At first blush, the premise of Andrew Wilmot’s debut novel may seem a bit thin to carry several hundred pages of prose: M, estranged from her family and dying from cancer, falls in love with D, “the world’s greatest living redshirt,” a man who has acted out hundreds of death scenes in Hollywood movies but is generally unknown to the public. As one might expect, given the effect of M’s medical situation on her psyche—and the implied compulsive aspect of D’s inner workings—their relationship is fraught from the get-go. The resulting turbulence might be enough for a compelling short story or novella, but can it sustain an entire novel?
Wilmot allays this doubt in three fundamental ways. First, the novel’s opening chapters make clear that this story will not develop along “standard” romantic plot lines (which in this case might be something like girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl regains boy), but rather will investigate M’s relationships more broadly. Her particularly intense and, one might say, torrid tangle with D is merely one of several rich, complex attempts to connect with others. In Chapter Five, for instance, we meet both M’s therapist, a distinctive voice throughout, and M’s sister Louise, another strong personality, and one who will play a significant role in the novel’s denouement. In Chapter Eight, meanwhile, we’re introduced to M’s friend Aud, whose journey provides a tragic foreshadowing of M’s own fate but also illuminates M’s romantic myopia as perceived by others—a recurring element in the novel amplified, for example, by Louise. And later still we encounter Ezra Oppenheim, who may not get as much on-screen time as some of the other supporting cast members, but certainly makes a splashy entrance:
That night, as I waited for you, I met a guided missile made to look like a woman. She was short and stout, barrel-chested, her hair tied back so tight her face looked like wet fabric draped over a rock to dry. She wore a bright pink chiffon jacket with a lime-green trim—one of those straight-out-of-the-’80s combinations so bright it managed to offend even the legally blind—with gold and plastic technicolour bracelets clattering together on both forearms.
I offer these lines because they highlight Wilmot’s talent for descriptive prose. They also double as a commentary on the types of details to which M pays attention, those her gaze focuses on. Again, this is key: our point of view is embedded in M’s consciousness, and as we glean new information about her conflicts with and attachments to others, we are receiving a portrait of her as much as we are of them.
This ties in directly with a second storytelling strength that buoys the novel: the narrative framework is the post-mortem of trauma, rather than a conventionally suspenseful romantic arc. The pain of M’s present—not only her wasting disease, but the squalor of her living conditions (“my 350-square-foot one-room cockroach hostel”)—leads her to reevaluate the perceived love of her past, a process equal parts delicate reconstruction and willful distortion. M’s mind roves over her memories with a haphazardness that evokes naturalism, at times dwelling on specific moments in Knausgaard-esque detail, at others brushing over whole swaths of life and experience in the space of a few sardonic lines. There is a general chronological progression from her first encounter with D to the terminus of the relationship, but her deviations from this path are often just as interesting as the non-tangential revelations.
There is a third narrative choice that I feel adds fascinating texture to the novel, and helps unspool the story with the slickness of a flickering film reel: the novel’s conversations between M and her therapist, along with her D-focused recollections, are composed in the form of alternating blog posts and film script excerpts. These not only infuse the novel with narrative energy, but artfully capture the non-linearity of M’s reassessment and, at times, rewrite of her past and of her self.
Knowing that everything we experience in The Death Scene Artist comes by way of M, though, raises the question of her “objective” reliability as narrator. Here I was surprised, and initially confounded, by Wilmot’s choices. A third of the way in, maybe earlier, we’re given strong reasons to believe that M’s account of certain events—I won’t spoil the gory details—is delusional. I first found this jarring because my impression of M’s voice up to this point was one of unsparing realism. I saw her as someone preoccupied with achieving journalistic veracity in all she recounted. Readjusting my expectations took me a couple of chapters, but in retrospect I’m glad I had to undergo this shift.
For one, the sudden reorientation helped me see that I had been conflating M’s love for detail and descriptive precision with her epistemological integrity. In this interview, Wilmot observes that “the book is hyper-real,” which was what I had glommed on to at the start, but also “surreal in a lot of ways.” Adjusting to the mixture of these two required a certain mental renegotiation on my part, because I’d previously thought of these modes as essentially mutually exclusive. Now I believe that M’s unreliability effectively underscores one of Wilmot’s main thematic concerns: “it’s very much a story about envy,” he says in that same interview, more specifically “body envy.”
M’s view of her own body, and what she thinks she is doing to sheathe it from the world, is severely warped. To really internalize the perniciousness of her body dysmorphic disorder we must bounce off the same internal fun-house mirrors that she does, without any warnings or caveats along the way. In a projective sense, then, M is not unreliable at all: her distortions of “reality” are perfectly reliable, as trustworthy a set of signposts for her psychological roadmap as we could ever hope for. “Hers was a skin I could take whole cloth, like Eleanor’s, and be protected inside,” M observes, and at this moment we realize precisely how exposed she is.
