The Singer Not the Gun

Emily St. John Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (2010)

Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Some critics have complained it is, if not a cosy catastrophe, then a clean apocalypse. I pass no comment as to whether this is a good thing or not — but clearly it was a novel about the survival of culture and what stories need to be told or should not be told.

Perhaps cleanness is Talfamadorian.

Don’t look at the nasty moments.

Perhaps by virtue of the book’s already burgeoning reputation — Waterstone’s were promoting it — at least one of her earlier novels is in print in the UK. It is difficult to read The Singer’s Gun without the later novel in mind.

So Anton Walker works in an office in the new World Trade Center complex and is hoping to marry his girlfriend Sophie on the third attempt. One day he discovers he has been demoted — there’s some question about his nationality or his qualifications — and he’s exiled to an office on the mezzanine, where his former secretary, Elena, also demoted, begins a secret affair with him. Walker’s parents sell stolen goods from their shop and Walker had been in business with his cousin, Aria, selling false passports to immigrants such as Elena. Anton had been bribed to do one last thing for Aria, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. He is waiting, wifeless, on the island of Ischia of Naples, and people have been on his trail.

Station Eleven moved between the start of the disaster and the aftermath, twenty years later, and here again there is an achronological structure, as if Mandel is scripting a puzzle movie. Anton knows more about Elena than Elena realises, we know more about Elena than Anton does and we know about the agent. We move backwards and forwards in time. We are trained to ferret out the connections — although that makes us wonder why Walker is so trusting.

On one level, this is noir territory. The introspective, flawed protagonist who has sinned and must be punished out of all proportion, the untrustworthy women (the agent, the cousin, the girlfriend/wife, the mistress, all save his almost silent mother), the waiting for someone to come in through the door with a gun in their hand. He will be screwed (over). There are two MacGuffins — a package and a cat. You’ve got to love the cat.

And yet — there’s that cleanness. You are driven forward to read, you can see the ironies and the trap closing… But this is, what, a comedy? Walker seems curious carefree, even as he puts an acquaintance into the frame. There’s that gun, the singer’s gun, that has to be used because it is over the metaphorical fireplace of the title. The singer herself is only briefly there. Aria is a song. Elena sings, so to speak, in a slang way. But someone has to be shot — and it’s clean. It’s not the dirtiness of the noir — it feels curiously inconsequential, although the moral/immorality of the noir is selective in its punishment of characters. Or rather, there are worse places to be than in jail.

And, then, at the heart of the novel, the real trade, the real reason they are on Walker’s trail — ah, spoilers. That centre does not bear thinking of. That centre is sometimes glimpsed on the news and contains images which the viewer may find distressing, on one shore or another of the Mediterranean. We see it head on once, I believe, in a brief chapter. But it’s not dirty enough — or there’s a horror in the cleanness. As I say, you are driven forward to read on, but the punch is pulled.

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