John Colapinto’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-nominated first novel, About the Author, was a metafictional tale about a blocked writer named Cal who discovers that his roommate has secretly written a great novel based on his (Cal’s) life. When the roommate suddenly dies, Cal pilfers the manuscript and becomes a bestselling author; his time in the limelight coming to an end when he fails to produce a follow-up and when a former flame, aware of his secret, tries to blackmail him.
That Colapinto himself, a long-time staff writer at The New Yorker who was born and raised in Toronto, failed to produce another novel for fourteen years might have led some to wonder, during that interim, exactly how metafictional About the Author really was. Happily though, he has ended this fallow period with an equally inventive but bolder novel, Undone, which bears sufficient stylistic and thematic similarities to its predecessor to quash any lingering suspicions about life imitating art.
Whether it borrows from, or pays homage to, Vladimir Nabokov is another question. With its vile main character sexually obsessed with young girls (in this case post- rather than pre-pubescent), tragicomic tone and use of spurious fatherhood, dubious rape and convenient death as plot devices, you might call Undone a Lolita for the DNA-age. Both authors revel conspicuously in words and language. But unlike Nabokov’s unreliable first-person narrator, Humbert Humbert, Colapinto’s sprightly third-person narrator rambles garrulously, as if extemporizing an obscure fable. Put the book down and it’s easy to imagine him still chatting away inside the covers.
Here, the Humbert Humbert role goes to Dez, a 31-year-old former lawyer who, being a modern guy, manages to outsource some of his debased doings to a far less pernicious character. Dez’s taste for young flesh has so far earned him a prison term and an empty bank account. When the novel begins he’s living impecuniously in a trailer park with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Chloe, whom he “met”—old habits dying hard—during a brief, ill-considered gig teaching high school.
Days after Chloe’s mother is killed in a car crash (also Lolita’s mother’s fate), she sees the man her mother had a brief fling with shortly before meeting her father on Tovah in the Afternoon show. Jasper Ulrickson is now a wealthy, bestselling author, his career as a hack mystery writer having been eclipsed by a memoir he wrote about fathering his infant daughter when a devastating stroke left his wife with locked-in syndrome.
Disbelieving and abhorring Jasper’s claims to contented celibacy, Dez immediately concocts a schadenfreude-fuelled plan to destroy him. A cheek swab, to be procured from Jasper’s real daughter Maddie, will prove that Chloe is Jasper’s beautiful, orphaned daughter. Once she’s ensconced in his home, Jasper will fall victim to an incestuous honeytrap for which he will go to prison, leaving Chloe, and therefore Dez, with a third of his fortune.
Despite some unforeseen setbacks—like the fact that Chloe finds in Jasper the father she hadn’t known she’d craved all her life, and that Jasper actually is a decent human being who resists strenuously his unfatherly urges—the plan goes off without a hitch. Dez seems to derive particular pleasure from the fact that his crime has a mute witness, Jasper’s wife Pauline, whose by turns angry and desperate eye signals Jasper puts down to jealousy over his shared attentions.
Undone stretches credulity like taffy, mostly because it can: the dominant mood here is social and psychological satire, not realism. Colapinto exploits it all brilliantly, taking considerable risks along the way. Dez’s ephebophilia may be the most controversial thing about him, but the most inexplicable is his desire to ruin a complete stranger. There’s a reason for this, one you need to stick around till the end to find out. What can be revealed is that it’s rooted, like Humbert Humbert’s proclivities, in a past trauma; one that convinced Jasper that “life was a sick prank that always ended in tears.”
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor