A Tale of Creepy Men: The Preservationist

Let me preface my review by saying that I do NOT like “thriller” books, or TV shows for that matter. But distaste would be a generous way to describe my feelings toward this novel.

Preservationist rock 1

Because I work in a library where there is a Preservation Department, I expected The Preservationist to be about someone who spent his or her days repairing paintings, attaching new spines to tattered books, and painstakingly restoring damaged maps and other artifacts. Not so. As we learn several chapters into the book, Justin Kramon is using the term in its most basic sense to describe someone who “preserves” memories and trinkets. But really, he is using it as a euphemism for the sickness that inhabits the sub-consciousness, and sometimes consciousness, of a serial killer. 

Yes, you read that right. Here I was expecting a mild story about librarians, and possibly some perceptive thoughts on the interplay between decay and life, and instead I got multiple rapes, mutilated cats, and a psychopath. 

This book closely reminds me of something else horrible that I once made the mistake of reading: Intensity by Dean Koontz. In that book, a girl is entrapped by a man who intends to rape and murder her. She escapes by the skin of her teeth. It’s all very shocking, and yes, it will give you that stab of fear in your gut, but in the end that sickness was dreamed up by someone living a passive life as a novelist, which was possibly the most disturbing thing about it. I think that book was one of five in my life that I have ever thrown away (the others, in case you were curious, were Prep, two terrible-looking “forbidden love” religious romance books that I didn’t read, and, worst of all, An Egg on Three Sticks). The Preservationist will be the sixth. 

There is a lot of talk going around right now about the “rape culture” that pervades every stratum of contemporary America. I believe that this book fits squarely into that sick mindset. It is not okay to use the rape and murder of girls as a plot device. No—it’s worse than that. It is not okay to make the rape and murder of women the primary focus of your book for the sake of convenience. Want to write a book about those subjects for the right reasons? Great, I suggest you read about Stieg Larsson and find out why he was motivated to write the excellent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. It is sickening to me that The Preservationist falls within the “thriller” genre—what, exactly, is thrilling about a story in which a lonely girl makes a series of bad decisions, only to end up in a deserted cabin on a mountaintop with her killer waiting outside clutching a six-inch knife? It is beyond sick that something like this is considered entertainment. Did I feel nauseated while reading this book? Did adrenaline pump through my veins? Was I turning the pages as quickly as possible, dreading the ending yet unable to turn away? Yes. I was complicit. But now I refuse to be any longer.  

I find it difficult to believe that the nice man I spoke with briefly at the American Library Association conference, who wrote “So nice to meet you!” on the title page where he signed his name, could have produced something like this. I am doubly surprised by my seemingly contradictory response to Taxi Driver, which I watched last weekend, where an uneducated, impulsive man is rejected by an intelligent girl and spirals into insanity. Taxi Driver is excellent. The Preservationist is not. So there must be something else going on here, some egregious quality to the book, that enrages me in a way that Taxi Driver left me feeling disturbed and disconcerted.

It is not, after all, just about the subject matter. It is about how the subject is treated, how it is explored, how it is explained, analyzed, and presented. It is also partly because The Preservationist is not well-written. That is, it is not poorly written, but Kramon’s writing has no distinguishing features apart from some oddly-phrased metaphors. Julia, Sam, and Marcus are stock characters. The story is set at a fictional college, and the plot seems to take place in a void. Kramon throws in so many red herrings (one of which certainly fooled me), but that does not change the fact that all of the men in the book, with the exception of Julia’s father, are beyond creepy. A 40-year-old who strikes up a relationship with a college freshman? An abusive, alcoholic, and adulterous father? An unhelpful, untrusting doctor at a psych clinic? A seemingly normal boy who played strange sexual games with his first cousin, then ignored her as she died of cancer? A boyfriend with a crush on his girlfriend’s roommate, who goes rifling through her possessions? Disaster, from every angle.

