Sunday, August 21, 2011

Absolute Zero Cool, by Declan Burke

This is a novel of so many excellent parts that I don't really know where to start. Why don't you take a look at this video of John Connelly helping to launch the book for Liberties Press? I mean, who would you rather listen to, really--him or me? I know which I'd choose.

If you watched the video, you will know that this is not your average crime novel, in either content or design. Having read two of his other books, I can attest that Mr. Burke is quite capable of writing a really good book in the more conventional forms, but that is not what he is setting out to do here. The conceit is that the character "Declan Burke" is visited, while on a writer's retreat, by a character who was thought up for a book that never made it to a final draft. Karlsson--or Billy, as he now apparently wants to be called-- asks to be let out of the limbo that is the fate of an unfinished character. He turns out to be a hard guy to say no to.

I believe I would have been a bit bewildered by this book, which I might have expected to be a caper, though of the darkly comic kind, if I had not been clued in by an early blurb of Adrian McKinty's, mentioning another Irishman who wrote sui generis fiction, Flann O'Brien. Having read O'Brien's The Third Policeman not that long ago myself, I was more prepared for the 'outside the crime fiction box' story than I might have been.

Although much of the book is about the hammering out of a novel between the fictional Karlsson and the, well, equally fictional Declan Burke, the book's dark energy is really Karlsson's, I think. He has a Mephistophelian charisma, if not what you could really call charm. When Karlsson, as Billy, meets Declan Burke at the writer's retreat, he is missing an eye, and sports an eyepatch. I was curious about that throughout the book, and may have missed a beat when it was explained, but an Irishman with an eyepatch always has some relation to Joyce, I suppose. For me, though, and this is just my own take on the thing, the one-eyed nature of Billy has everything to do with his monomania and, forgive the pun, lack of perspective. His relentlessly dark vision of our life on earth is persuasive, at times funny, and yet always bracing. He is the classic case of the guy who is too smart for his own good, by which I mean beyond the reach of help, because this is where he chooses to put himself.

The title of the book refers to the coldest possible temperature, which is more theoretical than actual, in which all energy is frozen. Nothing moves. This reminds me of Dante's version of hell, which is not heat, but ice. Karlsson, who want to bring everything down, is perhaps an agent of such a space, but Karlsson, much as he would like to go his own inexorable way, is, despite himself, still moved by love and loss, even as the book draws toward its close.

Karlsson is certainly an aspect of Declan Burke, for where else could he have come from? But Declan Burke, as either character or author, has learned a thing or two more about life, thanks to marriage and a child, than poor Karlsson ever dreamt of in his philosophies. Karlsson, I think, is aware of the lack.

Don't worry, Karlsson. You can always hope there will be a different sort of ending in the  movie.


  1. That Karlsson does take things over, doesn't he? So, is he a villain?
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. You're review makes me want to start the book over, and perhaps I will once I've finished it just to see what I've missed.

    v word-sishead. Is it si shead, as in sea shed, a shed by the sea or sis head, a bad name you call someone you don't like? hum...

  3. Peter, no, oddly I don't think he is a villain. Partly because the opposite of everything I've said is also true. In the original book that gets 'revised' within the novel, Karlsson is supposed to be mercy killer. If you kind of track that idea through the present book, he is merciful to the weak and old, even if he is grim about their prospects.

    He lives by his own lights, really.

  4. Glenna, although I am not usually much of rereader, this is one that I can tell would benefit from a second reading. I've really just followed the Karlsson energy here, because that was what stood out to me and seemed relatively easy to talk about, but my review doesn't really do justice to the complex plot.

  5. That was more an exam question than a real question:

    "Karlsson is the bad guy. Or is he? Discuss."

    Among the book's achievements is that it renders villain/hero distinctions highly problematic.

    No, it obliterates them.

  6. "Blazingly original!" enthuses Detectives Beyond Borders!

    Just missed an excellent v-word on this one: supidly

  7. If you think about it, though, your v word is a perfect example of itself.

  8. Dang, you're right. How supid of me.

  9. What about ´tropoted´ then?

    I thought we were talking about Declan´s interesting fiction, but perhaps I should reconsider my idea of writing a story that includes some of the incredible v words. With a new term like ´tropoted´ all the reviewers would certainly believe my story was literary, not genre fiction, wouldn´t they?

  10. Tropoted is good. And yes, I've long thought that it would be good to keep a list of the best of these v words for some hypothetical future use. I was thinking more sci fi futuristic than literary though.

    Alas, I am too lazy.

    And no, I don't care where the comment thread goes, so long as it isn't insulting to anyone. I don't even mind if it occasionally gets back on topic...

    There is clearly a lot more to say about this book since it's made me question democracy, compassion, old age and hospitals. Drat you, Karlsson!

    See, now I've gone and broken my own rule already.

    New revised rule: it is alright to be rude to fictional characters on this blog. But not the only quasi-fictional ones.

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  12. It is also okay to be rude to Blogger here when it leads you to inadvertently double post.