Horror Made Mechanical
BY SHELLY BRYANT I December 25, 2009
Leonard Kreger II. The Downward Spiral: Beginnings and Endings. USA: 2010. 463 pages.
One of the most unfathomable aspects of contemporary society seems to be the prevalence of random acts of violence. How does one get to a place in his or her mind that would allow him to pick up a gun, take it to a crowded place, and open fire on a crowd of anonymous faces? It's an event we see reported in the news all too often, and it always leaves us asking, "Why?"
It's just such an event that opens Leonard Kreger's novel The Downward Spiral, and the question "Why?" is raised at the end of the reporting of that event — an end that marks the beginning of the novel. The rest of the tale intertwines a telling of the events that led up to that terrible moment with glimpses of those whose lives would be altered forever by a random act of violence.
From that description, I would expect a novel that is stomach-churning for the reader, something that would put you on edge with almost every word. But that is not at all what I found on the pages of The Downward Spiral. The book seems, instead, more mechanical. Lives are told and events reported with a sort of detached air, and motives and thoughts often seem to be reduced to their barest, baldest form. The book is written mostly in the present tense, which gives the reader a feel of immediacy, and also somehow creates the feeling that each of the characters are all living in the moment without much real depth of thought about past or future. It is hard to tell, sometimes, whether this was done intentionally or not, but it makes for a very odd feeling to the book, making the text not easy to read. It is something that takes a little time to get through, and needs some attention, a complete contrast to the sort of pop novel that aims to keep a story moving along at a breakneck pace.
The mechanical nature of the narration seems to depersonalize the characters whose lives are recorded in The Downward Spiral. The dialogue is likewise a little puzzling. At some points, it seems that the dialogue is not realistic, but then it hits you, "Wait a minute. This is not unrealistic, it's too realistic." Much of the dialogue seems like a transcript for every day speech, rather than the sort of dialogue normally reserved for the written word. There's an insistence on a sort of faithful reporting of conversations that comes across as breezy and flippant, but also relentless in giving the reader a real picture of very ordinary lives. Just think about what it would be like to read a record that included your most mundane of conversations. That is what a chapter of Kreger's book is like. Again, it is hard to know if this is intentional, set up to disturb the reader, but it does have that effect, which works to set the unfathomable event with which the book begins and ends right in the center of the mundane. It, once again, creates a very odd effect in the reading that is difficult to put into words. It grates, even as it compels.
Music plays an important role in the book, with mention of the musical preferences of many of the characters getting quite a bit of ink. This serves to give a view of the character, but still an external view. We are presented with an image of each of the people who make up the tale that is rather like real life — a view that we put together from the things we see them doing and imagine them thinking, rather than through an exploration of the inner person that many novels like to offer (and which we can never otherwise have in our experiences of life). Each character's choice of music offers some touchpoint from which we may begin to access what might be deeper down inside of his/her heart and mind.
The grab for me in this book is the important topic that it addresses. The first few pages built up expectations. While they were not exactly met in the reading of the novel, because it handles things so mechanically, it is a noteworthy work that tackles an issue that is in equal measures difficult and important. It is a hard topic, and the work that is offered here as an examination is a hard novel in every sense of the word. It does not draw us near, exactly, making us sympathize and understand the makings of a person who could commit such an act. It does, however, force us to gaze upon a scene of horror, and consider it in all its parts. Neither sympathizing nor vilifying the principle parties involved, it still causes the reader to look, to think, and to pity.
The Downward Spiral is self-published, and shows some signs of the need for an editor. There are many typing mistakes that can be distracting, but the bigger areas that need attention are in the pacing and the length of the novel. There is a good deal that could be trimmed — not necessarily out, but down — to make the novel work more effectively. A leaner and lither narrative would bring the reader nearer to the people whose lives are wrapped up in that single day and that random act.