Eye Spy

Eye Spy by Tahir ShahAuthor: Tahir Shah
Publisher: Secretum Mundi Publishing (2013)
Number of Pages: 241
How long it took me to read: 1 weeks
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
ISBN: 978-0-9572429-2-0

Like a Moth to a Flame

I grew up watching crime dramas with my parents. They would record a bunch of shows on their VCR, collect the VHS tapes in a dusty stack next to the television, and we would work through them methodically, watching an episode or two a night. More often than not, we would get so behind that we wouldn’t finish a season until the next season was starting (which is perhaps why I have difficulty watching any serial that isn’t on Netflix). In many ways, I led a sheltered childhood, especially in terms of television, but murder mysteries were one of the surprising exceptions to my parents’ rules. We watched everything from Masterpiece Mystery’s Cadfael to the modern and decidedly more gruesome Criminal Minds. We made a game of pausing the show to guess and bet on who the murderer was and what plot trope the writers would be using that week; we would all give a little spiel to demonstrate the accuracy of our points, and then we would push play again to see if one of us would be vindicated. That game, as well as all the literary analysis I did in college, has made me an expert at guessing correctly how any remotely formulaic story will end, whether the story is from an episode of Law & Order: Another Spin-off or from the kind of cheap-thrill page-turner you buy in the airport bookstore. I’m always on the lookout for a book that’s going to surprise me, though, and that’s what I hope to find in Tahir Shah’s new, rather unusual novel, Eye Spy.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “As for taking the life of another innocent victim, he didn’t feel bad about it in the least. In truth, Kaine hardly gave it a passing thought. Marcie had made a small sacrifice, allowing him a burst of unmitigated genius—genius that could now be harnessed for the good of all mankind.” (p.113)

4. “A little further research revealed that cannibalism was nothing new. Throughout history it had provided conquering armies with protein and an ultimate sense of supremacy.” (p.72)

3. “The more he mused and deliberated, Kaine came to realize that the land which had produced him was to blame. The only way to make amends was to get back at all the detritus from which society was configured. He made a long hit-list in his mind of all the immoral elements, elements that would have to pay a price.” (pp.210-1)

2. “Kaine cursed himself for having colluded with yet another despot, and a particularly depraved one at that. But, sipping a miniature Jack Daniel’s from the bottle, he congratulated himself as well.” (pp.15-6)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “In his mind, every man and woman over thirty should aspire to have a long obituary—preferably in the New York Times. Not to be featured in its hallowed pages was, in his mind, to be a loser, a wretched and humiliated subject of contempt. It was like having never lived at all.” (pp.117-8)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: ophthalmology (noun)

Definition (Source: Merriam Webster): a branch of medical science dealing with the structure, functions, and diseases of the eye
Origins: Greek; first known use circa 1842; from ophthalmos “eye” and logia “study or discourse”
As in: “For Amadeus Kaine, the human eye was an organ full of mystery and wonder, and ophthalmology was a science that never ceased to delight.” (pp.32-3)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Shah is an author more interested in storytelling than he is in realism. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be a bit disconcerting when reading a thriller about a cannibal ophthalmologist rather than a fairy tale meant for children. His characters, and even his settings, more often come off as caricatures rather than as actual people and places—for example, our protagonist, Dr. Kaine, visits several third-world countries run by tin-pot dictatorships. Shah does not seem interested in making these countries seem real; they seem to be more parody than anything else. The dictators themselves are generic at best: puffed-up and petty military types followed around by long-faced lackeys and surrounded by obscene luxury while the people of their nations suffer quietly against a grey-washed landscape. There’s no depth to it; it’s merely a cardboard stage background used to tell the story of Dr. Kaine. While this artistic choice adds a degree of humor, as a result the story lacks the grit and body that I normally expect from high-end thrillers and crime novels. It’s akin to going to the movies to see Chinatown and being shown Who Framed Roger Rabbit? instead.”

