Murmurs of Change

Michael LaPointe, The Creep

Random House Canada, 304pp, $22.95, ISBN 9780735279629

reviewed by Jonathan Gharraie

Set in the year between 9/11 and the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, Michael LaPointe’s The Creep represents a quiet tiptoe back towards the most inescapable event of 21st-century history after several prominent rapid response novels about Donald Trump. There’s the slightest of narrative frames: retired cultural journalist Whitney Chase is visited in her office for a consultancy firm by a Vice writer covering the retrospective republication of The Bystander, a short-lived periodical that launched in 2001, as a coffee table book. We hear about Whitney’s childhood — more specifically, about a traumatic incident involving a backyard snow mound that deprived her of speech until the abrupt decline of her father. Swiftly and intriguingly, she describes her way into journalism, bringing with her a creeping propensity for believable fictionalisation, which lends itself to the novel’s title.

By the time she’s joined The Bystander, she’s left all that behind. Writing about culture doesn’t require that much imaginative licence from her. ‘Culture wasn’t a current event with its own objective reality, it was a protean phenomenon, a set of omens available for any half-decent writer’s elucidation.’ The symbolically named editor Mort (dead on narrative arrival) expresses considerable faith in her gifts but it’s the magazine’s fact-checker, Lane Porter, who turns out to be its key asset in a time of official disinformation and, for Whitney, a figure as unforgettable as Bartleby. The narrative proceeds out of what Whitney doesn’t tell her young visitor. A chance encounter after a hook-up in Colorado presents her with the chance to write about something more meaningful. Near-destitute people in forgotten towns with crumbling housing are being rescued at the point of death with charitable blood transfusions. After a little probing, Whitney uncovers a corporate experiment with plastic blood, mounted by an ex-military scientist, Dr Eva Kriss.

The plastic blood ruse is explained openly, close to the beginning, and the reader doesn't require much historical hindsight to know that it's going to end very, very badly. Two experts, an unnamed source from Wash U and Whitney's own mother, a former professor at USC, seem to share this opinion. Soon, she discovers the horrific side-effects of the treatment for herself, although it's a wonder she was so initially credulous. But perhaps she only seemed to be. There are hints at her attraction to Dr Kriss, but it feels likelier that Whitney wants to see how far the object of her scrutiny is ready to go in pursuit of a breakthrough.

The novel's most memorable achievement is Common Dreams, the purple-painted ambulances that rove impoverished neighbourhoods, looking out for victims who can be further abused in the name of medical exploration. Staffed by capable paramedics with questionable pasts, supplying bottled water and contraceptives to local sex workers, they provide a succinct and effective way of telegraphing the monstrousness of good intentions let loose on communities who have already been written off as collateral damage.

These passages are vivid rather than lurid, and they make the novel consistently absorbing. But LaPointe’s reticence about the world of New York media means that we don’t quite fully understand how these places came to be neglected in the first place. The decline of print journalism, a shredded social safety net and quickly accepted geopolitical atrocities are the conditions of the narrative, but the backdrop of a glossy NYC vanity project, roping in the best available talent that the LRB and Condé Nast has going, is surely too good to serve as mere narrative wallpaper? Mort positions the publication in opposition to the growing national security consensus that dominated liberal and conservative publications at the time, but he proves willing to torpedo a story by a star writer on Lane’s say-so.

This unusual commitment to the truth deserves more space in the narrative but Mort’s elusiveness prevents Whitney’s immersion in her investigation from fully resonating. She tells us that Mort was the last person she ever told her story to, but their relationship is something for which the reader has to draw upon their own version of the creep. Despite this, Whitney's professional reliance on her imagination is largely retrospective. We only ever see it in action towards the end of the novel, when Whitney guesses at the fates of various characters who’ve slipped over the edges of her narration. It's implied that this is the extra seasoning to good journalism that Lane cannot savour, the signal reason why he’ll never make the leap from fact-checker to staff writer. But it exerts too little pressure on the plot, beyond involving Whitney in a self-contained action of nightmarish proportions that is presented hazily but doesn't raise red flags about her trustworthiness as a narrator.

For most of the novel, she's impelled by her conscience. We learn that she might perhaps be prepared to kill for the sake of the truth, but this desperation doesn't grant her any insights into Dr Kriss' steeper descent into the fanaticism of a demonic double-down. For reasons unconnected to the danger she finds herself in, it feels likely that Whitney will never write the exposé. She bustles about the office, fixing other people's copy, and hoping that her editor doesn't ask where her article is. Other than following up her leads and asking difficult questions about informed consent, her tasks are those of a noir gumshoe in a scary world.

But does she doubt herself or the ability of journalism to make the truth count? Turning up in Mimico, the Californian town that serves as one of the locations for Dr Kriss’ experiments, Whitney finds herself frozen out by the mayor. A local journalist is brazenly in hock to the political class. The strength of LaPointe’s vision is that he doesn’t see 9/11 as a crude cultural watershed, nor does he parcel out recent American social history by the presidential administration. The erosion of families and communities, the tragedies of a for-profit healthcare system that can only ever be dysfunctional to the people who need it the most, preceded that event and continue to bedevil the country.

We get a glimpse of that when Whitney describes one of the tasks involved in her new job: writing apologia for industrial farmers in Nebraska. A Confederate flag makes a foreboding appearance towards the end, to remind the reader of the undeniable continuities between the Bush and Trump administrations. On the whole though, The Creep refrains from making casual political points, although Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are referenced to wrap the novel’s first explicit episode of body horror in a dark cloak of irony.

There are also few of the discursive pockets that have come to distinguish literary realism over the last decade. Instead, like Hari Kunzru in White Tears, LaPointe resorts to the tautness of suspenseful plotting to articulate his broader, subtler observations. As well as granting him a generous imaginative licence, this allows him to touch in a fair amount of social history. Murmurs of change rumble throughout the novel like cargo trains at night. The Patriot Act is mentioned by some righteously paranoid libertarians. Key characters have blown in from previous wars while others vanish into the next one, leaving no further imprint on Whitney’s story. Instead, this is a novel criss-crossed by rental cars, unhealthy meals (featuring meats of dubious origin) and disposable housing developments. The patterns are not new but, at the edges of the horror story, there is a credible sense of a social canvas fraying beyond repair. How much longer can people hold out against this perpetual revolution being written across their neighbourhoods, homes and bodies?

The most poignant period detail in the novel is the ability of characters to disappear. Most of the victims of the plastic blood scam are untraceable because nobody’s really looking for them. True, Lane tracks down an important lead for Whitney by perusing a BTL comment thread — something the novel’s corporate villains are too slow to have even considered — but LaPointe inhabits the pre-Internet 2.0 world with compelling skill and something close to compassion. The novel asks us to spare a thought for those who might need the connection and visibility provided by social networks, but privacy is the only reward Whitney is able to claim for her efforts. It’s not giving much away to state that she just about manages to keep everything hidden that she needs to.

Throughout, LaPointe sets up intricate questions about institutional accountability that a more obviously personal narrative couldn’t arrange. The weight of this injustice seems evenly distributed across a number of systemic problems that work just fine for at least one layer of decision-makers and investors. But even that would be nothing without one person’s fanaticism. It’s at least formally pleasing how LaPointe concludes his novel with Whitney burying herself in another, dirtier snow-pile, but this curtails what was always most interesting about her investigation. Her appetite for the truth has finally been exhausted but after everything she’s uncovered, and all that the novel asks us to take in, it’s a little deflating to see this narrator take comfort in her backstory.

Jonathan Gharraie is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has published with n+1 online and The Paris Review Daily. He lives in South Derbyshire, where he's working on his first novel.