THERE’S NOTHING quite like a good side project. That feeling of freedom from what you’re “supposed to be doing” yields a special willingness to surprise yourself, try anything — and this must go double when you’re working with a collaborator, a kindred soul to encourage and impress you, and who you yourself are eager to encourage and impress. Collaboration, however, is a far more difficult prospect for writers than artists whose disciplines all more or less demand the presence and input of others. Sure you can write, record, and engineer your solo album in your home studio if you really, really want to — but try making a feature-length movie without actors or a director of photography, or staging a play without a set or lights or a score. And before you start tweeting at me, yes, I’m aware that these things can be done and have been done, but the enormous production challenges and radically avant-garde results of such endeavors only serve to reinforce the larger point.
In any case, imaginative literature — as opposed to, say, reported nonfiction or a scientific paper — is particularly ill-suited to co-authorship, which isn’t to say that it never happens, only that examples are rare. Most of the contemporary joint ventures that spring to mind are by poets: Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney, Phil Cordelli and Brandon Shimoda (as The Pines), Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer, Mathias Svalina and Julia Cohen — all have published books of co-written poems within the past decade. As for novels, well there’s John Ashbery and James Schuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies; Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens; Matthew Simmons and Matt Bell’s The Last Garrison: A Dungeons and Dragons Novel, credited — all too aptly — to one Matthew Beard. (I’m sure further examples abound, and please do feel free to tweet them at me, though if you can spare us both Tom Clancy’s assistants and Ian Fleming’s impersonators, it’d be appreciated.)
Now let’s give a warm welcome to the newest member of the co-authored novel club: A. J. Rich’s The Hand That Feeds You, a page-turning, genre-bending, resonantly disturbing mystery novel, that is about the last goddamn thing you’d expect from Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment. When I first heard about this project I assumed the last nom of their de plume, “Rich,” was an inside joke — i.e. that this was a get-rich-quick scheme — but it turns out to be in homage to the third who walks beside them: Katherine Russell Rich, a beloved essayist and memoirist, who died of breast cancer in 2012, at the age of 56, after battling the disease for an impossible-seeming (and awe-inspiring) 24 years. Her first book, The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer — And Back, was published in 1999. In 2001, she quit her job as a magazine editor, moved to Rajasthan, India, and spent a year in the city of Udaipur, freelancing and becoming fluent in Hindi. Her second memoir, Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake In Another Language, was published in 2009. (For a glimpse of Rich’s prickly wit and infectious charm, and evidence that this book is far less touchy-feely-pray-lovey than it probably sounds, check out this short promo video she made for it.)
Now this next part’s hard to believe and harder still to summarize, so I’m going to go ahead and defer to Alexandra Alter, who profiled all three writers in a New York Times piece on the genesis of The Hand That Feeds You, back in July
Several years ago, the writer Katherine Russell Rich made an alarming discovery about a man she had fallen in love with. She grew suspicious when, after they had been dating for a while and he had proposed marriage, he said that he couldn’t spend the holidays with her, so she paid a hacker to get into his email. His messages revealed a shadow life, refracted through layers of deception. He was living with another woman and seeing several others on the side. Ms. Rich quickly ended the relationship and started writing a novel about it. She never got past the first chapter. […] The end of her life might have meant the end of her story. But two of her closest friends, Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment, decided to tell it for her. Their collaboration resulted in “The Hand That Feeds You,” a twisty, unsettling thriller that […] bears little resemblance to either of their individual literary styles. Ms. Ciment, 62, has published five literary novels, including Act of God and Heroic Measures. Ms. Hempel, 63, is an acclaimed short-story writer whose work has been compared to that of Alice Munro and Grace Paley. Neither had ever written a mystery or a thriller.
(To this I’ll add that Hempel and Ciment are colleagues at the University of Florida, where I studied as an undergraduate in the early aughts. Hempel wasn’t there yet at the time, but I worked extensively with Ciment, whose work I admire enormously and to whom I owe several significant debts of gratitude, including the original admonishment to move to New York and make a go of the writing thing. Hempel’s work, for its part, has been taught to me — and in the last few years, by me — more times than I could count if I cared to try.)
The protagonist of the novel is a woman named Morgan Prager, who at 30 seems to have a bright future ahead of her. She’s newly engaged to a strong, passionate man named Bennett, and almost finished with her master’s degree in forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Bennett can be weirdly secretive, and sort of controlling, and sure, he’s skittish around her three beloved dogs (a Great Pyrenees she’s raised since birth, and two pit-mixes she’s fostering) — but nobody’s perfect. In the plus column: Bennett is a genuinely attentive person (Prager notes that the average man uses “I” 19 times in an introductory email; Bennett doesn’t use it once), he’s always well-dressed, and he fucks like a steam drill — a steam drill who sometimes goes down on you first. It’s amazing what good — and what bad — a person can get used to in a lover, and just how fast.
