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Victor Lodato, Mathilda Savitch – Observer

14/03/2010

Writerly ambition can take many forms. Martin Amis took on nuclear war, Stalin, and the Nazis – running them backwards for good measure. Nabokov famously impersonated a paedophile. In his first novel, Victor Lodato, who has previously written as a dramatist, pretends to be an adolescent girl, just shy of her first period. There has been some squeamishness from American critics concerned about a middle-aged man inhabiting the mind and body of a female child, but this, after all, is the job of fiction, (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi”): what matters is not what, or who, you do, but how well, and to what end.

Mathilda is a successful invention: intellectually innovative and oblique – as only the young can be – pumped with resolve (“put on your goddamned walking boots!”), ludic and unremitting. There have been a tranche of juvenile leads in fiction of late, but Lodato departs from these by reaching beyond the mere showing-off of ventriloquism, connecting his heroine’s pubescent storminess to America’s endless adolescence. On the first anniversary of her sister’s death there is yet another terrorist attack and she is left to battle for the meaning of personal tragedy in a country already consumed by death. As her mother retreats into pain, becoming animal-like in her home-made “cave”, Mathilda is left alone – the word spelled backwards, this wise child notes, is Enola, the name of the original plane with a bomb in its belly.

If the novel has a weakness, it is Lodato’s tendency to over-press his themes: Blakean contraries, the animal-human and textual self-consciousness might all have been more effective if less hammered out. Lodato, for instance, is not above peeping out from behind Mathilda and winking at the audience. This is not just a question of bad manners, making jokes your narrator isn’t in on, but bad faith, breaking the covenant with your character. And in a book which relies on the plausibility of voice, it’s a dangerous game to play, risking alienating the reader. Having said that, his version of the story as a trap in which a character senses they are being ‘Watched’ is one of the freshest since Vonnegut’s in Slaughterhouse Five, whose ideas about childhood and death, Lodato surely owes a debt to.

The story, which skims along so satisfyingly, powered by Mathilda’s determination to reach the truth about her sister’s death, drops like a stone in its final pages. And Lodato, ever-aware of what he is doing, wonders if the ‘Watchers’ will be dissatisfied with the outcome. He leaves off with the demand that attention be paid to this battling child: “watch me, okay?” This time, however, he is in good faith, unwilling to furnish a consolatory conclusion. The final injunction to “stop, will you stop?” is both a request to Mathilda to let go of her sister’s death and to the author to leave her be.

Versions of this review appeared on Bookmunch on 10.12.2009;  and in the Observer on 14.3.2010.

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