CategoryJahn Ryan David

Book notes: Tarun J. Tejpal and Ryan David Jahn

Tarun J. Tejpal, The Story of My Assassins (2009)

The first that Tarun Tejpal’s protagonist, an unnamed investigative journalist, learns of the attempt on his life is when he hears that the Delhi police have captured his would-be assassins.

He is placed under police guard whilst still unsure of what exactly has been going on. Tejpal’s novel then alternates between the protagonist’s struggles with his magazine and relationships, and stories of the killers’ backgrounds. The panorama revealed is altogether broader and more impersonal than our man could have suspected. The tales of the assassins show the various ways they were drawn into crime by circumstance. One discovered as a boy that he was handy with a knife, and saw that as his means of getting on in the world. Another was a timid underachiever until he fought back against one of the padres at his English-language school, and then found his true talent among gangs rather than in the classroom. All have ultimately been moved around by forces beyond their control.

And, as he learns more, the journalist learns that something similar has happened to him – that this is about something more than just a plot to kill him. Tejpal mirrors this theme in the structure of his novel: self-contained sections reveal more than one person could know. The Story of My Assassins adds up to a wide-ranging portrait of people trying to make something of life, if it doesn’t get made for them first.

(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)

Ryan David Jahn, Low Life (2010)

I don’t know quite why it took me so long to read another Ryan David Jahn novel after I so enjoyed his debut, 2009’s Acts of Violence (aka Good Neighbors). But now I have, and I won’t be leaving it so long again. Where Acts of Violence explored why a disparate group of people might refuse to help an attack victim (with the inevitable result), Jahn’s follow-up is almost the reverse. Low Life focuses tightly on one individual trying to puzzle out what’s happening to him, and the outcome is far from certain.

Simon Johnson is marking time at 34, with a dead-end job and no social life, when he’s attacked in his LA apartment. He fights back and kills the intruder, only to see that the man bears a striking resemblance to himself. Identification on the body reveals that this was one Jeremy Shackleford, who turns out to have been a mathematics lecturer. Why would he possibly have wanted to break into Simon’s home and kill him? To find out, Simon adopts Shackleford’s identity – and the lines between his two personae start to blur.

In Low Life’s early stages, Jahn skilfully evokes the bleakness of Simon’s existence. The novel then comes to focus more on its protagonist’s personality – the title refers to dark thoughts that a person may have but would never normally act upon; Simon finds himself becoming more and more consumed by this ‘low life’ of his. The reader’s journey with him is disturbing and thrilling by turns, as we wonder how far Simon will go, where this will all end up – and how much is even real.

Acts of Violence (2009) by Ryan David Jahn

Queens, New York: 1964. In the small hours, Katrina Marino heads home from her job as night manager of a sports bar. In the courtyard of her apartment, she is attacked and stabbed by a man who has followed her. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of several other apartments in the block are awake. and going through their own personal dramas. Over the course of three hours, relationships are forged, broken, and re-negotiated — but no one comes to Katrina’s aid, even though they heard her screams and saw what was happening. No one even calls the police, assuming that someone else would have already done so. The outcome, of course, is that Katrina dies from her injuries.

Though not a fictionalised account as such, Acts of Violence takes as its inspiration a real-life incident: the murder of Kitty Genovese, to which there were reportedly (the details have been contested), 38 eyewitnesses, none of whom did anything to help. Ryan David Jahn‘s first novel is a portrait of what such a situation might be like.

I use the word ‘portrait’ deliberately there, because I think it’s important to be clear what Acts of Violence is and is not. It’s not about the narrative, not in the usual way; it’s not a question of tension over whether Katrina lives or dies, and no mystery is solved. Rather, this is a snapshot of a few hours in the lives of  a number of people, with Katrina’s attack in the background (sometimes literally) of all.

Good characterisation is of course vital in a novel like this, but it’s even more so when the cast is so large (at least eight viewpoint characters). So it’s a pleasure to report that Jahn proves adept at drawing convincing characters in relatively few words. Here, for example, is Diane Myers, studying her reflection in the window while she ruminates on the passage of time:

Is her ghost happier than she is? Being disembodied but still conscious would have its advantages. Walls and locked doors could no longer stop you. No more back pain or neck aches. No more miscarriages with names.

Or Thomas Marlowe, an ex-soldier with thoughts of suicide:

He pulls the gun away from his head and sets it on the coffee table. He wonders who first called a coffee table a coffee table. He gets to his feet and walks into the hallway. He wonders who first called it a hallway. He wonders who first named anything. How did someone look at a dog and decide what to call it? It’s all so random. Everything is so goddam random.

This is not the only way in which Jahn is a skilled wordsmith. He builds tension efficiently when it’s needed; and not the cheap-thrills kind, but a more real tension. And, though naturally there is violence, and Jahn does not flinch from describing it, his treatment is sensitive, bringing home the brutality without tipping over into gratuitousness.

However, there are flaws in Acts of Violence, and I think they arise primarily because the parameters of the novel limit its possibilities. Perhaps inevitably, some of the story threads feel less well developed than others; for example, there’s one concerning a pair of wife-swapping couples where I feel the background could have done with being sketched in a little more.

Another problem is that Katrina’s murder doesn’t feel as much like the linchpin of the novel as is presumably intended. In the case of the paramedic David White, who’s faced with the dilemma of being expected to save a patient he’d happily let die (the teacher who sexually abused him as a child), it’s clear to see how Katrina’s dying on his watch affects him. But, for most of the characters, if there are psychological repercussions from Katrina’s murder, we don’t really see them – the timeframe of the novel is too short for us to see them. This makes Acts of Violence less satisfying as a complete piece.

Yet there is much to like and admire here all the same. Jahn gives a good sense of the milieu beyond his immediate focus. I’m not in a position to know how far his depiction of the 1960s reflects reality; but I can well believe that, for example, an interracial couple would have faced the same prejudice and difficulties that Frank and Erin Riva do in the novel. I would hope that the unspeakably corrupt cop Alan Kees and his Captain are not representative of the police at that time; but I’d also hope that a group of witnesses to an attack wouldn’t stand idly by and let it happen. Perhaps the key question is not whether something is likely, but whether it is possible.

As the book’s title may suggest, Jahn also shows some of the many reasons – malevolent or benign, comprehensible or not – people may have for committing violent acts. I do have a sense that the novel doesn’t leave enough room to truly explore all the issues it raises; but, as a portrait – as a début – Acts of Violence is a fine piece of work.

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