“She belongs to us,” an unnamed woman narrates in the opening paragraph of Looker. “To our block, I mean.” Our narrator isn’t speaking about any ordinary neighbor, though — she’s claiming a kind of possession of the actress, a movie star whose mythic existence in her ritzy New York community puts her on par with “those old Hollywood legends — Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall.” And she lives just a few doors down. In such proximity, who wouldn’t be obsessed with her?
Laura Sims’ debut novel is an immersive investigation of obsession. Newly separated, the narrator, a PhD who can’t nail down more than an adjunct professorship, fixates intensely on the life of her famous streetmate, her stream-of-consciousness observations and fantasies juxtaposed with memories of and theories on where her life went wrong. She’s inherited the cat from her breakup, a feline roommate she regards indifferently — hence its name, Cat — and is contemplating a destructive affair with her young student. Her unfiltered narration hints at a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Sims’ approach is not judgmental, however. The author so prioritizes her clever, contemplative heroine’s voice that, even as killer one-liners and suspenseful sequences abound, what settles in most clearly is an overwhelming melancholy. The narrator ponders and plots from the stoop of her pricey apartment, racing through her pain with a dry, self-aware sense of humor. She envisions herself and the actress — who’s actually not quite a Lauren Bacall type at this stage of her career (so it goes in Hollywood) — as friends, and while there’s a sick pleasure to be gained from entertaining her delusions, Sims is smart enough not to let readers off the hook by reveling in mockery.
Looker does still present frighteningly fun — and, as the stakes turn dangerous, just plain frightening — female interiority, sore, unrefined, and incendiary. “I am sick to death of women,” the narrator says to begin one of the book’s sharpest passages. “Kind women, careful women, strong-and-silent women, caretaking women, lonely women, old women, perfect women, dead women, crazy women, haunted women, bitter women, hateful women, harsh women, hounded women, all women! I am not one of you! Leave me alone, leave me to the straightforwardly horrible men.”
The snooping and spying recalls last year’s smash hit The Woman in the Window; there’s also some classic Fatal Attraction appeal here. Written in the present-tense first-person, Looker is a wicked slow-burn without a clear arc to follow. The prose could use a serious tightening: Sims leans on flabby phrasings like “needless to say” and “not to mention” too heavily, excessively draws out obvious ironies, and can mistake vagueness for ambiguity — clunkiness which takes you out of the mesmerizing mania.
But this is still a strong, tense effort, short and addicting enough to be scarfed down in no more than a day. Looker is very much a thriller but doesn’t initially present itself as such; its cynical, cutting beats take some adjusting to. This is for the best. True to its title, Looker glides toward its ending as if eagerly awaiting the discovery of something ghastly. There is a murder. There is a skull crushing — a punishment, as Sims brilliantly constructs it, for one’s gentleness and sympathy. Its shockers feel like punches to the gut, nauseatingly effective. And its final image is moving — a denouement to release us from a tragically familiar, tortured mind. B