Friday, July 13, 2012

Bad Luck For Everything You Know

When Zoe Heller's second novel, Notes On A Scandal, was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize for fiction, it proved to be a bit of bad luck for her equally comedic and cruel debut, Everything You Know. The debut seldom gets a fair shake without becoming the subject of comparison to her later work.

That's not to say Everything You Know doesn't have first novel challenges, but the re-release by Picador has been largely overlooked. There are plenty of people who would be surprised by the darkly funny prose. Willy Muller is a likable misanthrope, an earlier conceived but less lovable predecessor to Hank Moody.

Willy Muller is an aging Hollywood hack, made quasi-celebrity over his memoir.

The memoir he wrote, To Have And To Hold, was a controversial semi-fictionalized confessional that only further alienated his two children. It's no surprise they were hurt by it, given it chronicled his ugly relationship with his dead wife, the woman he was accused and convicted of murdering.

In Muller's opinion, it was some of the worst writing he ever had the displeasure of putting down on paper — the kind of dribble that sells. Now, eight years later, a producer has optioned the book for a film and a studio has agreed to pick it up. The money might be good, but he doesn't want to do it.

He might even consider it bad news, a painful reminder of how he made his money to be piled on all the other bad news he has had to endure. He can't seem to write word one of the autobiography he was hired to ghost. His younger daughter just committed suicide. He is recovering from a heart attack.

"Mr. Muller?" she said. "I hope I didn’t disturb you. My name is Vivian Champ. I’m a post-trauma counsellor." 

I shifted slightly, dragging my body up towards the headboard and causing a gust of fuggy air to rise up from the sheets. Vivian’s right eye veered about like a restless marble, making her left eye seem peculiarly still and glaring. 

"Are you going to give me a bath?" I asked her. (Bathing is a rare and exotic privilege in the modern American hospital regime. In the entire fortnight I have been at the Beverly Memorial, I have been steadfastly refused anything more than a once-a-day wash down with a chemically moistened cotton- nylon napkin.)

Some might say Muller is a bit of a cliche as a sarcastic adulterer and constantly casual drinker. But his dreariness and self-loathing isn't depressing. Heller never gives Muller the time to be overtly melodramatic, rushing him off to Mexico for recovery so no one will be the wiser about his weak heart.

Given he is equal parts resigned to victimhood and yet not satisfied with his immediate conditions, it isn't the best idea. The only place he could possibly attract more disruption than his own home is a vacation rental in a foreign country.

Once his agent does convince him to get out of town, Muller invites an old fling to spend the first few weeks with him before the woman he adores arrives. Their paths are bound to overlap and do, at the same time that two more friends arrive. One of them is even more of a curmudgeon than Muller.

Everything You Know is filed with a cast of tragically comedic characters. 

If anything stands out about the characters in Everything You Know it is their willingness to embrace their darkly humorous lives as the only lifeline available. Almost all are losers, hustlers, and misfits.

Muller's agent is painfully jovial, old school, and losing clients as he enters his autumn years. Muller's girlfriend, Penny, looks great despite having had one or two plastic surgeries too many or has a need to invent environments of pretend civility. And Richard, the unconscionable antagonistic friend, enjoys stirring the pot for his own entertainment like it is a professional sport.

Although Muller's younger daughter committed suicide, her presence is felt throughout. Shortly after Muller admits he was gleeful over the lack of a long goodbye note, he receives a package. Sadie kept several diaries.

Between bouts of confusion and sharply written dialogue, Heller shares Sadie's entries just as Muller reads them. Sometimes the addition is disruptive, given that Sadie only managed to survive a miserable second-fiddle-to-her-sister life because of her own stunted development and naivety. Her sister, on the other hand, is mean spirited and purposely chooses her own misery and wallows in protest.

Still, the narrative written by Sadie is needed because Everything You Know is meant to be transformative and redemptive. And even though Heller clumsily brings that transformation and redemption very abruptly at the end, it's everything Muller comes to know that changes his life.

Everything You Know By Zoe Heller Zings 4.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

On the whole, the book doesn't deliver at the right pace. However, there are so many tremendously wicked and wonderful scenes, anyone who appreciates an antisocial satire will never forget them.

Everything You Know: A Novel is available at Barnes & Noble. The novel can also be downloaded from iBooks. Everything You Know: A Novel. It was the last book to be rereleased for the electronic market written by Heller, who never felt comfortable with the attention lavished on writers. She hasn't written any fictional work since her third novel, The Believers.
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