A Melancholy Werewolf’s Existential Howl
By JUSTIN CRONIN
The New York Times
July 15, 2011
No longer. For now we have Jake Marlowe — the centerpiece of Glen Duncan’s playfully brainy new novel, “The Last Werewolf” — a 200-year-old, Kant-reading, chain-smoking aesthete whom one could easily imagine curling up with a bottle of single-malt Scotch and a copy of The New York Review of Books. He is prone to mordant observation, as in: “The point of civilization is so that one can check in to a quality hotel.”
He also happens to eat people, one for every full moon.
The challenge for any writer working within an established genre, especially a genre with a reputation for high camp, is to bring something new to the table while adhering to tradition. On both points, Duncan, the author of seven previous novels, scores high marks. No Gothic convention is left unacknowledged. Here are the silver bullets. Here is the forest’s “massy green consciousness” and the thrill of the moonlit hunt. Here are the heirs of Van Helsing, tirelessly pursuing their prey to the ends of the earth. (Here too is a great deal of heroically athletic sex — a werewolf should deliver nothing less — reminding the reader that the transports of the body aren’t all bad.)
None of which would carry the day were it not for Marlowe himself. Some characters are destined for labor, others management. Not every fictional creation is up to the demands of narration, but Marlowe proves himself more than capable, delivering his lengthy confession — the novel is, ostensibly, a diary — with the pounding energy of water shot from a fire hose. Two centuries of undead living have endowed him with a vast pile of cultural capital and a linguistic style that swings gleefully between the wisecracking cynicism of his noir namesake and the syntactical curlicues of Humbert Humbert. Like Nabokov’s dandified pedophile, Marlowe imparts the contents of his inner life and his impressions of the world around him in a series of succulent verbal morsels. A friend’s gold tooth is a “dental anachronism”; the topography of Wales is a “stack of vowel-starved hills: Bwlch Mawr; Gyrn Ddu; Yr Eifl.” Even at the novel’s most bluntly biological, its register scrapes the ceiling. Not a few readers will find themselves scrambling to the dictionary to look up words only vaguely recalled from SAT prep courses. (I did.) Our natural antipathy for a serial cannibal notwithstanding, it’s hard not to extend some readerly warmth to a narrator who’s so darned fun to listen to.
Apart from the ethical head-scratcher of devouring a dozen human beings a year — “There’s always someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s wife, someone’s son. This is the problem with killing and eating people” — Marlowe’s quandary boils down to a bad case of existential exhaustion. The tale begins in well-fed languor. “Two nights ago I’d eaten a 43-year-old hedge fund specialist,” Marlowe offers with trademark insouciance. “I’ve been in a phase of taking the ones no one wants.” Sated with the kill, Marlowe receives the bad news of the title’s promise from his human minder, Harley, a silver-haired, old-world gentleman of the sort found only in fiction (think Alfred to Marlowe’s Batman). “They killed the Berliner two nights ago,” Harley gravely intones — “they” being a shadowy group known as the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena (Wocop for short).
Despite his friend’s insistence that he go into hiding, Marlowe has other plans. Two centuries of traipsing the earth in search of unlucky hikers to devour has sunk him into a bona fide midlife crisis. He is weary of the “inestimable drag of Being a Werewolf” and its “endless logistics.” “I don’t have what it takes,” he tells us. “I still have feelings but I’m sick of having them. Which is another feeling I’m sick of having. . . . I just don’t want any more life.”
He elects instead to let the end come, but the path to one of Wocop’s silver bullets soon takes a number of complicating turns. “Life,” Marlowe trenchantly reminds us, “like the boring drunk at the office party, keeps seeking you out.” When Marlowe discovers that one of Wocop’s henchmen has gotten to Harley and subjected him to unspeakable acts, he goes on the lam, if only to take some of the bad guys with him when he exits the stage.
In due course he discovers that Wocop is not his only pursuer. Duncan’s off-kilter world comprises paranormal phenomena of every sort, and a virus carried in Marlowe’s blood that may possess the power to bestow upon vampires (yes, them) the ability to move in daylight has the bloodsuckers on his trail. Vampires are presented as a kind of rival gang, or a competing corporate entity fighting for market share; each side hates the other precisely because they’re so alike (though vampires dress like aging hipsters). Marlowe also learns that a splinter group within Wocop, facing a midlife crisis of its own, is waging a coup within its ranks to restock the world’s supply of werewolves.
It all plays out in splendid good fun, bouncing from one James Bondian locale to another, bon mot to bon mot, the text saturated with literary and cultural references from Joseph Conrad to Susan Sontag, often more than one per page. (The novel’s most enjoyable meta-moment comes when Marlowe, for reasons that cannot be revealed here, quotes the first few sentences of “Lolita.”) Duncan skillfully manages to keep all of this spinning while maintaining our suspension of disbelief. When Marlowe discovers a reason to go on living — and, presumably, eating people like you and me — it’s weirdly impossible not to root for him.
