Review by Tobias Carroll
Memory is ambiguity. Even as our interest is piqued when a decades-old document is unearthed, be it a familial memento or a found object showcasing strangers, that interest is invariably tempered by the flaws imposed by time, by ebbing recollections, by imperfect records and untraceable information. And yet we’re drawn in regardless: by the allure of the past, compulsions to unearth something as yet undiscovered, or the thrill of discovery.
Kio Stark’s short novel Follow Me Down taps into this desire, and this accompanying ambiguity. A surface description might make it sound like prototypical noir: Lucy, a reulctant investigator, battling her own demons and memories of the past; a sense of pervasive, and at times unexpected, corruption; the weight of history; the looming threat of violence. Stark’s interests here are less in revitalizing familiar tropes and more with exploring an entirely different sort of tension. And, in contrast to the more literal tension that runs throughout the novel, Stark’s themes here are unexpectedly philosophical: the clash between specificity and mood, between impressions and history, between verifiable facts and information lost to ambiguity.
As the novel opens, Lucy has left one life behind her long ago. She has an established routine: a small group of friends, a lover, a familiar walk that she regularly makes through her neighborhood. One day, an envelope is delivered to her building twenty years after it was mailed. This envelope, and what it turns out to contain, set Lucy on a search for resolution; things escalate. Certain things that had seemed whole are broken; irreperable flaws are detected in others.
Some information is initially presented to us without context: a location without much accompanyiong history, for instance. Slowly, a history of the neighborhood in which Lucy lives emerges: its past, its unexpected corners and contours. (It’s not for nothing that this novel boasts a glowing Luc Sante quote on its front cover.) But this essaylike exploration is in sharp contrast to the more traditionally plot-driven elements in the novel: Lucy adopting a series of fictional identities in order to investigate the photograph, for instance — and, in doing so, adopting the sort of persona that does, in fact, adopt personas.
That tense ambiguity even manifests itself in the way certain facts are revealed to us: Lucy’s name, for example, is only revealed a third of the way into the novel. It’s in keeping with Stark’s nods in the direction of realism, but it also helps to fuel the themes that dwell just below the surface here. In some ways, the novel is fueled by impulses similar to those that prompt Lucy to periodically assemble mosaics on one wall of her apartment. There’s an underlying order here, though it isn’t always what’s expected.
It doesn’t give much away to say that Follow Me Down’s ending addresses its questions of facts and ambiguity head-on, or that it explores the psychological ramifications of that tension. And it ultimately does so in a satisfactory way: the length of this novel is just enough for the story to develop along interesting lines, but short enough to sustain a particularly concentrated mood. The conclusion of Follow Me Down is, ultimately, reliant upon both, and stings like a fall to concrete.