Michaela Brandeis has a visceral obsession — literally visceral, in that she’s got an unhealthy propensity for fantasizing about blood and organs. Mickey, who narrates Lydia Cooper’s new novel, “My Second Death,” is the first person to inform anyone that she’s “insane.” The diagnosis of record is Antisocial Personality Disorder, and her condition also manifests itself as a revulsion at being touched and an absolute lack of empathy. For anyone.
But is Mickey really as crazy as she keeps insisting, or as impervious to the emotions of those around her? Although she’s the rare disturbed narrator who seems completely reliable (part of her claim to fame is her brutal honesty), the novel hinges on the reader’s slowly dawning suspicion that she might be a lot saner than even she realizes.
Technically, “My Second Death” is a psychological thriller. It begins with Mickey receiving a cryptic message at the university where she works as a grad student in medieval literature. The message includes a quote from Nietzsche and the address of a derelict house. When Mickey investigates she finds a mutilated corpse. At first, she suspects Aidan, an artist acquaintance of her older brother who asks her to help him unearth the circumstances of his mother’s death ten years earlier and who lives across the street from the house where she discovered the body. To learn more about him, Mickey decides to fill the vacancy left by his last roommate. The idea that she should be afraid of Aidan doesn’t seem to occur to her; Mickey is accustomed to thinking of herself as the dangerous one.
In truth, solving this mystery isn’t the primary focus of “My Second Death”; Cooper sees to it that the averagely astute reader will have a fairly good idea who the killer is from early on. The ingenuity of the novel lies not in plot twists but in the way the binocular vision of the narrative (the reader’s perception of what’s going on vs. Mickey’s) goes in and out of focus whenever Mickey’s emotional blind spots come into play. She’s exceptionally smart, but as even she admits, she tends to screw things up whenever other people’s feelings are involved.
First-person narratives often make the best audiobooks because they’re less demanding; even the dialogue passes through the filter of a single sensibility. Dina Pearlman, who has mostly narrated in the pulp genre known as urban fantasy, easily adapts the tough-girl first-person voice common in those novels to Mickey’s blunt, dispassionate view of the world. Cooper indulges in the sort of meticulous, highly metaphorical observations typical of much literary fiction — “A warren of shabby houses, all crackled paint and slanted ridgepoles, swarm the southern bank of the university like a scabrous architectural infection.” This is the rare case where that sort of writing seems merited (rather than merely affected); it underlines Mickey’s alien perceptions of the world. Even the litfic tick of constantly offering the reader a list of things a room or person smells like makes sense here because Mickey’s disgust with other people’s bodies has much to do with that sense and its intrusiveness.
Pearlman doesn’t always negotiate Cooper’s complex syntax flawlessly, but her ability to convey this strange, prickly woman and the way she responds to and shapes the relationships around her is inspired. Mickey will never be endearing, but her struggle to understand herself and her world becomes more compelling than the solution to any crime.
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