Taxi Driver probes. It disturbs, and forces one to reflect on what could have made someone so twisted. There are conversations in which people try to reason with Travis Bickle, to show him the fault in his thinking. That is part of what makes Jodie Foster’s scene in the cafe so memorable–Martin Scorsese is fully aware that a 12-year-old prostitute can know more about certain things than a fully-grown man. The Preservationist, despite the horrifying violence and unfulfilling sex, seems to be written from an old-fashioned perspective. Julia is a girl who is necessarily weak. She is lonely, she is innocent-looking (I won’t even go into why that’s problematic), she is easily ensnared by a male predator, and she is ultimately spared via the sacrifice of another man. If you wanted to write a colorless character with very little agency and an astounding lack of self-awareness, Julia would be the archetype. For Kramon, Julia represents not just the average too-trusting college female who ought to know better than to go walking across the campus alone late at night because there could be rapists about (ugh), but also all of the other girls that the serial killer has murdered. Again, I ask, why it is considered entertainment to read about women being lured to their deaths? There is no complexity in this book, no real exploration of motives. The killer is simply a sick man. Julia is simply a woman. Ergo, sick killer must attempt to kill simple woman.

I will not be reading another book like this ever again.

Overall rating: 1/5 stars

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13 thoughts on “A Tale of Creepy Men: The Preservationist

  1. Wow, I can feel your visceral reaction to this book in your review, Alina, and similarly think rape and destruction of women are inappropriate themes for a novel when used in such a flagrant, sensational way. It’s a sicko fantasy to imagine and find entertaining women being lured to their own assaults and deaths. I pass on these books. I have to mention though, it is equally disturbing when sexual assaults on children are used in novels. I’m thinking primarily of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, which came out a couple of years ago, and which concerned a young female teacher having sex with teenage students. Even though this was based on a true story, I can’t imagine how the author thought it was appropriate to use the subject in a book, as it violates so much moral and social decency. Sadly, the phrase “sex sells” is not just a saying in our society.

    1. I realized I forgot to put my rating at the end! But I don’t think it came as a surprise to anyone, ha!
      I haven’t heard of Tampa, and based on your description, I’ll continue to pretend that I never have! Ugh. I even looked up the book on Goodreads. That’s quite the suggestive (and dare I say disgusting?) cover! I’m reminded of the dark period in my life in which I decided to read 50 Shades of Gray. What a terribly written book!
      Lolita is pretty much the only exception I make for this kind of thing, and even then, the subject matter is beyond despicable. Nabokov’s prose is just too gorgeous.

      1. Oh don’t even speak that terrible novel’s name out loud! It’s the epitome of bad writing, and it shocks me (though I really shouldn’t have been that surprised) that it was so eagerly read by the masses. Lolita is a different story, though I have put off reading it for a long time. After Emily’s review, I was actually tempted to read it for the writing. If you think it’s a worthwhile read, too, I will have to add it to my list.

        1. Ah, I just skimmed Emily’s review. (I didn’t start following her blog until a few months ago). I think the “smashing one’s face against the mirror” metaphor is apt. Mostly, I can stand Lolita because the writing is drop-dead wonderful. It is one of the best-written books I have ever read. I heard it described once as Nabokov’s ode to the English language, and that’s how I like to think of it. Nabokov also doesn’t make Humbert Humbert sympathetic – at least, I didn’t react to him that way.

  2. “The Preservationist” sounds as if it should be the last of its species. I agree with you that the theme of rape is running wretchedly rampant. Enough of literary misogynists. Your review is honest and straightforward and guides the possibly misguided who might pick it up thinking it is a mild “thriller.” The genre, unfortunately, is filled with a lot of junk these days. Vampires and zombies are beyond the saturation point and have become plain boring. Thank you for your review.

    1. Yes, enough of this nonsense that passes for literature! And if I see another dystopian Young Adult novel, I’m going to scream. Whatever happened to realistic fiction? World-building gets old and repetitive after a while. Thank you for your comment, Patricia!

  3. From the sound of it, I’m surprised you got through this one. I would tend to spread the blame around on works like this (I’ve come across a few as well). What’s worse–the dissipated writer, the cynical publisher or the jaded readers, because if there were not at least a decent potential market it would never see the light of day. Thanks for calling it out on the carpet, because for some reviewers it would be just another title to scribble a couple of non-judgmental paragraphs about.

    1. And thank you for the supportive comment! I was a tiny bit apprehensive about posting this review, but decided that it needed to be done. Sadly, I think that many people read the back cover of the book, see that it falls within the “thriller” genre, and decide that something must be wrong with *them* if they don’t find it interesting. It’s also very easy to read, in the sense that the language is simple and the plot is easy to follow. Which then makes it more accessible to more people. No worries, though—I’m straight onto my next book, “And the Mountains Echoed,” by Khaled Hosseini. The two are incomparable!

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