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September 27, 2006

Book Notes - Laird Hunt ("The Exquisite")

With The Exquisite, Laird Hunt walks the literary tightrope between two concurrent stories, and the literary thriller that evolves is truly haunting. As Henry, the novel's destitute protagonist stages fake murders in one plot, and is a patient in a hospital in another, reality becomes merely a concept as he attempts to discern the identity of his benefactor, the mysterious Mr. Kindt. Shocking, intellectual, eerie, and wonderfully written, The Exquisite is my favorite literary thriller of the year.

There is a reason Paul Auster called Hunt, "strange original, and utterly brilliant," and that reason has me searching out Laird Hunt's previously published books to add to my reading list.

In his own words, here is Laird Hunt's Book Notes essay for his novel, The Exquisite:

The traditional way of looking at what a novel does might be likened to a fist that opens, more or less slowly, onto to some object – a jewel, a key, a quarter, the proverbial lump of coal – that is thereby gradually revealed. The wave of experimentation that stretched out over the 20th century did considerable damage to this model – offering up one fist after another that opened onto nothing, or not what we expected (a palm full of question marks, the after-echo of its own opening, a little mirror). Some novels never opened at all, and others, written by especially crafty/annoying devils, seemed to be opening onto something, something we almost got a good look at, then abruptly slammed themselves shut. Which is to say that by century’s end, there were a lot of different models for how fiction could be written and why not (I seem to have said to myself) take advantage of them? The Exquisite then is two fists (kapow!) sitting side by side. One seems at first glance to be on its way to opening (maybe onto something dark and glowing and mysterious to do with New York and mock murder) and the other seems at first glance not to be doing much of anything (maybe just getting its nails done at some East Village hand and foot parlor). Look again, however, and the fists seem to have been reversed. Or have they?

In one of the fists, the one I’m mostly going to address here, there are three principal characters – Henry (who gets into trouble), Mr. Kindt (who helps Henry get himself into trouble), and Tulip (who does what, exactly? by the end we’re not entirely sure). The book has been described as a “ghost noir”, and surely Tulip is one of its scariest, best-looking and ultimately most enigmatic phantoms. Eventual readers of The Exquisite may come to agree with me that she, more than the boys who get plenty of page time, merits additional illumination. So the following playlist is all Tulip. It is unapologetically eclectic – some of the songs are ones Tulip would perhaps have selected had she been asked, others, however, she only walks past or stumbles onto, like the scene of some low-grade New York accident or crime.


Blondie — Denis, Denis
When she was young enough to still be a [county-welfare-sponsored] camper, but old enough to be juggling a fist-full of soft crushes, Tulip walked very, very slowly by a blue-eyed counselor playing this song on his tapedeck. Some approximation of the words and music stuck with her until she heard the song again several months later at a friend’s house. Tulip’s enthusiasm for the song, fueled by pleasantly uncomfortable memories of the counselor, quickly infected her friend and it became a kind of anthem for them. Although Sunday Girl was better suited to the melancholia that later overtook her as she suddenly, somewhat unhappily, found herself a teen, Denis, Denis had become hardwired and to this day, she finds it bubbling up, at the oddest times. For example, the first time she meets Henry, at a party on Ridge Street, even though the Smiths are being offered up to the gathered revelers at high volume, she is hearing Denis, Denis in her head with a clarity she finds vaguely troubling.


Hypnogaja – Here Comes the Rain Again
Near the end of the book, though not in its actual pages, Tulip checks her watch, pulls on a violet rain slicker, slips a borrowed Browning she doesn’t know how to use very well into her pocket, and heads off to Mr. Kindt’s apartment for what will prove to be a fateful encounter. The weather has mostly emptied Avenue B and turned everyone still out into dark, fast-moving umbrellas. It is a few minutes before Tulip realizes that she has this gorgeous, glowering cover of The Eurythmics’ tune stuck in her head. She wants to think, so she makes a conscious effort to shut it off, but it keeps coming, in sinuous bursts, like the hose is turned all the way on and has gotten loose. It doesn’t stop until she reaches Mr. Kindt’s apartment, rejoins the book and realizes something has gone very wrong.


Sonic Youth — Providence
In a key scene of the novel, Tulip let’s herself be “murdered” by Henry on the shag rug of an improbably toney apartment on St. Mark’s Place. While she is waiting, she absentmindedly hits play on an Ipod plugged into a Bose base and this strange, portentous Sonic Youth tune starts up. Next to the Ipod is a large aquarium, which hosts a single electric-blue fish, waving plants and a castle that makes her think, although the thought doesn’t go very far, of the 1970s TV show The Man from Atlantis. She sits very quietly, looks at the fish, listens to Providence and waits to be murdered.


Duke Ellington with Charles Mingus and Max Roach — Fleurette Africaine
Des Moines on Avenue A is no longer called Des Moines, but it was when (2001/2002) the events of The Exquisite take place. Tulip wasn’t nuts about the coffee they served, but she did like the comfortable chairs you could sometimes score. These chairs, which looked out onto Avenue A, were perfect for sinking into and watching the fast-moving mess go by. It was while she was sitting doing just that that she first spotted Henry, fresh from his first visit to the hospital, looking scruffy and dazed and ripe to play a starring role in the scheme she, Cornelius (another sinister element) and Mr. Kindt had cooking. He stood on the street looking this way and that before moving off. Tulip immediately walked out after him. As she was leaving, she heard the first haunting chords of Fleurette Africaine, maybe the single-most beautiful piece of music she knows and which was played just frequently enough to be another reason she liked going to Des Moines.


