The Secret Life of E Robert Pendleton by Michael Collins

Even the bunny was better at suicide
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The Independent Culture

"All plots tend to move deathward," writes Don Delillo in his 1985 postmodern masterpiece, White Noise. "This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers' plots, narrative plots... we edge nearer death every time we plot." Well, if plots move us deathward, I was dead some time before the closing chapters of Michael Collins' new novel, The Secret Life of E Robert Pendleton. There is enough plot for a drive-by, a massacre.

The novel begins with promise. Professor Bob Pendleton, a disaffected writer, is still living off the success of a short story he wrote a decade previously, and languishing in the privileged quads of an East Coast university, Bannockburn College. And, just when things cannot get any worse for our hero, his old nemesis Allen Horowitz arrives.

Ten years ago, Horowitz and Pendleton were spoken of in the same breath as the bright young things of American fiction, but, while Pendleton's career has diminished into academic obscurity, Horowitz has scaled the heights of the New York Times's best-sellers' list. The crisis point is reached when Pendleton, charged with organising Horowitz's triumphant speaking engagement at Bannockburn, suffers the added indignity of watching the departmental bicycle, Adi Wiltshire, switch her flirtatious affections to Horowitz.

There is only one thing for it - Bob must commit suicide. What follows is the bravura passage of writing in the novel, as Collins taps into a vein of black humour redolent of the best of Rick Moody. Pendleton returns to find the house in darkness, because his pet rabbit has eaten through the electrical cord: "that was the sullen reality of his life now, a shared existence with another creature with a death wish."

The only trouble is, the professor botches the job. Having washed down dozens of pills with vodka, he is kept alive, albeit in a vegetative state. And, as he recovers, Adi Wiltshire makes a discovery in his basement - an unknown Pendleton novel called Scream, with a murder at its centre.

Horowitz and Wiltshire acknowledge that Scream is an undiscovered masterpiece, and decide it needs to be published. But the murder in the novel bears an uncanny resemblance to a real-life crime: the murder of a 13-year-old, Amber Jewel. Pendleton is now both a bestselling author and a murder suspect.

What follows is an investigation that is criminal in more than one sense. A frazzled cop called Ryder, who, naturally, has a few secrets of his own, is assigned to Pendleton's case, but all he seems to find is more dirt. There are other murders, more suspects, and an increasingly labyrinthine relationship between the myriad players who emerge and fade in the last two thirds of the narrative. The chapters, and the revelations, come thick and fast, but there is no sense of a guide here. It is as if one has fallen asleep with the television on.

At 355 pages, The Secret Life of E Robert Pendleton should not feel like a marathon, but it does. Perhaps Collins, who in another life is an extreme athlete (who was recently selected for Ireland's 100km running team), has spent too much time pounding out endless miles in the desert. Because what should have been an intriguing thriller surrounding death and the writer, has somehow become a writer plotting us to death.