“Kaine makes for an interesting protagonist because he is also the story’s antagonist. Though civilization is falling apart and Kaine is deftly avoiding the prosecution of the law, the central conflict of the story is tightly wound up in his own mind. Should he follow socially accepted standards and stop consuming human eyes, even if it allows him short bursts of brilliance? Are there ethical ways to feed his habit? Is the good he could do with that brilliance worth several innocent lives? It is Kaine’s increasingly flawed decision making that propels the conflict and the plot. He is well aware of his addiction, but he is also aware of his own helplessness in the face of it. I don’t think he’s going to make it.

“Obsession is a tricky thing, and I know that I have my own aptitude for it. My anxiety and depression often manifest in fixation, in my intentional but unstoppable distortion of facts to fit my own perception. In my fixation, despair blots out everything else. For Kaine, I think it’s his hunger for recognition and his fear of his own mundane life, which are also motivations I recognize within myself. These fears and desires consume him and leave no room for anything else. He’s so afraid that he’s going to die with no one knowing his name; his wife left him years ago, he has no real connection with the people he calls friends, and he even fired his secretary. The only people who know his name have no idea who he actually is.

“Obsession, and the tunnel vision it gives us, isolates us. That isolation, in turn, gives more room for obsession to grow. It takes a strong person to pull someone out of their own head over and over and to try to shove them back into the light. It requires a patience and love I have found in my family and in my friends. Dr. Kaine drove away anyone who might do that for him long before the book started, and that is how I know that he is going to destroy himself. There is no character that he might even consider reaching out to: no tragic, unrequited love interest, no estranged but caring sibling. Not even a next door neighbor. The world is going to chew him up and spit him out like a bad piece of gristle.”

“I hesitate to call it a subplot because it’s more of a subtheme, though I’m not really sure it’s even that. In the novel, there is a disease ravaging the sight of millions of people across the globe called oculosis. Dr. Kaine is attempting to create a cure. In fact, it is part of his justification for eating human eyes—he needs the euphoric high he gets from eating eyeballs in order to have the intellectual capacity to find a cure before he, and the rest of the world, is also infected. Something that Dr. Kaine and his associates keep mentioned is the source of the disease—commercial chicken farming. A virus that used to only infect poultry has mutated and spread, and since most of the chickens in the US are raised in filthy, overcrowded, industrial non-farms and shipped to all parts of the nation, all of the chickens are infected and are in the process of infecting everyone who eats them. While I, too, am personally discomfited by the idea of industrialized farming, Shah crosses the line between pointed barb and preacher when he needlessly makes the same point over and over. Perhaps if he had better interwoven the concept into the story in some way (maybe he’s trying to say people should be careful what they put in their mouths, whether it be infected chicken or human eyes?) it would be more palatable, but this way is just annoying. It’s a distraction from the core of the story—Kaine’s dark descent into obsession. Maybe I’m missing some symbolism or parallelism to justify Shah’s jabs at the commercialization of food production in the US, but, as far as I can tell, Shah is having a hard time resisting the temptation to use his novel as a soapbox. He can expound on his beliefs all he likes, but it can be more distraction than good storytelling.”

Eye Spy is fast-paced and driven. I found myself desperate to get to the end to see if Kaine would pay for his cannibalistic crimes or if his habit would allow him the intellect to escape his pursuers. And, despite its almost allegoric style, the novel had several twists and turns that I was not at all expecting (and which I will not spoil for you here).

“Kaine has been a difficult character to read. I consider empathy to be one of my better talents, but I am very resistant to relating to him. In many ways, he is a small man. His faults are not tragic or brooding. He begins the novel as a character that does not let himself feel strongly about anything, who is best described as tepid. He has his hobbies and his small luxuries, but nothing ever moves him. It does not surprise me that he could be swept up in something as passionate as obsession—it is probably the most alive he’s felt in a long time. I sometimes find myself floating through my life, viewing the world with a comfortable detachment. I do it so often that strong feelings, when I do feel them, can come over me without warning. I do not even notice they are there until I’m arguing with my husband, or I hear bad news about an old friend, or when ASPCA commercials come up on the TV. And even though those strong feelings are often painful ones, there is also a sense of relief that comes with experiencing them. I can feel. I’m alive. Something touched me today. Kaine’s obsession has its roots in my own mixture of boredom and fear and hunger. We share a numbness and apathy we fight every day.”

Rachel Castleberg

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