What I’m Reading: John Hawkes – Travesty

This is a… strange little book. And I mean that in the best possible way. It will certainly not remain the last one by John Hawkes that I’ve read. It is a pity that he seems mostly forgotten these days; I only found him via the highly recommended Big Other blog.

The set-up seems simple enough – we’re inside a car for the whole duration of this short novel, together with its driver, his daughter Chantal and his friend, the poet Henri – who incidentally is the lover of not only the car driver’s daughter but also of his wife. Said driver is also the narrator of Travesty and he is one of the most deeply unlikeable characters to ever fill that function. And that is not just because he plans to kill himself as well as his passengers by driving the car against a barn but also because he is a mean-spirited, monstrously egotistical philistine with (so far as I could tell) no redeeming features whatsoever. Unlike comparable narrator-villains (Humbert Humbert comes to mind most strongly) the narrator of Travesty does not require to seduce his audience (seeing as it is already quite literally captive) nor does he feel the need to justify himself to anyone, as he is quite convinced of being absolutely in the right. It comes as no surprise then that the narrator tells us mostly about himself and what a great guy he is, with the other characters mere supporting cast hovering barely visible on the edge of the stage.

It is never quite made explicit what the “Travesty” of the novel’s title refers to – while the narrator does mention an event in his past, that is not really helpful (at least not with some interpretative effort), and it seems likely that this is left intentionally ambiguous for the reader to figure out. My own take on this is that it refers to the narrator’s recurring attempts to make his planned murder-cum-suicide as a work of art – in fact, one rather suspects that the purpose of this premeditated car crash is so  that the narrator can present as a better artist than his friend the poet, and lacking any real talent now engages in a grotesque and bloody act of one-upmanship. Not that this would mean criticism of the narrator by way of implicit auctorial comment, and this brings us to the point where I think this small novel is really remarkable – because the author (and it does not really matter whether you consider that to be the John Hawkes whose name appears on the cover of the novel or another fictional character implied in its narrative) manages to turn this travesty into a work of art, in spite of the narrator and behind his back, so to speak. While the novel’s set-up is entirely possible and realistic, the narrator’s voice is decidedly not – nobody would actually talk like this while driving a car, much less one that is going at high speed on a nocturnal country road. The narrative voice is not realistic at all but highly artifical, it is controlled by the author rather than the narrator, and it is the author rather than the narrator who time and again introduces a trenchant observation or a scinillating bit of prose, slipping them in under the narrator’s radar, so to speak. Which makes for a weird, unsettling reading experience, the text apparently slipping out of focus repeatedly, only to snap into brilliant clarity at the most unexpected moments.


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