Obedience: A Novel Paperback – Jan 6 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
A complex conspiracy involving the writing of a book drives Lavender's compelling debut, a thriller that will strike some as a mix of John Fowles's The Magus and Stephen King's The Shining. At Indiana's Winchester University, three students—Brian House, Dennis Flaherty and Mary Butler—are taking Logic and Reasoning 204, taught by enigmatic Professor Williams. They quickly learn this is a course like no other. Their single assignment is to find a missing 18-year-old girl, Polly, in six weeks time—or else, Williams asserts, she will be murdered. Is this merely an academic exercise? As Williams produces clues, including photographs of Polly and her associates, the students begin to wonder where homework ends and actual homicide begins. Together with Brian and Dennis, Mary ventures off campus in search of Polly into a world of crumbling towns, decrepit trailers and hints at crimes old and new. A rapid-fire plot offsets thin characterization, though the conspiracy becomes so all-encompassing, so elaborate, that readers may feel a bit like Mary when baffled by her quest: This is what she felt like: led, played, not in control of anything she did. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Obedience is evidence that crime fiction is hardly a played-out genre …. [G]rafts the world-turned-upside-down suspense of a Harlan Coben thriller to the hall-of-mirrors vertigo of a novel by Paul Auster …. [I]ts ultimate implications continue to spin out in a reader’s mind after the final page is turned."
—Wall Street Journal
“Authentic puzzle mysteries are an endangered species in these hectic times, so it’s a genuine, if slightly perverse, kick to follow every byzantine clue in this bizarre game…. If you solve this one without peeking at the last chapter, it's an automatic A.”
—New York Times Book Review
"Obedience is a fiendishly clever thriller, debut or no, and Lavender exhibits deft control at the wheel."
"Obedience is quite a twisty little number …. the taunting nature of the challenge is irresistible….”
—New York Daily News
“[T]his is one of those high-concept thrillers with a final twist that upends all expectations, filled with characters who are not what they seem.”
"Obedience is a full course load of sinister fun."
An inspired thriller about cognitive dissonance, conjectural misdirection and the conspicuous dichotomy between academia and the real world."
“Will Lavender stuns with this compelling thriller…. The surreal but believable landscape fairly bursts from its confines, goading the reader into finishing just one more page.”
“It’s a terrific book, part cat-and-mouse mystery and part psychological study of group behavior…. [A] wonderful book with a strong emotional punch at the end.”
—St. Petersburg Times
“Lavender’s first novel suggests he has a bright future. The novel is briskly plotted with deft narrative. Obedience builds to a swirling conclusion. It becomes a place where morality is blurred and intentions drift astray.”
“In his tautly strung debut novel, Obedience, literature professor Will Lavender tears a page of out Milgram’s notebooks and sets into motion a chain of events that escalates far beyond its intended intellectual exercise. . . . Mystery fans will be satisfied to hang on around the story’s hairpin turns as the list of suspects swells and narrows with the unearthing of each clue, but Lavender . . . is aiming at a broader target and posing deeper questions.”
“First-time novelist Lavender has a knack for creepy characters and red herrings.”
“First novelist Lavender has sprinkled his text with enough red herrings to feed the Biblical 5,000 but uses them to build page-turning suspense. . . . Lavender’s invocation of the notorious Milgram experiment conducted at Yale on obedience to authority adds an additional–and salutary–layer of psychological meaning to his elaborate plot.”
More Praise for Obedience:
“Obedience draws you in and never lets go — and what a ride!”
"In his dream-like and labyrinthine debut, Will Lavender delivers a clever, intricate page-turner that kept me guessing late into the night. Obedience is a house of mirrors where every corner we turn is a false reflection of the truth until the shocking final scene. A gripping exploration of human nature and all its foibles told in Lavender's fresh and original voice, Obedience is not to be missed."
“Obedience is a very scary story set on the border where good meets evil, located in this case in that scariest of places, academia. Taut, twisty, and highly original: the pages turned themselves.”
"A taut and timely thriller that explores the dark side of academia, where classrooms are dangerous and paranoia abounds."
"A taut, clever puzzle, so artfully crafted and tightly wound that it springs open its trap when you least expect it to."
—Carol Goodman, author of The Sonnet Lover and The Ghost Orchid
"A devilishly inventive debut that reads like a house of mirrors. Nothing is what it seems, right up to the devastating finale."
