Review by Tara Cheesman
Publisher: Coach House Books (Ontario, 2019)
ISBN: 978 1 55245 389 6
Andrew Kaufman knows his way around a metaphor. Two of his previous novels, All My Friends Are Superheroes and The Waterproof Bible, successfully use metaphors to explore and make sense of their main characters’ relationships. The Ticking Heart plays with the same themes, this time utilizing a noir-ish setting eerily reminiscent of Toontown in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
In our world, Charlie is a middle-aged divorcee hoping to reconcile with his ex and repair (what he, at least, perceives to be) their broken family unit. In Metaphoria, a city where reality is shaped by metaphors, Charlie is a Private Investigator at the Epiphany Detective Agency. A client hires him to locate her husband’s missing heart. To keep things interesting, she’s replaced Charlie’s heart with a bomb and given him twenty-four hours to get the job done before the bomb explodes.
Shirley pressed a red button and the bomb started ticking. She pushed the bomb through the incision in Charlie’s chest. It sat right where Charlie’s heart should have been. Taking a needle and a spool of fishing line from her purse, Shirley began stitching up Charlie’s incision. She worked carefully. Her fingers made small, precise movements. She was trying to leave as small a scar as possible. It saddened Shirley to know that no matter how hard she tried or how carefully she worked, there would be a scar.
Which, as we all know, is the way these things work.
As Charlie scrambles to solve his first (and possibly last) case, he must navigate an obstacle course of his romantic past. Every woman he’s ever been involved with makes a cameo appearance, more often than not while caught up in their own Metaphoria scenarios. The only way to escape and return to our world is to “poof!,” the novel’s shorthand for the moment of epiphany which breaks whatever unhealthy relationship cycle one is caught in. These epiphanies are mostly pedestrian, on the level of daily affirmations or advice from Dr. Phil. And yet, Kaufman treats them with a little-boy earnestness that’s hard to resist.
If you haven’t figured it out yet: Metaphoria is the place people go to work out their relationship issues.
Whereas Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, loosely based on a novel by Gary K. Wolf which also relies on metaphor, successfully uses the stylized detective noir genre to bridge the gap between live-action and animated characters, and as a means of merging reality and fantasy into a believable facsimile of the former, Charlie appearing in Metaphoria in the role of Private Investigator is entirely random. Kaufman’s plot might have gained some much-needed cohesion if the author had leaned more heavily into the whole P.I. conceit. As it is, Charlie could have any profession in Metaphoria and the events and circumstances he finds himself a part of would have played out exactly the same.
Because, as the reader quickly comes to understand, Kaufman isn’t all that interested in Metaphoria, or in the hard-boiled detective story he hasn’t quite set there. Kaufman cares about Charlie, his 40-something hero in existential crisis, and a prime example of the loveable, narcissistic man-child Nick Hornby excels at convincing readers is attractive. But while Hornby realizes his characters are vaguely ridiculous, Kaufman is entirely sympathetic to and invested in Charlie and his woes. It makes for interesting tension – a book that is contrived on several levels contrasted with the uncomfortably raw emotions of adult angst.
There’s a lot of disappointment on display in Metaphoria. Even more self-pity.
… the taxi hung left onto a street that was a downward spiral.
The downward spiral street continued for some time. Just when Charlie lost hope that it would ever end, it did. They drove into a dark tunnel. Charlie turned on his lights. The tunnel also seemed to go on forever and, also at the very moment that Charlie started to believe it would never end, he drove out of the tunnel and into bright afternoon sunlight. Blinking and confused, he continued following the taxi.
Kaufman’s greatest strength has always been his playfulness, and The Ticking Heart flexes that strength. He relies extensively on dialogue, which helps ground a story that’s a bit all over the place otherwise. There’s lots of repetition of phrases, situations and plot devices. The opening, in which a mysterious man in a purple hat sets Charlie on his journey, has the feel of a children’s fable, fairy tale, or beloved 1971 film starring Gene Wilder.
Kaufman employs visual devices and textual strategies as well. Charlie’s actual heart, kept in a velvet bag until it can be sewn back into his chest after the bomb is removed, gets kicked around a lot. Both literally and figuratively. And when that happens, the letters “h-e-a-r-t” arc across the page in a visual representation of the heart in flight. When a character poofs!, the word poof! is isolated in the center of an otherwise blank page. A cloud of purple smoke and the smell of cedar signals to the reader that a character has moved between worlds. One half of a conversation is written in wingdings (the font), which you can decode if you’re interested enough to do an internet search. A similar thing happens when Charlie’s heart is interrogated (some metaphors aren’t particularly subtle), and a form of Morse code is used to represent how the beats translate into a language. There’s a convenient key at the end of the book to help sort that out.
While it’ll never be my favorite of Kaufman’s books, The Ticking Heart has a quirky charm and weird sincerity that makes it hard to dismiss. Certain moments even had me feeling a bit sentimental, like when Charlie’s heart escapes its bag and scampers around like an adorable puppy. The idea that your anthropomorphized heart might actually love you like a loyal little dog is rather sweet. What kind of monster doesn’t like puppies?
In the end, The Ticking Heart slides companionably onto the shelf between Kaufman’s other books. Not the first you should reach for, but not the last either.
Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member & 2018-2019 Best Translated Book Award Fiction Judge. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Book Riot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus and other online publications. She received her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @booksexyreview and Instagram @taracheesman.