Monday, August 23, 2010

The Thieves of Manhattan

Spiegel & Grau, US$15

The Book Within

The book within a book, play within a play, painting within a painting is a creative device with long history. What makes The Thieves of Manhattan different is that the book within drives the book without.

Ian Minot is a New York stereotype, the impoverished Midwesterner who comes here to become a writer. Only, everybody in the business — agents, editors, impresarios — reject his stories; they're too small, too slow, too unimportant. And too passive; Minot’s protagonists don’t act, they merely react.
But then, along comes an older writer with a plan. With a scam. When it works (he’s completely confident that it will), he’ll have his revenge against the publishing industry he despises, and Ian Minot will be rich, famous and most important, published.
Though it feels like a deal with the devil, Ian goes for it.
And is transformed by it.

All well and good. The trouble is, the outside book, The Thieves of Manhattan, is also transformed by the book within, A Thief in Manhattan. Which means moving from slow, small and passive to strong, lively and active — all good so far — then, through that into manic, mercurial and completely unbelievable. In short, the author loses control of his novel.

In the transformative process, Langer all but loses one of his main characters, a literary con artist who calls himself Blade Markham. Other characters trick Ian, kidnap Ian, rescue Ian, beat the daylights out of Ian… if this is sounding unlikely, that’s another signal of an author losing control.

Both novels, Thieves and Thief, are peppered with insider references to literature and the literary scene. Most notable are the new words Langer coins: chabon, daisies, portnoy, salinger. They reference Michael Chabon’s wavy hair, Daisy Buchanan’s aura of money, Portnoy’s dick and JD Salinger’s reclusiveness. I liked them at first, then, with repetition, less and less. About the same as I felt about the book. About both books.

Jules Older

Guest reviewer Jules Older is a San Francisco-based writer/educator/commentator/sports journalist/traveller and frequent visitor to New Zealand

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