Christopher Bollen and his novel, Lightning People completely skipped over me, I’m not taking it personally. The book is great so far, I’m only 100 pages in. It reminds me of Emperor’s Children, and the best of Zadie Smith (I hear her new book is done), which is basically everything about her. Mr. Bollen captures that weird fucked up post 9-11 flux that floated around the city, and creates a “what are we really doing with our lives” with his characters.

When We Fell In Love – Christopher Bollen

From a very early age, I seem to have wanted to be at least seen as an avid reader. Take, as evidence, this memory from my second-grade class at St. Mary’s in Cincinnati. Every Wednesday we had an hour of “open reading” where students were invited—or suffer an after-school detention—to bring in their own books from home to read quietly at their desks. For a reason that I can no longer quite pinpoint other than a need to appear beyond my years, I stole a book from my older sister’s bedroom and pretended to be immersed in a page midway through the paperback, its thick single-spaced paragraphs of tiny black type entirely incomprehensible to my seven-year-old eyes. My teacher approached my desk and grabbed the book to study the cover. I expected a compliment to arrive momentarily on the choice of such advanced material. I did not expect the whirlpooling horror in her somewhat senile eyes before she quietly returned the book to my hands and walked awkwardly on to the rows of cardboard nursery rhymes propped open by nearby classmates. I still remember the cover and also my sudden realization, sitting there in the quiet aftermath, of the utter impropriety of this selection: under the red cursive title of something like “Summer Lovers” was a picture of a blond teenage girl on a bicycle staring dreamily into the distance while, in the background, a guy in a black leather jacket peered over his shoulder watching the heroine with hungry intent. Dear Mrs. Sullivan, bless you for never uttering a word.

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Otherwise, for a long time, I was a kid not of libraries but of HBO. My escape hatch was basic cable, and I spent thousands of hours on summer days watching R-rated films, imagining the gory, dramatic, tearful, sex-laden adventures that awaited me in adulthood (which, to me, started at the distant age of about fifteen). Had I been raised today, I might never have found literature. I would have written my own scenes and starred in them in front of my camera phone. Back then there weren’t that many Southern Ohio outlets to stifle beautiful boredom. Like most readers—and writers—I was a lonely kid. But out of nowhere a certain author came into my life and I was never the same again.

It wasn’t Hemingway. And it wasn’t Salinger. What it was might possibly be genetic because two things that ran in the family were migraine headaches and an obsession with murder mysteries. When I was twelve years old I discovered Agatha Christie. This was a boon for any reader because a love of Agatha Christie is basically a bottomless sea of exotic fish comprising almost 80 books. The first two murder mysteries I remember devouring—literally refusing dinner, refusing television, refusing to let my older sister beat me up outside in the first winter snowfall—were The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Ten Little Indians. Ackroyd astounded me. Oh my god, oh my god, as the final pages turned and Hercule Poirot turned with his stout Belgian frame to deliver the shocking conclusion. How could I have trusted the narrator, considered him a reliable eyewitness, believed he was on the side of good, when suddenly Poirot was accusing him (and, by first-person association, ME!!) of double homicide.Ten Little Indians carried a similar charge: ten not-so-innocent characters marooned on an island being picked off one by one until there was not a single life raft in the form of a protagonist to hold on to. I believe Agatha Christie was my first taste of addiction. Shelves in my bedroom were vacated to make room for a growing book shrine. Soon came the hits like Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Evil Under the Sun, and then first reluctantly but ultimately happily, I managed to fall in love with St. Mary Mead’s Jane Marple of A Murder is Announced and Cat Among the Pigeons fame. I may have been the only twelve-year-old in Cincinnati city limits to remove the Pink Floyd posters in my bedroom to thumb tack posters of 1970s Agatha Christie movies (this also proved a boon for distant family members who finally knew what to get me for Christmas; before I was just another boring boy but now they could purchase Christie biographies and weird mystery-phile anthologies and
expect a sincere thank you note). I even greedily consumed Christie’s one-off mysteries like The Man in the Brown Suit and They Came to Baghdad. I didn’t stop, I would not stop, until I had read every one of her books and then the end of the world could happen, Cold War nuclear atrocity could finally descend, and I wouldn’t mind.

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In seventh grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Wing, called me in to a private meeting. Calmly, soothingly, in a tone that I’m sure child psychologists first perfected, she told me how impressed she was by my passion for reading. But then she paused. “I just want you to know that there is a world of other authors out there besides Agatha Christie that you might enjoy.” I told her flatly that she was wrong. For the next project we were asked to create a banner commemorating a book we had read, and I constructed a flagrant felt tapestry devoted to The Alphabet Murders. No one, certainly not Mrs. Wing, was going to prevent me from immortalizing that brilliant detective work in glue-gunned felt for the Queen of Crime.

Naturally, as a grew into my teenager-ness, Mrs. Wing proved to be correct. Eventually, I moved on from Christie to a different sort of dark fiction that marked my high-school years—Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Bret Easton Ellis (even admittedly Laura Palmer’s Diary). I started writing stories in a rather disturbing Plathian, Vonnegutian, Woolfian, Ellisian vein. But it was Agatha Christie and her rare, miraculous ability to confound expectations, build a narrative out of hidden motives, class antagonisms, and red herrings, and punch a reader’s gut that laid the foundations of what great books can achieve. And maybe there is something that haunts my own first novel in Christie’s quote in 1954 to Life Magazine: “It is ridiculous to set a detective story in New York City. New York City is itself a detective story.”

I never did read Curtains, Poirot’s last mystery, where, I’ve been told, he dies. It was supposed to be my last book, the paperback I had bought with its black cover and gold lettering, but had saved. Most writers bvgtry to finish a book before their characters are exhausted. Exhaustion was not a plight to be delivered on the gray cells of Monsieur Poirot.