A Small Killing

by Sherif Nagati

3 March 2004


A Small Killing

(Avatar Press)
US: Jun 2003

Everyone has their high ideals and personal moral conventions, but how often do we actually stick to them? Sometimes it seems to me that we hold these beliefs more as a subject for heated discussions then as guidelines for our lives. Hence, we denounce our rock idols and label them sell-outs for signing to a major label, yet do all we can to land that job with the big evil multinational, because after all everyone needs to make a buck. But just how much of our principles are we prepared to give up? And when did we first start to ignore them?

A Small Killing is the story of a man who, unwillingly, goes on a journey down memory lane and finds out. Timothy Hole (pronounced Holly—he is English, you see) is a successful ad-man who has just landed the juicy mission of selling a popular soft drink in post-Glasnost Moscow. Although Hole is a yuppie pseudo-intellectual, once a so-called man of principles, he apparently has no remorse about selling such a symbol of rampant capitalism to a people fresh out of communism (the story was first published in 1988). Or maybe, in the back of his mind, he does, since he spends the rest of the narrative immersed in memories of his moral failures. As he journeys from New York back to London, and then to his small English hometown, he also reconstructs his life, going backwards in time to his first moral lapse. To complicate matters, a strange child seems to be following him around, apparently trying to kill him, and Hole can’t figure out if he is for real or simply a hallucination.

None of Hole’s moral mistakes are really fatal, and he has justifications for each of him. His betrayal of his wife: “Our marriage… it was just something left over from when we were kids. It wasn’t real. Luckily, I was mature enough to realize that”. His abandoning of his patron, the man who gave him his first shot in advertising, for a lucrative international offer: “You’d do the same in my position. You know you would… just don’t let this spoil our friendship, eh?” His refusal to take responsibility for his new girlfriend’s pregnancy: “The way I see it, it’s your body, I can’t make decisions for you”. Any hint of his youth’s idealism hardly shows through anymore, except in his flashbacks. When he sees his old car twenty years later, he carelessly tears off an old “Rock Against Racism” sticker and drives off, leaving it on the curb. Hole is every successful yuppie I know, including myself.

In A Small Killing, Alan Moore, a master of meticulously structured plots of dizzying complexity, produced what is arguably his simplest, most personal work, briefly after Watchmen. During this period, he also began the aborted and highly praised Big Numbers, and started From Hell and the still unfinished Lost Girls, all highly removed from any hints of super heroics or sci-fi. A Small Killing, however, stands out as a minimalist, unpretentious stab at dissecting human nature.

Moore constructs A Small Killing as a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Told in first-person, Hole does not narrate the tale in the classic sense; instead we are virtually reading his thoughts as he thinks them. An unlikely incident recalls a chorus line from a song. Thoughts wander from subject to subject without warning. In a classic scene, we get a glimpse of Hole’s disjointed thoughts as he masturbates, with the words almost falling off the page.

The article at the end of this new edition of the book explains that it was a collaborative effort between Moore and artist Oscar Zarate, with Zarate providing the initial idea. I know little of Zarate, except the fact that his is Argentinean, outspoken and rather big (all this information can be found in Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical Alec: How To Be An Artist). His style, however, seems strongly influenced by Argentinean master Jose Munoz, especially in the liquid backgrounds and twisted visages of bystanders, with the main difference being that while Munoz renders them in stark black and white, Zarate’s work is lushly painted. In one scene, the crowd includes a faceless man, a straight tribute to Munoz’s short story “Stevenson In A Few Strokes”.

A Small Killing has little in the way of plot. The introspection of Hole simply continues on to its logical conclusion, and the revelation of the nature of the persistent “killer kid” is hardly surprising (nor is it meant to be). It is still an excellent little novella, and more importantly, a unique entry in Moore’s brilliantly kaleidoscopic oeuvre.

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