My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Bought at The Book Warehouse.
Read in September 2013.
I discovered Emily St. John Mandel via The Millions, where she’s a staff writer. Like me, she grew up in BC with an American parent. Unlike me, she was eligible for American citizenship via that parent and now lives in Brooklyn. The Singer’s Gun is her second novel. Her background—she originally thought she was immigrating illegally to the US—informs the story.
The main character of The Singer’s Gun is Anton Waker. Anton’s parents sell stolen goods (such as architectural bits pilfered from buildings being renovated or torn down) for a living. Anton’s cousin Aria, who is six months older, moves in with them after her mother gets deported and her father goes after her. After high school Aria and Anton start selling fake social security cards and passports. Aria is the leader; Anton is the follower.
Eventually, Anton decides he wants out. After seeing an Anton Waker who just graduated from Harvard quoted in a newspaper, he requests a copy of “his” diploma, and with it begins living his dream life as an office drone. That’s not sarcasm—it actually was his dream to work in an office—he just didn’t want to bother taking the normal steps it would take to get there.
He becomes engaged to Sophie, a cellist who has no idea about his past. She does, however, seem to have cold feet about their wedding. For his part, Anton seems to care more about his one-eyed rescue cat than he does Sophie. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that ;)) If the wedding ever takes place, Anton and Sophie are scheduled to go to Ischia, Italy on their honeymoon. Meanwhile, Aria hasn’t gotten over the fact that Anton abandoned their business and Anton’s employer has obtained a big contract that requires it to do background checks on all its employees. Uh-oh.
Anton’s the center of the book, but there’s a secondary protagonist, Anton’s secretary, Elena James. Elena grew up in Inuvik (a place so far north it makes Oslo look sunny and toasty by comparison), and came to New York after high school on a full scholarship to Columbia University. Unfortunately, she dropped out after one semester, putting her in an awkward position immigration-wise. She doesn’t want to return to Canada, especially not to Inuvik. At one point, she tries to explain why to another character:
“There’s nothing up there.”
“You’re talking about a lack of employment?”
“No, I’m talking about a lack of everything. A loss of potential. It’s hard to explain. There’s just… it’s a narrowing of possibilities,” she said. “Even the smartest people end up doing nothing much with their lives, because there’s nothing to do. It’s not just Inuvik, it’s everywhere in the world that’s small and remote. Fewer things are possible in places like that.” (230)
That may be the best explanation I’ve come across of the feeling I had growing up in very small towns, why I couldn’t wait to escape, why I always raise my eyebrows at stories where the protagonist realizes the life they’ve built in The City is empty! and the only place where their life will be complete! is the Quirky Hometown they never should have left. 🙄 I was in a simmering panic for years, first worrying that I wouldn’t get out, and then when I did, worrying that it wouldn’t last, that eventually I’d end up forced back to some small, narrow place. Which maybe seems crazy, but I guess it’s a bit like leaving a cult. You have to reprogram yourself to believe that it’s ok to do things like (gasp) live in a city.
Of course, there’s a bit of irony to Elena’s remark in that some of the key characters do end up in a smallish, remote-ish place. Not nearly as small and remote as Inuvik, though.
With its themes of identity, (im)migration, and dislocation, this was one of my favorites so far this year. I’ll definitely be reading Mandel’s other novels.