The Bone Parade
by Mark Nykanen
Published by Hyperion
168 pages, 2004
Silence of the Promise
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
As I was reading The Bone Parade, I found myself wondering every once in a while: Can you enjoy a book without admiring it? Now that I've finished it, I know that you can.
The Bone Parade starts quick, moves even more quickly, and ends with a bang. The pace is almost breakneck, and author Mark Nykanen expertly jumps back and forth between third-person and first-person sections. The latter are all the creepier because the "I" is the villain, the central character of this serial killer thriller. The last time I read a book with such hunger, such want-to-close-your-eyes-but don't-care-to allure was The Silence of the Lambs, and this novel owes more than a small debt to that classic. Stassler is, essentially, Hannibal Lecter before he's caught: a well-spoken, upper-crusty, holier-than-thou pain in the ass. Where Lecter considered his work artful, Stassler is an artist by profession, a wildly successful sculptor known for a series of hideous works called Family Planning, in which whole families are depicted in the painful throes of torture and death, all their muscles tense, all their sinews taut.
The Bone Parade opens with Stassler's kidnapping of the Vanderson family: a father, a mother, a teenage daughter and a young son. While the kidnapping is terrible, and their torture unspeakable, in the end I can't say I really cared about the Vandersons. We never really get to know them as people before they're taken -- and this is a critical mistake. These people exist as nothing more than plot elements, as caricatures. The father is predictably overweight and useless. The mother is an ice queen. The little boy is a young coward, all he can be. And the daughter, though drawn against type, isn't all that surprising; her actions serve the plot more than take it somewhere really interesting. The more we see Stassler strip each Vanderson bare of personality and name, the less it all matters. We never knew their real names, never saw them interact with one another before Stassler's arrival, so their torture, while horrific in theory, is devoid of any real meaning, save for illustrating just how sick Stassler really is.
In a way, Nykanen's treatment of the family is as shallow as Stassler's method. When he has each person at the height of emotional and physical stress, he preserves their bodies in alginate, creating a mold that he'll use later to cast the figures in bronze. The point is never raised in the book that Stassler's art isn't really art at all; it's just a perfection of the mechanics of casting. He's not actually creating anything. For all of his egotistical ranting about how wonderful his work is, there's very little there. Similarly (and unfortunately), Nykanen's way with the family is more about mechanics than art; he needs the family to be there, but the real story is elsewhere.
Elsewhere, in this case, is the other players: Lauren, the university art professor; Ry, the author of a book on contemporary sculpture that features Stassler and his work; Kerry, a sculpture student who's on her way to Moab, Utah, to intern with Stassler; and Jared, the handsome boy she meets along the way. These are people we care about, and most of this novel's action belongs to them. While Stassler's first-person sections are riveting because the artist himself is such a magnetic character, the others give the book a warm humanity all but absent in the darker areas.
Each of them is drawn crisply, in quick, smart language. Aside from his plentiful gift for storytelling, Nykanen knows how to render a character. He draws them as well as his killer sculpts, with almost creepily exacting details: what they look like, sound like and think like. Every detail is scrupulously included. His treatment of these, however, once more raises the nagging question about why he all but abandoned the Vandersons. When they die, it seems inevitable because they were never much alive in the first place; when the others are in danger, you virtually weep for them -- and putting the book down is all but impossible.
In this regard, The Bone Parade is schizophrenic. So powerful here, so weak there. For the most part, the writing is superb, and I found myself riveted to Nykanen's words. But the book left quite a bit to be desired. Apart from the character problems, there's the craftwork. As well as it's written, at times you can actually read the precision, the plotting as the author puts it together. Nykanen's breadcrumbs are visible from the moment he drops them. While this leaves the tightening suspense intact, it robs the story of the element of surprise. You may not know exactly how a certain detail will reappear, how it will be used to full dramatic effect, but you know it will. This left me, as I said, enjoying the book a great deal on a surface level, but not admiring it on a much deeper one.
Whereas Silence of the Lambs stays with you because it's shocking in its plot, characters and surprises, The Bone Parade is the kind of book you enjoy while you're reading it and then quickly forget. It's not really fair to call it a pretender, but though it delivers its share of thrills, it unfortunately never quite achieves the overwhelming shock you so desperately want it to, nor the lasting shudders Nykanen's writing promises. | April 2004
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.