Charlotte Wolfe is the last modernist in Manhattan. An interior “desecrator” who despises the bored super-rich housewives who can afford her services, she lives amongst people for whom money has dissolved away the real world, and takes her revenge by smashing their heads in with the poker which she carries wrapped in a yoga mat. Herself the product of a traumatising childhood in which love and understanding were replaced by ambition and control, she is a beast created by a psychopathic society in its own image. Whining to herself about people’s lack of empathy whilst plotting to kill them, Wolfe is offered to the reader as the perfect revenge on an overprivileged and soulless Manhattan.
The echoes of Tom Wolfe in the protagonist’s name demand comparisons with Bonfire of the Vanities, but Brenda Cullerton’s novel is more grotesque than satirical. Which is not to say she indulges in splatterpunk grossout. The actual death scenes are pretty lightly skated over, and nastier things lurk in her killer’s emotional life than her terminal technique. (Which pre-empts parallels with American Psycho, the other obvious candidate.) The wallowing in nastiness takes place in the novel’s enthusiastic and revolted anatomy of consumption. The text is a jungle of brand names and bank balances – though she purports to detest them, Charlotte continually lists and explains the expensive tags which cover her clients like NASCAR drivers (in her phrase). This is the tension at the heart of the novel: Wolfe purports to want authenticity, emotion and culture, but spends her time documenting the madness of the consumerist nightmare she is trapped in.
Nor is her own modernist attitude without its moral gulfs. She loathes the postmodern claustrophobia of New York, where a superrich woman wants to install prison toilets in her apartment because of their perfect minimalist design, or where another spends tens of thousands on the perfect meditation room to help her transcend the material world. This is a world without the past, without meaningful identities or affiliations, where a thousand years of spiritual tradition is reduced to a design accessory, and then passed on to the client at a thirty percent mark-up. In revulsion, Wolfe fetishizes authenticity, cooing over the patina on antique furniture, buying her clothes from handily nearby “diverse” neighbourhoods and admiring the “style” with which the British ruled chunks of Africa. Everyone with any weight in the novel can claim European roots, and there’s something distinctly queasy about her hanging on stories of WWII persecution from an Italian friend or imagining her Russian boyfriend’s mother queuing for bread, as if these family sufferings rendered them interestingly “real” people.
So Cullerton doesn’t give her lead character an easy ride, and there’s a cheery irony in the fact that it is only Wolfe’s ability to reinvent herself and deny the past which saves her in the end. But the satirical loop which keeps her locked into a system she hates, and exposes the vacuity of her obsession with “authenticity” at the expense of others’ pain, doesn’t leave much space for the reader to stand aside and assess where this critique is coming from. Or going to. Postmodernism is vile and vacuous; modernism is self-deluding and exploitative; Charlotte Wolfe is trapped between them in a murderous rage with nowhere to go. Aside from life being lousy and people being stupid, not much else is being said here. Satire doesn’t have to have an obvious “other option” to the mess being depicted, but The Craigslist Murders isn’t brilliant written enough to justify itself on sheer style alone, particularly given Cullerton’s tendency to pause the narrative now and then to let Charlotte explain how she feels about Craigslist, or logos, or faux-Buddhism, in rather earnest fashion. Even when you disagree with it, good satire is more satisfying when there’s a coherent idea in the background. Personally, I love Anthony Trollope’s novels about the Victorian Church – the clear conservatism of his attitude bothers me, but it gives them an integrity which raises them above well-scribbled jeering. The Craigslist Murders lacks this kind of direction, which means it relies on the precision of its mockery and the dexterity with which it is carried out. But I don’t think anyone will pick up this book with the idea that the narcissistic trophy wives of investment bankers are sincere people worth empathising with, only to be jolted out of their complacency by savage world it reveals. Especially in the current climate (and Cullerton makes much of the economic crash. along with its aftermath), this feels like fairly soft-target stuff. Still, it rattles along at a cracking pace, throws in a few fun swerves and stays head and shoulders above most of the by-the-numbers crime novels coming out this season.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, July 2011