American cop show The Shield introduces us to awkward Midwestern detective Dutch Wagenbach, tracking a serial killer through the LA badlands. Well meaning, but gangling and inept, Wagenbach represents the show’s moral centre. After numerous missteps and frustrations Wagenbach finally brings in a man who he is convinced is the murderer he has been chasing. This man, Sean, is a nondescript fellow in his thirties, who works at a car dealership and has no significant priors. Once in the box, Sean proceeds to use Dutch’s psychological insights against him: ‘You were a joke in uniform. That’s why you became a detective.’ He writes on the whiteboard: ‘Detective Wagenbach: Craves respect, fantasizes about being well-liked yet shows no outward manifestation of his low self-esteem, feels ignored, unappreciated, inadequate with women.’ All this is watched on the CCTV by Wagenbach’s fellow detectives, who laugh at the sight of Dutch ‘getting his ass handed to him by a civilian.’ But as the interrogation goes on, Dutch hits his suspect with more and more incontrovertible evidence, until Sean eventually breaks, and admits: ‘I killed 22 people, well, 23 if you want to count the hunting incident back in Rockford. Oh, I’m special, alright.’ It is a slam dunk. Dutch walks out of the box to cheers, backslaps, handshakes from his colleagues, even the corrupt Vic Mackey, his worst enemy. But when he gets to his car, he weeps, knowing everything the killer said was true.
I thought of that scene while reading Caroline Kepnes’s You. The narrator is Joe Goldberg, a clerk at an independent bookstore. Joe is bright, perceptive, articulate. He is also an obsessive sociopath and serial stalker. The you of the title is Guinevere Beck, an MFA student who makes the error of walking into Joe’s bookstore. From a chance conversation Joe attempts to consume her life. He hangs around her brownstone and hacks into her emails. He discovers that Beck is semi-involved with a connected fop named Benji, who he kidnaps and keeps in a basement cage for many days before killing him. To cover his tracks, Joe also hacks into Benji’s Twitter account, posting a series of tweets making him out to be a crack-addled degenerate. Next problem: Beck has a clingy and chaotic friend called Peach, apparently a distant cousin of J D Salinger. Peach takes up too much of Beck’s time, so Joe has to whack Peach as well, drowning her with pockets full of rocks in a Virginia Woolf-style sham suicide. Joe will do anything, endure everything for his dream girl, even putting himself through a NYE Charles Dickens themed boat ride.
All this is fun to read but the book stalls around the halfway mark. Maybe Kepnes wanted to write a modern version of The Collector, or perhaps a digital-age thriller along the lines of Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First. But the characters don’t carry it. Joe Goldberg is an uncompelling villain, chippy and resentful, the clever man who confuses cleverness with wisdom. His narration is characterised by a recurring, breathless run on sentence: ‘You touch me in the bad way, like you want me to stop and the Brown singers know the words to ‘My Sweet Lord’ and someone found a fucking tambourine and somewhere in my head I remember that George Harrison’s son went to Brown and I hate knowing that at this particular moment.’ The rhythm fits at times, but Kepnes uses it so often that it becomes infuriating. You’re locked inside this guy’s head, and it’s a dull place to be. Maybe that’s the point. The book might as well be called Me: like all obsessives, Joe is mostly obsessed with himself. But, as much as I dislike the idea that a story needs ‘someone to root for’ I just wanted Joe Goldberg to get sent to a glass box in Oz for the next eighty years.
The best thing about Guinevere Beck is her name. I mean, how could you not fall in love with the name Guinevere Beck? But again, Beck starts out being interesting and fun but soon loses appeal. Kepnes appears not to understand that if you come across a scene where you realise ‘Character X would never do that!’ then you rewrite that scene. As it is, poor Beck is forced through numerous implausible contortions. Kepnes is running on pure story, and around halfway through the book she runs out of story. Repeated references to Twitter and Instagram don’t in and of themselves make a novel interesting or relevant. Kepnes is obviously a huge talent. But this novel doesn’t display it.