Sunday, May 26, 2013

Book Review: "The Morels" by Christopher Hacker

What is art, and how far should you go to pursue it? Are there lines that shouldn't be crossed, people who shouldn't be sacrificed, or does art supersede everything else?

These are a few of the questions addressed in Christopher Hacker's intriguing, somewhat frustrating, and slightly disturbing new novel, The Morels. Arthur Morel is a writer whose first novel was published to some acclaim, but in his everyday life, he is struggling as an adjunct college professor. Socially awkward and idiosyncratic, Arthur is married to beautiful pastry chef Penelope, and together they are raising their inquisitive and creative 11-year-old son, Will.

Arthur's second novel follows characters named Arthur, Penny, and Will, seemingly a barely fictionalized account of their lives and their struggles. But one incident in the book, involving "Arthur" and an eight-year-old "Will," so pushes the boundaries that people—Penelope and her family included—are no longer sure if this was something Arthur dreamed up or if was something that really happened. And that nagging question eats away at Arthur's relationships with his wife and son, as well as society in general. But more frustratingly, Arthur's rationale for writing this scene and his refusal to recant or apologize for it threatens to tear his marriage—and his life—apart.

The Morels is narrated by Chris, an old classmate of Arthur's who now works as a sometime filmmaker and an usher at a movie theater, who becomes reacquainted with Arthur by chance. And as he spends more time with his old classmate, Chris realizes that Arthur has never outgrown his penchant for the dramatic or his frustrating reverence for art. But Chris also envies the stability that he sees Arthur taking for granted—the beautiful wife, the loving son, the career.

As events unfold in Arthur's life following the release of his second book, Chris and his colleagues decide to produce a documentary about Arthur. And in the process they learn more about his life than they ever imagined, and how everything that occurred around him as a child led him on the path he now follows, and toward the perception that art is nobler than anything else.

This book was, for the most part, tremendously compelling, although it made me uncomfortable from time to time. I found Arthur's embrace and defense of artistic excellence, and his behavior throughout the book as shocking, frustrating, and perhaps somewhat unbelievable, but I couldn't pull myself away from finding out how the book—and Arthur's story—would resolve itself. While I felt as if Christopher Hacker veered a little off course occasionally, especially when the story spent too much time on the relationship of Arthur's parents, he definitely had some twists up his sleeve that I found really intriguing, some that made me wonder exactly what I had been reading.

The Morels is a book that somewhat defies explanation. And while it may make you uncomfortable, it definitely will make you think, and intrigue you as it pushes you beyond your comfort zone with its plot and the questions it raises.

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