Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Babysitter by Andrew Coburn

You can't "spoil" something that's already rotten. That being said, this post contains some specific plot information about the novel discussed. 

For about twenty pages or so I thought I was really going to enjoy Andrew Coburn’s novel The Babysitter. It has the feel of a literary novel, something like Tom Perrotta or Jonathan Franzen or Bret Easton Ellis might write. Then it turns from artful to artsy—and I started to realize I'd been Coburned.

John and Merle Wright come home one Friday night to discover their babysitter, Paula Aherne, horribly murdered and their sixteen month-old daughter, Marcie, missing. The Wrights are more dazed than panicked, and as the book progresses they become downright laid-back.

The investigation is headed by federal agents Cooger and Spence, who spend most of their time playing manipulative games for their own unscrupulous ends. They harass and annoy one of the professors at the college where Paula was auditing classes, Professor Oliver, who has had several affairs with students. Once he kills himself they move on to harass Feoli, the proprietor of a Boston restaurant where Paula used to hang out. Feoli is apparently a made man, or something.

They also work hard to manipulate Ballardville’s Chief Tull, who spends most of the book in a daze, seemingly suffering from heartburn. He’s so useless that at one point he mows most of the Wrights’ lawn. That is a significant symbol of his impotence and Coburn doesn’t let you forget it.

The Babysitter is a bloodless, pretentious, and dull book that thinks it’s making astute observations about human nature. In fact it seems stubbornly unaware of human nature, cynically treating its characters like characters in a novel. There is the raw material for a Kafkaesque nightmare, but Coburn clearly didn’t have the passion or the interest to explore that possibility. Coburn’s style is wholly inappropriate to the story; it's so laconic that you never get a sense that anyone is actually feeling anything, least of all the Wrights, who seem inappropriately calm throughout. They’re confused and angry at times, but they’re also so mild that it feels like they’re just going through the motions out of a sense of obligation, not in a desperate search for their only child. The Wrights don’t seem to feel anything at all. As a result there’s something really off-putting, even distasteful, about the book.

I kept wondering what would have happened if, say, Gil Brewer had written this story. You’d be able to smell the desperation and fear rising from every page, like a funk. Coburn obviously has skill and talent, but his style is too self-conscious to really go for it. He's simultaneously showing off and holding back; as a result you get the impression that Coburn doesn’t care if you are in any way affected.

Or is Coburn making a point about suburban malaise? In Chapter Two one of the characters suggests that the Wrights moved to Ballardville to escape the rat race. Maybe as a result of leaving all that excitement they’ve lost the ability to feel anything—even when their baby daughter is missing. If so, Coburn should have made it more obvious. All the characters act as if they're in an emotionless stupor, even those who live within the "rat race." And the “suburbia-sure-is-soul-deadening-ain’t-it?” observation had whiskers on it when The Babysitter was first published in 1979.

It’s even unclear what, if anything, law enforcement is doing in this case beyond harassing Oliver and surveilling Feoli. Have they sent out photos of the child? Gone on TV? This is a kid that was snatched from the home of a college professor and his attractive wife in a suburb of Boston and the reporters outside their home just sort of… disappear after the first night? What?

Then, in Chapter Fifteen, Merle is approached by a strange man in a grocery store parking lot. This man knows something about Paula— he clearly has some connection to her past. He reveals Paula’s real first name and Merle starts crying. Then this happens:

He jammed something into her hand, and she immediately began spilling things. “Oh, my God!” she said and dropped everything except what he had thrust upon her, a torn color snapshot held together by transparent tape, the face of a child of seven or so, with the eye and smile of Paula Aherne. She tripped over groceries. “Where’s my baby,” she said, trying to grab him and grabbing nothing. He was gone.

She heard the sound of a car taking its time starting and somehow knew it was his car, but she couldn’t determine where it was. Holding the snapshot in both hands, she wandered from one car to another and found hers but not his.

That is pure literary artifice that bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to reality. It’s a contrivance designed to show off authorial style, not to convey the reactions of a real human being whose child is missing and might be dead but might actually be alive and this person might have information that could lead her to her child and she goes into a dreamy literary fog and suddenly the man just disappears and his car struggles to start (this character pointedly has car trouble throughout the book) and she lets this man float off to his car and start it and she’s just lost in a daze, not even the presence of someone who might have information about her child can bring her out of her pretentious fog and focus her for a minute in which she could actually locate this man.

Then, at the end of Chapter Seventeen, the Wrights and Chief Tull learn that the man in the scene above has died in a car accident. They know who he is and where he lives, and they know he has a wife. With time of the essence, their baby daughter still missing, you might think that the Wrights would immediately travel to the town where the man had lived and the wife still lives. But, no. They don’t. They’re so casual, so callous, so lacking in any interest in actually finding their daughter that, well, this passage happens:

“When do we leave for Gardner?” she asked.

The chief sighed. “We ought to give the woman a chance to bury him first.”

“When will that be?” Wright asked.

The chief propped a hand on the table. “I’ll find out,” he said. “Then we’ll all go.”

Yeah, no rush. Our child is missing, there’s a chance she’s still alive but, hey, what the hell, let’s wait for this jerk’s funeral before we go try to find out what the wife knows.

Chief Tull’s cutting of the Wrights’ lawn was pointless. But then, so is this book.

It was here that I finally gave up. It takes a lot for me to stop reading a book three-quarters of the way through, but if the Wrights don’t care about finding their daughter, why should I care what happens? I did read the final chapter and the book ends mid-sentence, with ellipses.

That’s perfect for this vague, pretentious, artificial, half-hearted, and infuriating novel…

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