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.
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