LAIRD HUNT'S FICTION lends an ominous tint to the familiar. A pair of running shoes is revealed as a sinister advisor; the act of eating herring becomes laced with barely sublimated violence; a feather duster is transformed into an instrument of torture when placed in the right hands. A straightlaced narrator in an unnamed city turns out to be an agent hiding at the bidding of a nefarious organization; a statue of a woman hides reservoirs of grief in her stillness; a narrator shuffles his own timeline in order to dodge the consequences of his actions.
Finding a label for Hunt’s six books isn’t easy; he juxtaposes pulp traditions, ambiguous narratives, and a fondness for referentiality in them, but never at the expense of being readable. His latest novel, Kind One, seems to be his most traditional — it’s set in a specific and distinct historical moment and features a linear narrative. But even here, Hunt’s eccentricities manifest themselves, leaving Kind One as an expansion of what his fiction is capable of achieving.
Hunt’s most emblematic work is arguably his 2006 novel The Exquisite. Its plot focuses on Henry, a down-on-his-luck New Yorker who becomes enmeshed in a conspiracy to carry out staged murders, a service offered to a city already jittery after the destruction of the World Trade Center. There’s a mysterious benefactor, an alluring but morally ambiguous woman, and sudden acts of violence. But within this post-noir structure, The Exquisite is also a meditation on specific works of art — including Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn — as well as a reworking of elements contained in Hunt’s earlier novel The Impossibly. If this makes The Exquisite sound imposing, it shouldn’t — it’s occasionally byzantine, but also eminently friendly. Its blend of rigorous structure, self-reflexiveness, and warm acceptance of pulp tropes is par for the course for Hunt. The Believer’s summary of a 2005 Rick Moody essay on Hunt and experimental novels may put it best: “Laird Hunt’s The Impossibly is traditionally ‘difficult’ literature. It’s also traditionally accessible literature. What the fuck?”
Until recently, Hunt’s books have largely rested in a post-pulp space. The Impossibly and The Exquisite feature labyrinthine criminal conspiracies. Certain characters in Ray of the Star and The Exquisite exist somewhere between life and death. And stories within stories are woven into their structure, particularly The Paris Stories and The Exquisite. In a 2006 interview with Bookslut, Hunt said, “I tend to think that not all that much, actually, has been done in literature with non–straight noir. Where is noir's equivalent of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren, for instance? Where, for that matter, is noir's equivalent of The Turn of the Screw?” It isn’t hard to look at much of Hunt’s body of work as an attempt to answer those questions.
The Paris Stories, Hunt’s first book, loosely follows a couple as they wander the city, hear stories, and occasionally catch glimpses of folktales dealing with authority, of punishment, of horrific violence. The Impossibly, h...read more