|Name: MICHAEL GROTHAUS
Author of: EPIPHANY JONES (2016)
On the web: www.michaelgrothaus.com
On Twitter: @michaelgrothaus
Epiphany Jones, I’ve been told, is hard to categorize. When I ask people who have read it what kind of book they think it is they’ve replied “psychological thriller”, “literary fiction”, “crime”, “social satire”, “dark comedy”, “transgressive fiction”, and “a redemption story”.
Indeed, the story has elements of all those classifications: a page-turning plot (thriller) featuring a narrator named Jerry who is the personification of our society’s addiction to celebrity and sex (literary fiction, social satire). Jerry lives an isolating life (transgressive fiction) because he suffers from psychotic delusions—he sees people who don’t really exist (psychological thriller, dark comedy). When Jerry is framed for the murder of a colleague and theft of a Van Gogh painting (crime) by a woman who believes she talks to God, his life goes from bad to worse as he becomes entangled in this woman’s war with a sex trafficking ring that caters to the Hollywood elite–one that has links to his past Jerry could never have imagined (redemption story).
So yes, all of the classifications above are right. Epiphany Jones is a novel that explores the horrors of sex trafficking, isolation, and addiction on many different levels. In that way, it’s like an onion: peel back one layer only to find another. And for me, as a reader, the best books have always been onions and, as a writer, the novelists that have most influenced me are the ones who know how to peel those layers back. When I think of good “onion peelers” who have influenced my writing I think of a handful of novelists over the last 90 years whose stories work on so many different levels.
The most recent is Alex Garland, the British novelist who gave us The Beach. On first glance it’s a fun travel yarn–the story of Richard who leaves the UK to go off to have a fun holiday abroad. Peel back a layer, however, and the story becomes a commentary on the effects of mass media from the 90s. Peel back another layer and the story shifts to an examination of the animalistic nature that lies in all of us, and easily arises again soon after societal constrains are stripped away. And all of this is packaged in a page-turning thriller.
Almost a decade before Garland wrote The Beach, the Scottish novelist and journalist Gilbert Adair published a little-known novel called The Holy Innocents (the book is perhaps better known by the title given to it after it was made into a movie–The Dreamers). This is another onion. On the surface it’s a psychological drama about an American student’s adventure overseas studying in France–a story about both his cultural and sexual awakenings. Peel that layer back, and the same story is about the power of film and art to stir social change. Yet peel another layer back and the exact same story is revealed to be about the self-obsession of youth and the irreconcilability between the often stated desire of the young to “make a difference in the world” yet being too self-absorbed to actually recognize major events happening right outside their door. The Holy Innocents is a political commentary and cultural examination of youth packaged as one hell of a psychological drama.
Now jump back to the 1930s and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. On the surface, a science fiction novel. Set 500 years in the future it envisions the peace, stability, and health technology will one day bring us, but go one layer deeper and it becomes clear that Huxley was commenting on the anxieties of the 20th century, particularly worry among some how mass production and technological advances could strip away our individual identities. Peel another layer away and you realize that Brave New World isn’t just a science fiction story, nor only a social satire, it’s also a parody—it’s making fun of popular escapism novels of the day set in utopias. Science fiction, social commentary, and parody–all layered into one story.
There are plenty of other examples I could name, of course, but I think you get the point. The best novels are onions–and the onion peelers listed above have had a tremendous influence on my writing.