In Brock Clarke’s Exley, a boy tries to reunite with his father, and to sort out the difference between fact and fiction.
Exley is Brock Clarke’s follow-up to the bestselling An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, and once again the focus is on a literary writer from our recent past. Exley orbits around the author of the oft-praised, occasional reviled A Fan’s Notes. But the story is centered around Miller, a nine-year-old boy living in the same sleepy town where Frederick Exley’s autobiographical novel is set. Over the course of the novel, Miller meets drunken bums and oafish gym teachers, angry hotel managers and a demented psychiatrist—but at the heart of Exley is a question many of us face on an almost daily basis: Where, exactly, is the line separating fiction from reality, and which side would you live on if you had the choice?
The novel is told through alternating first-person sections from Miller and his psychologist, with much of the plot generated by the rocky relationship between Miller’s parents. A mystery arises when Miller’s father—a devoted yet directionless Exley fanatic—leaves his family, claiming he’s going to Iraq “too.” Miller is determined to figure out exactly what that “too” means, especially when a man he believes to be his father arrives at the local veterans’ hospital with shards of concrete embedded in his skull; Miller’s mother refuses to believe that her husband actually went to Iraq. Miller visits the wounded veteran and decides that the only way to return him to good health is by finding the beloved Exley and bringing him to his father’s bedside. The problem, of course, is that Exley is dead.
Exley’s plot is sometimes the book’s greatest strength and sometimes its biggest hindrance. Clarke elegantly launches mystery after mystery, as young Miller scours Watertown for clues while having run-ins with one Exley doppelgänger after another. But the sheer audacity of events sometimes works against the world as written and undermines the authenticity of the characters. Miller’s mother is especially problematic; her outright refusal to believe the hospital when they inform her that her husband has returned reads like an author’s contrivance. As more and more of the novel’s answers fail to wrap things up, the many mysteries Clarke sets in motion start to lose some of their luster.
Some of the characters’ motivations come into question—most importantly, why exactly Miller believes Exley is the key to his father’s salvation—but the unnamed psychologist is blessed with a pitch-perfect, strangely neurotic voice reminiscent of Teddy Wayne’s masterful recent novel, Kapitoil. Of the psychologist’s infatuation with Miller’s mother, Clarke writes: “I almost touch her on the arm as she touched me on the arm, to console her. But I fear that my touch won’t tingle her arm as hers tingled mine, and how unbearably sad that would be. She looks back at me. She is still sad about M. Sad, she is still beautiful.” The psychologist’s voice always feels right, an unmistakable flourish of fully realized emotion in a novel concerned with the interplay between fiction and fact.
Where the psychologist’s voice works, Miller’s occasionally falters, and Clarke assigns him understanding far beyond the comprehension of a ten-year-old, reaching levels of adult understanding unseen in since Oskar Schell in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Miller hangs out in bars and hotels, and even claims to teach a community college course, but only some of these are played for laughs. Elsewhere, Clarke forces nuggets of clarity through Miller’s limited perspective: “So I lied. Because this is what it means to be in love with someone,” or “When a teacher tells you to do something, you have to do it, especially if you don’t want to. This is what it means to be educated.”
Exley works best when the narrative pulls back and allows the characters to control the plot and not the other way around. A subplot including a recently returned veteran who feels that Miller isn’t patriotic enough is especially moving, as is a scene where the same man tells Miller a 9/11 knock-knock joke while his nurse “[rotates] his stumps.” Equally poignant are the moments when Exley delves into the tension between reality and fiction; take, for example, this snippet from one of the psychologist’s reports on Miller’s increasingly unsettling behavior:
This fantasy itself is most disturbing. The reality is also disturbing—in the journal, M. writes that he shot a dog, twice, in his so far unsuccessful quest for Exley—but the fantasy is even more disturbing: it shows M. is using the journal not only as it’s intended—to make things clearer in his mind—but also to make his fantasy textual and not only mental.
To make his fantasy textual and not only mental? Is Clarke referring to Miller or is he making a statement on the very nature of what it means to be a fiction writer, on what makes the deceased Frederick Exley and his world-altering abilities so desirable to a lovesick Miller?
As a meditation on the murky line between fiction and reality in a post-Bush era, Exley succeeds on many levels. There are times when the plot spins out of Clarke’s control—conveniently timed funerals, characters repeatedly looking the other way—and the reveals aren’t quite as satisfying as the mysteries, but Exley is still an emotional and thought provoking read about what it means to live in a culture where so much of our reality is comprised of debilitating news about wars abroad and government ineptitude. No one ever really blames Miller for living in a fantasy world. Can you?
Read Ivy Pochoda’s The Last Book I Loved about Exley’s A Fan’s Notes.