Fans of his will pick up on the Laird Hunt experience pretty quickly – the pervading sense of film noir, the minute attention to words and sentences, the sometimes odd, genre-straddling conventions that defy category, and the strong suspicion that you don’t always know what the hell is going on.
Ray of the Star is Laird Hunt’s fourth novel, and typically, he has us dredging for meaning far from the safe and well-lit areas of town we know. We meet Harry, who arrives in an unnamed European city on a subliminal urge from a postcard he received two decades earlier. Harry has got problems – a sleep disorder, for one, and then something deeper, a break in his spirit that has him searching for something he cannot articulate.
The opening scenes present us with a banal trans-Atlantic plane trip and a slightly inaccessible central character. For the first few chapters Harry doesn’t do much of anything except wander through the city visiting the various landmarks. He eats a lot of sausages and washes this down with copious amounts of sparkling water. Slowly, through flashbacks (like the time when he voluntarily spent days in a pitch black cellar), and action (he has a conversation with a one-legged pigeon on the nature of happiness) we begin to know how messed up our Harry is.
He meets Irineo, a man with noteworthy blue eyes who wants him to visit his boss, a mysterious old lady we later discover is a seer. Irineo has mistaken Harry for a girl who happens to be one of the living statues working in the city’s main boulevard. We learn that this sad girl with a broken face is named Solange and had a lover who was murdered none too subtly by means of a knife shoved down his mouth and broken off in his throat. There are also the connoisseurs, three sinister old men who stroll down the boulevard every day to comment on the statues.
Harry takes a liking to Solange and tries to woo her by taking up the living statue craft and poses as a knight, but is too unfit and untrained to pull it off. Harry later gets the girl, but instead of the levity of new love, their relationship has an air of the platonic. They’re both too damaged to do justice to love, and this is patently not that kind of book. They spend their best moments lying quietly in a papier mache yellow submarine.
As we get further and further into the book, not very much that makes sense happens. Irineo has a pair of talking shoes that try to convince him to jump off a cliff. Harry’s landlady goes for walks with her dead husband, whose ghost appears to Harry one day and describes how he died by falling into an industrial shredder.
Early in the novel you realise that Laird Hunt has the ability to write an entire chapter in one long sentence, and as you read on you find he plans to keep this up all book long. So what you get is chapter after chapter, each made up of one endless sentence held together by colons, semi-colons, hyphens, and lots and lots of commas. It’s enough to have grammarians everywhere poring over the text for correctness, but practically, it doesn’t always work as the reader will more than once have to backtrack to pick up the thread again. Despite this, the writing on the whole is crisp and often lyrical. After all, you need a measure of skill to pull off a sixty sentence novel.
There are nods to surrealist art, a frequent reference to a long unsolved murder in 1940s Los Angeles, and a tacit endorsement of the benefits of sparkling water, which, if the goings on in the book do not leave you mildly fuddled, will certainly throw you off the trail.
At some point you realise you are running out of novel, the chapters are flying by, short, sentence-long vignettes of varying lucidity, and Harry is no nearer closure. It is only when, with a mere ten pages left, Harry has an illuminated conversation with the foul-mouthed connoisseurs about elements of his past that you finally get an inkling into what it means to travel along the ray of the star.
This is a story about loss, about the search for understanding and calm in the aftermath. Harry and Solange are dealing with death in their own way. And in the end when a sliver of understanding comes for the reader and character alike, there is nothing to exult about, nothing freeing, nothing redemptive. Those looking for illumination are in the wrong place. This is just a dark, shuffling narrative, like something scratching around in the alleys of the very city Laird Hunt describes.
Here is a writer building up an oeuvre in which he refuses to colour within the lines. Unbound by genre, he will not present a familiar character, familiarly characterised, will not produce a plot whose arc will jade the reader. And speaking of plot, this one has a very late sting in the tail which invites a sustainable second read—more than can be said of so much of today’s literature.
Any Cop?: Old readers will be happily reassured, new readers will be surprised, often befuddled, but afterwards, moved, albeit indeterminably so.