Reviewer James Broderick, Ph.D: James is an associate professor of English and journalism at New Jersey City University. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he is the author of six non-fiction books, and the novel Stalked. His latest book is Greatness Thrust Upon Them, a collection of interviews with Shakespearean actors across America. Follow Here To Listen To An Interview With James Broderick.
Title: The Dark Lake
Author: Anthea Carson
There’s a scene in the recently released documentary film about J.D. Salinger in which the author – well, a re-enactment of the author – storms out of a New York publisher’s office in a mix of fury and tears. What has so offended the famously reclusive writer? The publisher dared to suggest that Holden Caulfield – Salinger’s cynical young protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye – is crazy.
They think my Holden is crazy! a distraught Salinger is seen kvetching into a payphone.
Well, in fairness, so do many of the people who read the book. But Holden’s tenuous grasp on reality isn’t what caused me to think of that scene. Rather, it was the gulf between what an author might think of his or her creation and how a reader might react. Sometimes, those two parties can be quite far apart.
I’m guessing that’s what’s at work in my reaction to The Dark Lake, a suspense novel (well, Part One of a trilogy) by Anthea Carson. Frankly I had a hard time getting into this book because I found her main character – a 30-something slacker from Oshkosh, Wisconsin named Jane – to be rather tiresome. Now, it might well be that other readers will find her cycle of struggling to stay sober, trying to keep a job, and fighting with her mother engaging enough to sustain interest over the course of the novel’s 167 pages. And it might well be that Carson was going for a Godot-like ennui -- the nothing becomes the something. Writers of literary fiction can sometimes sustain such an approach, even over hundreds of pages, but in a piece of genre fiction – especially a suspense novel – there generally needs to be (well, for my satisfaction, which I grant might not be yours, dear reader) some narrative momentum moving us toward a climax.
The central event at the heart of the story is a car plunge into the titular lake, and the brief, nightmarish flashbacks that continue to haunt Jane, now in her second decade since that teenaged, vehicular indiscretion. Carson wisely keeps almost all of the concrete details of that event out of the narrative, teasing the readers with ghoulish glimpses such as an underwater hand frantically trying to roll down (or up) the window as the car sinks, preserving a surrealistic palimpsest to impose from time to time on her otherwise efficient prose. However, in place of those details, she never really supplies a genuine mystery about which the reader can care. We know the car plunged, we know Jane’s in therapy dealing with the aftermath, and we know she has a numbingly unsatisfying home life. And that becomes the formula for each chapter: Jane in session with her therapist, Jane in anger management group, Jane in a flashback with her stoner friends from her teenaged years, Jane fighting with her acerbic mother (who seems to exist in the novel only to provide Jane a reason to reiterate how miserable she is with her life).
I kept waiting for big questions – or at least bigger questions – to emerge, something to surprise the reader or take the narrative for an unexpected ride around the lake. The novel reminds me of one of those films that almost became a mini-genre in the 1990s about suburban teenagers hanging around the mall or their local 7-Eleven, getting stoned, making fun of their bosses, defying their parents and the cops, and simultaneously berating and celebrating their desultory existence. In those films – and the copycat angst-filled plays and short stories they inspired – the going-nowhere-ness of their lives is the point. Sarte meets the suburbs.
In The Dark Lake, Carson provides a long, thorough look at a young woman who marches to the beat – make that off-beat – of her own drummer, pounding out a cadence that echoes from the deepest part of her memory, of her self, of a lake. There are moments of fine writing and glimpses of genuine terror in this novel. Perhaps in Book Two of the trilogy, the stakes will be raised, the suspense become worthy of a writer of Carson’s obvious ability.
Follow Here To Purchase The Dark Lake (Volume 1)