Well, I thought that I’d take a look at Kaaron Warren’s 2011 literary/surrealist/fantasy novel “Mistification” today.
I’ve been meaning to read another Kaaron Warren novel ever since about 2009 or so, when I happened to find a copy of Warren’s excellent horror novel “Slights” in a bookshop in Brighton. I consider “Slights” to be one of the scariest horror novels that I’ve ever read and, more than a decade later, I can still vividly remember the utterly chilling ending too. Seriously, if you want a genuinely disturbing and unforgettable horror novel that will freeze the bones of even the most jaded horror hound, read “Slights” 🙂
Anyway, when I was randomly searching for second-hand books online, I ended up buying a copy of “Mistification” as soon as I saw the author name and the vaguely ominous-looking cover art. Even though I’d read enough about it to know that it isn’t a horror novel (although it contains a few occasional horror elements), I was still intrigued enough by the concept of this book to want to read more.
So, let’s take a look at “Mistification”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in a large house in Australia, with a young boy called Marvo fleeing from armed men with his grandmother. They hide in a secret room behind a panel and spend the next few years there, hiding, scavenging, watching a silent television and telling stories. Shortly before his grandmother dies, she gives Marvo a letter and tells him not to open it until he is older. Then she tells him to leave the house.
Marvo sneaks out and wanders through nearby towns and cities for a while, finding random things, listening to people’s random stories and gradually discovering that he has the power to create mist which can be used to create illusions. When he feels that he is old enough to open the letter, it tells him that he is a magician. It tells him that there aren’t many magicians left and that magicians are important because they create the illusions that make life worth living for everyone else. That, without illusions, everyone will succumb to nihilism and despair and the world won’t last for long.
Burdened by this heavy responsibility, Marvo wanders around more and listens to more stories. He starts performing stage magic, even though he dislikes when non-magicians do this. He also meets an equally eccentric woman called Andra, who works as a nurse when Marvo is briefly committed to a mental hospital. The two of them fall in love and decide to start a magic show together…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I have mixed feelings about it. Although I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would, I can certainly see that it has literary merit and that it must also have been a lot of fun to write too. The best way to describe this novel is that it is like a mixture between the poetic magical realism of an Alice Hoffman novel and the edgy, cynical, transgressive dark comedy of a Chuck Palahniuk novel. In theory, this should automatically give this novel a five-star rating but, again, I have mixed feelings about this novel.
A lot of this comes down to the novel’s story and structure. In short, this is the kind of novel that was probably really fun to write, but isn’t always fun to read. At the beginning, the author points out that none of the information relayed in the book should be treated as reliable and that most of it was either made up or found in books sold by the kilogram in disreputable bookshops. This is both the novel’s greatest strength and it’s greatest flaw.
When this book is at it’s best, it is the kind of unique story that only Warren can write. If you’ve read “Slights”, then you’ll know that random found objects and intriguing clutter are one of the coolest features of Warren’s work (and are used to evoke everything from wonderous fascination to lingering spine-chilling horror).
Since I’m someone who doesn’t really feel “at home” if I’m not surrounded by piles of books and random stuff, Warren’s focus on random kipple really adds a unique level of realism that you don’t really see in the orderly worlds of many novels. “Mistification” excels in this regard, with the novel itself also being a brilliantly weird collection of random events, short stories, poems, riddles and characters. Seriously, this book must have been so much fun to write 🙂
However, this is also the novel’s greatest flaw. It is perhaps too random at times. For every interesting quirk or factoid, there is a segment that almost reads like an extract from a cookbook, a dream dictionary and/or a list of superstitions. For every short story that seems to carry some kind of intrigue, horror, humour and/or metaphorical truth, there are also completely random ones that don’t really seem to add anything to the novel.
In short, this book can sometimes come across as “weird for the sake of weird”, with little underlying logic or reason for some of its many surreal elements. Although the novel’s story never really gets too confusing, it does feel a bit random and disjointed, which can make reading it feel like a chore at times. In short, whilst this technically isn’t a plotless novel, it can often feel like one.
Thematically, this novel is really interesting though 🙂 It is a novel about the power of stories or, rather, the value of illusions. If you’ve ever read Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting Of Hill House“, you’ll probably remember the chilling opening sentence about the dangers of absolute reality. This novel taps into this theme absolutely brilliantly, with Marvo almost treating stories like a form of currency and his magical abilities also being connected to his ability to feel emotions. In an age where STEM subjects are often valued far more than the arts are, this novel is perhaps one of the most brilliantly subversive books that I’ve read in quite a while 🙂
In terms of the characters, they’re fairly interesting. Marvo comes across as being both complicated and simple, sympathetic and unsympathetic, weird and normal at the same time. This is difficult to describe well, but he’s certainly one of the most creative characters that I’ve seen in a while. The same is true of his partner, Andra, who is kind of like a mixture between the sort of intriguingly witchy character you’d find in an Alice Hoffman novel and the “edgy”, quirky love interest characters found in Chuck Palahniuk novels too 🙂 And, as you’d expect in a novel like this, there is also a weird and wonderful (and occasionally creepy) cast of unusual background characters too.
In terms of the writing, this novel is absolutely stellar 🙂 For all of the novel’s experimental elements, the novel’s narration is written in Warren’s unique and readable style that, again, is like a blend of the poetic narration you’d find in an Alice Hoffman novel and the cynical “matter of fact” narration you’d find in a Chuck Palahniuk novel, whilst also being it’s own wonderfully distinctive thing at the same time too 🙂
Literally the only criticism I have to make of the writing in this novel is that the narrative voices during most of the first-person perspective short stories often remain very similar. Whilst this allows the story to flow well and helps to ensure that the frequent changes between first and third person perspective are never jarring, it also makes these segments of the novel feel a little bland and it doesn’t really create the impression that Marvo is listening to lots of different people tell him stories.
As for length and pacing, this is probably where this novel falls down. At 388 pages (not counting the five appendices), this novel feels longer than it probably should have been and the novel’s surreal elements wear out their welcome slightly on account of the length. Likewise, although this novel does have a plot, it is more of a background detail and the numerous side-stories, random factoids etc… mean that the story doesn’t really have the same compelling drive as a more traditional novel. Don’t get me wrong, this novel’s story is still relatively easy to follow, it can often be quite interesting and I really like the concept of this novel, but the pacing of it can make it feel like a bit of a slog to read at times.
All in all, this is a unique novel. It is worth reading for the themes, the writing and the general creativity of the story. However, it might not always be that enjoyable to read – even though it is most definitely Art (with a capital “A”) and you can definitely tell that the author had a lot of fun writing it. Still, if you’ve never read a Kaaron Warren novel before, I would recommend reading “Slights” instead of this one. But, if you like surreal fiction and/or are a fan of both Alice Hoffman and Chuck Palahniuk, then it might be worth taking a look at this novel.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.