Beyond this specific instance, the novel is more generally fascinated with unlikely juxtapositions and the recalibration of perceptions. Its Hollywood setting lends itself perfectly to an underlying sense of ontological uncertainty. Early on, for example, M writes: “The illusion of our time together was ruptured by a sudden swarm of bodies crowding onto the set, buzzing around one another with practised urgency.” M and D live in a world of professional make-believe; but, in their separate ways, they each take these unrealities to a new level. M is aware of this, and reflects on it several times: “It was practically animalistic the way our always-changing narrative helped you to lose yourself,” she observes. Later, she muses:
In some sense, I’ve always appreciated the cleanliness of death. On film, no matter the cause, once the victim or victims are dead it’s finished, immediate. In reality, the act of dying is a slow, sometimes agonizing stutter to the end—a messy trail of unfinished thoughts and fears and failures that gum up the process.
At a critical early juncture, M relays to us that D once said, “Honestly, I’m no one special.” Again, a sharp contrast arises: if what D says is true, why is M so drawn to him? Is it a reflection of her belief that she too is no one special and that this commonality binds them? If what he claims isn’t so, does his very act of denial help draw M into a fictional role that he has already cast her in?
Adopting personas, inhabiting other selves, pops up time and again: “There was excitement in the idea that each new role brought with it a new way to live, if only for a few hours or days or even a week at a time.” During their first tryst, D insists that both of them use only the names of the characters they’ve been playing on set, stipulating “just for tonight”. M’s therapist opines that “What the two of you had … It was a fiction,” to which M replies, again blurring the lines, “But it still hurt like it was real.” Addressing D in one of her many blog posts, M observes: “Each life of yours is usurped by the next as if you’re Highlander-ing with yourself.”
This last line showcases Wilcot’s avowed “life-long love affair with film and the film industry” (see again that interview in Unnerving), and film-savvy readers will be rewarded with many other such references (e.g., the line “Come with me if you value your life”). This playfulness offsets some of the novel’s inherent grimness, and also manifests in M’s recasting of her experiences in terms of particular story tropes (or is this meta-awareness on M’s part?). At one point, for example, she ponders what genre her story might best be suited to, and perhaps tellingly decides on the following: “How about science fiction—we’ve not done that in a while.”
This compulsive tendency to storify reality reinforces the novel’s underlying backbone of ontological doubt, and in that sense potentially makes The Death Scene Artist genre-adjacent. D, both in his pursuit of the serial enactment of death poses, and in his parallaxed portrayal through the eyes of an admirer, evoked for me the ghost of Vaughan in J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973). The marriage of M’s weight-loss with her deepening philosophical outlook made me think of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” (1922), and the novel’s graphic depiction of bodily diminution recalled Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007). Readers may be tempted to think of Chuck Palahniuk’s body of work, too, with its transgressive, pop-culture-infused social critiques—though, when asked about this, Wilcot noted: “I read him in the past … he’s someone I’ve broken up with,” adding, “I found his stuff was more idea, less character.”
The Death Scene Artist, though engrossed in questions of the fluidity of identity and the performative self, is heavily invested in character, which in turn makes it well worth investing in as a story. The abstraction of inhabiting fictional selves, for instance, is arrestingly literalized through the imagined practice of donning others’ physical exteriors. Implausible Hollywood scenarios and film archetypes are counterpoised by the specificity of bodily disease and emaciation. In a sense, M’s imagination swells as her body contracts. And her viscerally felt relationship with D—at times it feels more like a battle of wills than a romantic courtship—suggests intriguing symmetries. Was M, for instance, primarily driven by Freud’s ego force of Eros, her enthrallment with D a kind of libidinous anticipation of her imminent expiration? Are D’s aggression and obsessively repetitive behaviors a manifestation of Thanatos, his death drive irresistibly drawing him to the reliving of some past trauma? M and D would themselves probably scoff at schematic Freudian reductionism of this sort—and this is part of what makes them enticing as characters.
That’s not to say that their chronicle will gel satisfyingly for all readers. The conflict of tones I mentioned before may ultimately prove frustrating for some. The existential pall may become burdensome, or worse, seem unearned. I can see how several chapters consisting of angsty script excerpts may come across as arch, their emphasis on a clever mise en scène coming at the expense of interiority. Some of the literary ornamentation may be received as a bit twee. And, for me personally, a culminating event of violence was over-the-top, straining suspension of disbelief even within the novel’s reality-stretching context.
Days after reading The Death Scene Artist, I found myself wondering: to whom does the titular death scene artist refer? The straightforward response is D, and we might do well to leave it at that. But if, in the end, M has indeed managed to “stand in enough light” for D to see her, might she not qualify as an artist in her own right, one capable of capturing the attention of a peer? For us readers, D’s performances are conveyed entirely through M’s lens, and in that sense she is at least co-equal in whatever artistic creation has arisen through his (and later, their) actions. Which leads to a third possibility. It is by dint of our readerly apprehension that both M and D and everyone else in this novel “exist.” We are the ones filling in the blanks and dreaming up the interstices of a novel which itself seems to exist in a malleably postmodern, yet staunchly Hollywood-noir-ish, twilight zone. Remember, too, M’s blog-post use of the second person. Perhaps she is not only addressing D, but you and me. Her examination of the past thus invites ours; her pressing questions of mortality encourage our own. M’s greatest parting gift, then, might not be her life story and whatever putative lessons are thereto attached, but rather her making death scene artists out of each of us.