Reviewed by Kate Garrett
THE STARS MALIGN
It is apparently impossible for me to resist any book that begins with a quote from Albert Camus (“Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”), and whose synopsis smacks of existential angst and a motley assortment of characters. This is how I found myself reading The Stars Malign.
Loren Niva – the fictional main character of this novel, and somewhat confusingly, also its author – is, put simply, a train wreck of a man. The Stars Malign begins with his lovesick departure from Oslo, Norway, and boozy return to his hometown of Pearl Strand, Florida. Here he reunites with his childhood friends Justin, Ziggy and Steve – the “Stranded”. Loren’s friends are also wreckage heaps of varying severity: Justin is newly engaged but struggles to give up certain vices, Ziggy is a chilled out drug dealer, and Steve – or Stephen, as he prefers to call himself – is a criminal defense lawyer who cares little for his job, but loves the money. They all enjoy alcohol, drugs and treating women as objects of scorn and/or male amusement. Each of these men, however unlikeable, inevitably has his own trauma and drama. Their stories unfold as the novel progresses, culminating on the night of Loren’s thirtieth birthday party, where he has planned to kill himself in front of his guests.
The Stars Malign initially reminded me of a watered-down Bret Easton Ellis novel, or something I would expect from any random literary grandson of Charles Bukowski. However, on the flipside of that, it could be cleverer than either of my immediate impressions. Loren (the character, not the author) at one point describes Stephen as a “misogynist caricature”, which is the best possible assessment of him. However, throughout the book, nearly every female character lacks true agency of her own, and women are generally seen by the majority of male characters as “bitches”, “sluts” and/or “whores”. So, while the other “Stranded” might be a bit better than Stephen, they aren’t exactly shining examples of manhood. As a woman, this repetitive sexism and misogyny grates on my last nerve. However, as a writer and reader, it feels like a double bluff – one, go ahead and get mad, we aren’t supposed to like these men, anyway; and two, if you think it’s okay to treat women like crap, or any of the other deplorable things some of the characters do, well, that says more about you than anyone else.
In defence of the double bluff, it’s important to note how Loren, Ziggy, Justin and Stephen’s chapters are interspersed with other voices – Lukas, Dwayne, Mitzi and Jen – to show just how far off their respective deep ends the four main characters can be. The characterisation techniques work well; the main and supporting voices alike are strong, individual, and believable. Ziggy’s chapters in particular show an adept rule-bending of the English language on the author’s part, and it makes the reader feel like Ziggy’s just kicking back and telling us his tales over a beer or six. Similarly, the teenage Nate’s chapter is strangely poetic in its use of text typing and lack of capitalisation, particularly the last two sentences: “i look up @ the stars. & they look down on me.”
This is a well written novel that draws the reader in, but has a disappointing number of distracting typos – e.g. “actually” for “actual” and so on – that could have been easily avoided. Also, the author’s decision to name his main character after himself, or vice versa, would possibly work better if every other character wasn’t written in first person perspective as well. If you’re a fan of books that somehow transform straight, white, wealthy, male privilege into straight, white, wealthy, male alienation – and honestly do it rather well, with plenty of intrigue, sex, and slightly twisted bromance – then The Stars Malign is your perfect read. However, if you know excessive misogyny and self-pity-cum-self-destruction will annoy you beyond reason, even in a carefully plotted fictional setting, then give this one a miss.