The Affair is at its very best when it’s skewering privileged white male literary darlings through the ever-insufferable Noah Solloway, our resident aspiring Great American Novelist. In between name-dropping Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, and, of course, the sagacious Ernest Hemingway, Noah says things like “As a straight white man, I am automatically disqualified from winning the PEN/Faulkner… it’s impossible to be a man in 2015!” and uses Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss’s divorce attorney because “now they live in adjacent brownstones in Brooklyn!”
Before the first season began, Noah wrote a little-read, high-minded first novel called–descriptively–A Person Who Visits a Place. He assumes that no one read it because it was “literary,” and not because it was as god-fucking-awful as its title, so he sells his soul and writes a prurient thriller about an extramarital affair/murder (that’s totally, 100% not based on his own life) called Descent.
Now imagine my surprise to find out that this book exists in real life:
Just look at the cover. It looks exactly like Noah’s foggy, forested, green-tinted nightmares of the rural Hamptons setting in which the climactic scene of his novel takes place:
Descent by Tim Johnston, very much like Descent by Noah Solloway, is considered a “literary thriller.” It tackles ostensibly salacious material–the abduction and rape of a young girl, rather than the murder of one–but transcends the label of “genre” as a result of its “lyrical” and “poetic” prose (according to The Washington Post), in an attempt to straddle the line between prestige and popularity.
Here’s a passage from the Washington Post review, and it’s as strangely defensive as I imagine the reviews of Noah Solloway’s Descent were:
I hope the “literary thriller” label doesn’t scare away lovers of serious fiction who are suspicious of thrillers, or thriller fans who think literary means dull. “Literary” is not really relevant. The question is whether you value gorgeous prose and can accept a story as painful as it is beautiful. If you do and you can, read this astonishing novel. It’s the best of both worlds.
It’s of course true that thrillers can be literary and that prestigious novels can have exciting plots (no one was denying either assertion to begin with). [kht: I can just imagine all of the Philistines that this reviewer apparently believes are in the habit of perusing the Washington Post books section throwing down their newspaper and being like GREAT WRITING? GROSS! I WANT A THRILLER THAT SOUNDS LIKE IT WAS WRITTEN BY GEORGE W. BUSH ON CRACK!] And this is to say nothing of the quality of Johnston’s novel, which I haven’t read. But this review makes me smile because I can just imagine comparable pouting defenses from Noah himself, some of which have been advanced, in so many words, on the show already:
“I didn’t write a ‘thriller,’ I created a piece of art. For a true artist, labels are meaningless, and any critic that calls it a ‘thriller’ just doesn’t get it.”
“Yes, there’s a murder at the end, but that doesn’t make it low-brow. Haven’t you read Of Mice and Men? Shakespeare killed off a lot of his female characters too, or haven’t you heard?”
“Ernest Hemingway never had to choose between pulp appeal and critical acclaim. What if the only difference between me and Ernest is that he never had to choose?”
In any case, I’m sure Descent by Tim Johnston is a lovely novel, if only because it doesn’t contain these truly cringe-worthy lines from Noah Solloway’s heartbreaking work of staggering genius:
He lifted her skirt just an inch. He paused. They listened together to the sounds of the marina, hearts shaking in their skin.
She was sex. The very definition of it. She was the reason the word was invented. No marriage, no matter how strong, could survive her.
I can’t wait for The Affair‘s third season, if only to continue to hate-watch Noah’s trajectory as the quintessential straight white male New York City-based writer whose arrogance and posturing is mistaken for (or rather, hailed as) literary prowess. I can only imagine that Noah will finally be taken down a peg or two, or (more likely) will take over the world and refuse to join Oprah’s book club.