First off, then, I should say that The Exquisite is a book that held my attention at a time when many other things were vying for it. Because my attention could never be solely on the book, much of what the words said perplexed me -- not much actually baffled me, but the patterns of plot and character, the cause and effects of events and actions, the relationships of words and deeds, wriggled around without ever quite cohering. I don't think this is a bad thing; it did not make the experience of reading The Exquisite a painful or even unfulfilling one. I have a high tolerance for oddity and ambiguity, after all. I'm just saying I might have missed some points. (And I'm okay with that. Getting the point is, I believe, overrated. But that could just be a defensive mechanism on my part to cover my own misreadings, misprisions, and mystified moments...)
The Exquisite tells two stories. In one of them, the narrator, Henry, is a man saved from being down-and-out by a man named Aris Kindt, who hires him to join a band of merrymaking freelance murderers, except they don't actually murder people, they just go through the motions and give their "victims" the experience of being murdered. In the other story, told in alternating chapters, Henry is a man recuperating in a hospital after an accident, and he meets there another patient, named Aris Kindt, who helps him procure and sell drugs from the hospital storerooms. Both Aris Kindts refer to their "namesake" and their "namesake's namesake", the latter of which is the corpse of a murderer being dissected in Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson". Characters with similar names inhabit both stories. Names are important here, though it's not entirely clear (at least to me) why. Identity gets dissected, but we are left to put the pieces back together for ourselves.
The story takes place in New York City, more or less now, though the hardboiled tone of the narration sometimes makes it feel like an imagined New York in the 1940s, a New York that exists only in memories of black and white movies. The city is as important a character as any of the people in the tale, and some of the best passages in the book give vivid glimpses of life there. The setting and language of its evocation are inseparable, the sounds and rhythms of the sentences providing as much architecture as the landscape they create:
New York is swell. It is swell on a cold wet night and it is swell on a cold clear dawn. It is swell with the cars coming fast toward you and it is swell down by the subway tracks, where the people come to gather and watch each other and wait. It is swell with the attractive denizens and with those who are not, including those, like you who might once have been. It is swell with the shop lights and it is swell with its skyscrapers and acres of rubble and brilliant glass-strewn streets with everyone loving everything and moving through the haze of airborne particles saying fuck you. It is swell with its parks and harsh, windswept open spaces, with its beautiful giant bridges, with its great river and grim estuary, its cardboard villages, its scaffolding, its doves in the morning, its sparrows and pigeons and hawks and wild parrots basking in the sun. Its layers of sonic and visual complexity are swell. Swell too is the little girl screeching with delight on the carousel at Bryant Park, while the cars go by, bits of garbage flick through the air, the wind irritates the trees, chairs are scraped again and again over gravel, the ground rumbles distantly as the trains plow the dark tunnels, grackles fight, small unseen electric explosions, wrecking balls, gobs of spittle smacking the pavement, someone claps, someone taps the Gertrude Stein statue on the shoulder, someone stumbles on an abandoned bright pink beauty-company supply case. Astoria and Fort Greene and Hell's Kitchen and Spanish Harlem and Washington Heights and Cobble Hill are swell. Swell, as we have already seen, are the museums, movies, bathhouses, and restaurants frequented by petty hoods.When I first encountered that passage, I thought, "Swell?!" But rereading it, I warmed to that empty, archaic adjective, a word that is just out of place enough to draw attention to itself, and meaningless enough to be anything and everything, a sound waiting for substance, lending its peculiar void to all that is around it, encompassing so much -- indeed, swelling.
The Exquisite is a book built from books -- it is always (endearingly) artificial, pulling in items from many pages past, especially W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, a very different book, but one that finds so much of its topography reconfigured here, revisited, re-viewed, like Shakespeare performed by Groucho Marx and Lauren Bacall. (Even Kelly Link makes it in: "...the 'jinx' thing had slipped my mind. It came back to me though when the two "I got it" guys burst into conversation in the booth behind me about some book one of them was reading called Stranger Things Happen.") I'm sure I missed some references, but it doesn't really matter, I don't think -- they're there as texture, as visitors lingering along in the text, whispering to remind us that words built this world.
The two main stories converge and diverge without explaining each other. They are echoes of echoes, their original sources lost, or at least distant, and so the echoes go on inhabiting the same air. This is a book so full of plots that everything that seems important also seems tangential. It's no surprise that Aris Kindt is a connoisseur of herrings; within the mysteries of The Exquisite, plenty of the herrings are red, but they're part of an entire rainbow -- or, to switch metaphors, an ocean of tributaries filled with plotting fish. No resolution is for sure, and every version of the truth tells some sort of story, with each story being as valid as the other -- the point is not the resolution, but the pleasure of the telling, just as the joy of murder stories is not in how they end up, but in the planning, preparation, and execution that lead to the end. Cut out all possibility of an end, and most of the pleasures still remain, while new pleasures reveal themselves.
Perhaps it was best that I read The Exquisite the way I did, in fits and starts, in stolen moments, sometimes with close attention and sometimes so exhausted the pages I read extended their imagery into what, moments later, I dreamed. I released myself from feeling any need to assess the book, and instead merely experienced it (merely!), and it melded itself so well into my days that the reading of it has become an inextricable part of my memory of my life in the past few weeks, so that it was for me not only an artifact or a story, but a companion made of words.