Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Book Review - The Third Brother by Nick McDonell

Boy-genius fails to live up to hype with second novel

Nick McDonell is only twenty-three. It is perhaps because he is so young that his first novel, 'Twelve', received such acclaim after it was published in 2002, when McDonell was only seventeen. In fact 'Twelve' became something of a cult bestseller, seeming to embody life amongst the over-privileged, drugs-ridden classes: a life we might presume the author to be familiar with, himself coming from an affluent background and studying at Harvard. 'Twelve' was a punchy, disparate novel, split into snappy vignettes that gave it vitality, readability and universal appeal, with a subject matter that encompassed and epitomised the indulgent, well-educated youth culture of a generation.

McDonell may have hoped to capitalise on that early success by reproducing his youthful stylistic snappiness in this, his second novel published in 2005, titled 'The Third Brother'. In it Mike, our white Harvard protagonist, finds himself in Hong Kong working as an intern for a successful magazine belonging to a friend of his father called Analect. He is then sent to Bangkok under the guise of writing a drug-related story about backpacking culture, but with the unwritten mission of finding Christopher Dorr, a man who, alongside Analect and Mike’s own father, formed somewhat of a Harvard triumvirate in his own youth. This trio was blown apart by adultery and lies, from which the friends never recovered, and it is this same conspiratorial tragedy that seems to hang like an indistinct shadow over the prevailing gloom of Mike’s unfolding destiny.

The plot skips like a scratched record between past and present in chapters sometimes no longer than a few paragraphs, giving a fragmented picture of Mike’s development through childhood and his present existence in Bangkok. However, much in the same way that a scratched record fails to impress with formulated, uninterrupted ideas, the detached elements of the book never really seem to pull together to give a clear sense of direction or completion, leaving plot elements hanging, almost unfinished.

This is incredibly frustrating considering that McDonell shows himself to be capable of evocative, if underdeveloped, genius on several occasions in 'The Third Brother', not least in his beautifully filmic description of 9/11 and the unfolding events of that fateful day in New York. This is a strange, self-conscious novel, that fails to convince. But read 'Twelve', and don’t disregard the author on the weaknesses of the eternally difficult second novel - instead look forward to the iconic work that McDonell is undoubtedly yet to produce.

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