Lee Matthew Goldberg is a writer of novels, short stories, pilots and screenplays. He is the author of the novels The Desire Card, The Mentor, and Slow Down, with a second book in the Desire Card series, Prey No More, forthcoming in 2020, along with his first Sci-Fi novel Orange City. He has been published in multiple languages and nominated for the 2018 Prix du Polar.
His new endeavor will be as the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Fringe Press and Fringe Digital, dedicated to publishing fiction that’s outside-of-the-box. He is the co-curator of The Guerrilla Lit Reading Series and lives in New York City. Follow him at leematthewgoldberg.com.
I have always been troubled by the infinite regress. The child on the biscuit tin, holding a tin of biscuits, on whose lid there is a child holding a biscuit tin, and on its lid…. Or (much more terrifying) the Robert Graves poem, Warning to Children. This is one reason why I tend to avoid those lifts with double mirrors, in which the traveller disappears into an eternity of reflected reflections. Plays about plays – not interested. And the novelist (such a fascinating man) writing a book about a novelist (such a fascinating man) who is possibly writing a book about a novelist… I don’t want to be fascinated. Does the novelist not see that every iteration is less substantial than the last? Does he not know that this is where we all end up – a memory of a memory of a memory? I am equally leary about the paradox of self-reference: Alice going through the mirror, the Escher hands drawing each other, the snake eating its own tail…
Stop! You cannot be nourished like this! Isn’t this why one should spend one’s life living, not writing novels, not even reading them?
If I’d known, therefore, that The Mentor is a novel that plays with both these tropes, I would have passed it up and not offered to review it. (Thank you, Blackthorn Book Tours, for failing to mention this. I’d have missed a seriously good read if you had.)
The hero of this novel (not, I have to say, particularly interesting – in this novel, as so often, the devil gets the best lines) is a nice enough young man. Perhaps he has a slight problem with commitment, perhaps his childhood wasn’t all it might have been, perhaps there was a moment in young adulthood when he might have plummeted into crime, addiction, madness. But that’s all right: it didn’t happen. Just in the nick of time, just as his troubled adolescence was about to take a turn for the worse, his college professor stepped in to help him out. His mentor.
Kindly, avuncular, rescuing a talented but troubled young student of literature and setting him back on track. Our hero has a lingering disappointment (though I did not) that this didn’t lead to a career as a novelist – but what’s not to like about a career as an editor in a successful publishing company? He has recently discovered a bright young ingénue whose talented output has won him a promotion. He has a nice and adequately interesting girlfriend to whom he is devoted, a nice flat, a nice job… He almost (but not quite, not ever) has a nice pet cat even. What more could an upwardly mobile young millennial want?
He certainly doesn’t need his old mentor to return, though the suggestion of a meeting is quite flattering, and the old professor is charming. And of course, behind the self-effacing charm, there is a favour to call in – the professor has a novel, ten years in the writing and only half finished, that he’d like his old protégé to take a look at. It could be a best seller: perhaps our young hero would be willing to look at it? Surely not too much to ask, given all the previous obligations?
Such requests are generally irksome, embarrassing, and make people in gatekeeping professions quite reluctant to hold dinner parties. Ah, you work in publishing: will you read my novel? Doctor, could you look at my boil? But our hero is in awe of his old mentor, and ready to believe that the book might be a masterpiece.
It is not. It is a shoddily written, mountainous, grotesque, horrifying, sordid pile of obsessive depravity.
The situation is awkward, embarrassing, and in the working out of this embarrassment one comes to feel a certain sympathy for our hero. But it is the anti-hero who makes the novel gripping. The fine old professor is a wonderfully drawn character – smooth and bitter, obsessively manipulative, undoubtedly psychopathic, and (like all good psychopaths) compellingly self-regarding, confidently self-justifying, relentlessly vengeful. The passages written from his perspective (and I do like books where every character has their point of view exposed) are chilling and yet quite irresistible.
I don’t like spoilers – for goodness sake, buy the novel, don’t look for it here! – so I won’t reveal more of the plot. Let me say a bit more about it however. It is a self-consciously intertextual story, as one would expect from a novel at whose root there is a relationship between a literature professor and his student. Some of the references I recognised and enjoyed, and perhaps when I get round to those works which I didn’t know, I will say “aha!”, and remember this novel with the satisfying sense of a jigsaw more complete. But the story wasn’t vitiated by my ignorance: Lee Matthew Goldberg avoids the pitfall of being too clever and putting the reader down.
In fact the layered and mirrored qualities of the story – the very things that would have made me turn away had I been warned in advance – are nicely done. There is a story within the story, and within the story-within-the-story there is a story about the story, a story about the writer, a story about the reader…. There are nightmares within nightmares, nightmares that are not nightmares, apparent realities that are…. There are moments when our hero and our anti-hero threaten to merge, and occasionally I was not sure which one was really Alice and which one was through the looking glass. Repeatedly the author pulls off the trick of tugging the reader into a dream, then throwing them back. In its final chapters it descends from its dizzy heights of psychological suspense into a level of gothic improbability that verges on horror. So I ought to have closed the book in disgust – but I didn’t at all. I was hooked by then.
It’s a great novel, but not a perfect one. Occasionally I felt it was too greedy. It is shameless in recyling familiar tropes and characters from the broad crime genre, but at times throws them into the mix without clear function. A pair of creepy twins, neither properly developed nor necessary to the plot; a hint of ‘Notes from a Scandal’ in the serially predatory old professor, with his latest victim as another unnecessary character. There’s an irritating pretty girl, who crops up a few times, flagged up as if the author meant to use her, but who then disappears.
Equally, there are familiar plotlines that the author takes up, and then discards, not to surprise us but as if he’s lost interest: the hero increasingly isolated as loved ones and colleagues fall for the villain’s lies (but then they realise that they made a mistake and apologise); the malicious revelation of a secret that ought to have resulted in our hero losing everything, triggering a progressive ‘carry on down’ (but doesn’t). Perhaps this is not greed but insecurity: this isn’t a first novel, but maybe it has something of the ‘first-novel’ tendency to throw everything in to make sure the reader is satisfied, like an insecure chef adding more and more ingredients.
I can forgive this. I had a good meal with this novel. There were bits I could leave at the side of the plate without going away unsatisfied.
(Its delicious antihero should have done the same.)
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