Emma Jane Unsworth is a Manchester-based writer. Her short fiction has appeared in various places and her first novel, Hungry, The Stars and Everything, was published by Hidden Gem in June of this year. Emma is a columnist for The Big Issue in the North. She is currently working on her second novel. She blogs at Fall and Fall Again and is on Twitter @emjaneunsworth. Here she writes about Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf.
Emma Jane Unsworth on The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
I always panic when I'm asked about my favourite book. I don't have one and, even if I did, I'd probably struggle to remember it on the spot. I'm stupidly indecisive sometimes (you should see me in a restaurant: seasons change, tectonic plates shift, and still I'm agonizing between the halibut and the pork). But aside from the panic and indecision, there honestly isn't one classic that has defined my current taste or outlook; there's no single volume that has inspired me like no other. I can think of 50 works of art that have rocked my world at various points, all for different reasons and none of them with anything like consistency. (Except perhaps the poem 'When You Are Old' by Yeats - I cry without fail whenever I read that. Pilgrim soul! Pass the tissues, would you?) So I thought the smartest thing to do was choose a book that has been a recent favourite, and this autumn there were two: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Because it's Halloween as I'm writing this, I'm going to expand on the latter.
I read The Last Werewolf in September, when I was staying in a cottage in the Lake District where I go to write once a year with three friends – which reminds me of another excellent book about werewolves, set in Cumbria: The Leaping by Tom Fletcher, shortlisted for Best Novel in the 2011 British Fantasy Awards. The Last Werewolf made for ideal reading up there, partly because we were isolated – sealed off from phone reception and internet access; the semi-wilderness – and even though it was uncharacteristically sunny during the daytime, we had a coal fire every pitch-black night. The book was also ideal because it's that rare thing: a beautifully written page-turner. There is no sacrifice of either language or story; no surrender in the relish of a gruesome, graphic, grippingly analysed romp. And it's far more than a romp. (I hate the word 'romp'. I might say it again and slap myself. Romp.) It's about love, loyalty and self-loathing as much as it's about sex, smoking and drinking.
Our narrator and guide is Jake Marlowe, the last surviving werewolf on earth. We find him, erudite, cynical, worldly (he should be, he's 200 years old), on the run from two things: the hellbent endeavours of WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena), who have successfully hunted down all the other lycanthropes; and, secondly, his own bankrupt and broken romantic nature. The part of him that is resigned to his fate is in the mood for some sharp sermonizing, and he comments on society in a snarling, slanted way, covering everything from politics to philosophy to the media – and, of course, literature. Glen Duncan is the author of seven previous novels and his creds shine through.
On American Psycho:
Poor Harls [Jake's protector and friend]. He hadn't much liked American Psycho. Savage satirist or twisted fuck? he'd asked me, when he'd finished it. Both, I'd said. It's a false dichotomy. The romantic days of either/or are over.
On Heart of Darkness:
... the Conradian truth: The first horror is there's horror. The second is you accommodate it.
These fearful wranglings - lovingly rendered - point, like so many of the book's literary hat-tips, to the capacity for metamorphosis lurking in us all. Duncan employs some military-grade satire - the pleasure-pain of which is seeing humanity in the monstrous, and vice versa. It's a truism that not fitting into categories is symptomatic of life, and hence literature, so it's a real sin if this genre-bending book is pigeonholed as horror when it's such a masterpiece – and something the Man Booker judges should be paying attention to. I love books that don't fit comfortably into one genre – that have been written where anything is possible. That way, when you're reading them, anything's possible. A Visit From the Goon Squad and The Last Werewolf share this quality: there's an almost culinary kind of flamboyance in Egan's and Duncan's writing styles - a touch of this, a dash of that - and a resulting complexity that makes for compelling scenarios and characters. I try to write like that: not worrying about where something will be placed, how it will be published. After working as a journalist for years, writing to spec, the absolute freedom of fiction is something I now guard fiercely, with all my teeth and claws.
My favourite part of The Last Werewolf was the first paragraph of chapter seven. It's the most perfect paragraph I've read in a long time – the most perfect paragraph I can remember reading, in fact. I read it once. I read it twice. I read it three times. I read it out to my friends round the dining table in the Lakes. Here it is, for your delectation:
It was a long night after Madeline fell asleep around three, leaving me alone in the inaptly named small hours, when so many big things happen in the heart. I lay for a while on the bathroom floor in the dark. I smoked. I went out onto the suite's roof terrace, where the undisturbed fall was deep (and crisp, and even) and looked across the roofs of Clerkenwell. Snow makes cities look innocent again, reveals the frailty of the human gesture against the void. I thought of waking Maddy to share the scene's queer quiet beauty - and felt the impulse immediately sucked into the furnace of absurdity, where all such impulses of mine must go, accompanied by a feeling of dead hilarity. After a while the only thing you can do with loneliness is laugh at it. I drank the minibar's spirits, one by one, with reverence for their different personalities. I watched television.
Yes, that's what I thought. Wow. I couldn't remember the last time I'd read something that did everything: poetry, pace, humour, simplicity, grandeur, pride, self-degradation, longing, resignation, playfulness, attentive boozing. I raced through the rest, inhaling it almost. When it ended, as with all my favourite books (especially first-person narratives), I felt as though I'd lost a friend.
I had the pleasure of meeting Glen Duncan at the inaugural Voewood literature festival back in August, before I'd read the novel – or any of his novels for that matter. He read extracts accompanied by a band called the Real Tuesday Weld, who have released a soundtrack for The Last Werewolf. They're a class act and I've since bought the album, along with all of Glen Duncan's books. If you need another taster, there's a song on the cover CD of this month's Word magazine. Enjoy.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]