“Unchecked, he said, our belief systems eventually overrun everything, blot out the world, at the very least rewrite the map.”
To the extent that a book can be “about” anything, it is maudlin and trite to suppose that someone could write a book about the events of 11 September 2001; an entire book about that day would need to be heavy beyond lifting to contain its multitudes of feelings, experiences, causes, effects, and repercussions in a way that is both respectful and also cognizant of differing political views about the time afterward. A book claiming to be about that day, or having reference to that day in the title, is little more than self-aggrandizing chest thumping, regardless of the content. It is no longer possible to write about that day in and of itself; too many things have happened as a result of that day, inseparable now from the event. To actually make sense of 9/11 is not work that can be done in the binding of a book; this is a gestalt not reducible to film or prose or poem.
It is possible, however, to occasionally see things better by looking at them in relation to something else. It is possible to pick out one aspect of something as complex as 9/11 and have that aspect serve as a light by which we see another story, or make meaning in our own lives. 9/11 plays such a role in Laird Hunt’s The Exquisite—perhaps not a spotlight, but a match struck in a bar after midnight, briefly illuminating something different, something you suspected was there but didn’t see.
Taking place sometime not too long after that day, The Exquisite relates the story of a small-time thief, Henry, who is introduced to a wealthy, ill businessman named Aris Kindt by a mutual friend named Tulip. Beautiful Tulip encourages Henry to go to Kindt’s apartment at a designated time, watch Kindt leave, and then break in to steal something. He breaks in only to find the same man waiting there for him. Henry protests: “I saw you leave.” “Steal something,” replies Kindt, seemingly apropos of nothing.
Henry, Kindt, and Tulip form an unlikely friendship that leads to Henry becoming involved in one of Kindt’s business affairs. Citizens of New York, coping—and here the match is lit, briefly—seek to understand in their own way what happened, or maybe are just thrill-drunk experience seekers, and are willing to pay handsomely to participate in their own mock murders. Henry breaks in, overpowers you, “kills” you, and afterward you go out together and insist that Henry buy you a drink, considering how much you just paid him to rub you out.
Running alongside this story, in alternating chapters, is the story of Henry, a small-time thief who has fallen on hard times—ditched by his girlfriend, evicted, hit by a truck, and hospitalized. In this hospital is another patient, a wealthy, ill businessman named Aris Kindt. Henry’s doctor is Dr. Tulp, who is—you guessed it—very beautiful. It soon becomes apparent that Henry is in the hospital for more than being plowed over by a truck, though for exactly what isn’t clear.
What is less immediately apparent is how the two narratives relate to each other. Though the chapters alternate between narratives, the end of one chapter is immediately continued thematically in the next, blurring the lines between stories and characters even further. Tulip? Dr. Tulp? Are these two Aris Kindts the same man? The two Henrys? Does one narrative take place before the other, or are they happening at the same time? Wasn’t there a painting with a Kindt, and a Dr. Tulp, and wasn’t that painting discussed in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn? Who are these other characters, this Job, this Anthony; who is “The Hat”? The game is afoot, and Hunt has a great time feeding us small clues that suspend and dissolve as soon as we read on. Both of the Henry characters begin to suspect that all is not as it appears.
This is an exceptionally well-written and well-constructed story, combining hard-boiled noir with David Lynch-style storytelling, art history with an obsession about the game “Operation”, meditations on death and the danse macabre with your professional responsibility to resist the come-ons of someone you’ve just “murdered”. Hunt has an easy mastery of noir, and the sheer joy with which he tells this story is addictive. His sentences stretch out with wonderful, funny word choices that come across as perfectly fitting coming from the mouth of a man who finds great delight in holding forth (at length) on the luminescence of herring, among other things:
Basically, he had done well and then better and had come to New York. Here, through hard work, luck, and a certain measure of ruthlessness, he had been able to acquire “many objects, many pretty things.” One of his favorites, which I had a hard time understanding, was a hand-painted ceramic male duck, the green of whose feathers, he assured me, was most convincing.
The references to 9/11 are oblique—blink, and you’ll miss them—but the narrative unfolds in such a way as to leave questions in the reader’s mind as to what role that day might have played, unwritten, in Henry’s life. These questions are more instructive than any answers we might try to find. Hunt is, and simultaneously is not, evoking a small portion of the feeling that 9/11 has left people with, and like it is for most other people, that small portion is with all of us, still provoking questions.