'The Singer's Gun' Is Part Suspense and Part Love Story Mixed With Political Thinking

by Diane Leach

13 May 2010

The questions of who we lie to, and why, are not entirely answered in this excellent novel.

Don’t read The Singer’s Gun while commuting to work. You just might miss your stop.

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The Singer's Gun

Emily St. John Mandel

US: May 2010

Anton Waker, a good guy who was once a bad guy, desperately wishes to retain his fragile good guy status. Events in the form of family members conspire against him in Emily St. John Mandel’s second novel, The Singer’s Gun.

Mandel’s first novel, Last Night in Montreal, laid down what appears to be this writer’s particular obsession: the fervent desire to vanish from one life to another.  Last Night in Montreal is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend you begin reading Mandel’s work there.  She is a terrific writer, that rare real thing, mixing an acute eye with humor and pathos. The Singer’s Gun is a tremendous leap forward, a happy indicator that Mandel’s talent is a deep one.

Nobody in The Singer’s Gun is completely honest, save Alexandra Broden, but honesty is her profession: she is an investigator for the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service Division. Broden wants to know the identity of a Russian girl found dead in a shipping container at the New York docks. She thinks Anton Waker might know something, but Waker is nowhere to be found.

Mandel has created a novel that is partly suspense, partly a love story, with a good bit of political thinking in the mix. A Canadian native living in Brooklyn, Mandel writes with the perspective only a non-American can possess of both New York City, which she clearly loves, and the tremendous efforts people will exert to get there. Like paying cash to ride across the world in airless shipping containers, where, once ashore, they meet the likes of Anton Waker and his cousin, Aria, to purchase forged passports. 

Aria Waker is the engine behind the lucrative business Anton is simultaneously good at and horrified by. It is Aria who has the shadowy connections that produce near-perfect forgeries of the passports, which she hands over to Anton, who is skilled at meeting the men and women—mostly women—who nervously appear in the cafe of his choice, precious bills wadded in damp hands. Anton is the kind of man who sees a young Russian girl emptying packet after packet of sugar into a coffee and buys that girl a meal. He is equally skilled at tossing out the crazies with a simple signal to the waitress. He is, to borrow Quentin Tarantino’s term, a natural born criminal. 

Anton inherited his skills from his parents, Samuel and Miriam. The couple operate an antique and restoration shop on the docks, where shipments tend arrive very early—as early as three in the morning. Samuel, a gifted restorer, repaints figureheads found on the ocean floor, gently polishing statuary of unknown provenance until the marble gleams. Anton is an intelligent boy whose understanding dawns early. His parents never try to hide their actions from him. Instead, they rationalize them. Everyone must make a living. Trafficking in stolen antiques is theirs.

Appalled, Anton longs to escape from the business his parents hope he’ll continue. Matters intensify when the adolescent Aria joins the family. Her mother, the Ecuadorian Sylvia, was deported after being caught drunk, with false papers. Aria’s father deserted his daughter to rejoin Sylvia. At twelve, Aria is not really a child. She is already a canny adult, expertly shoplifting, working for Sam and Miriam, learning their business, which will one day become the platform for hers. Even during adolescence she exudes a cool cruelty, but Anton, only slightly younger, is besotted until his late teens, meaning Aria can and does easily manipulate him.

Finally Anton revolts, and with a final act of subterfuge, finds himself in a legitimate day job. His intelligence pays off, and soon he is supervising a group of people doing the meaningful, well-intentioned work of getting clean water into ailing infrastructures. He is engaged to Sophie, a cellist with the New York Philharmonic, and has a cat, the one-eyed Jim, whom he adores.

Though Anton likes his work and new life, not all is well. Sophie has called off the wedding twice; she is as highly strung as her instrument, and though Anton admires her musicianship and beauty, he is unsure this adds up to love. Meanwhile there is the side issue of his secretary, the impeccably efficient Elena. With whom he is having a passionate affair.

Elena is known to Anton from his other life: she hails from Inuvik, Canada, which, for all you hockey fans out there, is north even of Yellowknife. Now she is his secretary, his lover, and a spy for Alexandra Broden. She has no choice: it’s tape Anton’s precoital conversations or get deported, a thought she cannot bear.

Here Mandel leans heavily on her characters, showing each as a liar but also why they lie, making it impossible to dislike Anton or Elena. Aria is outright evil, perhaps the only thing she is honest about. Even when confronted by Anton, Samuel and Miriam remain stoic in their rationalization of their lives’ work. When Anton, subsumed by guilt, caught between his parents and Sophie’s naiveté about his past, is pulled into a final job by Aria, the book picks up speed, becoming impossible to put down. Don’t read The Singer’s Gun while commuting to work.  You just might miss your stop.

The questions of who we lie to, and why, only mount, not entirely answered by the book’s half-happy, half-melancholy (but entirely satisfying) close. Mandel is certain, it seems, that we lie even to those with love, with varying degrees of guilt, and that those of us with an inborn talent for lying get away with it. So, too, do some of us succeed at vanishing, if only partly. 

Finally, Mandel had no way of realizing her book would appear just as Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed into law a stringent immigration bill in the United States. The bill forces immigrants to carry their naturalization paperwork with them at all times. Police may stop those identified as “immigrants”—how these people will be identified hasn’t quite been clarified, though the bill is clearly aimed at Mexicans—and demand to see their papers.

Those determined illegal may be charged with criminal activity, jailed, or deported. Or, in the case of my parents’ teenaged, American-born neighbors, stopped and harassed by the police without reason. While some of the American Right think this law wonderful and necessary, many of us—from middling to far left, are horrified, enraged, frightened. Give us your poor, indeed. But not to be harassed by the likes of Brewer and her henchmen, or, as Mandel graphically depicts, cowering in shipping containers.

The Singer's Gun


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