I’m embarrassed by how much I enjoyed John Boyne’s wicked new novel, “A Ladder to the Sky.” It’s an addictive Rubik’s Cube of vice that keeps turning up new patterns of depravity. By the time every facet clicks into place, the story feels utterly surprising yet completely inevitable.
Millions know Boyne from his young-adult book about the Holocaust, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” and the film adaptation directed by Mark Herman. But this new novel for adults — his 11th — is written in an entirely different register. “A Ladder to the Sky” is a satire of writerly ambition wrapped in a psychological thriller. Beware reading this in public: Boyne’s prose inspires such a collision of laughing and wincing that you’re likely to seem a little unbalanced.
The villain here is an absurdly handsome young man named Maurice Swift who wants to be a famous novelist. “I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed,” he says before we realize just how much he means that. He’s been writing since he was a teenager, forsaking everything else — work, family, romance — in his single-minded pursuit of literary fame.
But Boyne has condemned this ambitious fiction writer to a special level of hell: Although Maurice possesses an elegant style, he can’t think of any stories. He has no plots, no characters. Trapped in that predicament, he becomes a slick expert at procuring incidents and details by other means: He steals them. And don’t try accusing him of plagiarism or upbraiding him with your naive ideal of originality. Didn’t Shakespeare “borrow” almost every plot he brought to life? This is what great artists do.
Maurice is like the most insidious guy in your writing workshop: magnetic, ingratiating, vampiric — the talented Mr. Ripley with an MFA. He knows just how to attract and manipulate the people who can further his career: older, gay novelists thirsty for the attention of a gorgeous disciple. No one’s being exploited, Maurice argues; each side is getting something he desires.
“A Ladder to the Sky” is an homage to Patricia Highsmith, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe, but its execution is entirely Boyne’s own. The chapters rotate through different locales, perspectives and structures, showing off the author’s remarkable literary range even as he writes about a man with none.
The opening section — a perfectly constructed novella that would have made Henry James envious — is a cringe-inducing confession of desire and foolishness. It’s narrated by a lonely German novelist who has finally found a measure of success late in life. One night against his better judgment, he strikes up a conversation with a good-looking waiter and discovers that this young man — Maurice — is a fan of his work. Desperate to stay in touch, he hires Maurice “in the slightly nebulous role of personal assistant,” and so the trap is set. What happens next is gruesome yet oddly fascinating, like a toad describing what it was like to be hypnotized and eaten by a snake. What’s so remarkable — and so deliciously evil — is the subtlety of Maurice’s method: He always lets his victim take the lead. By the time the famous German novelist realizes what Maurice has done to him, he must admit, “I had, quite literally, been the author of my own misfortune.”
One other section is also narrated by one of Maurice’s victims, but you won’t figure that out for a while, and even when you think you’ve figured it out, you’ll still be running three steps behind. It’s a macabre magic trick in print — the kind of story you want to read again as soon as you’ve gasped at its final page.
But the pièce de résistance is “The Swallow’s Nest,” a chapter set in Gore Vidal’s cliffside villa on the Italian coast. This sublime section is written in the third person, from Vidal’s vantage point — an act of near-ventriloquism that captures the writer’s astringent humor and haughty graciousness. Seamlessly knitted into the real details of Vidal’s life, the story opens when the famous writer is 64 years old. He’s awaiting the arrival of an old friend, an American novelist whom he regards as “a hack with a modicum of talent who’d managed to sustain a career by taking care never to offend the middle-aged ladies and closeted homosexuals who made up the bulk of his readership. His books were efficientlywritten but so painfully innocuous that even President Reagan had taken one on holiday to California with him toward the end of his bewildering reign and declared it to be a masterful depiction of American steelworkers” — missing entirely its erotic shenanigans.
When Vidal’s friend arrives, he’s accompanied by a stunning young man named Maurice, who is clearly a parasite looking for a more famous host. “Exactly what game was the boy playing?” Vidal wonders with mingled curiosity and alarm. “There was something about his character that made Gore immediately suspicious. He’d been beautiful himself once.” What follows is a mordant contest of wills played out between one of the sharpest wits of the 20th century and a sociopath with great abs.
“A Ladder to the Sky” reminds us that fine literature is often the only opportunity we have to spend quality time with truly ghastly people. We would recoil from such fiends in real life, but in the illicit safety of a novel, the murderer, the thief and the fraud can seem irresistible. They stroke our ego and our id, confirming our moral superiority while letting us lick the chambers of their poison hearts. Maurice may be an absurd case, but he’s an expert guide to the envy-riddled world of highbrow publishing, a realm of “covetous hostility” where success is publicly admired and privately mocked. Clearly, decades in the business have rendered Boyne fluent in the language of literary combat. He knows just how certain writers pierce their colleagues with barbed compliments and hobble them with belittling praise.
Believe me, you don’t want to stand in Maurice’s way, but you definitely want to see where he ends up.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By John Boyne
Hogarth. 362 pp. $27