It’s only a week into the new year and I think I’ve already found what will be one of my favourite books of 2012 – Absolute Zero Cool by Irish crime writer Declan Burke. I’m not usually a fan of crime fiction but this is not your usual crime fiction book. Darkly funny, superbly written, metafictional and with more than a passing nod to Paul Auster, Flann O’Brien and (dare I say it) Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Absolute Zero Cool fuses literary and crime fiction to create something utterly original.
One morning in winter a man Billy Karlsson shows up at an artistic retreat where a writer (for argument’s sake let’s say his name is Declan Burke) is hard at work on a new novel. Billy claims to be the protagonist of an early work of Declan’s, an aborted draft which has languished in storage for five years. Billy complains that he is in limbo and asks Declan to rewrite the book, saying “Publish or I’m damned.” Declan initially believes that Billy is a performance artist or some kind of scam merchant who has somehow found the earlier draft and is attempting to mess with his head but intrigued he goes along with the idea.
The two meet regularly over breakfast to collaborate, workshop and fight about the direction the book is taking. Billy even starts to contribute writing of his own, an intense piece entitled Sermo Vulgus addressed primarily to Cassie, his girlfriend in Declan’s novel. The plot quickly picks up pace and the narrative alternates between the book that the two are writing, their conversations and collaborations, Billy’s excerpts from Sermo Vulgus, and episodes from Declan’s life.
It is testament to Burke’s skill as a writer that none of this is in any way confusing or muddled. The prose is razor sharp and clear and often hilariously funny. There are some stunning one liners in the book which stopped me in my tracks and demanded to be reread such as the description of Leonard Cohen’s voice, “…that of a cancer patient girding his loins for yet another blast of chemo…”, or the numerous riffs that are sprinkled throughout such as Billy’s meditation on Tuesdays, “…Tuesdays take Friday the 13ths out into the car park and set their feet on fire, just to see the fuckers dance…”
That Burke has written a thoroughly unique and compelling novel is not up for question. It certainly blew my mind and I’ll be recommending it to everyone. Absolute Zero Cool is an absolute triumph for Declan Burke and a book which will hopefully gain the wider audience it deserves outside of Ireland.