What I had expected when I began reading this story was the journey of one couple attempting to achieve the miracle of life. What Collins actually delivers is something far more thought provoking which crosses genres and questions ideologies.
Set in Chicago in the late 1990’s when Clinton is at the height of ‘Lewinskygate’ – a nostalgic time when we still needed a dial-up modem to access the internet – and society is on the crest of the credit card wave, Karl is coming to terms with the fact that his successful writing career has recently taken a nosedive. To add to his woes he is spiralling into debt (funding his mother in a care home) and his wife Lori (three years his senior and the breadwinner in the relationship) has decided she can wait no longer for nature to take its course; she wants to embark upon an expensive course of IVF treatment. Fundamentally this is where the struggle for Karl and Lori lies; neither fully understands the other’s plight. Karl wants to leave a legacy to the world, something he calls his ‘Opus’. Lori, like so many women, wants to leave behind something more concrete in the form of procreation.
But underlying this plot is a subtext of something far darker and sinister. Thoughts of being on the verge fatherhood bring Karl’s father to the forefront of his mind. The father who ostensibly killed his mistress before committing suicide. An event which Karl used later in life, awarding him two published novels and which lead him to ghost writing for a successful crime novelist called Perry Fennimore. But in an ill-judged meeting with Fennimore’s editor Karl manages to cut himself out of the ghost writing world and his once flourishing career hits an all time low. His pursuance of a literary legacy, together with crippling financial circumstances, acts as a catalyst moving Karl both physically and abstractly into a different world. For Karl it is a place of degradation where the immigrants and homosexuals of Chicago co-exist. Remarkably it is here in an unexpected twist with a Soviet performance artist – who isn’t everything she first appears to be – Karl finds his way back to writing and to Fennimore while his relationship with Lori continues to ebb and flow.
I unwittingly warmed to Karl at first and even though I soon realised what he might say or do next would be cringe worthy, Collins’ flow of writing with obscure observations and metaphors compelled me to read on. Even when I found myself disliking Karl I needed to know he could change things.
Collins’ narrative challenges much more than the right to become a parent. It subtly questions society’s attitude to the elderly, death, immigration, gender, sexuality, morals and ultimately, I believe, the meaning of life. Even though it is evident the amount of planning that must have gone into such a story, Collins talent of keeping an effortless flow to the narrative, capturing the imagination made this book – to me anyway – spellbinding. The only question I’m left wondering is what the present day Karl, possibly now a father, would make of society today?