FIRST-TIME NOVELIST Andy Brownâe(TM)s The Mole Chronicles relates the story of a sibling relationship in a sequence of discrete recollections and events that suggest the dermatological eruptions the book is named for. The relationship is the line that connects these dots, and traces its progress as the sister and brother grow to adulthood in an unsafe world.
Genetically predisposed toward malignant moles, the unnamed narrator and his sister, Lesley, are warned by their dermatologist to be cautious âe" of the sun, of changing parameters âe" and the first half of the novel plots the narratorâe(TM)s vigilant effort to live lead a cautious life, while witnessing and recounting myriad events that warn of the dangers involved in living: a deck collapses; an exposed nail pierces a foot; the siblings lose their mother in a car accident. The narrator recalls a golden summer afternoon he spent in the sun as a child, realizing only in retrospect that he had been risking his very life. Even the dermatologist is a threat âe" a child molester.
The sun and the marks it records on the narratorâe(TM)s skin are the emblems of this dangerous world (he reminds, âeoemy moles are only small brown metaphors,âe and so they are. You are not safe, is the message of the moles, rendering him, literally, a marked man). He can no more avoid danger than one can avoid the sun: in a dream, he tears his skin off, âeoejust to be safe.âe And because it is not possible to be safe in the world, the two characters, particularly the protagonist, retreat from it.
The turning point comes when an absurdist band of dermatologist eco-terrorists (DAGWOOD: Dermatologists Against Global Warming and Oncologists Opposing Dams) blackmail the narrator into participating in their plot to kidnap the Chinese Ambassador from the Vancouver Consulate. The narrator acquiesces both out of fear and, too, out of his increasing unease with his fears: this is his opportunity to revolt against fear with a triumph of action over accident. This odd drama comes to a literal collision with the coinciding plotline of his now estranged sisterâe(TM)s involvement with a billboard company and a subversive graffitist, and their strange crimes return the siblings to each otherâe(TM)s lives.
The book is, particularly for a first novel, rather wonderfully modest. While indulgent with subtle, personal moments, Brown handles each with a light touch, using simple language that can be elegant in its restraint. The almost peculiarly quiet narrative makes the turn of events in the latter part of the book, as both protagonists find themselves swept into bizarre criminal acts, surprising and delicious.
The last quarter of the book is the most successful, developing a lovely and eccentric forward momentum, particularly with Lesleyâe(TM)s story. The text becomes richer, and the simplicity of tone and language nicely counterpoints the dramatic narrative and imagery, as when Lesley is surrounded by a murder of crows:
The crows were thick in the sky, like blackflies swarming a helpless animal deep in the woods. [. . .] The parking lot was thick with them, the trees were thick with them, the edges of the glass buildings were thick with them, the sky was thick with them. The crows were a congress of black around her, as if every crow in the city met here daily to discuss crow policy. [. . .] For the moment she was stranded on a blue-black sea.
Brown manages his use of quiet, episodic narrative so well that its quietude and episodic structure can almost be faulted. An occasional moment of writerly adolescence âe" of reaching for something a little too large to be firmly grasped âe" begins to seem desirable. The novel would be served well by an author willing to take the kind of risk his protagonist resists; with the shift in pace and plot that occurs toward the end of the book, Brown achieves this, but the book would be all the finer for having taken these risks sooner, farther and deeper.
The fragmented moments of the two intersecting lives that Brown recounts are slight, but coherent and resonant âe" while these dots could have been connected into a more sustained narrative and a still stronger and more ambitious novel, the sum is a work of sensitivity and worth. A quiet call to action in a fear-filled world.âe"Rebecca Silver Slayter
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