—Brian Freeman, author of Stripped
From the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Williams feeds his students information about Polly's family and friends and provides details about her actions just prior to her disappearance. He states that "the best way to learn logic is to decode a puzzle." By solving the "Polly puzzle," they "will learn to think, and induce, and carve out the blight of lazy thought." Mary, Dennis, and Brian interview various people during the course of their investigation. Their inquiries lead them to the parallel case of Deanna Ward, another girl who went missing back in the eighties. Complicating matters for Dennis is his attraction to Elizabeth Orman, the seductive wife of Dean Edward Orman, a distinguished scholar nearly twice her age. As Mary, Brian, and Dennis gradually become more immersed in their task, they begin to question their instructor's motives. Is Williams an evil man with a hidden agenda? Is he toying with them for some nefarious reason? It may very well be that this is all a macabre and sadistic game that must be played out to the bitter end before the truth finally emerges.
"Obedience" is one of those books with a terrific premise that promises more than it delivers. Readers who like brainteasers may enjoy playing amateur sleuth. As the narrative progresses, however, it becomes dreary and tedious, and when the author at last reaches his startling conclusion (one that requires a major suspension of disbelief), many readers will be quite content to part ways with this convoluted psychological thriller that examines our gullibility in the face of authority.
1) I just don't see 18-20 year olds actually caring as much about the fictional Polly presented in a college course as would be needed to get as sucked down the rabbit hole as they do.
2) the advancement of the plot depends on WAY too many "coincidences" / events happening at just the right time, in just the right location and, on at least one occasion, something most would consider logical behavior NOT happening.
3) as involved as the students get in the mystery, they leave several very obvious avenues of inquiry left unexplored (because, of course, doing so would derail the whole story).
4) there is no way as many people could be "in" on things as are required without someone tripping up or, conversely, no way as many people could be clueless to such elaborate events unfolding in (supposed) secrecy around them.
5) there are several events that, even after the book is wrapped up, don't make sense in context of the given explanation / conclusion.
Perhaps others will not be as "demanding" as I am about characters' behavior and the suspension of belief required, but I was disappointed that a premise that could have delivered so much came up so short.
This is clearly a case of hype. The premise is great--that's what tempted me to get this from the library--but the execution failed. When Obedience ended, I had more questions than I had answers.
(1) Who financed Elizabeth Orman's scheme? There was a roomful of characters in the know who had to be paid off. Where did the money come from? That's a ROOMFUL of actors - that must have cost a fortune over six weeks!
(2) What does Elizabeth's nymphomania have to do with the story? Or is this clearly a case of gratuitous sex? So what if Elizabeth and Dennis are having an affair? What does that have to do with the story?
(3) Why did Mary, Brian, and Dennis go traipsing all over Cale? Why not just call the police? As a matter of fact, why didn't anyone call the police when reality and fiction were blurring. If Elizabeth's contention is true-that we're more apt to rescue a potential victim than one who's being killed in front of us-then why not call the cops even if you're not 100% sure? Why not tell them there's a girl who's been abducted, we don't know where she is, and all clues point to this being real. (At the very least, calling the police would bust the scheme wide open.)
(4) EVERYBODY knew this was a set-up (exactly like the movie The Game) and no one, absolutely NO ONE told Mary and Brian what's going on? Not even their peers or even Dean Orman, who's supposed to uphold the policies of their school? So we're supposed to believe that the Dean will allow the students' safety to be jeopardized so he can support his wife's dissertation? The best he can do is to tell them to stay away from Prof. Williams? What the ---?
(5) I find it extremely difficult to believe that 20-year-olds would behave as the author has written. Some of their conversations don't even ring true. One minute they're teen-speaking and the next they're erudite.
Furthermore, these are students who have other classes and yet they're supposed to be so wrapped up in this one class that all their time and energies can be directed to it. All? I know it's been a long time since I've been in college, but I'm pretty sure you can't devote 100% of your time to one class unless you want to fail that term.
(6) When this convoluted exercise ended with the death of an actor, the university does NOT hold Elizabeth Orman responsible for putting all this in motion? She has no culpability? Neither does the Dean? Mary's and Brian's parents do nothing about it? This is preposterous!
I have many more questions, but even typing this review is sucking the very oxygen out of my body. If this drivel is any indication of what's to come from Mr. Lavender, I'm afraid this is the first and last for me.
