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Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. Some, like the one Rem Gunnersen makes when he kidnaps a customer’s dog in a wrongheaded act of revenge, are small—relatively speaking. Others, like the United States’ military involvement in Iraq, are huge; they’re global in scope. Richard House’s novel The Kills is a chronicle of such mistakes and resultant disasters. What we learn quickly enough is that no matter what happens, no matter how enormous or egregious a mistake might be, there is always someone ready to turn what’s happened into an advantage. And all too often that person’s name is Paul Geezler. The Kills is a couple inches thick and it recalls Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Clocking in at over a thousand pages, the novel contains four separate narratives—Sutler, The Massive, The Kill, and The Hit—that really only work when understood as parts of a whole. Each narrative contains its fair share of mistakes, disasters, and deaths: “a multitude of disconnected elements” that never fully cohere. The atmosphere is one of confusion, manipulation, and deceit, feelings we come to experience alongside the characters. “Under this simple fact,” House writes, “lay the itch of another story.” Under each supposed truth is another possibility, which debunks the accepted version of events. This brutal world has been founded on half-truths, false promises, and Geezler’s masterfully organized lies.
The Kills is not a poetic thriller or a political thriller. It’s a business thriller about how America operates abroad. The protagonists are mostly gullible men gunning after money, because money means freedom, because “money would turn around a life that otherwise had no direction but forward and down.” And HOSCO, a corporation contracted by the US government to support the rebuilding of Iraq, is hiring. So what do you do with a mistake the size of Iraq?
Camp Liberty, aka Camp Crapper, is the centripetal location. It’s a possible site for the Massive, a grand project that exists only on paper, and is the current site of five burn pits where waste—every variety imaginable: human, mechanical, biomedical—is incinerated with jet fuel, creating smoke that changes “from black to brown to yellow.” That this smoke is highly toxic is of little concern to HOSCO, even though it ends up poisoning their employees. As readers, we see the larger questions posed by these burn pits roaring with shit, blood, and damaged equipment. How much filth has the war in Iraq produced? What does it cost to dispose of a mistake so huge?
Money drives each narrative. In the opening pages, a man working for HOSCO under the nom de guerre “Stephen Sutler” is promised two hundred thousand dollars if he flees Camp Liberty. In The Massive, Rem Gunnersen is offered a bonus of fifty thousand if he hustles off to Iraq. Behind the money is Paul Geezler, HOSCO’s Advisor to the Division Chief in Europe—a title that is a euphemism for “villain.” Later on, once the promised money has vanished in clouds of yellow smoke, we follow the many threads of Operation Lazarus, a transnational mission designed to find the real “Stephen Sutler.” It’s an epistemological quest in a world where there is ultimately “only unknowing.”
The weight of influence is heavy here. The sections cribbed right from Bolaño—such as the death catalogue that opens The Massive or the Mannfuktionprojekt in The Hit—are pale facsimiles because House doesn’t write with Bolaño’s dark poetic flair. The third narrative The Kill, which is a Bolaño-inspired intertextual study about a novel also called The Kill, becomes increasingly erratic and then collapses about two-thirds of the way through. When House’s narratives stray too far from action and the violent intrigue of money, the stories wither. This is true of the domestic scenes especially. In The Massive, while Rem Gunnersen is off in Iraq dealing with the burn pits, his wife Cathy is back at home. She’s worried and pregnant. But we never truly become invested in her struggles, which if anything are worse than her husband’s.
House writes in a fluid, straightforward manner. He’s able to fit great deals of information into his paragraphs, which is necessary given the complexities of these narratives. But there’s a consistent lack of linguistic excitement. His dialogue rarely snaps—albeit for the line when an operative is killed by a train and someone wonders if he “[a]sked a Russian for directions.” When describing upheaval or its aftermath, House is skilled at conveying both bafflement and urgency, particularly as they’re understood by the Western bureaucrats who are theoretically responsible for Iraq. The novel’s primary failing is that House writes in this strictly straightforward style for all 1,003 pages.
Undeniably, The Kills is an ambitious project. For this alone it deserves it deserves our respect. But delving deeper into the novel, dullness overtakes any possible interest we may have in the action or characters thanks to the reams of blunt exposition. Too many paragraphs begin with topic sentences—such as: “Rike receives a call from Isa as she returns to the apartment.”—after which House provides additional expository details. We’re constantly told what characters are doing (i.e. “He looked … / She heard …”), instead of getting caught up in the moment of experience with them. We never occupy the characters’ hearts or minds. No matter where we are or who we’re following, the lives of the characters feel synthetic and contrived, which is unfortunate given the scope of House’s ambitions.
By Richard House
Hardcover,9781250052438, 1024 pp.