1. Patrick McGrath is the best-known practitioner of neo-Gothic, and Spider is perhaps his best-known novel (largely thanks to the film version, starring Ralph Fiennes). Like Asylum and Dr. Haggard's Disease, the novel features an insane first-person narrator with unfortunate sexual obsessions--this time, a virgin/whore fixation, centering on his mother and the prostitute he believes has taken her place. The narrative consists of Spider's sometimes fractured diary, in which he records his memories (or are they?...) of childhood abuse, his "real" mother's murder, the prostitute's murder (or is it?...), and his own decades in an insane asylum. In a sense, the diary is Spider's attempt to reconcile his multiple personalities within a single text; "Spider," after all, is the self born out of young Horace Cleg's attempts to dissociate himself from his father's beatings. As the novel progresses, however, Spider fragments even further, as memories invade the present--often in the form of olfactory hallucinations--and his body devours itself.
Of the McGrath novels I've read so far, this one was the least satisfactory, largely because the narrator's insanity manifested itself far too quickly. In Asylum, for example, McGrath crafts the psychiatrist's voice so carefully that we are well into the novel before we hear the ominous warning bells. By contrast, Spider is clearly paranoid from the get-go, and this considerably lessens both the element of suspense and the paradoxically pleasurable "punch" that comes from realizing that, to be frank, we've been taken in.
2. So far, I'm delighted with Kate Atkinson, whose novels combine a singularly rumbustious style with an often macabre sense of humor and slyly irreverent attitudes to English history. (In Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a young girl happily cavorts in front of the TV screen broadcasting Elizabeth II's coronation; the moment simultaneously registers a shift in how the English experience their own history and a comical awareness of how "aslant" these experiences might prove to be.) Human Croquet is black comedy with a vengeance, combining a mystery--whatever happened to the Isobel's mother?--with truly unfortunate events, timewarps, Shakespearean romance, and situations that appear to have wandered in from fairy tales. Atkinson does especially well at evoking childhood and adolescent blind spots; the protagonist and her friends see but don't see the evidence of horrifying domestic traumas. But these traumas manifest themselves openly during the timewarp sequences, especially in the alternative timelines that start branching off in the last third or so of the novel. The novel's blackest humor occurs during these multi-universe moments, as everything Isobel does somehow leads to apocalyptic deaths of some sort or another.
3. Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake melds Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with the politics of the literary marketplace and debates over originality. (It's inspired by a real case, the forgeries of Ern Malley.) Christopher Chubb, who has aspirations to true literary greatness, decides to send up the poetic establishment by creating "Bob McCorkle," a talented working-class poet. Somewhat inconveniently for all concerned, this figment of Chubb's imagination actually puts in an appearance. Havoc follows.
In Frankenstein, the frame narrator's own upbringing and obsessions parody Frankenstein's, but his mind seems incapable of grasping the ramifications of Frankenstein's hubris. My Life as a Fake doesn't have a frame narrator per se, but the novel's title applies as much to poetry editor Sarah Wode-Douglass' sense of self as it does to Chubb (who is far more a "fake" than his creation); as she discovers, the tragic domestic narrative that structures her identity is, in large part, the product of misinformation and a distorted memory. But, then, was her earlier self-awareness "real" or not? When it comes to the novel's larger structure, it's clear that Carey has paid careful attention to Shelley: he invokes key images (e.g., the horrifying face at the window), themes (as in Frankenstein, people spend a lot of time getting ill), and even literary allusions ("The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"). At the same time, though, Carey inverts a number of things. Bob McCorkle successfully absconds with and raises Chubb's child, whereas Frankenstein's brother rejected the creature; other people find McCorkle far more sympathetic than they do Chubb, whereas the creature is forever barred from human sympathies (in this respect, Chubb actually takes on the creature's position); and McCorkle turns out to be a genuine creative artist, whereas the creature--despite his obvious brilliance--can only kill. Quite literally, McCorkle floats away from his author's intentions, rendering Chubb virtually irrelevant in the process. Overall, while not as complex as The True History of the Kelly Gang, this is still a fine read.