This latest novel from Jincy Willett, who wrote the well-liked Winner of the National Book Award, focuses on an extension school class of would-be fiction writers; its premise is that years of rejection slips have pushed one of those would-be writers from the cliffs of sanity into the realm of murder. It?s a mystery from the Agatha Christie vintage. Most of the characters, at some point, stumble into the glare of suspicion, and Amy Gallup, a washed-up novelist and the class instructor, must play detective. Francine Prose?s Blue Angel and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys also harvested satire from the vanity, fecklessness, and unintentional comedy of a writing workshop, but they didn?t rack up a body count. The idea of a failed writer?s anger turning murderous has a giddy verve, and the novel?s tone is appropriately playful. Events ultimately reach a helium pitch of incredibility, but the volume rises with deceptive gradualness, in part because Willett gives her protagonist a rich, idiosyncratic inner life. The author remains attentive, also, to the ways that language shapes and animates character. Amy keeps a blog with lists of “funny-looking words”; one female workshop participant grows increasingly consternated over the default use of masculine pronouns. Even as Amy expatiates to her pupils on the rules of good storytelling, elsewhere the book cheerfully violates them. The cleverest trick comes, finally, when the murderer?s own notes are exposed to the harsh atmosphere of a good ?workshopping.? If life and death fall under the rubric of morality, the novel argues entertainingly, then so do mixed metaphors, bad dialogue, and clich‚. Off with their heads.
About the Writer
Ian MacKenzie, a former public high school teacher, writes fiction and criticism. He is the author of City of Strangers, a novel (Penguin, 2009). He is currently based in Washington, DC.