The Nobodies Album

By Carolyn Parkhurst

Doubleday. 320 pp. $25.95

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Reviewed by Susan Balée


This is a novel about a famous writer, a rock star, and a brutal murder. No, Lisa Scottoline didn't write it, nor Joan Collins - the honor goes to literary novelist (

The Dogs of Babel

) Carolyn Parkhurst.

That's both a blessing and a curse.

It's a blessing because the intellectual writer gives us thoughts like these on endings:

"I've always said that the ending of a novel should feel inevitable; you, the reader, shouldn't be able to see what's coming, but you should put the book down feeling satisfied that there's no other way it could have gone . . .. And yet, as I paged through the story I'd settled on, I could see the traces of the hundred different stories I'd rejected. Here I'd made a choice, and here, and here. It was all butterfly wings and tornadoes: even a slight deviation in any one of those places would be enough to set the whole book on course for a different outcome."

It's a curse because literary writers (with a few exceptions, such as James Lee Burke and Stephen Dobyns) rarely know how to keep the mystery plot thrumming with tension.

As a reader who loves Parkhurst's inventiveness, I wish she'd dumped the murder plot and just stuck with the main theme of the book: A middle-aged writer decides to rewrite the endings of all her novels and publish the alternative endings in a book called The Nobodies Album.

Great idea - especially as we get to see excerpts from several of these books in the course of the novel. First there's the jacket copy, then the original ending, then the revised ending. I enjoyed reading versions of The Lovely Bones, the movie Sunshine Cleaning, and a trippy tale about people who can no longer remember sad events.

This garden-of-forking-paths idea put me in a ruminative mood (as it must have done Parkhurst), and it meant there were too many long, thoughtful intervals between installments of the murder mystery.

Oh, yeah - the murder mystery.

The author's rock-star son has been accused of murdering his girlfriend. Though Mom the writer has been estranged from her boy for years, she doesn't believe he could have done it. But, then, who did? Can Mom the narrative spinner figure it out? Hope so, because it's sort of a no-brainer (I correctly flagged the killer on page 122 of the 320-page novel).

Parkhurst, not used to writing mysteries, doesn't realize how easy she's made hers to solve. Instead, our novelist narrator works on it as if she's assembling the component parts of a literary engine, a.k.a., a believable plot. In the end, the composition of this book is finely crafted, but it has less energy than a Toyota Prius.

Still, I can't say I wasn't entertained. I learned a lot, for one thing. How many of you knew what the word pareidolia meant? I sure didn't until I read it in here. Great name for a rock band, too.

The other thing I like is the snarkiness of the narrator. She has a rivalry going with another writer she first met in college. This other writer has also been successful; in fact, to the narrator's dismay, the rival has caught the brass ring - one of her novels has been made into a movie.

Our narrator, taking a break from figuring out whodunit, decides to go see this movie. When it's over, "I stay in my seat all through the credits, until the lights come on and someone comes in to sweep up the popcorn. I'm thinking about a particularly colorful critique I heard once, years ago, when I was teaching a writing seminar. 'Jeff's stories,' this young woman said, 'always make me feel like I've stepped in vomit.' (With a mind like that, I don't know why she wasn't a better writer.)"

If The Nobodies Album gets made into a movie (I vote for Roman Polanski to direct), I'll go see it. It's got some wonderful insights into writers and rock stars. I forgot to mention that one of the major characters is an aging icon modeled on (I'm guessing) Roger Daltrey or Pete Townshend. In the movie version, I so hope they sign Bill Nighy to play him. It's a perfect role for him, and could lead to an interesting sequel hinted at in the last pages of the novel.

Read it yourself and you'll see to what I'm alluding. Oh, the possibilities are endless!

Susan Balée teaches in the intellectual heritage program at Temple University. Her next fiction chronicle for the Hudson Review will appear in its fall issue.