You, the reader, are sitting in a room when a man with a strange hat comes in. This hat, more oblong than elliptical, more orange than yellow, distracts you from the uncomfortable ropes circling your wrists, and your nose, which this man has just flattened. Okay, it's not a room exactly, because the walls don't go all the way up and there really isn't a ceiling to speak of. And the man can't truly be called a man, even, and her hat could very well be a desperate attempt at hair. At last check, however, none of these inconsistencies stopped her from flattening your nose.
Laird Hunt's new novel, The Exquisite, is not for those who need to be assured of permanence. In this it is like his previous two novels, The Impossibly (a fractured espionage story, John le Carré à la Borges) and Indiana, Indiana (a beautiful prose poem of a novel with an act of violence at its silent, still center). All of his work demands a malleability on the part of the reader; events happen and then they turn out not to have happened. A man is grotesquely fat when he walks into a meeting and rail thin when he walks out just minutes later. It's unsettling, but we can take comfort in the fact that Hunt's protagonists experience the same vagaries of narrative—that's why they're always getting the hell beat out of them.
Henry, an aimless young man who's fallen on hard times after the disappearance of his girlfriend, is recruited by the enigmatic, avuncular herring connoisseur Aris Kindt to perform a series of fake murders. This is post-9/11 New York, you see, and the city's survivors are starved for their own transformative experiences. Henry receives addresses from Tulip the tattoo artist or the vaguely menacing Cornelius, and then he goes to work. He smashes people's heads with wooden salad bowls; he chloroforms them; he breaks the occasional bone.
Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, Henry is in the hospital, himself broken after being hit by a truck. There's the cute Doctor Tulp, and, surprise, an older gentleman by the name of Mr. Kindt, with whom Henry engages in discussions about herring and Rembrandt. This kind of unexplained doubling happens constantly as Henry makes his way through the glittering darkness that is The Exquisite's New York. He keeps bumping into the same (or just slightly different) people, having the same conversations, and struggling to comprehend what has become his increasingly vertiginous life.
In this, he resembles the narrator of W. G. Sebald's near-miraculous novel The Rings of Saturn, Hunt's admitted touchstone for this book. According to Hunt, Sebald, who died in 2001 after being struck by a drunk driver, provided "key thematic and linguistic irritants... e.g., falsification, death, long-standing vectors of destruction, herring, silk, the historical perspective..." And yes, it's all in here, not least the herring who "give off light as they die. As they drift through the black waters." These lights, in turn, are not unlike the "isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance" mentioned by Sebald while describing the work of 16th-century visionary Sir Thomas Browne. It's all an echo chamber in the end—New York, the novel, history, the partially illuminated sea.
Hunt has crafted a finely tuned miniature that doubles and redoubles on itself until you realize that the point of the whole thing is its unsteadiness, which by the end begins to feel almost comforting. However, he's also made a shambling mongrel of a novel in which everything is considered and nothing is resolved. Near the end of the book, Henry muses that "...this is only one version among several, and that no matter how many people believe it, it does not command primacy." But primacy is hardly the point, is it? There are a thousand lives you could live; you choose one in which you perform fake murders or fix cars or write books, but that doesn't make it your only life. The unchosen others are still out there, waiting in some dark corner, probably, for the perfect moment to punch you right in the nose.