The Bottom Line: 'Undone' By John Colapinto

A Book of Job for the secular age, this incest hoax thriller will have readers feverishly turning pages, but questioning the moral underpinnings.

New Yorker writer John Colapinto’s new novel opens with two epigraphs, one from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, and one from the biblical Book of Job. “Hast thou considered my servant Job,” God tells Satan, “that there is none like him in the Earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?”

The original title of Colapinto’s sophomore novel, An Upright Man, was a less-than-subtle hint that this epigraph is more than a thematic prelude. It’s the basis for the entire stomach-churning narrative within. Reviewers have nodded to Undone’s similarity to Lolita, in part thanks to the similar struggles faced by the author in getting a morally murky tale published in the American market, but it’s less “a Lolita for the DNA age,” as The Toronto Star dubbed it, than a Book of Job for a secular one. An upright man finds himself tempted by a human embodiment of evil, to commit the sin now considered more evil by American society at large than blasphemy: incestuous statutory rape.

But let’s rewind, just a little. The novel opens on a rather revolting scene. Dez, a 30-something former lawyer and ephebophile who’s been disbarred thanks to his compulsive pursuit of teenage girls, no matter the risks, is hiding out with his latest target: Chloe, a distractingly beautiful 17-year-old who is currently annoying him with her demonstrative grief over her mother’s sudden death in a car accident. Chloe’s mother was her only remaining close relative, leaving her almost entirely at Dez’s mercy, which pleases him, but her sadness has lowered her libido, which irritates him -- as does the constant weeping.

To distract himself, Dez turns on his favorite TV show, an Oprah-esque daytime chat program, “Tovah in the Afternoon.” The episode features an author, Jasper Ulrickson, who’s recently published a sentimental memoir about raising his young daughter with his wife, who suffered a stroke during labor and remains entirely paralyzed, though mentally alert. Gently prying Tovah asks how he “manages” with a wife who can’t fulfill him sexually. Surprised, Ulrickson answers that he’s remaining faithful, elaborating, “We men ... plead biological necessity when caught straying. But that’s often just a convenient rationalization to explain away a moment of moral failure -- of weakness. We can control ourselves.” Disgusted by this sanctimony, Dez gets an unbelievable opportunity to vent his rage when a puffy-eyed Chloe wanders over and recognizes Ulrickson as a man her mother dated before Chloe herself came into the picture -- about nine months before, actually.

Though Chloe explains that she knows for a fact Ulrickson isn’t actually her father, Dez realizes there’s enough circumstantial evidence there to convince an upstanding guy that he might have been an unwitting dad for 17 years. The groundwork that remains to be done, in an era of lawyers, child protection agencies, and DNA testing, is extensive -- seemingly insuperable -- but devilish Dez quickly begins to piece together a plan that will place Chloe in Ulrickson’s home, a supposed long-lost daughter, where she will seduce him, expose his hypocrisy, and take him for all he’s worth, leaving the real predator and his victim to ride off into the sunset together with bags of Ulrickson’s settlement cash.

Chloe, manipulated by the older man she believes is her true love and protector, agrees to the plan, convinced it will be payback for what Dez frames as the old suitor’s abandonment of her mother -- an abandonment that somehow ultimately led her to her sad end.

Once the unlikely plan has been set in motion, and Chloe installed at Ulrickson’s luxurious home (in addition to the successful memoir, he comes from a moneyed background) with her supposed half-sister, 5-year-old Maddy, Ulrickson’s locked-in but shrewd wife Pauline, and Pauline’s live-in caretaker Deepti, the girl begins to waver. Though Pauline can’t communicate with her husband except through yes-or-no blinks, Ulrickson and Chloe both pick up on her suspicion of the sudden new daughter. The reasons why, unless her husband manages to guess at the right question to ask, remain shrouded, and he attributes them, in the meantime, to jealousy over Chloe’s mother, his old fling. Though Chloe has been teasing him with demands for physical affection and glimpses of her long, smooth legs, he’s shown her nothing but fatherly care; little Maddy adores her; even Pauline, despite her clear suspicions, seems to grow fond of the teenager. For the first time, just 18-year-old Chloe has a strong father figure and a loving family around her, and it’s difficult to remember why she’s even trying to ruin it.

Dez, of course, steps in whenever it seems his literal jailbait won’t quite go through with the plan. Meanwhile, beneath Ulrickson’s calm, paternal demeanor, he’s begun to boil with illicit desire for the girl he believes is his daughter, and the effort of hiding it from her and the rest of the family has taxed his self-control.

