D. Nandi Odhiambo's new novel is "a swirling, dizzying, drama full of complex characters and high stakes."
The wheels of justice grind slowly, and in the process grind down the lives of people waiting for justice to be served. In Jennifer Quist’s compelling and original novel, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner (Linda Leith Publishing, 2018), a broken family in Edmonton, Alberta suffers pain and chronic outrage from the court’s inability to convict and sentence the murderer of their daughter Tricia in a timely manner. Neither detective fiction because readers know who killed Tricia from the beginning, nor a courtroom drama, although it incorporates aspects of both, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner is a poignant and unexpectedly witty narrative about a woman trying to free herself from dark horror and emerge into the light when justice has indeed been done.
In a crucial scene, the adversarial confrontation between the prosecutor and the witness for the defense, a psychiatric expert, is both mind-numbing and nerve-wracking. With her sure grip of voice and dialogue, Quist conveys the legal and frustrating tensions at work. The prosecutor Joshua Lund tries to break through and break down the professional jargon of the witness whose equivocations would have everyone believe that the accused is not criminally responsible for his actions, and he perversely blames the victim for her own murder because “she did choose as her romantic partner a man well-known to be very sick. It’s a risk she knew and accepted” (161). In further defence of the murder, the expert witness insists:
Antisocial personality disorders are often co-morbid with schizophrenia. We don’t have to choose between diagnosing one or the other. Brett Finnemore has an antisocial personality disorder and schizophrenia, which is a psychotic disorder that impairs his ability to understand the world around him.
Claiming NCR (not criminally responsible) as a defence, the defendant appears mostly as a name, his actions and character revealed through the memories and impressions of others. There is no question that he brutally murdered Morgan’s sister, but the nightmare of that event has seeped into the psyche of the Turner family, especially Morgan’s own psyche, as she tries to find a way to continue living with the unspeakable. For the most part, the novel includes a cast of convincing characters, which include Morgan, the prosecuting attorney Josh Lund, her morbidly obese brother Tod who works in an abattoir slaughtering pigs, and her self-involved father who uses family tragedy to sell his book. And there’s Paul who suffers from real mental issues and is the brother of the prosecutor Joshua Lund. It is to the author’s credit that Paul is complex, funny and human, and not merely a stereotype of deranged symptoms. He acts not only as Morgan’s friend but also as wonderfully ironic counterpoint to the murderer and his insanity defense.
Quist ingeniously couples religion and horror movies to convey the difficulties Morgan has in working through her own desperation and grief, which has inhabited the very synapses of her brain. Horror movies depict sensational and improbable evil, but they fail to satisfy Morgan’s longing to understand human, all-too-human evil and escape from it. Both The Exorcist and the silent movie Nosferatu feature in this novel. Morgan views them from the perspective of someone whose own sister has fallen prey to actual horror committed by a living human being in real contemporary time, whose lawyer uses every legal technicality and logic-defying argumentation on his behalf, including psychiatric obfuscation.
Perhaps religion might provide satisfaction, and the novel echoes with religious allusions, not just to the Bible but also to Dante’s Divina Commedia. Not religious herself and ill-educated, Morgan nonetheless is taken by Paul’s unwittingly funny commentary about the biblical story of a man possessed by demons:
"So the demons are all talking to Jesus, calling Him by name and begging Him to leave them alone and let them keep living inside this guy. But they’re the worst tenants. They’ve kept the guy up for years – naked, freaking out in graveyards, cutting himself, and so much crying … There’s this big herd of pigs feeding not too far away and the demons ask if they possess the bodies of the pigs instead of the man." (142)
Quist is too sophisticated and knowledgeable a writer with a strong satirical bent, however, to rely upon religion as a narrative deus ex machina. All the magical or religious exorcisms in the world cannot expunge her sister’s murder from Morgan’s heart and mind, but she will never find peace if she doesn’t struggle to cast evil out. Working in the abattoir where pigs, presumably free from demons, immerse Morgan in a different kind of slaughter, but doesn’t lead her to insight and revelation, because in a sense, the killing is normal, however horrific: "Abattoir blood doesn’t smell like Morgan’s healthy human blood. It is diluted, cold, with a pH made too basic by all the bleach. It’s not good blood but it isn’t quite scary either – not like the effects spattered in movies, not like the ooze of burnt arsonist’s arms" (87-88).
When I read Jennifer Quist’s brilliant first novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death (Linda Leith Publishing, 2013), the author’s superb handling of tone of voice especially impressed me. Given the subject matter of that novel, love and passion, death and grief, the tone kept the novel buoyant, energetic and alive when it could so easily have tumbled into the depressing and deadly dull. In The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, Quist once again demonstrates her unerring sensitivity to narrative tone of voice, and displays a masterly hand in blending comedy with tragedy, depicting dramatic and painful scenes without degenerating into bathos. That is no small accomplishment. Moreover, she connects all elements or motifs of the novel so that nothing is irrelevant. For example, Morgan becomes acquainted with a group of Chinese women with whom she watches romantic Korean movies, and tries to pick up and correctly pronounce a few words of Chinese. This could strike one as padding, however humorous, but in a powerful scene Morgan is so overtaken by anxiety and panic that she “is desperate, frantic, screaming.” English fails her and “yelling, finally overwrought enough to let herself pronounce the Chinese correctly” she shouts out Chinese words (182). Then she falls to her knees. In an effort to speak, English again fails her:
She is out of breath, gasping to replace what she has wasted. Sheila Turner watches her daughter sink to her knees on the dirty floor. Morgan has covered her eyes with both of her hands, crying, bent toward the ground, speaking in tongues, every word of soap-opera-Korean she knows – for her mother, Tod, Tricia, for anyone.
“Kajima, chebal, mianhae, saranghae, ottoke! Kajma!” (182)
The dramatic context of these lines I leave to readers to discover for themselves.
Consider the use of the word apocalypse in the title. We usually forget the meaning of the term when we apply it to universal destruction, or even think of the movie Apocalypse Now. And it’s Paul, living with schizophrenia, who reminds us: "I hate how nobody knows what ‘apocalypse’ is anymore. It’s a Bible word for uncovering something. Not the end, just a revelation" (213). It’s an apt metaphor for Morgan Turner’s quest, as much psychological as it is spiritual. Revelation raises Morgan from her personal horror at the end and enables her to start a new life in China as a teacher of English. In The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, Morgan’s trip through her purgatory and hell in order to achieve the light of paradise is no easy journey, but a necessary one through a world of random and inexplicable evil.
Linda Leith Publishing released The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner in Spring 2018.
© 2018, Kenneth Radu
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Net Worth (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC in the not too distant future. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.