by Kate Genet, 2012, Kindle/Smashwords ($6.99)
The summer months are difficult ones for indie authors, who tend to see sales of their full-length ebooks diminish. A book that came out last month without much fanfare is Kate Genet’s latest, Building Character, and it’s an accomplished work that deserves a second look.
The tale rather deliciously dwells on a well-known writer’s anxieties, as she finds a seductive character from her own work becoming real and slipping into her day to day life, with disastrous results.
Fen Marshall (it took me a while to realize that both the names suggest slippery and low-lying places) is a successful New Zealand writer, a lesbian, and clearly not a nice woman. Genet establishes this firmly in the first chapter, as 40-ish Fen leaves the fancy home where she lives alone in great comfort to rendezvous with a young woman, Marissa, who met her at a book club. They meet at a jazz joint, where the sultry singer has already been one of Fen’s pickups and is still flirting with her. Marissa turns out to be a sort of pining literary groupie, and Fen quickly disconnects from her. Her longtime friend Simone shows up the club and is planning a birthday party for her, but Fen is less than enthusiastic, clearly used to being the kind of person who fends people off and participates reluctantly in group activities.
Genet treats us to a luscious, no-strings sex scene between Fen and the voluptuous singer backstage. Fen doesn’t go in for relationships, and she has her life completely sorted out.
It’s risky to write about a woman who basically doesn’t like people and doesn’t treat them very well. The book becomes increasingly strange when Fen returns to her writing, which she always does in a state of manic high. A character in her 1940s mystery novel springs off the page and into Fen’s bed. Ruby is a red-lipsticked sex bomb, but also a clever manipulator. Fen eagerly seduces her, though from the minute Ruby appears, she is unable to write as she was before, focused so intently on Ruby’s physical charms as she is.
The novel seems as if it’s going to be about Ruby’s ulterior motives, her designs on Fen’s money, and Marissa’s buffoonish attempts to attract Fen’s attention and affections by waiting outside her home in the snow. I at first assumed that Fen, Ruby, and Marissa would battle to the end in a competitive triad. And that could have been an interesting novel.
But what “Building Character” seems to really be about is a writer’s anxieties. Writers, after all, create and control their characters, and writing, especially if it’s going well, can seem like playing God. Ruby is a manifestation of Fen’s dark side, and Fen finds herself first enchanted and then horrified by her, as her coldness is revealed. The novel slowly becomes about Fen’s quest to kill off her dark side–which is difficult, as Ruby has co-opted so much of her vital energy, even going so far as to take over Fen’s beloved computer!
How long had it been since she’d felt that way? Since she’d sat at her desk and let the words flow?
Too long. Now here was Ruby, high as a kite, juiced on the creative process and she, Fen was still in pyjamas and robe, sleep rumpled and feeling like some homeless person dragged in from the curb for a cruel and callous look at the good life. She rubbed her face and felt the whispering of thin dry skin again, like autumn leaves rubbed together. And under the skin her bones grated together. She looked at the beaming, vibrant Ruby and stopped walking.
Ruby hadn’t looked that young and fresh two or three days ago.
Fen hadn’t felt this old two or three days ago.
She was losing the plot all right. She was losing the threads of her own life story.
So “Building Character” is not so amoral after all. Many of Genet’s books revolve around the identifying and destroying of familiar monsters. Here the monster springs from the writer herself, and Fen’s responsibility is clear.
A few quibbles. The book should have had one more proofread, and although I loved the description of hair that “shone like a chocolate waterfall,” not one but two characters were described this way.
I was uncomfortable with the treatment of the character of Marissa, who becomes targeted by Ruby. Fen’s friend Simone is one of the few decent female characters in the book (another is a police detective who shows up toward the end). Simone and her girlfriend are put through dangerous ordeals, having involved themselves in Fen’s troubles, but Genet gives the couple this sweet insight:
“There was going to be a happy ending because they would make one for themselves. Life wasn’t a fairy tale. It wasn’t even a story with every page written. It was a leap of faith.”
“Building Character” becomes absolutely suspenseful as it heads toward a climax, as a weakening Fen must race to catch up with an escaping Ruby. The fact that their ultimate confrontation is constructed as a sort of powerful energy exchange was pleasing to me as a reader.
Although the book flirts with amorality and sadism, it ends up being the profoundly moral tale of a woman who must take care of the shit that she’s created–because she’s the only one who can!
It’s clearly the creation of a seductive and vigorous writer at the height of her powers.
Gabriella West is the author of ‘The Leaving’ and ‘Time of Grace.’