Friday, 2 August 2013

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick

Today is Leonard Peacock’s 18th birthday and he has a plan. It’s not the average eighteen-year-old’s birthday plan, though. Leonard has four gifts to give out – he doesn’t expect to receive any himself, he doesn’t expect anyone to remember it’s his birthday – and then he’s going to rid the world of the person whom he hates most, followed shortly thereafter by the person whom he hates the second most: himself.

Right from the opening page, we know that Leonard is in a bad place, the contradictory image of a Nazi handgun and all that it represents placed next to an innocent, neutral bowl of breakfast cereal. Leonard himself takes a mad sort of pleasure in this, feeding on it; Matthew Quick using it to show us the destructive mental place Leonard is in. And then, slowly, like moving through molasses, Leonard moves through his day, distributing his four gifts to the people who have bumped up against his life. Not friends, exactly - not always, anyway – more simply, the people that acknowledge him. An elderly neighbor, an immigrant student, a preacher girl, his history teacher.

As Leonard moves through his day we see how he met these people, how they have or haven’t influenced him, the questions they’ve made him ask, the questions they’ve failed to ask. Strongly reminiscent of Jay Asher’s outstanding novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is a dark and heartbreaking read. We know what Leonard’s goal is, but is he going to go through with it? Will somebody stop him? And what happens if he gets there? The people he meets during the day question his unusual behavior, but then, for the most part, sweep it aside, just like he has always been swept aside. And what is the terrible secret that Leonard is keeping, that has brought him to this place? What is the hold over him that Asher Beal has?

Matthew Quick writes with the proficiency of John Green and his contemporaries, weaving in undercurrents of ideas that reflect and balance and expand upon the main storyline, whilst implying a deep understanding of what it feels to be at the bottom of the social pile. There is the running theme of the Nazi regime, introduced by Leonard’s handgun and carried through by history teacher Herr Silverman’s lectures and thought-provoking scenarios, from the use of symbols to show power and belonging to the concept of doubling – the ability of humans to behave in seemingly contradictory ways, something which everyone in Leonard’s life, Leonard included, is clearly undertaking. There is the god debate – Leonard’s acquaintance, Lauren, is a fully-fledged god enthusiast; Leonard is not, and the outcome of this match-up inevitably results in more existential queries. There are the Humphrey Bogart quotes, most of which I fear went over my head, having not seen the movies they are referencing. And there are the letters from the future.

The letters from the future are one of two unusual quirks in Quick’s writing. The first letter appears seemingly randomly between two ‘normal’ chapters; it isn’t until later that we're shown where they come from. But, later again in the story, I found myself questioning whether this explanation is true - perhaps the letters really are what they claimed to be in the first place? I would like to think so, for Leonard’s sake anyway, if not for the rest of the world. Only in such well-executed fiction could I accept such an idea, something that in every day life would seem preposterous.

Quick’s second quirk are the sets of footnotes. Footnotes can be good, and can add an extra dimension to a story, but in this case they are my only criticism of Leonard Peacock. There are just too many of them. They broke up the flow of my reading too much and I found myself turning the page with an almost dread, waiting to see what footnotes were going to be there. And the thing with them is, the details would work just as well if they were contained with the main text. After all, you have to interrupt the main text to read the footnote anyway – why not just include it in the main text in the first place?

Quirks aside, reading Leonard is a dark and engaging experience; putting the book down at its end was like dragging myself back up into the daylight. It’s heartrending and unnerving and real, and its lack of any true conclusion is more reflective of life than surely any other ending could be, and makes it even more dark and sad and insightful than the alternatives. Read it and you won't be disappointed.

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