Crazy Love You
by Lisa Unger
“Worldbuilding” is a term that typically describes the process of creating the richly detailed alternate realities we find in works ranging from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones to the Harry Potter series. These settings are overtly different places peopled by characters with odd and magical traits. You know from the beginning you’re in an imagined universe. It also happens to a different degree in works by John Farris, Richard Matheson, Stephen King and other thrillermeisters who take the richly detailed real world we know so well and integrate an extra dimension where the supernatural becomes completely believable.
In CRAZY LOVE YOU, Lisa Unger has built a world where characters from the pages of graphic novels may or may not be three dimensional flesh and blood people. It’s a place experienced by narrator Ian Rankin as he grapples with genetic mental illness juxtaposed with substance abuse and occasional promises of redemption that are like rays of sunlight breaking through storm clouds.
Unger’s powerful descriptions of what Ian “sees” depict a Gotham City-like New York where hulking men in monster masks push innocent women in front of subway trains and where detectives may or may not be bludgeoned to death moments before flames leap through apartment building windows. A place where Ian’s beloved childhood friend, “Priss,” lives without a fixed address and appears at points of her choosing to seduce and cajole Ian, reminding him all the while that she is a dominant force who will always make him bend to her will. Amid the sad memories of Ian’s childhood, Priss is a woodland waif with ephemeral qualities who avenges bullies with terrifying results. On the pages of Ian’s graphic novels she is a sexually dominating Amazon who becomes terrifying mostly because of Ian’s memories of what she did to those bullies during their childhoods.
The story would be successful enough if you simply came to believe all of the horrors Ian faces are in his mind. Yet it becomes extravagantly successful when the horrors begin to leap off the page – when you come to believe that the world Ian has created actually is the world in which he lives.The visuals Unger describes are so powerful, in fact, that one night, as I watched this amazing video of Disturbed’s rendition of The Sound of Silence, I imagined what it might be like to find myself planted right into the engine of Ian’s mind. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Dg-g7t2l4
As a storyteller with a day job as a ghostwriter and as someone with tremendous respect for graphic and commercial artists and advertising and PR types, I have a special appreciation for something else Unger does in this novel. Through the power of her storytelling she made me want to learn more about graphic novels as an art form. Her narrator Ian references the fact that they’re sometimes viewed – disdainfully or not – as “comic books,” but she creates the sense that the visuals conjured by Ian could set him apart. I kept thinking, in fact, of illustrations from his novels being blown up into works of art, Ray Lichtenstein-style, and appearing on gallery walls. In other words, Unger made me believe that in a saner, happier world, Ian’s talent might have transcended the limits of the graphic novel genre.
All of which brings me to the most important thing that should be said about Lisa Unger’s work. She’s writing stories of suspense, which as a genre is often maligned by the literary set. She’s an undisputed master – well-loved by many other bestsellers – who tells stories that truly will make a six-hour plane ride feel like a wonderful journey elsewhere. But from the time I found her – perhaps six or seven years ago – I recognized that her writing rises to a higher level than some people might expect in this genre. In novels such as Beautiful Lies and Silver of Truth and In the Blood – which was the best thriller I read in 2015 – she completely eschews the shortcuts writers often use for descriptions on the fly, and always finds a more meaningful way to convey both physical appearances and the emotions of her characters.
Here, for example is a passage from early on in CRAZY LOVE YOU, after Ian meets Megan (“a good girl – the kind you take home to your parents”). In this first encounter, Ian is already imagining how she’d look on the page.
“Was she going to apologize? I wondered. If I were writing her, what would I have her do? I’d like to get that little wiggle in her eyebrows, that tightness of uncertainty around her eyes, the just-barely-there embarrassed smile. It’s all those little muscles under the skin; they dance in response to limbic impulses we can’t control. It’s their subtle shifting and moving that make expression.”
As it turns out Meg does find her way into the pages of Ian’s work as she becomes a part of his life. While there are plenty of wonderful moments when you can’t aptly tell the difference between what Ian is creating and experiencing, they all add up to surreal journey to a world where nightmares happen in daylight, and where belief is every bit as valid as the truth.
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