“A prophet is not without honour,” as someone once said, “but in his own country, and in his own house.” You sometimes wonder how Anthony McCarten manages to sneak so completely beneath the radar of literary celebrity in this neck of the woods. His 2005 novel, Death of a Superhero, for example, was published to modest acclaim here, but was republished in England (reset in Watford rather than Taranaki) and was something of a hit, praised in the UK, much translated and the winner of the 2008 Austrian Youth Literary Fiction Award. It’s been given the full motion picture treatment and the film has done well, too.
McCarten’s latest, In the Absence of Heroes, is yet another damned fine novel. It’s the sequel to Death of a Superhero, featuring the Delpe family again (firmly ensconced in Watford), minus Donald, the first novel’s main character. It’s over a year since Donnie’s death from cancer, and the family is falling apart. His mum, Renata, is lost in her grief, seeking solace by confessing her sins to an online confessional service, and overprotecting Jeff, her surviving son. Jeff is kicking against the pricks (of course), and retreating to a better reality in online gaming. His dad, Jim, is trying to hold everything together and all the while remain effective at work. His prospects of success take a nosedive when Jeff goes missing.
Jim decides the best chance he has of locating his prodigal son is to get into Life of Lore, the online game – part Doom, part Second Life – Jeff has been obsessively playing. With a bit of help from the IT section at work, he does just that, and his avatar goes stalking Jeff’s through the otherworld of LoL, guided by Luther, Jeff’s online mentor, a kind of virtual svengali whom Jim instantly mistrusts. The race is on to save his son, and his marriage.
The reason McCarten’s work adapts so well to the big screen is that he is a natural-born screenwriter. His novels feature strong plots and superb dialogue. In the Absence is no exception. Only at the very end does McCarten seem to grow tired of paying his dues to the form of the novel on his way to the screenplay, with one plot progression rather listlessly performed. But by then you’re ready to forgive him just about anything. There’s a tendency to get too cute with IT allusion, but In the Absence of Heroes is witty, humane and dazzlingly clever. Don’t wait for the film.
IN THE ABSENCE OF HEROES, by Anthony McCarten (Vintage, $28.99).
John McCrystal is a writer and reviewer.