Where Alluring Facades Meet Unsettling Reality On “Scarstruck” And “Honey, I Killed the Cats”

Where Alluring Facades Meet Unsettling Reality: On “Scarstruck” And “Honey, I Killed the Cats”

Tobias Carroll writes about two novels, Honey, I Killed the Cats and Scarstruck, that deal with characters whose illusions are torn away by a harsh reality. 

What happens when events conspire to bring down a comfortable facade? What happens when someone’s illusions about how the world works are torn away, leaving them at the mercy of harsh reality? There’s a fine line between a reassuring illusion and a sinister deception, and what better medium is there than fiction to trace the boundary between the two?

Dorota Masłowska’s novel Honey, I Killed the Cats (translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff) is a bleak satire of consumerism that frequently spills over into violence — emotional and otherwise. It traces the fraught friendship of Farah and Joanne, two young women living in either a near-future United States or an ominously stylized version of contemporary America.

As befits its title, Masłowska’s novel opens with the image of a dead cat in the street. A few pages later, Farah has shot and killed a man: “she thought how stupid it was to introduce herself to someone she was just then shooting; it was a good thing she had had the presence of mind not to give her last name,” Masłowska writes.

That act of violence, and the accumulated dead bodies in the first chapter, hang neatly over what follows. Masłowska here describes a terrifying funhouse abounding with toxic friendships, ominous takes on consumerism, and grotesque moments of violence and general discomfort. Farah in particular acts as a kind of free-roaming agent of chaos, finding herself in unexpected situations with little understanding of her own actions. The tone is broadly satirical throughout, but it’s the variety with fangs — sometimes literally.

Violet LeVoit’s novel Scarstruck deals with a very different gulf between illusion and reality. Here, the milieu is the film industry in the late 1950s. Our hero is Ron Dash, a closeted leading man who spends many a day struggling with the need to keep up appearances and maintain the facade of a heterosexual heartthrob. In reality, Ron’s penchant for inflicting pain during sex is even more alarming to his agent than who he happens to be sleeping with: “I can’t bury sick,” Ron’s agent Rockwell tells him.

Rockwell arranges a marriage between Ron and Lana Arleaux — an actress with a penchant for alcoholic binges. Lana’s personal politics — a fondness for Communism at the height of the Cold War — are as frowned upon by the larger society of the time as Ron’s sexuality. Turns out Ron and Lana, for all of their obvious incompatibility, do make good co-conspirators in maintaining a “wholesome” image that each secretly pushes back against.

With the exception of Rockwell — a sinister power broker whose contempt for those around him is clear — LeVoit’s characters are largely portrayed sympathetically, even as they remain unpredictable.

It wouldn’t be a novel without complications; the blend of two volatile personalities, even in an unlikely alliance, is one thing. The addition of Flaco, a man who’d had an earlier tryst with Ron, into the narrative complicates things — and the presence of Rockwell, whose penchant for manipulation and control is a constant in the narrative, adds an air of menace to the proceedings.

With the exception of Rockwell — a sinister power broker whose contempt for those around him is clear — LeVoit’s characters are largely portrayed sympathetically, even as they remain unpredictable.

“Whipping didn’t do it for him, not specifically, but he did like the look of the long strawberry streak rising like a sunburn,” she writes In one intimate scene with Ron. What makes Scarstruck so compelling is the way in which its characters both complement one another and are capable of causing one another immeasurable pain. It’s a complex novel, but also an unexpectedly moving one.

What happens when a facade collapses? Sometimes the effect can be revelatory.

What happens when a facade collapses? Sometimes the effect can be revelatory; at others, it only brings pain. These two novels each depict the tumbling of a particular illusion. Whether it’s the way Masłowska dramatizes the violence below the surface of consumerist yearning or LeVoit’s approach to showing an uneasy web of desire camouflaged in unexpected ways, these books help to turn the familiar into the unexpected.

*****

For complete list of Mystery Tribune essays by Tobias Carroll, please go here.

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