A Book Review by Andrea Gregovich
When the dust settles, veteran journalist John Colapinto’s novel Undone will probably be remembered as the poster child of literary blackballing for the year 2016. It was turned away by 41 publishers before it found a home at small, independent Soft Skull Press, and not because Colapinto is some slouch. He’s a staff writer for The New Yorker who has also written for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Esquire, to name just a few of his impressive publications. A guy like him can get a book published. But Colapinto was utterly snubbed by the literary establishment (as he explained in New Pop Lit’s interview with him here last year) because his book was too sexually subversive and politically incorrect for the demure and skittish publishing world.
In Undone, charismatic ephebophile lawyer Dez (think pedophile who targets teenagers) and his orphaned seventeen-year-old nymphette girlfriend Chloe conspire to scam middle-aged, affluent novelist Jasper into thinking Chloe is his long-lost daughter. Their objective is to have Jasper adopt her, in hopes that she can use her feminine wiles to entrap Jasper in a pseudo-incestuous tryst and sue him for all he’s worth. This is all Dez’s idea, of course: he’s envisioning a life of extravagant debauchery with Chloe’s court-awarded incest victim’s monetary damages as his slush fund, and he spins up a masterfully manipulative rationale to convince sweet and needy Chloe into going along with it. Jasper, with his gullible, moralistic self-righteousness and repressed libido (his wife is fully paralyzed from a stroke, can’t even talk, so this guy hasn’t had sex in a long while) turns out to be an embarrassingly easy target for Dez and Chloe’s exploitation.
It’s the perfect plot for a tawdry pulp novel. But the narrative in this book becomes something much more complex and subversive: Colapinto plunges deep into the internal dialogues of these two privileged and horny white men, and lays bare their raw, grotesque, and idiotic rationalizations and thought processes. Colapinto’s male characters are disturbingly authentic, and that gives us an uneasy feeling: his descriptions of their attraction to Chloe’s underage sexuality are too precise for comfort. Jasper’s clueless attempts to explain away his aloof response to Chloe’s seduction-disguised-as-affection on one page (“It must have been simply his natural shyness that had made it difficult earlier, when they first met at the courthouse, to obey the instinct to embrace her”) are undermined by highly sexualized details on the next page (“He could feel her breath on his lips; smell the gentle, trembling exhalation, a sweet, transparent, clear scent”). And Dez doesn’t hide his carnal, taboo desires for not just Chloe, but most girls just shy of legal: “At seventeen, she had not fully left childhood, but neither had she fully entered adulthood, and it was the teasing, teetering balance between the two states that so stirred Dez.” Colapinto allows himself to fully understand and describe where they– Dez and Jasper– are coming from in all of its uncomfortable detail, which is not the sanctioned way to write a book like this.
Chloe’s own perspective laces into the narrative as well, and she appears through Colapinto’s satirical male gaze as a rather willing sexual target and a cunning (if reluctant) teenage temptress, which is pretty much the opposite of how we’re supposed to imagine a statutory rape victim. Consider this passage, in which Chloe is plotting her seduction of Jasper, the man who thinks he’s her father:
She was absolutely sure that he would have to try to kiss her,
that he would move his face toward hers in the semidarkness—
at which point she would quickly pull back her head, eluding
the touch of his lips, then hop from his lap and run gaily from
the room as if nothing had happened, leaving him to boil and
stew all night, until the morning, when she would resume the
Here’s the thing about the much-maligned male gaze, though: every now and again it hits upon something real. Colapinto makes it clear that Chloe is a sad case, of course: she was raised by an alcoholic single mother, orphaned when that mother died in a car accident, and she’s working out her daddy issues with her predatory boyfriend. She certainly has guilty feelings about pulling such an awful scam on a nice family man like Jasper. But she also represents an uncomfortable truth: girls like Chloe learn to utilize their sexuality, and they are perfectly capable of becoming the predator themselves. Chloe resonates as a character, she’s an authentic Lolita, but we’re squeamish to read how she does it, perhaps for fear of letting ourselves think, “Well, she was asking for it.” It’s a slippery slope toward blaming the victim. No wonder so many publishers felt so genteel about publishing this book.
It will make you cringe for sure, but Undone is an addictive book, even for a jaded, attention span-challenged reader like myself. It has that noir drawl of a seedy detective novel and is delightfully crowded with daring imagery, garish details, and ironic exclamation points. And it’s ultimately an indictment of the warped masculinity it explores. But you have to confront those dirty depths of male sexual desire before you can truly grasp the nuances of its folly.
That’s what the literary establishment got so scared to do: take an honest look at the darker side of the male sexual point of view. Why? What were they afraid of? The answer to that question is as psycho-sexual as the offending narrative in John Colapinto’s book.
Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator. Her most recent appearance at New Pop Lit, aside from participation in our “Lit Question” forums, was her translation of a short story by Belarus author Andrei Dichenko, “Energy.”