ADVENT CALENDAR ’15: Re-reading ‘Death of an Ordinary Man’

Glen Duncan

Then: There’s a few writers I’m a bit crazy-obsessive about. Glen Duncan is one of them, and it’s all because of Death of an Ordinary Man.

may have mentioned the fact that at around the age of fifteen or sixteen, I broke out of genre reading and began to explore the literary world. Death of an Ordinary Man was picked up in a library, and I don’t think I anticipated quite what a shot in the arm it would be. Glen Duncan’s prose is very literary, and very savage, and brutally honest. Little happens in Death of an Ordinary Man: Nathan wakes up at his own funeral, able to feel the thoughts and memories of those near him, but unable to remember how he died. The novel takes place over the rest of that day, examining his family and picking apart the past events that lead to the start of the novel.

It’s a novel purely about the interior lives of its characters. When I first read Death of an Ordinary Man I don’t think I’d ever really encountered a novel that was so completely about this, that unapologetically had nothing much really happen. Of course, since then, I’ve read far more of those sorts of novels than I care for, and I’ve come to realise that this format is as jaded and hackneyed as any other, but fresh from wizards and elves, reading Glen Duncan was like having icy water dumped over you. And then slapped.

I compulsively read his entire oeuvre: I analysed the blackly hilarious I, Lucifer for an early university essay; I read his grim emotionally-surviving-the-rape-and-brutal-beating-of-your-wife-by-having-anal-sex-with-men-in-New-York opus Love Remains at a sunny music festival (bad choice, and his weakest book), and the why-obsessively-viewing-of-pornography-is-bad-but-not-as-bad-as-thinking-porn-actually-is-bad book Hope on a nice Christmas break. His strongest is Weathercock, which is a dark bildungsroman that benefits a wide scope where his books are normally myopic in their focus. His weakest is A Day and a Night and a Day which I couldn’t finish, and The Bloodstone Papers was an oddly-marketed family saga that wasn’t really a family saga at all.

Now — quite surreally, because despite how hipster this sounds, I knew him before he was famous — he’s reinvented himself as a horror writer with the critically lauded The Last Werewolf and its sequels, which are great (although compared to his earlier novels, they feel – pu unintended – toothless, though still a far-cry from many of the rest of the anodyne entries in the genre.)

Now: Thank fuck this one still stands up. I was worried: a literary novel that I read before I knew what a literary novel was. What if it turned out that what I mistook for originality was just another bunch of critic-baiting wank?

But no: Glen Duncan still writes prose in a way that burns to read. His skill is in articulating thoughts and feelings that immediately ring true, but that the reader has been unable to find either the words or the courage to express. Admittedly, there is a faint sense that this transgressive approach to dissecting human motivations and feelings is calculated; in Death of an Ordinary Man, whilst exploring the family dynamics, there are numerous references to sexual tensions between family members. Not that this is ever a subject of particular focus, but Duncan is ruthless in his presentation, and is expert at illuminating humanity through its most sordid, repressed desires, but reading with a decade’s more experience, there is occasionally a faint touch of deliberately over-stepping the line.

But that said: 95% of the time his excoriating eye strikes the nerve, and still more so than any writer, his books are peppered with lines that cut straight deep to core of an experience I thought impossible to so keenly express. Death of an Ordinary Man has more than its fair share of these; my love of the book is not lessened, and neither is my love of Duncan as a writer. With the benefit of having read all of his works, it’s clear that Duncan has a pattern to his female characters (unknowable, often cruel and removed, and thus sexually devastating, and always possessing of power over male protagonists), and Cheryl in Death of an Ordinary Man hold shades of Deborah in Weathercock.

Most vividly from my first reading of the book, I remember an exquisitely tense scene in which Nathan, suffering an emotional breakdown, meets the teenage friend of his daughter (who was abducted and later murdered, it is revealed over the course of the book.) Nothing happens in this scene beyond conversation, but the tension of potentiality created by Duncan’s intense portrayal of Nathan’s self-destruction is monstrous and gripping. Ten years laters, this scene (despite knowing the outcome) is equally absorbing, as is, thankfully, the rest of the book.

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