Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Book Review: Breed, by Chase Novak

4/5 - MA-LSV             

Blurbs keep comparing Chase Novak's debut* novel Breed to Rosemary's Baby, and there is something there, in that both books tell the stories of well-off Manhattanites and their unusual offspring. And indeed, there's a scene early on that feels very much like an hommage to Levin's classic, but that's really where the similarities end.

A more satisfying comparison might be: Breed is to the dark side of contemporary parenting as American Psycho is to the cutthroat financial world of the Reagan era. Violent, creepy and at times unexpectedly touching, Novak's novel delivers the squicky medical/body horror, and reads as a vicious satire on the lives of the mega-rich who know they'll get everything they want simply because they have the money to pay for it. (And pay they do.) Breed might also be read as a smack upside the head to helicopter parents, a tweak of the nose to the fertility industry, or a Frankenstein-ian take on the hubris of tampering with the natural order. But I digress . . .

Meet Leslie and Alex Twisden, New York power couple. They have satisfying careers (he's a high-profile attorney, she's a respected editor), old money, and a fabulous Manhattan townhouse full of antique heirlooms. They are also madly in love. The one thing they don't seem to have is the ability to conceive. After three years and going on a million dollars spent on "everything from laser surgery to Chinese tea," they've had no luck. So when Alex and Leslie run into old friends from an infertility support group, now hugely with child, the Twisdens  pull some strings to learn their secret. (Weirdly, I liked the Twisdens, particularly Leslie, in spite of themselves. They sound terrible on paper, but they felt authentic, if not quite sympathetic.)

Cut to the Ljubljana, Slovenia clinic of one Dr. Kis, purportedly a cutting-edge pioneer in "fertility enhancement treatments." His unorthodox methods clearly worked for their friends, so Alex made the arrangements and convinced a tired and reluctant Leslie to try this one last treatment. Within the week, they are standing in a bleak waiting room, swallowing their dismay at the shabby premises, the doctor's inability to speak English, and his uncouth bedside manner. Shortly, they will undergo Dr. Kis' groundbreaking procedure: painful injections filled with genetically questionable material, administered with a roughness that could be confused with assault.

But back at their hotel that night, Leslie and Alex fall on each other like teenagers. Like animals.

Ten years later: The Twisden twins, Alice and Adam, are thriving, and well-loved, if more than a little sheltered. The Twisdens have always been a close-knit family, needing or wanting few outside connections. But of late the twins have become concerned -- frightened, even -- about their parents' increasingly erratic behavior. The nearly raw meat they eat at dinner, the strange, animalistic sounds coming from the master bedroom, and also sometimes the basement. And then there's the fact that Leslie and Alex lock the twins into their own rooms each night . . . from the outside. Finally, Adam's fear and curiosity lead him to buck the status quo, and his actions trigger a bloody and disturbing series of events that will have repercussions far beyond just the Twisden family.

To say any more about the plot would deprive you of discovering its twisted joys, but I will say I've never read a horror story -- and I've read more than my share -- that addresses this truly taboo territory.  Breed is inventive and propulsive reading. It's hard to put down, even as you're pretty sure you don't really want to know what's going to happen next.

Breed certainly isn't flawless -- sometimes it's difficult to suspend disbelief in the characters' actions, for example the key bit about flying off to get an experimental treatment from a creepy doctor in an unfamiliar Eastern European city with seemingly no medical regulations. Never having been desperate to, um, breed, maybe I just don't understand the lengths to which people will go. To me it seems like a colossally stupid idea; but -- something like climbing Everest with no mountaineering experience -- perhaps it would appeal to those with more money than sense.

One other flaw is that the denoument of the book, though emotionally satisfying in its way, is completely rushed. Some of that may be stylistic choice, an attempt to indicate heightened stakes and anxiety levels, but for me it was like an episode of "24" -- too much happened, too fast and too conveniently. If I hadn't been told there was a sequel in the works I'd have thought Breed full of dangling and/or unnecessary plot threads. I'll suspend critique on the dangly bits until I see where Novak's overall arc is heading, but the main events of this book did wrap up just a little too neatly.

Still, I'd highly recommend Breed to anyone who's looking for something innovative in the horror field; it's frequently disgusting, and its theme just plain wrong (in the right way). Not even remotely for the squeamish. 

* Since the cat is already out of the bag on this nom de plume, it can't hurt to tell you that, while this is Chase Novak's first novel, the talent actually belongs to two-time National Book Award nominee Scott Spencer, author of 11 novels, one of which is Endless Love. (Don't worry, the book was way better than the movie. It was stalkerrific!)

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