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Another fine mess

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Lowboy - John Wray As so many reviewers note, this book is affecting and strange, often funny, and so smartly written.

That last bit--the disruptive lyrical energies of Wray's prose--was what most impressed and engaged me. Early on, as young Will/Lowboy has just gone underground, and we're just getting a bead on who he is, he converses with a fellow-passenger on the subway, "he glanced at the place on his wrist where his watch should have been. . . ." and seeing nothing there, "not even a paleness[, h:]e wondered if he'd ever had a watch" (13). There is an endless surprise to the way Wray observes and describes. Our usual tacit understandings of how a certain kind of realism tells us certain kinds of things about the world are (as Violet thinks of Detective Lateef's curiosity in his office) thrown off the rails, dislocated. What we think we see, hear, feel, know is constantly dizzied, not in some scramble meant to approximate Will's own psyche (or at least not only that) but with a methodical 'madness' which asks us to ponder the deeply strange ways we all make sense. I found the book most unsettling in the best senses of that term: you didn't just engage with Will's otherness, his psychosis challenging the norm--it unfocused the false confidence of normalcy, took us down underneath the surface complacencies of social and psychological engagement to explore how we all construct mad, sad, angry, confused, scared, lustful, loving visions of our world and the people in it.

Which brings me to point two, Wray's empathetic portrayal of mental illness. Even as the novel flirts with thriller plotting, fuelling the narrative with the sense of threat so typical to stories of such illness, great pains are taken to ground us in Will's world, to see the dangers all around him as not isolated in his psychosis but more symptomatic of the world in which he is forced to travel. And Will's p.o.v. is not radically dislocated from others'; Ali Lateef, in particular, is a fascinating character, and Wray depicts him with the same kind of thoughtful attention to the idiosyncrasies which shape his worldview. In other words, without undercutting the real and serious difference of Will's mind, Wray avoids the two pat conventions of so many narratives of mental difference: he doesn't soften illness into a sweet pitiable innocence nor radically other it--instead defining how many strange differences underwrite all of our respective mental states.
I was a bit disappointed by a late-game plot twist which seemed to undercut some of that emphasis, for me. And I found the end heartbreaking but perhaps a little too determined by the thriller conventions he'd set up.

But I will read more Wray -- line by line, the book kept me on my toes, constantly surprised and delighted me.