Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Review 022008

"The Soul Thief," by Charles Baxter

The risk an author takes when entwining film references into a novel is that the the book could become overshadowed by them and take away from the story and its characters. The novel won't be about the world the author is creating, but about the movies in that world. Charles Baxter took a bigger risk. He did more than reference the films of Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli, Baxter also quoted without attribution the script from "Psycho" by Joseph Stefano, an act the novelist acknowledges in a note at the end of the novel.

At no point in the novel, though, does Baxter's referencing steal from his story. In fact, Baxter's use of film references makes sense in the scheme of this novel, which is partly about people acting as others by appropriating someone's life story. "The Soul Thief" is split into two halves. The first is about Nathan Mason's time as a graduate student in Buffalo, New York. There he meets two girls, Theresa and Jamie, who he becomes romantically attached to; also Mason meets Jeremy Coolberg, a character whose purpose "'is to acquire everyone's inner life.'"

And that's what Coolberg attempts to do with Nathan. He has Nathan's shirts stolen so he can wear them, he starts reciting Nathan's life story as his own, and he writes Nathan into a novel. There is an obvious tension between Coolberg and Nathan. When Coolberg recites poetry in public, Nathan rebukes him: "' It's like vomiting in front of people.'" Upon finding out Coolberg has stolen his clothing, Nathan punches him. But Coolberg doesn't disappear, he hangs on, attached to Nathan, manipulating the people and events that are near him.

While the relationship between Nathan and Coolberg is the driving force of the narrative, Baxter also spends time developing Nathan's relationships with Theresa and Jamie. At the end of the first half, Nathan has pledged his love for Jamie, a bisexual, even though she isn't committed to him.

The second part of the novel opens years after graduate school and is told in the first-person, a switch from the third in the first part. Nathan, the narrator, is now married with two sons. Coolberg has been out of his life for some time, but returns with an offer for Nathan to meet him in Los Angeles where Coolberg works as a radio program host for NPR. Nathan reluctantly agrees to the meeting, and it eventually leads to a twist that illustrates Coolberg isn't the only person putting on an act in the novel; Baxter has performed a post-modern trick that will probably upset some readers, but works based on the clues he laid throughout the novel.

To recount more of Baxter's plot from either parts of his story would take away from some of the surprises and humour found in "The Soul Thief." The novel is short and entertaining throughout, with one flaw being its reliance on melodrama at certain points. And when one character nurses another to good health through reading books out loud, the plausibility of the story seems a bit suspect.

When Nathan describes Coolberg's NPR show, where Coolberg interviews people about their life stories, Nathan comments, "My trouble was that I also found the initial parts of the interview peculiar, as if Coolberg sought to make himself invisible week after week by enabling someone else's narrative into existence." Baxter's performance is similar. He makes Nathan and Coolberg plausible people we could meet at graduate school. But while Coolberg made himself invisible, Baxter's trick makes him the opposite.


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