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Sara Gran
A Non-Review by

I started reading Sara Gran's new novel, COME CLOSER, in July, soon after arriving in the foothills of the White Mountains. It is a novel of demonic possession, and coincidently I was reading Elaine Pagel'S, THE ORIGIN OF SATAN. By day Mount Chicorua on the horizon set the mood in an ever-changing interplay of light and form. Laptops were humming, we had a good stereo system, a radio that was never turned on (zero TV), a weather alert transistor and the music of nature. Birds twittered, a nearby stream trickled, the wind sighed or shouted through trees, and rain hard or soft danced on the roof. An idyllic setting unless one tends towards boredom, needs a lot of devices and stimulants or is, say, a news junkie (me, but I got over it cold turkey except for glances at internet headlines). It is possible to find country days maddeningly long and uneventful. I happen to find the flight of two ducks overhead while I paddle in a canoe an okay event. But my focus was reading and writing, so any little diversion, like a moose ambling down the ravine, or a snake suddenly crossing my path were just a little perks in my day.

Nights were a different story altogether. Deep and impenetrable with sounds from unspecified sources like insects that stepped out only in the dark, unidentified rustlings and what seemed to be occasional footsteps outside flimsy window screens. The odd nocturnal rifle shot added an overwrought Hollywood suspense, like maybe Jason or Freddie Kruger had wandered up the road, and suddenly city paranoia kicked in. I started thinking what might pass for crime among people with long winters and too much time on their hands, realizing we were so isolated no one would hear our screams.

Other Book Reviews:

Come Closer
- Sara Gran

Morningside Heights
- Cheryl Mendelson

- Michel Houellebecq
The Usual Rules
- Joyce Maynard

Bangkok 8
- John Burdett

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

Being America
- Jebediah Purdy

Fresh Milk
- Fiona Gile

The Man with the Dancing Eyes
- Sophie Dahl

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering
of My Years

- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

The coyotes however were the real showstoppers. We arrived to a waxing moon, brilliantly upbeat stars over a black and white landscape. Fields, and spaces between trees, were clearly visible but sans color. I figured out a moonlit night is the Yin to the daytime Yang, but some Chinese guy already tapped that a couple of thousand years ago. Such musings were abruptly cut short with the first long, rising howl of the lead coyote followed by howls and sharp yips of the rest of the pack. It was hard to place how near or far they were, just outside the woods, down the ravine, beyond the field? It's an unnerving sound that conjures werewolves and Grimm's Fairy Tales. They begin as early as six PM, but mostly howl around midnight and the hour just before dawn. The real charm is when you hear them rip into something like a rabbit who kind of coughs its way to death. I had the weird desire to hear the howling again once I was relieved it had stopped.

What could be better under the circumstances than Sara Gran's novel of evil inhabiting a young woman? Amanda is perfectly normal and functional, living in a modern city with a handsome husband. They are a loving couple, she an architect, Ed a finance officer for a clothing company. They are not interesting people, yuppies on the economic ladder up. Ed is a neat freak with annoying allergies, Amanda has adjusted. He has been a stabilizing influence on her, "Ed was my hero, my savior…the man who imposed order on my chaotic life." Still, Ed misses the early signs that something is seriously amiss with his wife. I have to stop a second to say the things that were initially unstable about Amanda were pretty routine before Ed straightened her stuff out. Amanda: "When I was single, I'd eaten cereal for dinner and ice cream for lunch. I'd kept my tax records in a shopping bag in the closet. I'd spent Saturdays in a hung-over fog, watching hours of black-and-white movies." Hey, at least she paid taxes, which means she had a job, and, I don't know, to me hung-over Saturdays are preferable to vacuuming the apartment or talking on the phone all day.

Well, I did say these characters were normal and there sits the rub, are we meant to care about them? The book is fast-paced, a good, creepy tale and it complimented my nightly werewolf sonatas perfectly. I just wasn't drawn much to Amanda and not at all to Ed, so I kind of didn't care about her encroaching lunacy as an evil demon moves in. But that is the subtle underlying horror of the book, just an average person you might be seated next to at your favorite bistro; no obvious signs like three sixes that Satan's minions are having their way with the nice looking lady at the next table. No clue that she--or rather the demon--might be capable of murder.

This is a gothic tale of mediocre souls. There is a sketch of Amanda losing her mother at a tender age and Dad bringing home a Disney-type nasty stepmother. But both of them are killed before Amanda reaches college age and apparently there is no one else until Ed for her to turn to. This sort of explains a loneliness that allows Amanda to "talk" to a dream figure who turns up "next" to her in broad daylight. The suggestion being that the sorrows of childhood could be used later in life to bring on the bogie man. The case is only suggested though as a kind of scaffolding for Amanda's downfall. This is a sparely written book with no wasted energy. Sara Gran is gifted at creating a full scene with the barest minimum of strokes. To go back to Amanda and Ed, once he saves her we are given a tight look at their new life: "With Ed I spent Saturdays outdoors, doing the things I had always imagined I should do: flea markets, lunches, museums. He did our taxes, with itemized deductions, every January, and filed the records away in a real file cabinet. Here was a man who could finish any crossword puzzle, open any bottle, reach the top shelf at the grocery store without strain." You get the whole guy in sixty-one words. Amanda wants us to know that a civilized, sophisticated man like Ed would be a bit weak in the instincts department, and therefore a tad handicapped in detecting mental deviance. He certainly feels the effects of Amanda's, or rather her evil occupier, Naamah's (yup, the evil sprit has a name, and a cultural history, too) changed behavior. He doesn't take time though to analyze, just tosses out what any well-adjusted bore would: maybe Amanda needs to see a psychiatrist. When she takes up smoking again in spite of his allergy, Ed adjusts, and when she reaches across the sofa one evening and burns his arm (which of course Naamah really did), good old Ed finds a way to deal. It must have been an accident, he says. Gran's humor is wry. The more time I spent with Ed the more I wanted the tax receipts back in the shopping bag and those ice cream lunches with a hangover.

The evil Naamah doesn't make Amanda do anything too originally outrageous. Okay, she has her kill an argumentative magazine seller and a co-worker who rats out her increasing absenteeism at work. But mainly she has Amanda sleep with guys she picks up (lust), shoplift (greed) and show an ugly temper (anger) until finally--well I can't tell the dire deed at the end except to say Naamah had some of it right, the so and so had coming even if what happens is morally beyond the pale.

Uninteresting people becoming possessed, doing nasty things to other uninteresting people who are plenty capable of their own nastiness. The creepy fun part is finding out how many other ordinary folks are possessed. If this is meant as metaphor, watch out for the bus driver, the dry cleaner, or even your own doctor; who knows what lurks in the heart of the ordinary citizen. Don't laugh, most religions are dead serious about the devil; from, THE ORIGN OF SATAN, "All converts understood, of course, that baptism washes away sin and expels evil spirits…" If the novel is also tongue-in-cheek, it still thrills the hairs on the spine, and the darkness is just light enough for some laughs. A warning though: if you find yourself acting strangely, listen to the little voice inside, the devil apparently counts on denial. You may be going mad or you may need the local exorcist. How benign my coyote-filled nights turned out to be compared to the whispered, COME CLOSER.

© September 2003 J. Stefan-Cole



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