The book reads like something at the juncture of literary fiction and a domestic thriller; Colapinto’s facility with language allows for passages of evocative description and insight, but it’s not sustained throughout the novel at a high level. The pacing, however, leaves nothing to be desired. It’s a novel to be torn through, waiting to see what depravities will happen next, and why.

The why remains a little murky by the end (heads up: slight spoilers beyond here). Comparisons to Lolita, one of the most remarkably crafted pieces of prose in the last century, only set Undone up to look like a dim follow-up, both stylistically and as a fictional exploration of corrupted morals. As a reworking of the Book of Job, it seems distorted. Job, despite being tormented and tempted by Satan, remains righteous and for this reason has his good fortune restored to him by the Lord. In Colapinto’s modern version, succumbing to temptation may be forgiven if it’s a one-time thing -- even a truly horrific one-time thing. Maybe it’s partly the fault of the nubile girl who gave the older man come-hither looks and led him to a point of sexual frustration beyond bearing. Maybe even the most upright man can’t help but become a sexual predator, under the right -- or, er, wrong -- circumstances, and if that’s the case, maybe he deserves forgiveness from the girl he raped, and a happy ending.

Unlike Job, Ulrickson’s very righteousness is a flaw in Colapinto’s eyes, as well as in the eyes of Satan-slash-Dez. In an interview linked to the book’s Canadian publication, he called Ulrickson “a man who is actually undone by his own goodness, his hubris, the thing that makes him best, which is his virtue.” But is he? Ultimately, the thing that undoes the man is that, in a fit of drunkenness, sexual frustration, and loneliness, he does rape Chloe -- not just statutorily or incestuously, but as she shrinks away from him under the covers of her bed, crying out, “Daddy!”  The book seems to want us to believe that this happens because he is good, because he is faithful to his wife, because he believes men can control their sexual urges. In short, the book concludes, Ulrickson was an upright man brought low because he believed men can control their sexual urges, and he had to learn the hard way that they can’t.

Chloe, the malleable, sweet, personality-free bait in the story manages to fulfill the classic role of sexual temptress, while also being allowed victimhood. The neat brushing-over of the psychological ramifications of being raped by a trusted father figure allows her to be granted the happy ending we believe she deserves. Only evil Dez, the Satan stand-in, must suffer for all the inhumanity shown in the novel.

The squeamishness reported among American editors when the book found no initial takers must trouble those of us who want risky, thought-provoking fiction. That doesn’t mean Undone itself possesses the depth of moral insight that earlier blackballed works like Lolita now symbolize. To some degree, that doesn’t matter. Undone might be a questionable dissection of contemporary sexual morality and moralizing, but far better that we have these provocative not-quite-Lolitas than a sea of bland more-of-the-same.

The Bottom Line:

A Book of Job for the secular age, this incest hoax thriller will have readers feverishly turning pages, but questioning the moral underpinnings.

What other reviewers think:

The Globe and Mail: "No question, Undone casts a very specific spell: It enthralls and horrifies simultaneously."

The Toronto Star: "Undone stretches credulity like taffy, mostly because it can: the dominant mood here is social and psychological satire, not realism. Colapinto exploits it all brilliantly, taking considerable risks along the way."

Who wrote it?

John Colapinto has written both fiction and nonfiction, including a previous novel, About the Author, and a nonfiction book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker.  

Who will read it?

Readers who enjoy thoughtful thrillers that delve into the dark corners of human nature, like the books of Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins.

Opening lines:

“For two days the girl did nothing but lie in bed and cry. It was driving Dez crazy. The sobs, the shuddering intakes of breath, the sudden wails of ‘Why, God? Why?' Before the diminuendo of sniffles and nose blows; then the whole process repeating itself. True, she had just lost her mother -- abruptly, violently -- in a car crash. But how much was a man expected to take?”

Notable passage:

“How easily he could imagine those opening gambits, those subtle flashes of skin, those freighted, silent glances, those curly half smiles that would set the fuse alight. An accidental look up her skirt to a shaded area of her inner thigh, or down her boatneck shirt for a peek at a swaying, half-seen breast. Then slowly to move to affectionate hugs, spontaneous clasping of hands, and, in the evenings, after the invalided stepmother and the little sister had been taken off to bed, and father and teenaged daughter were alone -- all alone! -- a session of oh-so-innocent cuddling on the sofa as the television, only half noticed, burbled away to itself. Inklings, peeklings, ticklings ... soft sudden kisses on the side of the neck ... quivery, hot exhalations of breath into a flaming ear during a hug that goes on just a fraction of a second too long ... shy peeks over the top of a magazine during hushed reading times and the eyes snatched away just a moment too late ... tremulous exhalations ..."

by John Colapinto
Soft Skull Press, $16.95
Publishes April 12, 2016

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