Though Edward Albee has won three Pulitzer Prizes for drama, he should probably be best remembered for his two foolishly snubbed masterpieces: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, and The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? The latter, originally produced in 2002, initially depicts the breakdown of a marriage due to a husband’s infidelity, but then quickly turns into something more visceral and disturbing, pushing the boundaries of liberal morality when faced with extreme sexual taboos. But Albee’s play, stunning though it is, only introduces questions meant for further discussion. By contrast, Christopher Hacker’s arresting and haunting debut novel, The Morels, picks apart every last detail of the taboos that The Goat uses for shock value.
Arthur Morel is a former violin prodigy with a murky past, the son of two extremely free-spirited parents, now a man so out of step with the world that he barely relates to anyone else in it on a personal level. He ekes out his existence as an adjunct professor, plugging away at a second novel. At the outset of The Morels, he reconnects with the narrator, a former music-conservatory classmate turned wannabe filmmaker, who integrates himself into Arthur’s life.
The first hundred pages of The Morels trudges through lengthy character introductions, establishing the narrator identity as Arthur’s only friend, describing his filmmaker peers, his job at a filthy movie theater, and his attempts to romance other women to take his mind off Arthur’s wife. In the first third, The Morels plays at being yet another novel of plain domestic strife between not-so-struggling artists.
But in the span of one page, which details the final, shocking scene of Arthur’s second novel—also titled The Morels and using Arthur, his wife, and his son as the principal characters—all hope for happiness is lost, and a grand downward spiral lurches into motion. At first, Arthur’s writing, depicting a graphic sexual accident, is just disturbing, but then his in-laws pick away at his reasons for writing such a fiction, and probe for just how much of it was fabricated.
Once they tug at the thread, the Morels’ lives quickly unravel, wrenching the family apart, sending Arthur spiraling to infamy, academic disrepute, and culminating in a lengthy, torturous miscarriage of justice. It’s a wonder to behold as Hacker twists around Arthur’s self-destruction, flashing back to his childhood at exactly the right moments, dropping characters from the first third of the novel into just the right space for later events.
Hacker gets too clever at times, looping the story back on itself, building in the production of a documentary on Arthur’s life, and adding one final meta-framework on the novel that distances the story its author and proves unnecessary. But from the moment Hacker shatters the intriguing yet mundane existence of his characters with Arthur’s prose, The Morels is gripping and mesmerizing, even at its most depraved and saddening.