Book #13: Fieldwork

Mischa Berlinksi's debut novel Fieldwork is well written, humorous, edgy in it's execution, moderately enjoyable but ultimately staggers at the end from a kind of "shaggy dog" syndrome that leaves you going, "oh, so that was all."

The promise of an interesting plot is delivered with the novel's first couple chapters: Mischa Berlinski, writing himself in as the novel's narrator, is a bored writer living in Thailand with his girlfriend Rachel. Over drinks with a friend of his he becomes obsessed with the story of Martiya Van Der Leun, an anthropologist who just committed suicide in a Thai prison after serving over 10 years for murdering a Christian missionary. As Mischa digs deeper in the stories of both Martiya and David Walker, the young, Grateful Dead loving man who "heard the angels" during a Jerry Garcia solo and devoted himself to spreading the Lord, Mischa also uncovers the story of the Dalyo, a primitive tribe that sees spirits in everything, and follow a bizarre ritual called dayl that comes with the annual rice planting. All three histories converge and impact Mischa's view of the events leading to the murder.

There's a lot in Fieldwork that drives you into the story: the in-depth histories of Martiya, the Walker family and how they intertwine with the Dalyo are very fleshed out. The standout section here is the entire family history of the Walkers, which paints a vivid picture of missionary life in the East, and attempts to show the calling behind the actions as well what actually transpires in day to day activities. Berlinksi pulls out numerous tricks from the new school of writing a la David Foster Wallace and David Eggers, injecting footnotes, asides, and in this case, themselves into a completely fictitious narrative. The stumbling blocks really begin to show up near the novel's end. All the mystery is wrapped up too neatly during a marathon opium smoking session with Martiya's former travel guide, a section of the book that really feels at odds with the character Berlinski sketches for himself. And when you do finally see exactly why Martiya murders David, it feels anticlimactic, and although the 310 pages leading up to the moment of revelation were enjoyable, they don't add up to the one paragraph explanation at the end.

Overall a good book, and I'm eager to see a more seasoned Berlinksi when his second novel comes out.