When I think of what was controversial in the 1950s, I think of Elvis being filmed from the waist up. So, I went into “Lolita” thinking it couldn’t possibly be as scandalous as advertised nearly six decades later.

Wrong. “Lolita” makes “To Catch a Predator” seem like child’s play (so to speak). As hilarious as it is disturbing, Nabakov’s classic is one of the most insightful accounts of pathology (what many refer to as Humbert’s unreliability) I’ve ever encountered, and still has the power to make the most hardened reader (i.e. me) queasy.

Reading this through the lens of a literary representation of mental illness, it’s easy to see Humbert’s source for pedophilia–his stunted sexuality from an age-appropriate childhood romance left unconsummated and forever associated with death and loss (and run-on sentences). More subtle, though, is Humbert’s troubled conscience, which vacillates between self-awareness and self-fulfillment. Through carefully dropped hints, we realize that he is aware of Dolores’ vulnerability and her lack of interest in their adult activities. He knows what he’s doing is damaging the poor girl, but more often than not, Humbert’s needs hijack his decisions.

The consequences fall squarely on the not-so-frail shoulders of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, who endures his abuse into her teen years. (Side note: Through Lolita, Nabokov paints a clear portrait of borderline personality disorder, which makes her story even sadder.)

Still, through Humbert’s rationalizations, however twisted or self-serving, he does try to protect his stepdaughter in his clumsy way. While his selfishness trumps all, his moments of lucid affection make him as close to sympathetic as can be (sympathetic enough that we’re rooting for him in his showdown with creepy Quilty).

What a tremendous book, and perhaps the greatest work of transgressive fiction. Nabakov’s play with language is remarkable (especially considering English was his second tongue), and the pain and desperation sweating through the pages of this novel make it timeless. I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to read this American classic.

The Keep

The KeepThe Keep by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most books inspire me to write, either because, “Damn, that book was so good, I want to do that, too,” or “Damn, I could do waaay better than that.”

Then there are books like Jennifer Egan’s “The Keep,” which make we want to give up writing because nothing I could ever produce would come close to the genius of this book. “The Keep” has more levels than Scientology, and I was awed by the way Egan manages complex storylines and plot points.

“The Keep” begins as a gothic horror novel with a literary bent ala Joyce Carol Oates or Edgar Allan Poe. But soon, we learn that it’s a story-within-a-story. The primary storyline is actually the product of an inmate in a prison writing group (or is it more real than that?). I often find metafiction horribly pretentious, but in Egan’s hands this device achieves a deeper complexity of character. The “fictional” tale is almost a confession, or at least catharthis, and the way the two narratives play off each other creates unbearable tension.

Finally, Egan includes a third narrative that completes the cycle of co-dependency that runs through the novel. Ultimately, this is a story of identity, exploration and imprisonment. What is real or not real doesn’t matter much. The question to answer is: What do we do with the demons that haunt us?

Or rather, Where do we keep them?

The best part is that Egan leaves these questions (and these narratives) half answered. There are no neat, tidy endings. No sunsets, no profound philosophical conclusions. There are only troubled, complex people in turn confronting and running from their ghosts. For a book with so much surrealism, the lack of resolution at the finish gives it a stunning verisimilitude: Did we really believe we could ever completely outrun our ghosts?

At the end, I wanted the story to go on and on, which is the magic of any great novel. It leaves you imagining the characters as real people and you want to know how they turn out.

I was also left wanting for a map to figure out how Egan navigated the dark, twisting corridors of this complex, yet refreshingly enjoyable novel. Mark this down as a “must-read.”

View all my reviews

Black Ink Horror

As some of you already know, my short story “Bloodwork and Synesthesia” was recently purchased by Black Ink Horror, an amazing journal of horror fiction and art. I’m really excited to see this story come to life with illustrations. The publisher has released the cover art and launched a Facebook page for the journal, which is due for publication in September.

Check it out. There’s awesome artwork on the site, and they’ll be adding goodies, such as story excerpts, artwork and news, throughout the summer.

In the meantime, if you can’t get enough dark, absurdist, post-everything, freakout fiction, check out Matthew Antonio’s recently launched site, Little Machines. I’ve read many of this guy’s stories, and reading them is like trying to trace a Picasso painting while riding a rollercoaster. His stories will mess with your mind.