The metafictional adventures of Billy the Id
POSTMODERN CRIME: Absolute Zero CoolBy Declan Burke Liberties Press 238pp, €12.99
EARLIER THIS YEAR, Declan Burke edited Down These Green Streets, an anthology of articles, fiction and interviews on the theme of contemporary Irish crime fiction. It’s a subject to which Burke has devoted a great deal of passion and enthusiasm: his blog, Crime Always Pays, should be the first port of call for anyone interested in what Irish crime writers are up to at the moment, and Burke’s own novels – Eightball Boogie (2003), The Big O (2007),and Crime Always Pays(2009) – map out a distinctively Irish version of “screwball noir” with considerable style and brio.
His work bears the expected traces of Chandler and Hammett, as well as a few nods in the direction of Elmore Leonard, but with each novel Burke has refined his own distinct fictional voice: witty, tightly constructed, highly literary, but nonetheless steeped in the grimy pleasures of the crime genre.
His new novel opens in high-noir fashion, with a cracker of a sentence: “The man at the foot of my bed is too sharply dressed to be anything but a lawyer or a pimp.” But within a couple of pages, we’ve entered a whole new world, and – just possibly – a whole new genre.
Absolute Zero Coolis narrated by one Declan Burke, a blogger and crime writer. Burke is staying at a Sligo artist’s retreat run by “Anna MacKerrig”.
Over his morning coffee one day he is approached by a man wearing an eye-patch, who claims to know Burke “in a manner of speaking”.
The stranger – Billy – claims to be the protagonist of one of Burke’s unpublished novels, a hospital porter named Billy Karlsson who, in the fiction-within-a-fiction, euthanised elderly patients and may or may not have murdered his girlfriend, Cassie, in order to get away with it.
Billy is dissatisfied with his story as it stands; he wants Burke to do a rewrite, with Billy’s assistance. Burke is supposed to be redrafting an overdue new novel. But he decides he’ll take Billy at his word – privately suspecting he’s a performance artist who somehow got hold of Burke’s unpublished manuscript – and begins to rewrite Billy’s novel, with input and contributions from the “main character” himself.
Billy doesn’t just want to put old people to sleep; he wants to do something bigger. He wants to blow up the hospital where he works.
Thus begins a fascinating hybrid of Misery, At Swim-Two-Birds, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and who knows what else. Levels of fictionality multiply dizzily: the Declan Burke character shares some, but not all, of the real Declan Burke’s biography; Billy Karlsson is both a “real-life” human being, interacting with the “real-life” Declan Burke, and the protagonist of a novel which he is co-writing; the “fictional” Billy Karlsson is also writing a “novel” in the form of letters to his girlfriend, Cassie. As if that weren’t enough, “Billy” also poses as a teenage girl in online chatrooms.
This all sounds fearsomely complicated, but it is a measure of Burke’s achievement that the reader is never for a moment confused about who’s who and what’s what.
There is, of course, always a risk, with this kind of postmodern conceit, that the novel will disappear up its own sense of metafictional irony. (As if to acknowledge this, Karlsson wears a ring shaped like Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.)
But there’s a thematic richness, and a level of stylistic control, to Absolute Zero Coolthat makes it soar. Far from being “just” a cleverly postmodern crime novel, this book is, among other things, a meditation on the writing life; a parable about terrorism; a bleak satire of the Irish healthcare system; and a fable about life, death and family responsibility.
It is also full of great lines: “As for me, I was born. Later I learned to read, then write. Since then it’s been mostly books. Books and masturbation.”
And – one of many sentences worth the cover price in and of themselves – “There was a time when Sirens lured and seduced. Now they alert and alarm.”
Absolute Zero Coolisn’t quite like anything else you’ve read, in any genre. It’s clever, intimate, passionate, and funny: altogether a wonderful achievement.
Kevin Power is the author of Bad Day in Blackrock (Pocket Books).