Eagles and Angels by Juli Zeh, trans. Christine Slenczka

Nightmare trips on a highway to hell
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The German novelist Juli Zeh has been compared to Bret Easton Ellis, Michel Houellebecq and, in reference to her youth and success, to Zadie Smith. She has worked for the UN, is an international lawyer and has published a book on her travels in Bosnia, all of which provide a backdrop to this bestselling, impressively structured début novel of drugs, murder and political corruption.

Eagles and Angels opens with the death of Jessie, a waifish young criminal who shot herself while on the phone to our narrator, Max Cooper. (He's deaf in one ear as a result, a nice touch reminiscent of the Woody Allen line about a Mafia victim who has been shot in the eyes: "Oh my god, he's blind?") The novel moves between a present that, while described with vivid and original imagery, is relentlessly flat, almost amnesiac, and Max's reluctant unravelling of a deceptive past, which may hold the key to his redemption.

Max is a lone wolf, profoundly alienated. Zeh maintains a strikingly tight control on Max's spiralling inner world. He is cynical to the point of poisoning everything he views, which means the reader has to steel herself at times. "Maybe you're not really the right person to tell these stories to," Max says to his confessor, a radio DJ called Clara. Then he realises, "She is capable of something, something unique: she can put up with people like me."

Max isn't, by nature, given to chivalry: he thinks of bringing Clara sunflowers but ripping them off their stalks seems too much bother. Yet what keeps him alive is his love for his dead friend and Clara's clever conflation of her own personality with Max's and Jessie's. Clara takes Max from Leipzig to Vienna, where he and Jessie were caught up in drugs and corruption. She wants to uncover how and why Jessie died - but for whom, and at what cost, she gets this information is the narrative's main source of tension.

Max believes the only thing that breaks the boredom of life is power over other people. Despite being a hotshot Balkan-specialist lawyer for the UN, he hasn't garnered much of this in his personal life, which may be why he beats up Clara the first times they meet. This being a novel about the fucked-up-ness of things, she doesn't object.

Max's nihilism means that the reader keeps company with snot and pubic hair and flies buzzing around naked light bulbs. Seedy details pull us away from the story, and detract from the confident, complicated work the plot is doing to intertwine Max's coke-fuelled descent with European expansion, drug trafficking and, as the current phrase has it, the balkanisation of existence.

The bleakness is alleviated with flashes of wry comedy: asked why his dog is called Jacques Chirac, Max replies, "We wanted to call him Giscard d'Estaing, but we didn't know how to spell it." Humour aside, what fuels this narrative is not white powder but white-hot rage. Recent European history glides past like the Nuremberg seen from the motorway on one of Max's drugged-up marathon drives. Each character has to distance themselves from the horrific truth, even as their complicity becomes clear. But how far Max travels towards redemption is chillingly left for us to decide.

Emily Perkins's 'The New Girl' is published by Picador