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Book Review: The Captive Condition

By (July 7, 2015) No Comment

The Captive Conditionthe captive condition cover

by Kevin P. Keating

Pantheon, 2015

The first chapter of Kevin Keating’s new novel, The Captive Condition, begins like this:

During the quiet hours after midnight on New Year’s Day, the ghosts of Normandy Falls, manacled like felons to the tomb, temporarily escaped the totalitarian scrutiny of heaven an the moldering prison house of death, and from the forlorn churchyard near the square and the untilled fields in the valley, they assembled under the light of the spectral moon and resolved to haunt those who had denied them love. They rose high in the blustery air, thin sheets of ectoplasm flapping like mainsails in the lashing wind, a vibration of mournful energy that the living, resting uneasily in their homes after the raucous holiday parties had ended, mistook as the leading edge of a storm drafting down unhindered from the polar ice cap.

By which point already the book’s rhetorical lifeboats are being lowered and the weak and innocent are being abruptly separated from the more stolid and self-confident among the book’s readers. The Captive Condition is Kevin Keating’s second novel, following his debut, The Natural Order of Things, but it has as little in common with that earlier book as a Bikini Atoll mushroom cloud does with a soggy Scottish campfire. The Natural Order of Things was a somewhat mild, promisingly puzzling little thing, the kind of literary debut that briefly revels in its own gnomic style and then heads offstage to the nearest hipster bar. The Captive Condition is a Cecil B. DeMille super-spectacular with the entire adult population of Sheboygan, Wisconsin decked out in togas and walking the streets of a paper mache Nero’s Rome. The rhetoric is pitched just about as high as rhetoric goes, and the stakes are commensurately higher.

The setting isn’t Rome, though: it’s the aforementioned ghost-haunted Normandy Falls, lost somewhere in the bleak post-industrial wasteland of Ohio. It’s to Normandy Falls that our nominal hero, Edmund Campion, travels to attend grad school, and it’s there that he meets the town’s wide assortment of darkly quirky people, including his sometime-girlfriend Morgan Fey and his academic adviser, Professor Martin Kingsley (about whom something is amiss, if you bookish types catch my drift), and an even-more-enigmatic-than-usual character (and the book’s standout creation) called the Gonk. There’s a dead woman named Emily Ryan, there are creepy Midwich twin girls, there are mysterious intoxicants and heaps of surreal encounters, and lurking at all the fringes is the constant threat of dark violence. This is, in other words, the modern Gothic novel, in which the Gothic’s key element, atmosphere – the slowest and most careful of all rhetorical effects – is given a David Lynch infusion of depraved energy. Characters abound and are always connected to each other more deeply than at first seems apparent, but it’s the aforementioned rhetoric that keeps stealing the show, wrapping the reader in lines like: ‘When the delirium of love dies an the asphyxiating cloud of romantic ruin finally dissipates, the bruised and battered survivors will often find lurking among the rubble and ashes of the human heart an insidious beast who yearns to wreak more havoc.”

To Keating’s credit, it’s almost entirely successful – largely because he’s keen to the element of Gothic tales that tends to be forgotten first by their devotees: humor. The Captive Condition is a big, smart, showy Grand Guignol feat, an order of magnitude more accomplished and more interesting than The Natural Order of Things, but it’s also involvingly funny. This is the book that renders it now impossible to ignore – or even safely categorize – Kevin Keating as an author, and in a publishing season full of too many near-cloned novels, that’s a wonderful arrival.

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