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It’s a sunny day. A couple of kids are hanging out, playing around with some old shopping carts they found lying around. And that’s when it happens. Students come streaming out of the nearby school in a state of shock. One of their teachers has opened fire during an assembly, killing three students and one teacher. The scene cuts to the hard-boiled policewoman whose job it is to sort out the mess. This simple exposition could be the beginning of any of the popular crime dramas shown almost constantly on television.
As it happens, this scene is also the one that unfolds in the first two chapters of Simon Lelic’s new novel, “A Thousand Cuts.” Lelic has mastered the tropes of the police drama. The book follows an order predictable to any viewer of such programs: exposition followed by introduction of law enforcement officials, whose own battles are then interspersed with testimony. Each witness’s deposition is even separated into a new chapter, much in the same way that “Law and Order” introduces a new witness by calling up a new screen with a characteristic two-note segue.
These shows may be wildly popular, but they don’t aspire to much more than a standard formula. If Lelic is to be successful, he must rise above the inherent constraints in such a form. However, unless his novel is intentionally commenting on society’s desire for an easy arc from obscene murder to thrilling conviction, it never rises above a simple copy of a tried and true blueprint.
Lelic’s plotline centers on a school shooting in which Mr. Szajkowski—a teacher who everyone agrees was always strange—walks into a school assembly and opens fire on students and teachers alike. Inspector Lucia May is assigned the case. As the only woman in a heavily alpha-male office, it isn’t hard for her to feel empathy for the awkward new history teacher whose bullies—both the students and a fellow teacher—she believes drove him to the point of insanity. As May fights to hold the school responsible for turning a blind eye to Szajkowski’s tormentors, she too is tormented by her colleagues who try and make it clear that the force is no place for a woman.
The narrative alternates between May’s story of increasing isolation and frustration with the police department, and testimony from various witnesses who saw the same thing happen to Szajkowski. As the petty bullying adds up, it is not difficult to see the underlying reason for the book’s title and its main characters’ drastic actions.
Basing a book around a police officer and the various testimonies she solicits may be a worn-out trope, but it must have provided an interesting exercise for Lelic. Lelic’s characters come from all walks of life, and he especially relishes in his attempts to mimic their speech. These narratives can be alternatively funny, melodramatic, and occasionally convincing. Other times however, they can be patently ludicrous.
One of the plotlines involves the bullying of another student, who receives threatening text messages. “Njoy yor vzit 2 d hospital. I hOp dey mAk U beta so we cn fck U up agen,” reads a typical one. It seems that Lelic wants to prove that he understands the workings of cyber-bullying and all the newfangled technology kids use, but he doesn’t seem to realize that true texting-speak involves much more than the removal of as many letters as possible.
Lelic is more successful when he returns to the world of adults, where he displays a mastery of the small details that make up normal, working lives. He writes, “Lucia May moved from the seating area towards the kitchenette. She opened the door of the microwave and then shut what she found back inside. The smell escaped, though – sweet, artificial, she thought, low calorie.” With descriptions like these, Lelic captures modern life far more effectively than he does with his aping of teens’ texting styles or his awkward insertions of pop culture references into his witnesses’ dialogue.
Unfortunately, Lelic attempts to elevate his book beyond a simple description of life as we know it, trying to tackle tough issues like school shootings and sexism in the workplace. When reaching for this, his dialogue takes on a stilted quality, and ultimately the book never rises above the level of the cliché.
In one scene, May has gone too far in her quest against the establishment and her boss confronts her: “‘And you.’ The chief inspector looked at Lucia. ‘You, take the day off. Take the week off if you want. You blew it. I gave you a chance and blew it. Now the both of you: get the fuck out of my office.’” Dialogue such as this is virtually indistinguishable from that which could found—profanity excepted—on any crime drama. Lelic starts with a very familiar form, and he fails to make it his own. Instead he bets on riding the coattails of television shows, hoping that their success will be enough to keep his book afloat. It’s a gamble that ultimately fails.
—Staff writer Rebecca J. Levitan can be reached at email@example.com.
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