Gianopoulos’ debut novella, ‘A Familiar Beast,’ is poignant, bitterly precise
Novella Review | 4 out of 5 stars
Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 07:09
How can a person come to terms with his own failings? How can he move on from a crucial, life-changing mistake? Panio Gianopoulos’ “A Familiar Beast” seeks to answer such questions through the character Marcus.
The novella’s plot is simple enough. We meet Marcus shortly after he splits with his wife, Sharon, in the wake of Marcus’ affair with a coworker. Desperate for friendship and human connection, Marcus visits the home of an old classmate, Edgar, at Edgar’s home in North Carolina. The two men decide to go on a hunting trip together. As the day of the hunt approaches, Marcus confronts himself, his relationships and his motivations for the affair, which leads to the tale’s startling, heart-wrenching conclusion.
This is by no means Gianopoulos’s first work — he has previously been published in Tin House and Northwest Review, among many other magazines — but “A Familiar Beast” is one of his first longer pieces. He has complete control over his story, with the result that his calm, measured tone catches the reader off guard with its poignancy. Marcus’s reflections are piercing because of, rather than in spite of, their simplicity — Gianopoulos’ power stems entirely from his plain-spokenness. Take, for example, Marcus’ reflection when he meets up with Edgar before dinner:
“He didn’t know what it was that tied him to it, what held him fast to this magical idea — even now, after all the pain it had caused recently — that a feeling could be pre-arranged, ordered in advance and then calmly anticipated. One day, surely, it would arrive, like a phone call from a long-absent lover, confiding I miss you, where are you, come home, please, come home.”
This blunt honesty also manifests as a consistent, tar-black humor that pervades the work from the novella’s opening line — “Sharon got the Harrisons” — the advice of MaryAnne, a woman that Marcus meets at a bar and who makes a damning observation that you don’t go to strangers for an unbiased opinion. Instead “You go to strangers for comfort. You go to strangers for sympathy and understanding and approval.” The wit underscores the novella’s pervasive anxiety and, as we laugh, we also wince in empathetic recognition.
Occasionally, Gianopoulos does stumble. A handful of awkwardly-worded descriptions pervade the piece and break the flow of his writing, such as when Marcus goes out drinking with Edgar: “To Marcus, who had wedged himself into the end of the pen-scarred wooden booth the way a newborn nestles into the corner of his crib at night, trying to forget that he is dreadfully exposed to life and all its harms, Edgar was a startling eruption of garrulousness and vitality.” The description makes a good point, but its language is somewhat clunky. Such errors are few and far between, and they gently remind the reader that though Gianopoulos is a master of his craft, he is still experimenting with a format that is somewhat new to him.
By and large, “A Familiar Beast” is hypnotic and chillingly precise. It is never ostentatious; instead, it builds slowly, observation by observation, gradually creating an atmosphere of paranoia so subtle that we are ensnared without question. By the time we the readers reach Marcus’ strange redemption at the end of the tale, we feel his pain and regret viscerally. We can only watch, transfixed, as he endures punishment for his mistakes. When he calls MaryAnne in a panic at the story’s climax, murmuring, “I don’t know how this happened ... I don’t know what to do,” we empathize completely, but have no suggestions for him, either. By then, Gianopoulos has made infidelity and isolation our “familiar beast” through the husk-like Marcus.
“A Familiar Beast” will be released on Nov. 3 by Nouvella Publishing. Jewel-like in its precision, Gianopoulos’ novella will deserve all the praise it will reap.