Reviewed by Rod McLary
The Spiral is a very appropriate title for this book given the word’s association with vortexes and whirlpools and the sense of being drawn down into the unknown. Beginning this book is very much like embarking on a journey into the deep recesses of the mind where – to continue the metaphor – there is nothing short of a vortex of emotions, violence and delusion.
Dr Erma Bridges is an academic – she is also working on her book Secret Interactions – A History of Reader-Deployed Young Adult Fiction. That may sound more than a little obscure but it refers to those books where at various points the reader is asked to choose which path the hero/ine is to follow by turning to [for example] page 20 or page 32. This genre is ‘full of cultural studies tropes: postmodern fracture, non-gendered protagonists … and characters of ill-defined race, class and creed’ [11-12]. Clearly, The Spiral is pitched to those readers who are adventurous in their reading and for whom the formal structure of classic novels is no longer necessary for an enjoyable read.
Erma Bridges as a child and adolescent was obsessed with ‘reader-deployed fiction’ and was later able to lever her obsession into a successful career. Consequently, she is well on the way to a position of associate professor at age twenty-eight. In her research for Secret Interactions which involves interviewing authors in that genre, she is assisted by Jenny who was ‘unassailable, outspoken, interesting’  but Jenny has disappeared along with the recording of her last and most important interview with Archibald Moder the author of the Zone Mover series. Moder as well as being an author is a retired psychotherapist – a fact which is quite significant as the story unfolds.
What Jenny has left behind is a complaint made against Erma – that Erma has slept with her PhD students – which may or may not be true. As Erma says later in the novel: if research students didn’t have sex with each other, they wouldn’t be having sex at all.
This background material now sets the scene for an exciting and somewhat confronting journey into a vortex [or even a spiral] of drugs, violence and sex. The action takes place primarily in Brisbane and the Gold Coast hinterland and the locations and their descriptions are loaded with an intimate knowledge darkly coloured by a sense of menace as in the following description of Fortitude Valley: ‘That’s when the dark parts of the Valley reappear – the deranged and the random – and those elements slam straight into the early morning commuters and the New Farm joggers’ .
In counterpoint to Erma’s travails – which are recounted in the first person – are the adventures of Sero told in the second person. Sero the Barbarian is a character from a reader-deployed novel and his/her adventures parallel and sometimes intersect with those of Erma. Sero is on a quest and one which leads him/her [Sero’s gender is – as in the best tradition of reader-deployed novels – indeterminate] after many trials to a place which s/he had never left. One section about Sero ends with the sentence: ‘The world screams inside your mind for an instant but only until you find yourself engulfed’ .
But within the novel is also an exploration of questions of fate and of the depth of violence within each of us and sometimes the impossibility of acknowledging and dealing with that violence. As Moder says at one point to Erma: ‘your life is like one of my books. Everyone’s is. There is no infinite amount of choice, as we all imagine. Fate’s the thing we never want to talk about’ . Ultimately though, there is resolution. Erma is finally able to say – perhaps echoing Sero’s destination – ‘And here I am at last’ .
There is no other way to categorise The Spiral [if a category is necessary at all] but as ‘literary noir’. Although ‘noir’ is essentially a cinematic term, it can readily be applied to novels such as this one. In its modern form, the word ‘literary noir’ has generally come to denote those novels in which appear a marked darkness in theme and subject matter, generally featuring a disturbing mixture of sex and violence. The Spiral certainly meets that criterion.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, its dark theme, The Spiral is an engrossing and chilling read and one which it is difficult not to read in one sitting. It simply pulls the reader along on a journey that does not disappoint or take a rest.
For those readers who demand to be challenged in their reading, and enjoy the darker crime novels written by authors such as Lawrence Block or James Lee Burke, then this is one for you. Highly recommended.
by Iain Ryan
ISBN 978 1 76068 661 1