Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A Ladder To The Sky: Writer Behaving Very, Very Badly

Conventional wisdom is that when writers are out of ideas, they write about writers. John Boyne's new novel, A Ladder To The Sky (out today!) is about writers, but one gets the sense that this novel is FAR from a last resort. Indeed, this terrific satire is one massively entertaining, hugely hilarious 350-page wink at the whole silly idea that you can pin inspiration down to a short pithy answer to the question "Where do your ideas come from?".

Maurice Swift, our protagonist, is a writer who actually is out of ideas. Rather, he never had any in the first place. He's a decent craftsman as a writer, but his stories are boring and lead nowhere. But Maurice has a dream. He'll stop at nothing to be a famous, celebrated novelist.

Boyne's novel unfolds in several sections checking in at different parts of Maurice's life. We first meet him in his early 20s using his looks and charm to seduce older writers, like aging German novelist Erich Ackermann, who has just seen his dying literary star resurrected when his sixth novel wins "The Prize." Through Ackermann, he meets (and seduces?) a gauche American writer named Dash Hardy who basically uses controversy to sell books. He proudly proclaims to whoever will listen that he doesn't read women writers, for instance.

There are so many terrific little knowing nods in this novel to important issues of the day in the reading and writing life. As another example, Maurice at one points gets in an argument about whether it's important to always finish novels, or okay not to finish books that don't immediately grab your attention. There's even an interlude — and my favorite part of the novel — when Maurice and Hardy visit Gore Vidal and his partner in their beachside house on the Italian Amalfi coast. Maurice tries to seduce Gore, seeing him as the ultimate literary prize, and possibly a potential blackmail candidate.

The thing about Maurice is that he is so ambitious (the title comes from the nugget of wisdom, paraphrased "those who build a ladder to the sky have a long way to fall"), he only uses sex or any other physical pleasure for personal gain. The only pleasure he derives from these things is that they furthers his ambitions. And there is nothing Maurice won't do to keep his literary fame alive. You'll be shocked at the lengths he'll go to. Maurice is not a character you'll soon forget. He is pure, unadulterated evil. But wow, is he fun to read about. I don't know if "dark satire" is a thing, but if not, it is now. 

I loved this book just as much as I loved Boyne's previous novel, The Heart's Invisible Furies, which was my hands-down favorite of last. A Ladder To The Sky is a VERY different novel, but no less entertaining. I can't recommend this more highly.

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