Books

The Narcissist's Daughter by Craig Holden

Peter Swanson

One of the better literary thrillers I’ve read in a long while, a revenge tale that twists into a well-constructed edge-of-your- sofa-cushion murder story.


The Narcissist's Daughter

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1416572783
Author: Craig Holden
Price: $14.00
Length: 240
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2008-06
Amazon

Halfway through Craig Holden’s erotic thriller The Narcissist’s Daughter I realized that the unfolding plot was a pitch-black take on the central dynamics from The Graduate. But while the Mike Nichols' film mostly plumbed the situational comedy of a young man transferring his sexual allegiance from an older predatory woman to her more innocent daughter, Holden sees the darker psychological implications inherent in those relationships. From it, he crafts one of the better literary thrillers I’ve read in a long while, a revenge tale that twists into a well-constructed edge-of-your-sofa-cushion murder story.

Set in Cleveland, 1979, the book is narrated by Syd Redding, a young man enrolled in pre-med courses in the hopes of riding his natural abilities out from under his alcoholic grease-monkey step-father and into the world of high-paid medicine. He is given a job in a lab by a hot-shot doctor named Ted Kessler, the narcissist of the title, who, along with a creepy inclination to share his nymphomaniac wife, is possessed of a giant ego and an inexplicable missing arm. For reasons I won’t divulge, Syd’s affair with Mrs. Kessler, Joyce, turns sordid and it becomes clear that Syd is a pawn in a more advanced and sophisticated sexual game than Syd had bargained for. So in order to get revenge he begins to court the Kessler’s 17-year-old daughter, Jessi.

If you think you can see exactly where it’s going, you’re only partly right. Holden does a good job just tweaking the reader’s expectations but not tweaking them too much. He does not, for one thing, pull out any over-the-top character reversals: there are characters that turn out to be not quite what they seem, but the changes are subtle and believable. The drama that unfolds works better because of this distinction.

The beginning of the book is a bit of a muddle, the writing over-stylized with an abundance of adjectives. Here is a description of an unimportant doctor seen in a cafeteria: “(He) wore a sport coat of some kind of coarse woven material that was meant to be hip and was undoubtedly absurdly expensive but looked absurd on his paunchy shortish middle-aged carcass.” To my ear, the repeated use of absurd is a mistake as is the hat-trick of adjectives used to modify carcass.

Fortunately, as his plot begins to really cook, Holden manages to cut back on such stylish excess. There is one major exception, that being the sex scenes. It seems fair to reveal (for those on either side of the wordy-sex-scene fence) that this book features a good half-dozen heartily described scenes of carnality. They are not exactly gratuitous, in the sense that sex, and its many functions, both psychological and physical, is integral to both the plot and to the main character’s motivations, but if you favor the literary equivalent of fade-to-black, then this is probably not your cup of tea. Holden likes details, and nowhere more so than when describing the naked form. I present to you his description of one character’s upper torso:

She had nice breasts, I’ll say that, the breasts of a slightly overweight just-turned-18-year-old, which is to say that they were more substantial than the typical breasts of a young woman of average weight and yet still retained all the firmness and height and profile of the newly budded, with nipples (pale they appeared in that light) that tipped ever so slightly moonward and underbulges that hung ever so nicely earthward and round lateral edges that extended beyond her chest wall so that if she were to turn away from you and raise her arms slightly you would still be able to see the arcs of them protruding from the sides.

It’s hard to not appreciate an author so dedicated to getting something just precisely right.

Despite these excesses, when the book gets going, around the mid-point, I found myself unable to stop reading, ripping through page after page to find out what happens next, and there is no greater compliment to a thriller than that. And this urgency, this need-to-know, continues to the final page, even after the narrative suddenly fast forwards through the decades and Holden has revealed all the cards that are up his sleeve.

There are other flaws in the book besides the overuse of adjectives, including moments when I felt as though Holden had forgotten that he’d set the book in 1979, so that he inserts random references to the time period -- going to see Grease, watching Mary Hartman, checking out an early show by the Ramones. And the subplot of Syd’s own dysfunctional family, while ultimately crucial to the resolutions of the novel, was less compelling to me than the dynamics between Syd and the Kessler family. Maybe that’s because Syd’s interactions with the glamorous Kessler family are where the sex is, and ultimately, sex and its ill rewards are the driving forces of the book, and what makes it as good a thriller as it is.

7

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image