(Melville House, 2015)
Psychiatrist Dr. David Manne is tipsy and tired when he is asked by a police detective to evaluate Esterhazy, a violent suspect. Reports suggest Esterhazy is in a psychotic state, threatening his wife with a broken bottle and claiming to be a bachelor named Smith. Manne agrees to go, but knows it’s wrong: he is reeling from the news that his ex-wife has just died, and he shouldn’t be seeing patients at all, let alone those in crisis.
When later his head clears, Manne will recall a number of inconsistencies—the generic apartment, the stranger who seemed to choreograph the scene, the fact that a broken bottle had left behind no glass—leading him to question his recommendation to have the patient committed. Concerned that he is an unwilling accomplice in a plot to abduct Esterhazy (by the police, the hospital, or both), Manne decides to investigate. Although nothing he learns is conclusive—the apartment is believed empty by an unhelpful neighbor, and the detective is at best noncommittal when pressed—none of it is very reassuring, either. He springs Esterhazy (still insisting his name is Smith) from the asylum.
Manne’s investigation into the “Esterhazy case” is cut drastically short, however. Heading downtown with Esterhazy/Smith’s Social Security card in his pocket as evidence, Manne is followed and, just when he thinks he has lost his tail, pushed in front of a subway train. He wakes in a hospital, where he is being treated as a failed suicide suffering post-traumatic fugue. His attempts to claim otherwise are, of course, interpreted as symptoms of his psychosis. Finding himself increasingly uncertain of his own history, the narrator notes that “Mental asylums bred insanity, just as hospitals bred infection, and prisons criminals.”
We might well add to that list, “and just as literary genres bred conventions.” The Reflection openly shares many such conventions with the classic private-eye novel: the early 20th-century urban setting; a marginal, first-person hero who is attacked, imprisoned, and threatened with worse (in this case, lobotomy); corrupt institutions; and a series of crimes that point past simple matters of legality to an immorality at the heart of the status quo.
It becomes clear early on, however, that despite its unapologetic borrowing, The Reflection is not a traditional hardboiled detective story. Whereas the conventional P.I. thriller would invite us to wonder at Esterhazy’s true identity, The Reflection wants us to ask whether there is, in fact, such a thing as identity at all. To achieve this shift in focus, Hugo Wilcken deftly mixes in devices from other genres, specifically the postmodern thriller, and, somewhat less successfully, the fashionable indie-press genre known as
These become more prominent once the narrator enters the hospital and himself becomes the reflection of the title: once a doctor, he is now a patient—named Smith—whose own doctors discount his protests just as he had originally discounted Esterhazy’s. To gain his freedom, Manne decides that he will pretend to be Smith. He successfully invents a history and persona convincing enough that he is eventually considered cured. As Smith, he is released from the asylum, given a room in a flophouse, and offered a job as a stevedore.
Instead of returning to the world as Manne, the narrator accepts the identity he has been offered, and becomes a reflection in a different sense: that of the man he pretended to be. Disfigured by his accident, the narrator is now often mistaken for a Smith people knew, who is startlingly like the Smith he invented. In fact, his imaginary backstory—based on the case histories of similar patients—is so eerily accurate, and the effect of the persistent coincidences so powerful, the narrator decides truly to become Smith, and leave Manne behind forever. Manne, after all, was lonely and timid; the narrator likes Smith’s gregariousness better. There is even some uncertainty about whether he ever was Manne. He can’t find articles he is sure he published, for example, and no one who might have known him—such as the waitress who served him breakfast every day—seems to recognize him, even as his scars heal. Smith’s former lover, on the other hand, has no trouble accepting him.
Unfortunately, there are obstacles to an easy transition. Much of Smith’s life overlaps with Manne’s—rather implausibly, they did their dating at the same Midtown bars—and he often feels driven to visit places associated with Manne. Breaking into the building where Manne lived, the narrator (so disassociated that he at times refers to both Manne and Smith in the third person) is convinced that “The apartment was no projection of Manne, it was Manne,” just as he had come to feel that a map of New York hanging in the hospital common room “was real and the city a mere abstraction of it.”
This section of the novel is driven by a Murakami-esque mixture of coincidence and personal foible (Manne/Smith often “finds” himself heading to one place or another, among other random choices), and a kind of plotting by association: some things in this new life are reminiscent of things in the discarded one. Must he (and the reader) therefore see a connection? Should those potential connections be pursued?
The clues, however, grow increasingly substantial: places linked to the Esterhazy case show up in the newspapers, and there are a number of (sometimes shady) people who seem to have played a role in both lives. When the man who would be Smith discovers that Esterhazy is now practicing psychiatry under the name Manne, he feels forced to resume his investigation.
If all that sounds unlikely, it is—but in fact the sense of implausibility is what makes the final act of the novel so engaging: how far can the author take the “reflective” coincidences and retain your interest? How much of a reflection of Manne’s original stalker can Manne/Smith become? When the rolling juggernaut of the plot finally comes to rest, where will it lie? The reader is aware of the dirigiste author, but whereas that often undermines storytelling by removing any sense of character-driven causality, here it acts as a tonic, a bracing challenge in which you are invited to pit your wits against Wilcken’s.
If the renewed investigation into the Esterhazy case is the novel’s strongest section, this is a result of all the careful work that has come before it, but that work is not without the occasional slip. The approach known as innovative fiction has produced innumerable short stories of interest and power, but seems less suited to longer work. Novels in the style often try to build continuity through the accrual of strange or absurd details that, although treated as deeply important, ultimately have no long-term effect. Like flour in a sauce, these ingredients add bulk but no flavor.
Perhaps because the section relating Manne’s long hospital stay relies so much on the narrator’s inner monologue of guesswork and assumption—Is the doctor’s question a test? Should he answer as Smith or as Manne?—Wilcken seems to have worried about bulk, and given in as a response to innovative fiction’s worst tic. When Manne/Smith inexplicably discovers a dead bird in his hospital room, for example, it is treated as a matter of such potentially grave significance one might imagine Norman Bates sleeping in the next bed. Once the chapter ends, the bird is never mentioned again. A woman regularly appearing outside Manne’s hospital room window is the object of similarly intense scrutiny, only to disappear without trace or effect.
The climax of The Reflection will not surprise many readers, but this is a study in genre, and the inevitability of a certain outcome—white hat wins high-noon shootout, underdog makes touchdown and kisses girl—is one of a genre’s most important guarantees. In this particular genre, that outcome is the revelation that identity is likely little more than a social construct.
As many readers will recognize, The Reflection is written in a style on which Paul Auster’s name is stamped, seemingly in indelible ink, and indeed comparisons to the maestro are easily made. That is not to say, however, that The Reflection is any less enjoyable, engaging, charming, or insightful—and it is all these things. It is only less revelatory of what can be done when philosophy and popular art are skillfully blended and no apologies made for either ingredient.
Tadzio Koelb teaches creative writing at Rutgers. Morasses, his translation of Andre Gide's Paludes, appeared in 2015.