Tara Cheesman

Barrelhouse Reviews: The Ticking Heart by Andrew Kaufman

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.

Barrelhouse Reviews: Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes

Review by Tara Cheesman


Title: Pretty Things
Author: Virginie Despentes
Translator: Emma Ramadan
Publisher: Feminist Press (New York, 2018)
ISBN: 978 1 936932 27 6

Before we start, let’s get something straight: Virginie Despentes doesn’t give a shit what you think. She doesn’t care about your sexual hang-ups, trigger warnings, brands of feminism, gender constructs, or value systems. She’s a punk rock post-porn French feminist who gets her books blurbed by Annie Sprinkle. MollyCrabapple draws her covers. Her first novel, a rape-revenge fantasy story she wrote in her early twenties, is called Baise-Moi (Fuck Me).

Pretty Things is about twin sisters, Claudine and Pauline. Claudine moved to Paris to become famous. When we first meet her, she’s been at it for years without any success. She’s blond and beautiful and men love her.

As far as bitches went, she blew everyone else away. Her white jeans and tight blouse like a second skin, accepting his invitation to have a drink. What did she want from him, with her big tits, her flat stomach, her curved hips, and why? She had a mesmerizing ass, and she knew exactly which pants to put it in.

That’s her best friend, Nicolas, describing her. The first thing we learn about Nicolas is that his “eyes are very blue, he always looks like he’s laughing, about to do something mischievous.” The first thing he says is, “Fuck it’s nice out.” While we spend a lot of time with Nicolas and get to know him quite well as the story progresses, that’s as deep as he will ever get.

Claudine has no marketable skills or talents. Her only commodity is her body, which she uses like currency. “That was the fundamental difference between Claudine and the world. Like everyone else, she was calculated, egotistical, shit-talking, petty, jealous, a fraud, a liar. But unlike everyone else, she owned it—without cynicism, with a disarming nature that made her irreproachable.” Eventually, using her body gets Claudine a shot at a record deal. She convinces Pauline to record a demo and then come to Paris and switch places with her, because, unlike Claudine, Pauline can sing. Although the sisters detest one another, having spent their childhood competing for the affection and attention of their narcissistic father, Pauline agrees. Her boyfriend is in jail, and when he gets out, she wants them to go away together, somewhere tropical. For that to happen she needs money.

A straight line connects Despentes’ novels and her non-fiction. King Kong Theory, a book that’s part memoir and part feminist theory, includes an essay titled “Sleeping with the Enemy” which takes a hard and controversial stance on female prostitution. Despentes is very open about having worked as an occasional prostitute and explains that she doesn’t “make a cut-and-dried distinction between prostitution and legal, waged work, between prostitution and female seduction, between paid and exchanged sex, between what I lived then and what I saw in the years that followed.” Claudine doesn’t make a distinction either. Pauline does, until she becomes Claudine.

After Claudine kills herself, which happens fairly early on, Pauline fully assumes her identity. When we first meet Pauline she is, in Claudine’s words, “just grunge.” She doesn’t shave her legs, has no interest in her appearance, and has no respect for women who do. But she wants that album advance, so she spends weeks in her sister’s apartment practicing being Claudine, learning about her life and spending time with Nicolas (who grudgingly helps her, despite taking momentary offense at the ease with which Pauline accepts and moves past her sister’s death). When she emerges, she’s completely transformed.

Despentes believes that women can right the balance of power by taking ownership of their bodies and sexuality. She re-purposes her own experiences playing “the femininity game” for Pauline. The merging of these two emotionally damaged sisters into one confident individual is arguably a metaphor for the author’s own journey. In “Sleeping with the Enemy,” Despentes remembers “how perplexed I was, those first few months, when I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window. It’s true that it wasn’t me anymore, that tall slut with heel-lengthened legs.” When Pauline goes out as Claudine for the first time, she too sees herself in a shop window. She observes “her own appearance. Between fright and amusement. She looks like other girls, not herself.” Pauline’s also unnerved by the effect she now has on men.

First she feels anger for Claudine: how could she reduce herself to being treated like this, flaunting herself and risking –

Then her anger shifts: Why can’t she just be left in peace?

As Claudine, Pauline is less Anna Nicole Smith and more Courtney Love. She sinks deeper and deeper into her sister’s world and, in the process, relinquishes pieces of her own personality to make space for Claudine’s. She is able to better understand the life her sister chose and is forced to face some hard truths about her own. Pauline eventually begins to respect who her sister was, something she never did while Claudine was alive. The cosmetics, clothes, and relationships Claudine bequeaths her become the tools which allow Pauline to attain her own, very specific, version of happily ever after.

Lots of sex, violence, and drugs keep what is essentially a third-wave feminist fable disguised as a story about sisters, forgiveness, and acceptance from spiraling into saccharine sentimentality. Despentes is steeped in Generation X youth culture. Pretty Things embraces the transgressive ethos of films like Reality Bites, Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia, and Trainspotting. Her characters are unapologetically shallow, self-absorbed, and amoral. Her writing, translated by the predictably brilliant Emma Ramadan, channels all the anger, mania and frenetic consumerism of the 1990s.

But for all its underlying messages and psychology, Claudine/Pauline’s story is an obscene, wild, entertaining ride, filled with characters oblivious of the precipice they’re sitting on. In 1999, France will adopt the Euro. Two years later, in New York City, the towers will fall. Fast forward: a series of coordinated terrorist attacks will be carried out in Paris, killing one hundred and thirty people. Global warming. Charlie Hebdo. Yellow jackets. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the time before the world caught fire. Or to wonder: what is Claudine doing right now?

Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member, and 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.