Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Macmillan New Writing Watch

Low Life, by Ryan David Jahn

One of the unexpected pleasures of being part of Macmillan New Writing is seeing other writers on the imprint go on to achieve critical and commercial success.  Recently Ann Weisgarber, LC Tyler and Brian McGilloway have all been nominated for major prizes.
Ryan David Jahn has now, with his second novel, Low Life, been assimilated into the mainstream Macmillan imprint.  I always look forward to MNWers' crime novels (my former editor Will Atkins is now head honcho for Macmillan crime acquisitions, such is his ability to pick winners), and Low Life does not disappoint.

When Simon Johnson is attacked in his crummy LA apartment, he knows he must defend himself or die. Turning on the lights after the scuffle, Simon realises two things: one, he has killed his attacker; two, the resemblance of the man to himself is uncanny.
Over the coming days, Simon’s lonely life will spiral out of control. With his pet goldfish Francine in tow, he embarks on a gripping existential investigation, into his own murky past, and that of Jeremy Shackleford, the (apparently) happily married math teacher whose body is now lying in Simon’s bathtub under forty gallons of ice.
But Simon has a plan. Gradually, he begins to assume the dead man’s identity, fooling Shackleford’s colleagues, and even his beautiful wife. However, when mysterious messages appear on the walls around Simon’s apartment, he realises that losing his old self will be more difficult than he’d imagined. Everything points to a long forgotten date the previous spring, when his life and Shackleford’s first collided. As the contradictions mount, and the ice begins to melt, the events of the past year will resolve themselves in the most catastrophic way.
Combining gritty noir, psychological drama and dazzling plotting, Low Life is a shocking novel that announces Jahn as a brilliant new voice of modern America.
So goes the blurb, of which I am automatically wary.  The phrase "gripping existential investigation" invites immediate scepticism, and yet this is exactly what the novel proves to be.  Jahn builds on his exceptional ability--showcased in his debut Acts of Violence--to nail urban American life in the accretion of telling detail by adding a plot of clockwork precision: few writers would have the audacity to combine hidden quantum physics with a seamy naturalism, and fewer still would be able to pull it off.  The crime field is a crowded one, but with Low Life, Ryan David Jahn proves he is working in its upper reaches.


Len Tyler said...

Thanks, Tim, for the kind mention and for a really interesting review. I certainly enjoyed Acts of Violence and am now looking forward to reading this one too.

Tim Stretton said...

It is always a risk speculating on who will enjoy which book, but I would be surprised if you did not get on with this one.

RDJ said...

Thanks for the review, Tim, and glad you liked it. It's a bit different from AoV, so I don't expect everyone who likes one to like the other. But I, of course, hope there's quite a bit of overlap. In any case, I enjoyed working on it an awful lot.

Tim Stretton said...

I don't think it's until you're halfway through that you realise how different it is from AoV it is.

Some readers may not enjoy the existential tricksiness but the voice is similar enough between the two books that I think even they will be carried along for the ride.

In both cases you're occupying the "crime meets literary fiction" territory so I don't think you'll lose many readers.