There’s something deeply insidious about the storytelling of Caroline Kepnes. Her novels are simultaneously so funny and so twisted that they coil down into the mud at the bottom of our brains and unsettle every selfish, creepy, and chaotic impulse. She makes it feel good to be so bad. And with Hidden Bodies (on shelves today), her second book about the delightfully manipulative sociopath Joe Goldberg, Kepnes once again puts us on the side of the bad guy.
She introduced us to this murderous anti-hero in the 2014 thriller, You, which took the innovative approach of unfolding its stalker tale in the second person. Charismatic Joe narrated his predatory obsession with Guinevere Beck, a young New York woman, directly to her – to us – in a way that made the reader feel both powerful and helpless. We were in his head, but trapped in her body, like a hostage tied to a chair listening to their captor’s triumphant monologue. Joe’s a sick puppy, but he’s also funny as hell, and its easy to get an icy thrill from his savage deeds while still squirming with the kind of guilt that never once crosses his mind.
In the sequel Hidden Bodies, Kepnes, a former EW writer, trades in the second-person narration for more conventional first-person approach. We’re still floating along in Joe’s pitch-black stream of consciousness, but we’re no longer the object of his affection/derision. This time, Kepnes sends her romance-obsessed serial killer on a mission of revenge to Los Angeles, where his excessive narcissism allows him to fit right in among the Hollywood grotesques.
When you love yourself as much as Joe does, the rest of the world can’t help but seem horrific and ugly by comparison. He’s such a prima donna, so self-pitying and vainglorious, that nearly every situation that doesn’t immediately flatter him invites his rage instead. And if he happens to be embarrassed or rejected … well, to quote the Eagles: “somebody’s gonna hurt someone before the night is through.” But Joe doesn’t savor death. Although he could hold his own at a cocktail party alongside Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman, and Frank Cauldhame, he’s not bloodthirsty. Murder isn’t his raison d’etre, it’s just a regrettable but necessary form of justice that he knows the rest of the world is too craven to dispense.
In You he was a lovesick psychopath, driven to vile crimes by runaway emotion. In Hidden Bodies, Joe has matured. This clean cut young man now fancies himself an avenging angel, ridding the world of human debris, although his extreme punishments are doled out over slights like insults and jealousies. He’s like a small claims court judge who can dole out capital punishment.
Most of all, Joe wants you, the reader, to know – it’s hard having these high standards. And sure, everybody hurts, but nowhere near as much as he does. “Los Angeles is full of places to hide a body,” he informs us early in the book. “But when the person inside the body doesn’t love you, it’s not an easy thing, turning that breathing person into a dead one.”
After he meets and swoons for a dilettantish producer/actress/writer/trust-fund-baby named Love, first we worry for her safety, then we worry Joe may have uncovered someone just as sinister as he is. Or is she merely fatally oblivious? As Joe’s Hollywood status rises along with the stack of corpses, Kepnes makes us yearn for the collapse even as we delight in Joe’s dirty deeds the way a dieter savors the sight of someone devouring jelly donuts.
Occasionally, Joe is a little too lucky, or a character’s reaction to his suspicious activities is a far more trusting – or forgiving – than we can accept. Every now and then, a plot point in Hidden Bodies defies belief. But then, I thought of every deranged killer who is finally caught, only to have the people in his life appear on the news and describe their shock, SHOCK that such a mild-mannered fellow could do such heinous things — even as they look back and see the warning signs in retrospect.
The truth is, instead of clearly detecting the intentions of other people, even the worst in our lives, we imagine our own morals and thoughts are shared by them. These justifications are like little movies we project on the people around us. We can all be narcissists who see the rest of the world as a reflection of ourselves. Every so often, we encounter someone who disguises true cruelty in this mirage.
As realistic thriller, Hidden Bodies sometimes makes us say, “Nah, no, not possible.” But maybe that’s just to make ourselves feel better. As satire of a self-absorbed society, Kepnes hits the mark, cuts deep, and twists the knife. A-