Much has been made of Yannick Murphy’s exclusive use of the second-person present (“You do this, you do that”) in her newest novel, This Is the Water, and rightfully so. It is a rare, adventurous formal choice, and one that, from the outset, sets the novel apart from its murder-mystery bedfellows. It is also tiring to read, despite its occasional virtues. The second-person mode of address, combined with Murphy’s penchant for reusing phrases, grants the prose a distinctly lyrical character at times: “These are the windows of the pool, covered over in mist so thick it looks purposely sprayed on, as if what were being one behind the glass were not to be seen by anyone on the outside. This is the outside. A bright New England day that is almost spring, but not quite.” This is not enough to counteract the taxing flipside of that narrative coin, however. This Is the Water literally asserts that you find it interesting, that you are compelled by the quotidian ebb and flow of life in a rural area where apparently everyone, narrator and characters alike, refers to someone’s butt as her “rear,” and that you have a nonnegligible emotional stake in the slow-moving genre fiction that occurs there.
“You” are Annie. You have two children who swim competitively. You are married to Thomas, who refuses to listen to anything you say and reads to you incessantly from his popular science magazines. You have an unnamed brother who, several years before the narrative present, shot himself in the head. Yours is a domestic life that revolves around swim practice, memories of your brother, and creeping urges toward infidelity. Paul, the husband of Chris, the swim mom “with the perfect breasts and rear,” who with his ponytail and leather jacket looks like the dashing, vacuous vehicle of desire whose airbrushed image graces the cover of every paperback romance novel, soon becomes the object of your adultery.
The aspect of the plot that justifies the “thriller” label bandied about on the back of the book is the sudden, brutal murder of Kim, a teenager on the swim team. The swim parents are understandably terrified. Annie soon learns that Kim’s death is just the latest on the CV of a local serial killer, one of whose previous victims was a woman named Bobby Chantal. Paul, during one of your post-swim meet nights spent eating pizza in his hotel room while your daughters watch TV next door, reveals that he slept with Bobby Chantal—in fact, he was with her the night she was murdered, but he swears to God he did not do it.
In a move that defuses any tension that might have resulted from the lingering possibility that Paul was the murderer, Murphy reveals to the reader the identity of the killer early on. Instead of allowing us to try to answer, with Annie, the question of Paul’s culpability, we are well aware of the fact that his suspicious story of the night of Bobby Chantal’s death is true, no matter how absurd and improbable it may sound. Her portrait of the mind of killer, meanwhile, is clumsy and nondescript. “He always felt anything but special,” she writes. “His parents were addicted to heroin. The only thing special to them was their fix.” Yes, a heroin addict prioritizes heroin over other things. But what of it? What did this addiction look like? How did it produce a serial killer? As the novel proceeds, the description of the killer as feeling “anything but special” eventually seems lazy—nothing about his actions or thoughts suggests that “feeling special” has anything to do with it. Several lines apparently meant to terrify us with the spectacle of his vicious compulsions ring hollow: “He couldn’t understand why that strangler out west bothered to strangle. What a waste of an experience, not seeing the blood, not letting the blood do what it most wants to do—flow.”
The histories of several of the novel’s characters work in a similarly stilted, insubstantial way. Chris, for instance, with the “great rear,” first had her heart broken when a much-loved babysitter, Beatrice, stopped spending time with her as a child. We are to believe that her suspicion that Paul is cheating on her, which apparently inspires Annie to make Chris’s paranoid fantasy a reality, is rooted in Beatrice’s unceremonious departure. When Chris “was a girl living down south,” Beatrice was kidnapped while jogging and raped by several men for three days, after which she moved away with her parents. Now, Chris suddenly knows what is causing her mid-40s malaise: “Anger with having Beatrice taken away from her when she was a young girl. Anger with those horrid rapists.” Anger with those horrid rapists.
Annie, too, is dogged by a tragedy, because what can make a character interesting besides a poorly disguised, melodramatic device? She wonders often and at length about the why and how of her brother’s suicide. But like Chris’s armchair analysis of herself, Annie’s observations about her brother sound shallow and arbitrary, though the reader gets the impression that they are supposed to sound profound. “What if, you think, your father, instead of yelling at your brother to do a chore, had told him how well he played the trumpet, how like the rest of us he enjoyed the sound of the notes that landed so pleasantly on our ears with a ring of authority and a tone of respect at the same time.” What if? Can the representative event here really be Annie’s father asking her brother to do “a chore”? That is why people kill themselves? Why not describe the chore, the scene, any of it? As it stands, we are supposed to say, “Ah yes, I recall the misery of being asked to do chores, and I can relate to the sad feeling of letting the dulcet tones of my trumpet fall upon deaf ears.” Later, Annie recalls a time when her brother smashed his guitar, and we are to assume that he was an angry multi-instrumentalist.
Genre fiction can be wonderful fiction. She is a misled reader who rejects a narrative simply because it includes spaceships or wizards or femmes fatales. If Murphy had been more committed to the elements of the thriller and mystery genres, This Is the Water would probably have been more successful. There is a visceral immediacy in the second-person present: the prose is commanding you, forcing you to take part in the excitement and drama of the plot, leaving you no way out of the novel’s action and reaction other than the way the author provides for you. In This Is the Water, however, the reader does not feel swept along so much as trapped inside the beige, indistinguishable lives of people involved with a swim team in rural New England. Whenever the pace of the novel feels poised to accelerate, Murphy inserts ten completely dispensable pages of miscellaneous observations about swimming or life or things in general. Why does the novel shoot itself in the foot? The answer may involve trumpets and chores, or maybe there is no answer. But the end result is a tiresome pain in the rear.