Thursday, July 05, 2012

A thriller that sends up the thriller genre

POTBOILER by Jesse Kellerman: I haven't read Jesse Kellerman's previous novels, which appear to be complex thrillers, but based on the cleverness he demonstrates in POTBOILER, I'm very interested in reading more of his work. POTBOILER cannot be easily categorized. It's an affectionate parody of the thriller genre, but it functions equally well as a thriller in its own right. However ridiculous and implausible the twists and turns, this novel kept me chuckling at Kellerman's gentle mocking of his own genre while at the same time biting my nails in anticipation. I couldn't help but laugh at myself and how swept up in the absurd action I became.

Arthur Pfefferkorn is a college professor with one critically acclaimed novel far, far in his past. He's avoided his oldest friend, William de Vallee, for years, jealous of his wife and his bestselling oeuvre of thrillers while contemptuous of the non-literary genre. When de Vallee disappears and is declared dead, Pfefferkorn takes a reckless step that pulls him into a world of international intrigue, conspiracy, and double crosses. To rescue de Vallee's widow (with whom he is still in love), he takes on a shadowy assignment from a questionable government agency and ventures into Zlabia, an utterly absurd nation divided into two entirely different cultures. Zlabia is a hoot, and it's to Kellerman's credit that I remained engaged in the action despite the ridiculous aspects of Zlabian politics.

To point out the cleverest twists would be to spoil the unfolding plot. This is a book I will recommend to everyone I know just so I can talk about it with someone and say, "Wasn't it perfect when Pfefferkorn said X and then Y happened later?!" A devoted thriller fan who sees nothing amusing in the conventions of the genre will not enjoy this book, but anyone who read, say, THE DA VINCI CODE and rolled her eyes at the stilted prose and pat descriptions (while frantically turning the pages to see what happens next) will adore POTBOILER. I am even willing to confess my secret addiction to Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels to illustrate my qualifications in making this recommendation. The over-the-top writing drives me a little crazy and the stereotypes and predictable elements required of the genre make me roll my eyes; yet, I can't not read them.

When Pfefferkorn finally reads a de Vallee novel, he is contemptuous:

"The thirty-third installment in a series, the novel featured special agent Richard "Dick" Stapp, a brilliant, physically invincible figure formerly in the employ of a shadowy but never-named government arm whose apparent sole purpose was to furnish story lines for thrillers. Pfefferkorn recognized the formula easily enough. Stapp, supposedly in retirement, finds himself drawn into an elaborate conspiracy involving one or more of the following: an assassination, a terrorist strike, a missing child, or the theft of highly sensitive documents that, if made public, could lead to full-blown nuclear engagement. His involvement in the case often begins against his will. I've had it with this rotten business he is fond of avowing. Who in real life, Pfefferkorn wondered, avowed anything?"

This over-the-top language turns up in elements of POTBOILER that highlight its absurdity, as in the fabulous description of a character's mustache: "Pfefferkorn could not tell his age, due to a full eighty percent of his face being hidden behind the largest, bushiest, most aggressively expansionist moustache Pfefferkorn had ever seen. It was a a with submoustaches that in turn had sub-submoustaches, each of which might be said to be deserving of its own area code. It was a moustache that vexed profoundly questions of waxing, a moustache the merest glimpse of which might spur female musk oxen to ovulate. It was a moustache that would have driven Nietzsche mad with envy, had he not been mad already. If the three most copiously flowing waterfalls in the world, Niagara, Victoria, and Iguazu Falls, were somehow united, and their combined outputs rendered in facial hair, this man's moustache would not have been an inaccurate model, save that this man's moustache also challenged traditional notions of gravity by growing outward, upward, and laterally. It was an impressive moustache and Pfefferkorn was impressed."

Pfefferkorn is fond of coming up with outlandish ideas and wondering if they might be good premises for a novel. Naturally, these wild plot developments turn up in the Zlabian intrigue. Throughout commentary on the Zlabian hit show The Poem, It Is Bad! and the magical disguising power of mustaches, the overly complicated plot unfolds with precision in ways that are both predictable and unexpected. This is a masterful satire of the thriller genre, but at the same time, a fantastic thriller. It might be the ultimate beach read.

Source disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof of this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Just finished this book. I thought it funny in places and bizarre overall. Too far fetched for literal me. Since you haven't read any of Jesse Kellerman's other books, you can't tell me if they are equally bizarre. I'm tempted to try The Genius because a thriller set in the art world is especially intriguing to me. Don't know when I'll get to it though.