Monday, 26 May 2014

Review: 'The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix' by Paul Sussman

The first thing that drew me to this novel was its spectacular cover, but it was nothing compared to the curiosity that hit me when I read the first few lines of the synopsis. I knew I wanted to read it and skipped over the rest of the synopsis which I now consider a good thing because everything was a surprise.
‘My name is Raphael Ignatius Phoenix and I am a hundred years old – or will be in ten days’ time, in the early hours of January 1st, 2000, when I kill myself…’
Raphael Ignatius Phoenix has had enough. Born at the beginning of the 20th century, he is determined to take his own life as the old millennium ends and the new one begins. But before he ends it all, he wants to get his affairs in order and put the record straight, and that includes making sense of his own long life – a life that spanned the century. He decides to write it all down and, eschewing the more usual method of pen and paper, begins to record his story on the walls of the isolated castle that is his final home. Beginning with a fateful first adventure with Emily, the childhood friend who would become his constant companion, Raphael remembers the multitude of experiences, the myriad encounters and, of course, the ten murders he committed along the way . . . 
And so begins one man’s wholly unorthodox account of the twentieth century – or certainly his own riotous, often outrageous, somewhat unreliable and undoubtedly singular interpretation of it.

There is something spectacularly absurd about this novel. Absurdist fiction explores human behaviour by placing the characters in circumstances that seem utterly without purpose and empty. Look at Waiting for Godot, a play in which two characters do nothing but wait, for both acts. There is no clear moral to Absurdist narratives, there seems to be no overarching theme, but rather there is just life and behaviour. Raphael's life, which is just one chapter after the other, one murder after the other, allows Sussman to show the reader a person who simply lives. He doesn't seem to really react to what happens, but rather he just acts while the world reacts around him. Partially this makes Raphael a very unlikable person because he seems to be so completely unnatural. It also makes him absolutely fascinating however because through him you're able to simply look at humans. There are a lot of amazing moments in this novel that are so incredibly human, in which people behave so naturally and everything they do is so recognizable. This allows for the novel to be an amazing read.

Sussman's writing style is a pleasure to read. He manages to strike an even balance between dark humour, satire, wit and a kind of magical realism that makes the reader accept everything he writes. His descriptions of people seem to be spot on. In many ways, this novel and Sussman's style really reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. The plot may seem to be ludicrous and the things that tie the characters together may seem impossible, yet nothing ever happens that is completely implausible. They even share an affinity for drawings, although Sussman's are not as random and ridiculous. There were instances in the book that made me laugh out loud, whereas some moments really touched me. 

Thankfully the book isn't very gruesome, despite its number of murders. Raphael describes them in a flashback, providing his own sarcastic commentary to them while not lingering on each for too long either. As a reader, I am all for authors writing however they need to in order to get their stories across. Sometimes characters need to curse, which Raphael does at times, and sometimes a narrative is in need of some cruelty because it highlights the beauty of the narrative. Both of these are beautifully balanced out in this novel, which means that the story never becomes boring and manages to maintain a degree of realism despite its strangeness. Published posthumously, it is an amazing final offering from an incredibly gifted author.

I give this novel...

4 Universes.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. It was a very quick read and a lot of fun. The narrative constantly draws you in with its high-pace story telling and beautiful writing style. Despite the potentially gruesome subject, the novel isn't too dark thanks to its humour. I would recommend it to fans of Vonnegut, but also more generally to fans of Absurdist fiction.

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