Monday, 4 April 2011

'Reader, I ate him'

The Last Werewolf 
by Glen Duncan

Some writers are hard to pin down. I mentioned Jed Mercurio's mercurial qualities when reviewing his last novel, American Adulterer, a somewhat dry account of JFK's philandering which followed his debut, Ascent, a high octane space-race thrill written from Russia's point of view. Glen Duncan has shown similar abilities to confound expectations. His debut novel Hope was a frank view of pornography, male sexuality and angst . This was followed by Love Remains, the first book by Duncan I read (completely by chance), which continued his examination of sex, love and violence. With such attention on human relationships it was a bit of a surprise to find Lucifer himself as the narrator of his next novel, even if it did allow him to show afresh the curious world we live in and the temptations that lie in our way. Duncan's fascination with the darker side of life found the perfect arena in Weathercock with its look at sadism. Another metaphysical leap occurred in Death of an Ordinary Man which saw one man search for the reasons for his death beyond the grave. In his last two novels Duncan has kept himself firmly rooted to the ground, exploring his own Anglo-Indian ancestry in The Bloodstone Papers and the impact of torture and terrorism in A Day and a Night and a Day, so it was with no little amount of surprise that I discovered the title and premise of his latest. Could Duncan have possibly decided to cash in on the Twilight era and the current obsession with all things occult? The snappy sale of film-rights to this novel might suggest he has but my lingering thought was that if anyone could pull off a literary werewolf novel, Duncan was the man.

Written in the form of journals by Jacob Marlowe, these are the musings of a man bitten by a werewolf in 1842, expected to live for around 400 years, but ready to bring an end to it all after years of loneliness and the recent discovery that he is the last of his kind. His extended lifespan and independent means may have given him opportunities to indulge in decadence and debauchery but it has also lead to an extreme form of boredom. What must it feel like to have been born in the 19th century and to have watched humans progress into the 21st, isolated and separate from them? That kind of perspective doesn't seem to reflect too kindly on the modern world.

In fact the news already feels post-apocalyptically redundant to me, as if (silent dunes outside, insects the size of cars) I'm sitting in one of the billions of empty homes watching video footage of all the stuff that used to matter, wondering how anyone ever thought it did.

Duncan knows that a lycanthropic novel is going to have a fair amount of silliness attached and embraces it wholeheartedly, finding an ally in another author who mixed thrills with loftier considerations.

Graham Greene had a semi-parodic relationship with the genres his novels exploited, a wry tolerance of their exigencies and tropes. Unavoidably I have the same relationship to my life. False ID's, code words, assignations, surveillance, night flights. Espionage flimflam. And that's before we even begin on the Horror Story trappings. If it were a novel I'd reject it along with all other genre output that by definition short-changes reality. Unfortunately for me it is reality.

So we soon learn that as well as werewolves there are also vampires, the two of them mortal, or should that be immortal, enemies. This antagonism comes in two forms: the first primal or animal with each species quite simply finding the smell of the other almost intolerable; the other the product of years of competition, with vampires seeing werewolves as dumb animals devoid of speech and therefore culture. Overseeing this world is WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena), charged with keeping vampire numbers steady, after a deal hashed out by 50 powerful vampire families, and hunting werewolves to extinction. Dubbed 'The Hunt' they are headed by Grainer, a man driven by that common spur to revenge.

Filial honour. Forty years ago I killed and ate Grainer's father. Grainer was ten at the time. There's always someone's father, someone's mother, someone's wife, someone's son. This the problem with killing and eating people. One of the problems.

You'll have noted the welcome humorous tone already, and from this post's title as well, but Marlowe is also a man of passion and emotion, something in which werewolves beat their vampiric colleagues hands down. True to form Duncan includes plenty of sex and violence but there is also the deep weight of guilt pulling at Marlowe as he slowly reveals the truth about the wife he no longer has and the closeness of his bond to Harley, his contact within WOCOP. All of these emotions are heightened even further when Duncan really gets the plot moving and provides Marlowe with the most compelling reason yet to keep himself alive at all costs.

In the same way that your own jaw dropped the first time you saw David Naughton change in American Werewolf in London, Duncan writes brilliantly about the animal within and the phases of the month as were and wulf struggle for control of Marlowe's body.

In my dreams a small wolf slept inside me and it wasn't comfortable. It moved its heels and elbows and paws, struggled to make space between my lungs, stomach, bladder. Occasionally a scrabbling claw punctured something and I woke. What were you dreaming? Arabella wanted to know. I knew what it was dreaming. It was dreaming of being born. The form and scale of its occupancy shifted. Sometimes its legs were in my legs, its head in my head, its paws in my hands. Other times it was barely the size of a kitten, heartburn hot and fidgety under my sternum. I'd wake and for a moment feel my face changed, reach up to touch the muzzle that wasn't there.

So how does a werewolf novel really fit into the work of Glen Duncan? Well, it's not in fact such a great leap from what he has often been writing about in the past. I'm going to suggest (and you'll find out what he thinks about my hypothesis in an interview on Wednesday) that a grand theme in Duncan's novels is coming to terms with monstrosity. He has done this by always examining the darker impulses in human behaviour and it is only the slightly more sensational subject matter of this novel that might distract us from that same theme's appearance. Marlowe has had to reconcile his morality alongside his need to kill and eat fellow humans, and then beyond that to come to terms with how easy a task that proved to be. It is his friend Harley's response to American Psycho that helps us to understand simply - 'Savage satirist or twisted fuck? he asked me, when he'd finished it. Both, I'd said. It's a false dichotomy. The romantic days of either/or are over. Who'd know that if not me?' Duncan has always been interested in the many shades of grey that lie between the two extremes and Marlowe is no different. His struggles with who he is are made all the more difficult by the nice little twist that the soul of each of his victims takes up a kind of residence within him 'the over-crowded spirit prison, the packed ghost hotel.'

For once here I've managed to review a book without giving away any of the plot but let me assure you that it rockets along when needed with the pace of a silver bullet and that Duncan clearly had a lot of fun writing it. It's a smart, sexy read; the kind of book you might press into the hands of a Twilight reader to give them a shock of real desire. This isn't a po-faced literary treatment but a novel written with a literary writer's skill and the driving force here, as for most fictional monsters, is love. With a universal like that coupled with the cult appeal of the occult this book has the potential to become a bit of a monster itself.


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