Patti Smith — Summer Cannibals
Tulip has loved Patti Smith, with unadulterated devotion, since the abovementioned Sunday-girl melancholia of early teenhood gave way to some good old-fashioned f*ck the world aided and abetted by an older friend who convinced her not only to wear a trash bag, but also to tell her father where he could and how he could get there. So she is far from unhappy when, sitting in front of an enormous pastrami Sandwich at Katz’s on Houston, Summer Cannibals comes in through one of the windows, presumably from a car stopped on Ludlow. Neither Mr. Kindt nor Henry, busy with their sandwiches, seem to notice. But Tulip begins to tap her foot and rock back and forth. Before she takes her first bite, she mouths, “I felt a rising in my throat/the girls a-saying grace.” Then the car moves off, she picks up her sandwich, pastrami spilling out all sides, and takes a large bite.


PJ Harvey — Easy

More than once, after an unbearably long night listening to Mr. Kindt tell stories about his false past to Henry, and to Henry tell stories about his false present to Mr. Kindt, when Henry has left is just her and Mr. Kindt again, Tulip puts on this song from the great 4-Track Demo album, kicks the volume up just a little too loud and, as Mr. Kindt watches, amused, his blue eyes burning away at her over a glass of something dark and smoky, thrashes around as best she can in the overcrowded room.


Lorna Hunt — Unrecoverable

One night Tulip takes a break from being Tulip and heads out to kick back with some friends (who they are is not important to this playlist or to the novel) — have a bite, a beverage, and hear some music. After taking apart a Sushi Deluxe at Esashi on Avenue A, and having had that beverage with a klezmer back at Tonic, Tulip and her friends settle in at the now-defunct, alas, Living Room, on Essex. They drink and talk quietly and the acts are all over the place and none-too-inspiring this night until Lorna Hunt gets up and starts to fill the space with considerably more than loud guitar and stale coffee house lyrics. She says her voice is a little rough, for some reason, but if it is Tulip can’t hear it. The songs are smart, sharp and sock Tulip in the gut one after the other. The last one she does is “Unrecoverable,” and as she is winding it down into the ending sequence, Tulip tells a couple of guys in the corner, who have been talking through the song and the better part of the set to shut up. They do. Tulip has a hot toddy sent over to the singer with the rough voice and hums “Unrecoverable” all the way home.


Cheap Trick — I Want You to Want Me
On a fool’s errand to the Bay Area a few weeks before the novel opens, Tulip found herself cooling her heels at a dive bar in the Mission. There was a beat-up Wurlitzer in the corner and a beat-up guy with, apparently, a pocketful of quarters. He stood poised in front of the Wurlitzer’s dim light, sweat dripping off his nose onto the dark, ugly floor, long enough for Tulip to wonder if he had something to do with her visit. She had almost convinced herself that she should go over and talk to him when he dropped his quarter into the slot. As she watched, he started to dance with extraordinary slowness, fists up by his ears, hips doing a kind of super slow-motion hula hoop thing. The song was winding down almost before she realized what it was: Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me, a song that had popped up occasionally in the early 90s on the playlist of a bar on Norfolk that doesn’t exist anymore. On this occasion, she had plenty of time to get reacquainted with it. The beat-up guy played it over and over again until the bartender, up until then more or less dozing off by the coffee machine, told him to “f*cking stop.” The bartender’s words, the song and the beat-up guy dancing, form a kind of fog that sweeps over her more frequently than she would like. On page 127 of the novel, for example, Tulip is looking at Henry, but what she is seeing is the beat-up guy dancing in front of the Wurlitzer. I Want You to Want Me indeed.


D.biddle — Restoration Son
Once or twice, Tulip gets friendly off-stage with a third-tier character sometimes known as Anthony, sometimes as Job, and sometimes as the second murderer. This guy is 1) very good looking and very good in the sack and 2) not quite enough of a musician to be wheezing out creaky covers on a questionably tuned guitar after sex. Still, 1 helps (does it ever) with 2, and Tulip puts up with a few songs, one of which is a slightly more achieved rendition of this Knockout cut from D.biddle (by D.biddle) in which a pair of horns add all kinds of nooks and crannies to Duncan Barlow’s tantalizing vocals. Not to worry that this song didn’t exist when I’m pretending it did. The important thing is that the second murderer somehow or other sang it, didn’t do too bad a job, and maybe as a consequence got laid for the second time (maybe it was the third) in one night.

Velvet Underground and Nico — Venus in Furs
Tulip of course doesn’t know this, but at odd moments during the novel, when she walks in or out of a room, turns her head to look out a window, lifts a glass of Mr. Kindt’s Cognac, takes off her towel and steps into the furnace room at the Russian Baths, etc., the instrumental portion of this classic track from the Velvet Underground begins playing very faintly in the background. It never plays loudly enough or long enough to become obnoxious or, heaven forbid, silly. It’s just one of many strange and vaguely creepy things lurking along the periphery of The Exquisite.


see also:

the author's website
the author's blog
a short film inspired by the book

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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