The Singer’s Gun
Emily St. John Mandel’s book The Singer’s Gun sounds like a paperback thriller, but in a pleasant surprise, delights the reader with a still and quiet prose and a keen eye for the details that uncover the interconnectedness of all our lives. Beautiful images of ancient trees and Mediterranean utopias find a home with New York’s summer heat and the sticky lives of its characters. Mandel serves up superlative moral crises in this well-crafted novel, crises which could stretch the bounds of anyone’s convictions.
The story of an honest con man and illegal girl in New York City, The Singer’s Gun reminds us all that no situation is ever black and white. While both Anton, the illegal passport dealer turned honest desk jockey, and Elena, the Canadian alien struggling with both metaphysical meaning and anemia, have done several questionable things, their stories are so rich and so painfully real that the reader’s loyalties are constantly shifting.
Mandel treats her characters with a kindness, yet an almost parental and bittersweet layering of guilt. While both Anton and Elena have significant others, they find an intimacy together that trumps their steady domestic lives. This intimacy itself is a strained one, for unbeknown to Anton, Elena has been sent with a recorder in her purse to question him after an evening rendez-vous, in order that the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service can get a hold on his past activities. As a recipient of one of his passport/Social Security card packages, Elena is in a compromising place. This is chronically her issue.
Although Anton is the main character, I am more fascinated with Elena. Wispy thin and constantly anemic and hungry from lack of food, it would be easy to paint Elena as a neo-Victorian woman, whose relationship with Anton survives because of her dependence on him. However, I find more subtlety in Elena. Her quiet sensuality and moments of subversion keep her alive, and make her a more complete partner to Anton. She is twice compelled to model for a photographer for money. The second time, she finds that the photographer has taken a route into the territory of pornographic material. Caught, like many young women, in the position of having to participate in order to eat, Elena seems like another victim. However, she takes her experience, along with the mounting stress of her job and affectionless relationship and impulsively makes a brave decision to visit Anton on a small island off the coast of Italy, where (for reasons I won’t divulge) he is now living, risking deportation, debt, and uncertainty. The couple’s journeys across national lines, emotional lines, and ethical lines make one pause and reconsider preconceptions about morality and propriety.
This is Mandel’s second novel. Her first, Last Night in Montreal, received outstanding reviews, and after reading this accomplishment, there is no doubt I will read the first.