(Algonquin Press, 2016)
Gina Wohlsdorf’s Security contains at least two major stories, and while one of them is a fairly sweet love story about wounded folks who manage to find each other and their way, the other one is so unbelievably terrifying and fraught that it’s actually easy to overlook, or certainly attempt to speed through, the sweeter parts of this novel.
To be clear: this novel kept me from sleep. Not merely because I was reading it well into dark, but because, once I set the book down, I was scared to close my eyes. I don’t handle scary-movie fear well, and Security’s scary-movie fear is monumental, insistent, borderline profound. The novel itself: there’s a hotel, the Manderley, that’s about to open on the California coast and was made to be the sort of ultra-luxe place where “a movie star [could] sojourn from a bad breakup” and “the hedge fund manager [will know] discretion will be afforded his mistress.” It’s being built by Charles Destin, whose own father was killed in a hotel by a cheap bomb, the details of which function almost entirely as a hook on which an aspect of the story hangs: Security opens cinematically, like a camera panning, following characters as they cross a screen, and there’s such a wealth of detail at the start—names, jobs, tensions, the huge maze of roses growing alongside the hotel—that it’s something of a shock to realize how quickly Wohlsdorf’s able to zing the reader’s attention to Tessa, the story’s heroine.
It’d be unfair to slog hard against Tessa, even if she does come with some very familiar trappings. Single, beautiful, icy—one of those tough-exterior-nougat-centered delectations most of us are familiar with. Even with the recognizable aspects, Tessa’s still a compelling character: she works her guts out for Destin, diplomatically calming waters after he engages in one of his regular cruelties—telling off underlings, firing them, etc. Tessa’s also all but incapable of trusting anyone, of letting anyone in, having been so wounded by a past event the reader slowly gleans.
Actually, not all that slowly: Tessa’s an orphan, eventually adopted by a family that already had adopted twin brothers Brian and Mitch. On page 14 Brian rides up to the Manderley on his motorcycle, kicking the story’s emotional momentum into gear. Brian is a stunt motorcycle rider, the remaining half of a pair of Evel Knievels, the Domini Twins, the other half being his twin brother Mitch, now dead. Brian and Tessa haven’t seen each other for years and years, last having interacted as Tessa begged Brian to stop riding after Mitch missed a jump, killing himself in the process. I can happily admit here that as a reviewer I’d love to tell you why Brian returned to Tessa this particular night, but I not only can’t remember the why but, when reading the book, didn’t find it important.
This is significant to talk about, even just briefly, in a review of a book that’s such a well-crafted trap of a reading experience. The why of things matters little in this book. That’s not a dig at Wohlsdorf—who, if there’s justice, is already being well compensated for the screenplay she’s hopefully writing right this moment. The truth is questions of why end up unsatisfying, anyway: think of Halloween or Scream, the two horror movies this book most resembles (the former because the killers here wear the same Shatner masks as Myers does; the latter because of the pomo/self-aware/pair-of-killers aspect). The most unsatisfying parts of those movies is when the events or acts are boxed, contextualized: who gives a shit what Jason’s youth was like, what Neve Campbell’s mother did to the other kid’s dad? The point of the stories is the agony of the fear and the thrill of escaping it.
So why is this book so terrifying? Because in this nearly-finished-but-not-quite hotel, security, as has already been mentioned, is taken real seriously. So much so that the security team has its own floor—the twentieth—and is staffed with former SEAL and law-enforcement types, top-of-the-line guys well-versed in aggressively neutralizing threats. This group of protectors have a baked-in level of invisibility: there’s a secret elevator only the head of security and Charles Destin himself know about, and the security team runs drills and scenarios—again, even though the hotel’s not entirely finished—to stay entirely ready for any threat. The reader’s made to understand early on how impenetrable the hotel is, how inviolable and safe not just due to the no-bullshit security guys but because of its secrecy. Because the hotel’s secret aspects—an elevator, certain rooms only two people have keys to, override controls only available to the security team up in their twentieth floor nest—create imperfect knowledge: nobody knows everything here, not Tessa, obviously not her brother Brian nor the hotel workers we meet (all of whom are well-rendered, interesting, just real enough to make you feel it when they die), not the pair of killers walking terrifyingly around destroying everyone. And the killers are—like Michael Myers in Halloween—slow but relentless, un-distractible. And what’s interesting about the lack of an articulable why—the book even addresses the lack, speculates on it—is that it never allows the reader to be sure the killers have reached their goal. Ever. Is the goal Brian? Tessa? Charles Destin himself?
I shouldn’t have said the book there: the narrator. There’s a narrator in Security, and page 11 is where I can find the first giveaway: “I almost laugh,” it reads, about halfway down the page. Ah hah, the reader thinks: someone’s behind the curtain. The question by whom takes a while to answer, and it’d be cruel to dish it here, but the reveal’s about as satisfying as it gets. Here’s your hint: the cinematic opening, where it feels like one long PT Anderson/Scorsese single-tracking shot, is continued throughout the book. In several places, the page is split in half, or thirds, or quarters, with simultaneous narratives being given. It’s split-screen narration, and it’s glorious and sickening and almost impossible to pull yourself from.
Of note, too, is that this is a literary thriller, one of those books you don’t have to laugh off and claim is just popcorny escapism when a friend asks what you’re reading. Gina Wohlsdorf’s written a stunningly propulsive and somehow moving thriller with an ending I was excited to read both because of how satisfyingly it snapped close the meticulously crafted box of the novel and because, mercifully, I was able to escape the terror of it.