Eli Gottlieb’s novel, Now You See Him is a book I finished several weeks ago but one that I’ve needed to think about before reviewing. Ostensibly, there’s no reason why this should be so; it’s a very good novel, very well written indeed and with a satisfyingly gripping plot. I read another review of it, online I think, that deemed it an unusual combination of literariness and readability, and I’d go along with that. And yet there is something about it that just tugs at my mind and gives the book a quirkiness that is frustratingly difficult to interpret.
It tells the story of Nick Framingham, a first person narrator whose life is in freefall. For years now he’s been married to the lovely Lucy, with whom he has two boys, but it’s clear that the spark went out of their relationship a long time ago, and the structures they’ve put in place to keep love alive only emphasise the extent to which they’re going through the motions. This in itself might be tolerated, only just recently Nick’s entered a tricky period of inconsolable mourning for his best friend, Rob Castor. Rob was one of those shining light boys, a minor cult-celebrity in his mid-twenties for having written an acclaimed book of short stories, and someone who has always radiated the strength, courage and cool that Nick lacks. Nick’s own childhood was curiously depleted by the tepid love his parents had for him, a situation that only worsens when his older, and favoured, brother Patrick, is killed in a road accident. Nick transfers his affections to Rob’s household, making up a threesome with his lively sister, Belinda, and dodging the alarming, amorous approaches of Rob’s mother. Locked comfortably into a position of hero worship for his best friend, Nick isn’t at all prepared for the direction Rob’s life is going to take. When the book opens, all we know is that Rob has recently murdered his ex-girlfriend in Manhatten and then committed suicide. One half of the narrative will henceforth be dedicated to unraveling the mystery behind this tragedy. The other half will follow the inexorable disintegration of Nick’s life as the story of his friend’s death provokes a series of significant consequences.
What makes this book so good is the depth and detail of its psychological portraits. In many ways it’s a conventional storyline, the death of a best male friend provoking unexpected anguish in the narrator and contributing to both his breakdown and his desire to change his life. In fact it’s not as clichéd as all that – there is a very neat and surprising twist at the end that asks us to reevaluate everything we’ve read (and I do applaud that kind of trick). But what impressed me most was the representation of a marriage in crisis, or perhaps not in crisis, but in a state of entropy. Both partners are left with only enough energy for resentment, not enough for salvage work, and beyond the sparring and the righteousness, they know it. This is, I should also say, a very beautifully written novel, wholly without pretension, and yet often piercing in its observations. It has its moments of dark humour too, and a lot to say about human relationships from the male point of view, the value of friendship, the damage inflicted by a father’s muted hostility, the dangers and the irresistible lure of passivity. It may be that my sense of its faint oddness comes from the detailed focus of the male gaze assessing the emotional dimension of the domestic realm and the world of the family. Despite the leaps and bounds of gender equality, it’s not something you see all that often in literary works. Or it may be that Nick’s first person voice is so eloquent, so rich with crystalline insight that it almost seems out of place on a man who’s losing it, and whose best friend is supposed to be the writer. Or it could be the fact that this book is already in production as a film and I wonder whether it was written with those two, and it must be said, incompatible, objectives in mind. But whatever it is I’m picking up on, it’s not enough to be called a flaw; no, because it added to the curiosity I felt about the book rather than undermining it. It’s a good, accessible read, and the kind of novel that makes you feel smart while reading it without ever becoming heavy or a chore. I also think it’s going to be much better to read it than see the film, as it’s the psychological elements that are the most valuable part of the narrative and I wonder how they will be conveyed visually. Definitely a book with an authentic and highly intriguing insight into the male mentality, and what you see there is alarming at times.