At the core of the story is a mysterious professor who nobody seems to know anything about--which is certainly strange, since he's been teaching at the school for many many years and is tenured. This makes no sense at all even in a much larger school such as I'm at (27K students), but we'll let it go. He poses a puzzle about a to-be-murdered girl to the class and asks the students to solve the puzzle as he provides clues from time to time. In the book's opening paragraph it says that Professor Williams is in the faculty guidebook, but without a photo. He's indentified in group photos, but you can only see a hand or arm. The college's website gives a brief CV. When you get to the end of the book, if you return to this first paragraph, you'll see what I mean about gaping holes--and this is just one small example.
Revelations and clues send the 3 student protagonists--Brian, Mary, and Dennis, scurrying back and forth trying to figure out what's real and what isn't, and things grow steadily more sinister and more confusing, and it becomes apparent that there are a lot of mind games going on and a lot of people involved. There's a dramatic denouement which gets spoiled only if you think back on the pieces of the puzzle that led up to it--a short memory span would be useful here--stopping and thinking is a no-no!
At the end, I was reminded of Alistair MacLean's Where Eagles Dare, which has lots of drama and action to compensate for a truly idiotic plot line--the risking of many lives and material on the remote chance of unmasking a suspected traitor in England. Why not just stay in London and torture the suspect there? I thought. There's nothing quite that consequential here to be sure, but as you chug along in the book, everything gets more and more elaborate. "Is this necessary?" I kept asking. "Could we get where we're going more simply?" A quieter and simpler approach, without lots of bells, whistles, and flags, might have been more effective. In the movie Jaws, there was great drama and tension long before the shark finally came into full view--leaving unseen things under a mundane surface could help. The ending of the book supposedly wraps everything up, but it actually raises more questions--money, academic policies, etc. So the book is interesting, but not satisfying.
Where does Obedience go wrong? Well, once the plot gets underway, the action hinges on a series of far-fetched coincidences. The main characters are hysterical idiots. The villains have godlike powers to manipulate people and events. The "tragic" ending is ludicrous. And the explanation of the mystery is laughable.
You know the storyline: An eccentric professor in a Logic class instructs his students to save a theoretical "Polly," who will be murdered in six weeks. But to keep that plot chugging forward and to build tension, Lavender makes the three main characters less stable than Microsoft Windows. They become increasingly rattled as they uncover links between the "pretend" murder and an apparent "real" crime.
In fact, they're more than rattled. In Lavender's overwrought prose, they're continually whispering, "pacing nervously," crying, staring blankly, "losing control," and gasping. Their minds spin and race, they feel "void" and "frazzled," their knees get weak, they feel the "heat of anxiety" in their stomachs, their minds get "frozen with a kind of obliterating dread," and their voices are "hollow and ruined." Their hearts pound, boom, and mash through their chests. If there's any emotional hyperbole Lavender missed, I didn't notice it.
The problem is, I didn't buy it for a second.
If the book had been set in the 1950s, the angst might have been believable. But the young adults in Obedience belong to the Reality Generation. They grew up watching reality TV -- Real World, Survivor, The Bachelor, and Punk'd. They understand choreographed events, staged conflicts, and pseudo-reality. (Obedience doesn't involve reality television, but it does feature some occurrences that turn out to be less "real" than they originally appeared.)
Instead of becoming distraught at the events described in Obedience, a normal 19-year-old's reaction would have been to look around, smirk, and ask: "Where's the camera?" In fact, at one point in the book, two (apparently) malicious men do point a video camera at the kids. Instead of being relieved, the camera "struck an awful fear" in them. Perhaps they were terrified that Aston Kutcher would leap out and shout, "You've been punked!"
But no, it's the reader who's been punked. By the end of Obedience, when the plot has creaked to a merciful halt, the overheated prose has cooled, hearts have stopped pounding, booming, and mashing, and the book's version of Basil Exposition has finished explaining what just happened, my reaction was: What a waste. In the hands of a talented writer, this book might have been great.
Speaking of which, Obedience wins points for one thing: It pays homage to City of Glass, by Paul Auster. (One character reads the book for a class, and refers to it numerous times.) City of Glass is a genuinely brilliant and innovative mystery novel. So, the only real mystery about Obedience is: Why would anyone read it when they could be reading City of Glass?