There are some literary works of art that shock or disturb readers before revealing themselves to shine with brilliance. Such is the case with Beautiful Piece by Joseph Peterson, a novelist who chooses a chronologically head-spinning style, throwing the reader into an endless swirl of repeating scenes, each gathering force and arriving back to where the reader started. It's enough to make an impatient person throw up his or her hands and exclaim, "He can't write!"
Words repeat. Scenes are re-enacted seemingly forever. Phrases become stock slogans. Peterson breaks just about every rule ever taught a novelist. Yet, just as soon as you are ready to give up on this noir fantasy, the hypnotic beauty of the whole piece of work breaks through. The reader is on a wild ride, a dreamy, swirly, nightmarish slide in which a young man known only as Robert, an unemployed Chicagoan weathering one of the city's worst heat waves, follows an enigmatic young woman named Lucy into her apartment.
"Take me as I come," she says, and she strips off her clothing, using a a line that will haunt the entire novel. Robert does as asked and then is informed that Lucy has a boyfriend, Matthew Gliss, who will kill him if he ever catches him, so "run and don't walk."
The novel then works its way back to Robert's life in his one-bedroom apartment, which is upstairs from his friend and neighbor, the Vet. The Vet talks about two things only: the Vietnam War (hence his name) and opera, mostly Die Meistersinger by Richard Wagner and Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. Robert has no liking for opera at all, but he puts up with it, just so he can talk with the Vet, who is vaguely interesting until he gets so drunk he starts muttering about the "corpses" in Vietnam (another constantly recurring theme). Like Robert, the Vet has no apparent means of support. He worries about dying in his sleep and arranges an elaborate method of calling Robert or Robert calling him, so no one will be left dead in their apartment overnight.
Robert's only other friend is Epstein, a man with a normal life. He's married and has kids. He works for a living and seems well adjusted. What's unusual about Epstein is that he has the ability to completely be at peace in any surrounding he goes to. Robert calls this "being a rock." He envies Epstein's total calm and detachment and wishes he could develop it himself.
After interacting with his friends, suddenly he's back in Lucy's apartment, hearing her laugh and looking at her teeth, and hearing about Matthew Gliss again. You learn that each time you have left that scene, you have learn something new about what's really going on . You discover that Lucy has a series of tattoos on her back. They look like dwarves and represent all the men she has slept with in defiance of Gliss. It's only a matter of time before Robert becomes one of the tattoos. Later you discover that Robert knew Gliss somehow. It's up to you to puzzle why that would be.
Then there Robert is in a his favorite bar, and he's having a drink with Gliss, who pats him on the back. They are having a great time. Only Robert realizes that this friend is one he shouldn't trust very much. His favorite bartender gives him a knowing chuckle.
Clues are everywhere in this book, as the chronology sucks the reader back and forth. It's a matter of staying awake and remembering what Robert finds and who he meets. There's a Glock he needs to get to finish Gliss off. At one point the Vet is in a junkyard plinking junk with bullets from the Glock. Is it a real scene or is it just a dream? Stay awake, because it's the key to everything that happens at the end.
The book would be a masterpiece if it weren't for some pretty crazy parts in the middle. At one point Robert starts drowning in "the wishing well" in his kitchen. While this novel is meant to be dreamlike, this part makes such little sense it's difficult to figure what it's even doing here. The book would have worked just as well without this section, and one has to question why an editor let it stay. Also some of the Vet's raving about life and death gets tiresome. Once again, some sensitive cutting would have been effective and wouldn't have hurt the narrative.
As a whole, the noir novel (that doesn't involve a detective) works beautifully as a seductive layer of sensual imagery, adding bit after bit of drama and insinuation, ending in a shocking ending that works because Peterson wove such a magical spell.Powered by Sidelines