"The Pathology of Lies"

A Tina Brown from hell hacks her way to the top -- literally.

Published May 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The thicketed path of career advancement is best, or at least most rapidly, cleared with sharp instruments. Gloria Greene, the powerhouse protagonist of Jonathon Keats' "The Pathology of Lies," has grown impatient with her lack of progress, and she may have traded the pen for the scalpel. At the story's outset she's the chief suspect in the murder of P.J. Bullock III, the former editor in chief of the glossy San Francisco magazine Portfolio, whose job she has assumed.

Gloria and P.J. had been lovers, but after his bid for chief editorship of the Algonquin (read: New Yorker) tanked, they had broken up disharmoniously, and subsequently parts of P.J.'s body have begun appearing around the world, UPSed to Portfolio vendors in grisly packages. Factor in the circumstances that Gloria learned lots about dissection from her father, a plastic surgeon, and that she counted on P.J.'s leaving so that she could fill his vacancy, and the case seems like a no-brainer for the detectives  And yet.

Far from freaked by the attention, Gloria revels in it. Imagine a publicity-starved Tina Brown from hell. She's by far Keats', um, sharpest character. I resisted her at first -- the voice is just too breezy and obvious -- but in time her self-styled-bitch routine becomes seductive. If the conference room is the job-obsessed late-'90s equivalent of the bedroom, what could be hotter than an office ice queen with acid on her tongue and a weapon in her hand?

"The Pathology of Lies" does bear the marks of a first novel. Gloria is the only character we come to know deeply. Keats tries to give her some worthy opponents, but no one sticks. Even the murder victim remains shrouded in obscurity, not to mention plastic. Her colleagues are so unrelentingly shallow that one wonders why we should care about their vicious little world. And there are a few truly unfortunate implausibilities, my favorite being that Gloria, quite obviously the author's alter ego, comes awfully close to receiving a Pulitzer for a rather humdrum interview she gives.

All the same, the character is intriguingly complex. She obsesses about sex but, forever aloof, never really connects. Her heart -- oddly, and potentially interestingly -- belongs to daddy, but the Electra scenes seem sketchy. In fact, the book's most sensual parts involve the dismemberment. Not that there's much here a veteran Food Channel viewer couldn't stomach, but the author has done his homework admirably enough. (Let's hope he didn't learn by practicing on his colleagues: Keats is a San Francisco editor himself.)

In the end, tone and attitude clear the way. Gloria does faithfully represent some rather unsavory element of the Whatever generation. There's a disturbing hollowness in her jaded wit, like holes in the air. Can we learn from her? Sadly, I suppose, yes. But the cautionary-tale aspect of the book is secondary to the amazingly solid portrait of the leading character. Gloria's story will make a great beach book for anyone who enjoys examining a pathological character and her lies, a read as reliably rapid as a Parcel Post plane bearing gruesome cargo to distant parts of our tragic, riven globe.

By Ivan Nahem

Ivan Nahem is the host of Echo's Writing Conference and the editor of the webzine Heartache Jello.

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