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|Comments on Palindrome Hannah, by Michael Bailey
|Posted by Dave on 1/4/2006
|Thanks for the exhaustive comments, Stewart. I appreciate your participation!
|Posted by Stewart on 1/3/2006
|Having been a fan of horror for many years I have moved away from the genre (although I still enjoy the occasional horror movie) due to its decline. There is little originality left in the field given that it’s becoming just the same old authors churning out the same old stories over and over. Indeed, with more voices leaving the field (Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite, Clive Barker) there are fewer - easily available anyway - to listen to. Sometimes a novel comes along that offers an original spin on the genre but fails in its execution - Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ being a case in point.
So, when told about ‘Palindrome Hannah’, a horror novel by self-published author, Michael Bailey, I was interested to see if he had anything new to offer the genre. His claim that the book is part homage to David Mitchell’s work was intriguing although the homage to Stephen King was disconcerting given that I view King as a tired voice in a genre crying out for new blood and fresh invention. The book itself, a collection of five novellas with interweaving elements, claimed to have a sixth tale, told in reverse, which detailed the sad life of the title character.
The first story, ‘Reflections’, sees the suicidal Aeron Stevenson struggle with some inner demons and the more he agonises over them the more distant he becomes from wife, Karen, and child, Matty. He takes time off work as he suffers delusions – of being one of his son’s army men, for example – and resolves that the only way to escape the delusions, when looking at the man in the mirror, is to take his own life. He decides on his plan of action and, after writing a verbose suicide note that felt out of character, he attempts to shoot himself although Death, it seems, is partial to the occasional practical joke.
‘Pumpkin Carving’, the second tale, is one of the weaker in the book. It follows the declining marriage of Tayson and Jackie Pierce as he, editor of Seattle magazine, ‘Brenden Talented’, goes from bar to bar being nasty to everyone he meets while stalking his wife who we discover has a healthier appetite for men than is immediately obvious. The characters are deliberately unlikeable and Tayson’s repertoire of jokes is tired but at least they are spoken by the character and not the narrator – that would be criminal. The narration in this tale jumps between third person (Tayson) and first person (Jackie) and recounts each other’s version of events as they spiral toward the gory denouement.
Third story, ‘The Whiteness’, is the worst of the five on offer. It’s written as a memoir of a stay in an orphanage during the 1920s which, given everything that happens there, is so completely unbelievable: the caretakers were bullies; boys and girls were separated; nobody was permitted to talk; food was unrecognisable as food; and so on as we experience the ‘so bad it’s cliché’ world of the young Earl Heimlich. Given that the memoir is full of mistakes, which Heimlich acknowledges, it does make a mockery of the aforementioned ‘Brenden Talented’ which published it. In his memoir Heimlich thinks back to mental blackouts he had – or should that be whiteouts since he nicknamed them ‘the whiteness’? - and the events that led to the salvation of he and the others in the orphanage. I am, however, left perplexed at how someone in the 1920s can be described as having a Beatle-style haircut and looking like John Lennon. Even though I’m aware the memoir was written after Beatlemania it still felt clumsy.
Penultimate tale, ‘Finding God’, is the best on offer in ‘Palindrome Hannah’. It begins with a man, recognisable from ‘Reflections’, with no known identification (so he’s called John Doe) in a mental institution claiming that he is God. Over a course of consultations, two-dimensional lead character Dr. Milton – his ongoing pen clicking doesn’t make him a rounded or believable person – asks John all manner of questions. John, who has a touch of the Kevin Spaceys about him, answers every question almost as if he is Spacey’s character from ‘K-Pax’ or, er, John Doe from ‘Se7en’. This tale, of the five, is fast paced as the man who believes himself God apparently makes a country disappear and disappears from the institution as and when he pleases.
The final yarn, ‘Inside/Outside’, tells of bully Ray Duschenne and the kids who make a pact to get their revenge on him. He wakes in a coffin wondering if he is dead or if he has been buried alive by accident. The story then backtracks through each member of the gang he bullied as they play their part in the plan to serve Ray’s comeuppance. Ray, as a bully, felt stereotyped – father beats him up, you see – but, for a young tyrant, he seemed to be a bit of a loner which, given that bullies usually have henchmen, was a nice touch although an exploration into why he was who he was could have made the story more tragic. The ending of this story - and the whole novel, of course - was the best as it answered a question left by the woeful ‘Pumpkin Carving’ tale and brought the book to a close, clicking the penultimate piece of the jigsaw into place. The story of Hannah, it seems, is meant to be a missing piece for discussion rather than conclusion.
There’s nothing wrong with five interlinked stories and, to give the author credit, they do link fairly well and at unexpected tangents. The big problem is the claim that there is a hidden sixth story woven into the others, the story of the book’s title character. I would think that ‘woven’ is the wrong word and would suggest ‘shoe-horned’ as an alternative as the appearances of Hannah and her mother, Julie, feel tagged on, their presence never feeling natural. Hannah, in fact, makes only one venture into the prose, in ‘Finding God’, but I never did feel that her young mother doing a few jobs (supermarket, stripping, babysitting) was enough to show that her life, as the blurb claims, was a sad one. If the author knew in his mind that Hannah’s was a sad life then it didn’t transpire on the page. Of course, in fiction it’s okay to leave questions unanswered, like Michel Faber regularly does, but with ‘Palindrome Hannah’ I didn’t feel that the author could bring it all together so that I could put down the book pleased to have something to think about. It would, I believe, have been better to have five interwoven stories without the nuisance that is Hannah and her mother.
While the stories told in ‘Palindrome Hannah’ may not be new it is not so much what is told that let’s the book down but how they are told. I don’t mean the interlinking tales – which is a nice treatment – but I refer to the overall quality of the prose. I never found any of the character’s to be believable and this was, in part, due to their dialogue which seemed strained and failed to excite coupled with the author telling the reader more about them than he should have. And, to top it all off, the book is rife with spelling mistakes and punctuated by the repetition of statements which makes comments in the ‘from the author’ section at the end of the novel where he thanks people for “exhausting editing” and “meticulous proofreading” worth a chuckle.
Bailey seems to be a fan of word games and ‘Palindrome Hannah’ is privy to a few: doctors, in ‘Reflections’, can have their names reversed to hint at their particular discipline; each story is prefixed by a palindrome; the characters are fond of puns. The latter would have been acceptable if left alone but the author takes time out from the narrative to highlight each one.
It is easy to see why Bailey received the rejection slips he refers to in the ‘from the author’ section as ‘Palindrome Hannah’ suffers from a number of things which Bailey would be best to iron out of his work if he is to become a new voice in horror. He lingers over irrelevant details too much, perhaps for authenticity, but when it doesn’t affect the story how someone drives then it’s not necessary to catalogue every action taken to drive the car. A professional proof-reader wouldn’t go amiss so as to capture spelling and factual errors rather than trusting the task to – what I can only presume – are friends and relatives. The final thing would be to quit the cheesy posturing – reminiscent of Garth Marenghi – such as “to all of you on the other side of this written mirror – my reflective readers – for surviving my horrific tales”. Yes, Stephen King does it but he’s a tired old voice. Remember?
Overall, I wasn’t enamoured by ‘Palindrome Hannah’. It’s a novel with a nice idea and satisfactory construction but it’s ultimately let down by inexperienced storytelling. I should hope the author improves with his next novel and collection of short stories alluded to on the back cover, even though I doubt I shall be reading them, but I wonder if ‘Palindrome Hannah’ - without the title character and with neater prose – could have made more of a splash with agents and publishers rather than a bump in the night.