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Natural Born Killer

[whitespace] book cover Liar, Liar?: Keats' calculating murderess's ambition oddly mirrors his own rise to the top.



'Pathology of Lies' plunges into the depths of a murderess's mind, only to find it delightfully shallow

By Britt Schoenhoff

Jonathan Keats' debut novel, The Pathology of Lies, opens with a note from the book's power-bitch protagonist, Gloria Greene, that chronicles a brief anatomy of murders committed by women throughout the ages. Citing such notorious murderesses as Lucrezia Borgia and Lizzie Borden, Gloria calculatedly composes a list of dos and don'ts centered on these women's methods and motivations. She coldly castigates villainesses who kill because of base, "frivolous" impulses, like jealousy or pride; flitting emotions render the act pointless and, in Gloria's eyes, inexcusable.

Her criticisms may or may not be based on personal experience: Gloria is the prime suspect in the murder of P.J. Bullock, the former editor of San Francisco's glossy lifestyle magazine Portfolio. As pieces of P.J.'s body begin appearing on the doorsteps of Portfolio's vendors, the investigation focuses in on Gloria. It's no secret that she coveted P.J.'s position. She aggressively shoots up the corporate ladder five rungs at a time, transitioning from unpaid intern to food editor with absolutely no culinary credentials, thanks to her survivalist skills in the sack. (The paunchy, middle-aged P.J. proves to be a pushover when Gloria jumpstarts his withering libido.)

But being food editor doesn't satiate Gloria's voracious ambition, and she cuts a deal with P.J. They agree that when P.J. lands a job at the esteemed Algonquin (a transparent facsimile of The New Yorker), Gloria will take over his post at Portfolio. Unfortunately, the Algonquin passes on P.J., and Gloria must fall back on Plan B: murder. Or does she? The rapacity with which she pursues the magazine's editorship, coupled with an unusual talent for dissection handed down from her plastic surgeon dad, makes an embarrassingly easy case for her guilt. Yet while fumbling FBI agents and scandal-seeking reporters alike assault Gloria for a crime it seems clear she committed, she zealously--and therefore suspiciously--embraces the media blitzkrieg. The setup of this oddly symbiotic courtship becomes the axis on which the novel revolves.

The book's tongue-in-cheek quality aside, Gloria's incendiary affair with the media and her flirtation with celebrity-like status echo the author's own quest for recognition through publishing. Upon graduating from college, Keats slogged through his own internship at SOMA magazine, where he wrote--surprise!--restaurant reviews. He scrambled his way to the top of the editorial food chain and became the magazine's editor-in-chief within a year. The 27-year-old writer is now a senior editor at San Francisco magazine. Keats admits that the industry's high profile and powerful status within the culture lured him to the job. "I'm paid to be a dilettante," he muses.

Being privy to socialite gossip and gaining access to glitzy events could tempt even the most timid wallflower, but would anyone really kill for these perks? Despite this flimsy motive (Gloria's is really the only one in the book), the exhausted subject of gluttonous media and various potholes in the plot, Keats fleshes out a fantastically formidable character in Gloria. She's a deliciously venal Amanda Woodward-esque anti-heroine torn straight out of the pages of Cosmo who captures our clipped attention span with her impenetrable net of lies. The taut "did she or didn't she?" tease slyly seduces throughout the book. If Keats never truly plunges into the murky depths of Gloria's mind, it's only because these depths don't exist. It's not that Gloria isn't clever; it's simply that her shallowness doesn't permit self-analysis.

Keats' self-consciously banal, telegraphic prose punctuates Gloria's emptiness and indifference. A moral cipher, her numbness is a product of the times: however exploitative, the media delight in reminding us that high doses of drugs, TV, pornography, cybersex and the like have filed the sharp edges of our most humane instincts--yet they continue to cram these "poisons" down our throats. The straightforward, clinical language paradoxically brings the violence to the surface, but our senses are dulled to such a point that we're immune to the shock that Gloria's abhorrent behavior should produce. According to Keats, "no crime is spectacular." He says his narrator's monotone voice results from her sense of ennui, a modern malady. "Gloria is as bored as I am ... as the world is. The language is bored with the content, which is bored with itself," he quips.

Even the flicker of an incestuous relationship doesn't propel the narrative to achieve a more accelerated pace. Nonetheless, Keats asserts that Gloria's transgressions are revealing. "I'm drawn to characters who are interested in the illicit," he says, "because doing something illicit pushes people to extremes. It's at this point that a character is forced to define itself. Extremities cause people to react, and that's when change happens."

Keats' philosophy operates on a strictly primitive, Darwinian level in the book. Gloria instinctively bulldozes forward, driven by ambition and competition. She acts solely to survive, never once pausing for self-examination. Interestingly, Crime and Punishment appears as a major influence on the author and his protagonist, but it's clear that Gloria has barely thumbed through her own copy, and the book's moral lesson has failed to make an imprint on her conscience. (In one scene she grumbles about how she's reading it because she's been told she could learn from it, yet in another we discover the book has been buried under her bed.) Still, Gloria's character--the antithesis of Raskolnikov--challenges the psychology of crime.

"The novel is meant to stand against Crime and Punishment, to answer the question posed in that book," Keats asserts. If Dostoyevsky asks whether we suffer the consequences of immoral actions, then Keats' response is bluntly negative. But the author confesses that he believes in right and wrong ... sort of. "I believe in good and bad, in standards that are absolute--but I'm not an empiricist," he says. "But good and bad are impossible to apply to any given situation."

Although Keats hardly hacks away at the tangle of thorny issues he raises, and the book's swaggering, casual tone often prevents the reader from caring too much about Gloria's fate, we can't wait to come along for the ride. Gloria is all heat and flash, like pulsating, Technicolor neon set against the steely, lifeless backdrop of corporate culture; her sheer momentum stirs the overachiever in us all. Even if her actions fail to shock as they should, somehow we can't really blame her. Readers looking for a wickedly indulgent distraction will rush to devour this breezy book, which can be greedily swallowed in one sitting.

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From the June 21, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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