific and descriptive sex with someone else.
Well my first impressions were wrong! The cover is not an inconsequential image, but rather a depiction of a locale that was used extensively in the book. A little too extensively. It had no real specific prominence or weight as a site and was only a place where things happened to happen. It is such a placid and innocuous image and place that the cover could just have easily featured a picture of the main character’s car, or his wife’s winter coat.
If someone is so loathe to talk to you about their dark past, you shouldn’t be so surprised when you hear about their dark past.
According to the narrative voice, Man and Wife is a story of how love blinds psychiatrist Cal Bradley to his wife’s true nature and allows BAD THINGS to happen while homo-terrified patient Peter Blue heals lepers, talks in riddles, and reminds Cal of his dead sister. In actual fact, it’s a story of how one man knew and suspected exactly what his wife was doing and used the narrative voice to tell us all about it, then expressed surprise when he was proven right. His closing declarations that “I didn’t see what was right in front of my eyes … if only I’d seen through [the] lies” are absolute bull.
I am sick of lazy protagonists. Cal Bradley doesn’t do anything, he merely walks in on others as they do things (usually suicides), or responds to their actions with mood swings, brooding, and ridiculously long chains of thought. His constant speculation in stream-of-consciousness narrative and the way the “story” jumps from one point and event to the next with very little stringing them together obviously appeals to me as anyone familiar with my own style would expect, but it is lazy writing. He turns over one idea then another just to dismiss them both and you can’t help but feel he’s dawdling for word count and padding, while the frenetic leaps in story and backstory allow seemingly unconnected events to connect, deadening any surprise when it turns out (shock! horror!) that they are in fact connected.
Such flowing text also poses problems when laid next to speech, often presenting a scene where the characters seem to be idly pausing, waiting for the narrator to finish rambling before they continue their sentences, destroying the sense of time and causing distance between the reader and the situations of the text. Not that they can get a word out with the number of clichés they’re choking on “…a gun’s just gonna piss him off … it warmed my cockles… let the chips fall where they may … put a sock in it … oh my stars and garters…”
Man and Wife occasionally pauses to check that the reader truly understands the narrative voice and is on their side, forcing a bending of interpretation that is in danger of alienating the reader. Which is a pity, since Andrew Klavan has enough strength and quality in his wordcraft to be able to trust that the reader is already responding accordingly.
That said, the characters are quite grey and mailable, with so little that their physical attributes are constantly reiterated and their names are almost onomatopoeic. It’s no surprise the smallest child is affectionately called “Tot”. Bradley seems at odds with himself, viewing infidelity and lies as VERY BAD THINGS but shrugging off murder, thinking the lies about such an act are much worse than the deed itself.
There is no explanation for the Jesus-like nature of Peter Blue, or how he is able to affect those around him and why. One scene even has him doling out endless sandwiches ala loaves and fishes, and all those observing seem to take this as just a character quirk rather than, oh I don’t know, SOMETHING THAT DEFIES THE LAWS OF PHYSICS.
Blue has an anti-church, Gospel of Thomas-esque view, but this is never truly explored, and left under the question mark of whether it’s progressive forward-thinking thought that Klavan wants you to consider, or just the off-kilter ramblings of a damaged child character with trouble integrating.
I’m slightly annoyed and pleased to admit I enjoyed reading Man and Wife, and the way it pitted my expectations of loathing against my eagerness to read it. However I felt myself once again following a narrator only out of curiosity as to where the author will take them, and not out of any genuine concern or interest in their actual character…