Are there problems? The language occasionally overheats, and Duncan escorts us to the buffet table to heap our plates a few too many times. A person can eat only so many éclairs, no matter how good; I sometimes felt as overstuffed as Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote, contemplating the final mint. Likewise, the story’s nominal assertion that we are in fact reading Marlowe’s journal doesn’t wash, and Duncan seems to know it. Rarely does this largely unnecessary conceit peek above the book’s novelistic surface, and then only as a matter of transparent convenience. The story grows tangled in a what-the-heck way (if plot is good, more plot is better), a Gordian knot of villainy Duncan works gamely to unravel, though by the end I found myself flipping backward through the pages to recall which bad guy was which.
Can the book be overly, you know, frank? That depends on who you are. Is the whole thing just a little too italicized? Yes.
But these minor hiccups come to feel endemic to Duncan’s glorious, chatty project and the morally and physically ambiguous character he’s created. I can’t help thinking that wry, world-weary Jake Marlowe would make a fabulous dinner companion. Just not during a full moon.
Justin Cronin’s novel “The Passage” is now available in paperback.
The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan – review
One can take an awful lot of sex and violence if it's artfully done
By Steven Poole
Saturday 30 April 2011
So goes the lore, at least, in Glen Duncan's gorily ludic romp. The vampires actually have only walk-on (or fly-on) parts; the hero is a werewolf, Jake Marlowe, whom we first meet in modern-day London as he learns that he is the only one left. Now the monster-hunters (the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) are after him.
Marlowe is a witty and jaded commentator on our mores and his own condition – "Two nights ago I'd eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fund specialist. I've been in a phase of taking the ones no one wants" – and an inveterate raconteur. (No coincidence that he shares a family name with Joseph Conrad's useful storyteller in Heart of Darkness and other tales.) We learn his story (and his backstory, a colourful 19th-century costume tragedy) by means of journal entries composed in the downtime between slabs of action and fornication. This device preserves suspense, as we have no assurance that the story of the wolfhunt, as Marlowe is pursued (and pursues something else) through Wales, London, New York, Paris, Greece, California and elsewhere, is being told from the safe hindsight of a happy ending.
In this respect, The Last Werewolf is like an updated version of Dracula, only for werewolves, and as rewritten by Bret Easton Ellis. As though in reproof of the plague of twee paranormal romances aimed at "young adults", Duncan effectively says: here we go, this is a story about monsters, so let's see how much sex and violence you can take.
The answer is an awful lot, when it's done this artfully. Scenes of ripping and eating contain beautifully tangential, slowed-down observations: "the white leather couch [was] smeared red where his hand went hurriedly back and forth, as if waving or trying to erase something". Fight scenes have been carefully choreographed and blocked; and sex (both human and "wulf") is portrayed with an aptly animalistic candour.
Quieter passages, meanwhile, display their own glints of beauty ("the snow's recording-studio hush"; after rain "the air had a rinsed optimism") and inventive physiological metaphor ("The Curse played preview blasts of free jazz in my blood"). Even the most minor characters furnish occasions for joyous casting: there is a comedy Frenchman who comes good, rather thrillingly. Marlowe, of course, is particularly attuned to smells, in which context to say this book is rank is a compliment. (A female vampire called Mia is "a strikingly beautiful woman who smelled like a vat of pigshit and rotten meat".) The prose's yoking of the concrete quotidian to the supernatural is perfectly summed up as Marlowe watches some vampires driving off in a minivan: "the people-carrier, carrying its immortal people".
The novel is complex with literary allusion, not only to Conrad but to Shakespeare, Eliot and Nabokov. As though over-defensive about its pulp material, however, it also displays a curious amount of genre anxiety. Marlowe often talks about what would happen next in a film ("In Buffy there'd be . . .", "If this was Hollywood . . ."), or in a novel. (Another character announces amusingly: "I can feel it, a sort of narrative coercion in the ether.") Usually Marlowe's point is that reality is not like that; and so Duncan arguably might have resisted giving in to one particular clichéd genre trope, that of the defeated villain who is not quite dead after all.
Despite what can be read as these internal dips of confidence, the story is exciting, often very funny (a chapter begins: "Reader, I ate him"), and surprisingly affecting. But what does it all mean? The werewolf is pessimistically an allegory of the monster within all humans, and also, particularly in this novel, optimistically of the conjoining in ordinary people of love (human) with sex (beast). Throughout the novel there are flashes of casual satire, building up to a sense that we moderns are too psychologically and aesthetically anaesthetised even to deserve an occult reality. Marlowe, lying in a forest and listening to the sounds of insects and water, says: "The world [. . .] is oozing, teeming, crawling with miracles. And we live in the opaque plastic bubble of television and booze." In its own blood-crazed and sex-dazed way, The Last Werewolf makes the case for literature.