In a quick brutal delivery of literary justice, Bennett (presumably unlike his real-life low-life antecedent) is dead by the end of the first chapter. Prager comes home to her Williamsburg apartment after a day at school to find her three dogs covered in blood and her lover’s body partially eaten and torn to pieces in her bedroom. Understandably, Prager goes into shock, though her forensics training allows her to take in a lot of detail that she’ll pore over later. She locks herself in the bathroom and manages to call 911, though she can hardly speak to the dispatcher. The cops end up shooting the pit named Chester; Cloud, her Pyrenees, and George, the other fostered pit, are both taken away by animal control. Prager herself is taken to Bellevue. When she’s recovered sufficiently, she tries to reach out to Bennett’s parents by having her brother Steven’s law firm look them up, but as near as Steven can tell, the parents do not exist and never did. Nobody seems to know that Bennett was in New York, or notice that he has died. Whatever his life was outside of Prager’s apartment, he seems to have disappeared from it without leaving a trace or a ripple. His body stays at the morgue, unclaimed, while Prager tries to figure out just who the hell he was, what exactly happened to him, and more urgently yet: what happened — or is happening — to her.
To say more would be to risk spoiling the book’s many pulpy, noirish twists — some of which are perhaps a bit more plausible than others, but all of which deliver legit thrills and are worth encountering on their own terms. So I’m going to drop the plot summary here, and get back to what I originally wanted to talk about: the novel as a work of artistic collaboration.
While I think Alter is correct, as I quoted her above, in saying that The Hand That Feeds You “bears little resemblance to either of their individual literary styles,” it is nonetheless interesting — and perhaps instructive — to try and run a DNA test on the book. Prager’s work on victim psychology at John Jay is Hempel’s — she herself studied forensic psych there in the mid-aughts, as something between a hobby and an obsession, though she left before finishing a degree. And though I’ve read bios of both women stating that each “divides her time” between Gainesville, Florida, and New York City, I’m going to confidently guess that the finely detailed descriptions of North Brooklyn — not just specific restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, but the menu offerings at these places and their respective clientele, as well as the larger changes that have shaped the neighborhood over the last five years — are mostly if not entirely the work of Jill Ciment, who spends her summers there. (Hempel, rightly or wrongly, strikes me as an Upper East Side type — not the hoity part, but maybe the anonymous 80s around 1st or 2nd avenue, tourist-less, nightlife-less, easy walk west to Central Park one way, or east to the river.)
What the two writers share, and what is ultimately revealed to be the heart of the novel, is a profound love and respect for dogs. Hempel has raised seeing-eye dogs, is a founding board member of two dog-rescue organizations, and human-canine companionship figures powerfully in her own fiction. Ciment’s 2009 novel, Heroic Measures, was narrated in part by a dachshund named Dorothy, modeled on Ciment’s own dachshund, Sadie, which you can see her holding in some author photos. When Hempel’s Collected Stories was published in 2006, the cover boasted a succession of photographs — nine of them, in uneven columns, like a Warhol series — of the author with what looks to be a golden retriever, the both of them beautiful and stern and windswept on a desolate beach.
“People are never dog owners since the dogs own us,” Ciment told O, The Oprah Magazine at the time, a sentiment that Hempel and Prager would surely second. In the novel, Prager’s relationship with her animals — especially with Cloud — is distinctly parental. She understands their lives as inherently sacred, deserving of love without limit. Even when she believes that the dogs are responsible for killing Bennett, she worries for their well-being, the way a mother might worry whether a son on death row is eating well, or getting enough sleep. As the novel progresses, and Prager becomes less certain that the dogs attacked Bennett without provocation (or at all) the battle to extricate them from the city animal control system, and clear them of the charge of being “dangerous to humans” (itself a death sentence) becomes the novel’s primary subplot, as well as its ethical core. A dog’s love is unconditional, and innocent, while a human’s is neither. We love just as we fail to love: by choosing to. To be loved by a dog, then, is to be given ultimate power over another creature’s happiness (in the larger, existential sense), which — necessarily — is to be made aware of your own inherent capacity for evil. Innocence, in this way, invents sin; at the same time it generates the possibility of a goodness that is not hardwired, but freely chosen.
Prager’s quest to free Cloud and George — but more than that, her positively Franciscan yearning for them — is wrenching, as are several scenes set in the grim bowels of a city animal control facility in Harlem. For Prager, Cloud’s psychic trauma at being abducted from her home and impounded, is analogous (if not equivalent) to Prager’s own sense of a life turned inside out. One imagines this is how it felt for Katherine Russell Rich, at the time of her original diagnosis, in what was supposed to have been the prime of her life; and again many years later, after beating the longest odds imaginable for longer than anyone imagined she could, only to find out how (and how badly) she had been conned by a man she loved, and thought she knew. So it must have been as well as for Hempel and Ciment, who suddenly lost the fearless friend who had seemed so unstoppable for so long. There’s a recurring image in the novel, borrowed from an episode of the original Twilight Zone series, of a girl who sleeps next to the wall and falls through it. It serves as a perfectly and chillingly fitting emblem of this powerful novel, but also of its harried, tragic, salvific creation. You think you know how the world works, then a hole opens up in the known.