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The Captive Condition
by Kevin P. Keating
Pantheon, $24.00, 288pp
Published: July 2015

I honestly can't remember reading anything as relentlessly downbeat as 'The Captive Condition,' a modern gothic by Kevin P. Keating, who seems driven to destroy everything he creates. I'm just surprised that the Earth didn't open up at the end of this book to swallow the Midwestern town of Normandy Falls whole, as that would have been a fitting end to the constant torment of everyone who lives there.

Keating claims a debt to Homer, Ovid and Shakespeare in his acknowledgements, along with a variety of other major authors from Hawthorne through Lovecraft to Martin Amis, but it's Edgar Allan Poe's name which resonates most. There's a strong narrative running through this story which I believe we're supposed to follow, but I'm tempted to hear it in the voice of a man driven insane by a Jesuit prep school education. It feels like Keating wants to sound like Poe, however much he raises Gustave Flaubert in his text, and he does well with the impersonation, even if this is a novel rather than a short story.

It's hard to do Poe without madness, but young Edmund Campion certainly seems to be sane when his story begins, leaving that prep school for a college in a town so bereft of Christian virtue that Father Montague, his principal, feels the need to warn him strongly against it. He goes anyway, of course, but finds himself absorbed into the fabric of Normandy Falls as strongly as if it were a live, sentient creature permeated through with dread. Madness is inevitable, it seems, in the 'rural rust belt dystopia,' however far it happens to be from Providence or Salem or Castle Rock.

I compare Normandy Falls to some sort of cosmic being because it's surely why Keating cites Lovecraft as an influence, but his approach is very different; instead he uses the old ghost story convention that a place can absorb deeds perpetrated there in the past and radiate them out to the people living there in the present. So, whether it's Poe or Lovecraft or M R James, the result is that the town of Normandy Falls surely ranks as the primary character in 'The Captive Condition,' even if it never tells us so, and, as it is surely mad, everyone who lives in it surely follows suit.

Nominally, we follow Edmund Campion. As if to live up to Father Montague's predictions, he drops out of college, loses his girlfriend and struggles to find purpose in a dead end job. He's a lost soul, but he eventually finds a strange purpose when he discovers Emily Ryan's corpse floating in her pool. The wife of a frequently absent merchant marine, she filled his absence with an affair with the married professor next door, Martin Kingsley, who pushed Campion depressingly away from Guy de Maupassant to Gustave Flaubert. This discovery, along with romantic letters from Emily to Martin, marks the one moment in which Campion truly gives in to Normandy Falls, turns away from a frustration at constant negatives and embraces them in the form of revenge for a woman he didn't know.

'The Captive Condition' is very much a literary work, one that proclaims 'a novel' proudly on its cover as if to ward away any accusations of genre. Keating, a professor of English, knows well how to write and his flowing prose is precisely as dreary as he wants it to be. I'm sure he knows just how ruthlessly uncommercial the result is, but he doesn't care. Especially for someone writing in a Victorian gothic style, dying drunk and penniless but with a name ripe for discovery by future generations would be romantic rather than pitiful. This isn't about what happens or how, it's all about the melancholy tone through which it's described and which extends to the town of Normandy Falls itself. Authenticity is strong in this one.

While some literary critics may heap scorn upon this for no better reason than it's in their nature to do so, others may take it to their hearts as a masterful and immersive piece of writing that sticks to the reader like fog. Only time will tell. I'd guess, however, that the wider audience will pass it by, driven away by its florid and artistic language, tone of constant despair and lack of a single redeeming character to care about. Rarely have I felt so caught up in a story to which I couldn't connect in the slightest. I enjoyed this as a voyeur, driven to watch from the shadows but never wish anything different. Usually I want to slap someone, stop someone, shout at someone. Here I wanted to keep quiet and just watch everything burn.

The characters are generally grotesques, because few could survive reality. In that sense, Normandy Falls is somehow outside our own realm and subject to its own laws of nature. Yet again I find myself thinking of it as being somewhere in the land of the mad. However, somewhat like a freakshow, these grotesques invite us to watch the mad dances that pass for their lives in this town and we take up that invitation willingly.

The biggest question is how we might feel about the ending, when everything is said and done and the plot has worked its intricate way to a conclusion. I found it fair and appropriate but somehow jagged, as if turning the final page awoke me from a strange dream. Suddenly this mad town, which had caught me so thoroughly up in its madness for some days, had served its purpose and was now drifting away from me like a cloud. It felt like an old home, which was once close to me but which had been replaced in my heart by a new one. To abuse the title, 'The Captive Condition' certainly held me captive but, once I was freed, I didn't look back.

I have a feeling that 'The Captive Condition' is going to fade quickly as a story but remain with me for a long time as a set of isolated details. I'll see something or read something and be reminded ephemerally of something in Normandy Falls. Maybe I'll remember where that detail came from, maybe not, but it'll be there.

Now, is that a compliment? I haven't quite figured that out. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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