“Mystery’s” — a novel published March 20, 2019, by Ohio State University graduate Will Sly — is a coming-of-age tale about a woman who grapples with love and sexuality intermittent with social commentary. But don’t let the description, or cover, fool you; it’s actually a pretentious piece disguised as fine art with its best quality being its cover art.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
I entered this book with an open mind; curious but hesitant about the subject matter because I knew if its characters weren’t accurately characterized, the book would fall flat. I read the first paragraph, and I was bombarded with word vomit.
“Out it came, the sky’s first roar before the great flood of their prophesy. First the words, then there was. She didn’t sigh or pour out the sweat of shock at its utterance. It was no meek confession. There was a warmth that overwhelmed her when those words finally grazed and cleaned that bar, bounced off the kind reflections of the mass of America’s antiheroes bearing witness to her relief.”
Who was the paragraph referring to? Where was she? A party? To ease confusion, the paragraph referred to the main character named Keira, whose name wouldn’t be mentioned until six pages in, and she worked in a bar named “Mystery’s.”
The first ten or so pages have the same writing style filled with gems like, “His man’s scent was
pick-pocketed by the tiny clovers of her perky nose to send her mind into a fantastic montage of their wayward history.”
Clearly, the author sat with a thesaurus open beside him when writing the first dozen pages. Thankfully, the writing eventually becomes legible, but the relief is
Keira Rhys, our main character, is in love with the bar owner, Micah. She’s obsessed with this man for no real reason and decides the best way to confess to him is to strip naked with lightning speed in their shared apartment, to which he simply responds, “I’m gay.”
The book then travels back in time, recounting times with Keira’s past lovers. In the span of 120 pages, Sly manages to pigeonhole women into a stereotypical category defined purely by their sexuality and sex drive.
I recognize it’s supposed to be a commentary about our sex-driven society, but by making the main character all about sex and love without any tangible motivation — aside from hints at an artistic side, which just come off as pretentious — Sly perpetuates the stereotype. Society needs a strong female character who has ambitions and motivations beyond her sexuality and finding love, and Keira is not that.
This view on womanhood is made even more apparent with the side, transgender female character, Jezebel. Firstly, Jezebel was probably the worst name one could find for a transgender woman. The character says she names herself that because, in the Bible, Jezebel is strong. But one cannot remove the connotations of the name and shrug it off with a weak one-paragraph explanation. Secondly, when describing her experience coming out, Jezebel says she asked her girlfriend what it was like to have a man inside her and Jezebel talked about the time she felt closest to being a woman.
“[My boyfriend] came out to me, and we took turns sucking each other’s cocks … It was the first time I felt like a girl though. It was as close as I could get.”
Again, women are not defined by sex, and that includes transgender women.
One specific scene drove me up a wall. Keira is drunk with two other men, who comment on how sexy she is in a dress without her wearing a bra. They come up with a competition to draw Keira, and as Keira poses, Jezebel reaches behind her and undoes her top, revealing her bare breasts. Keira shrugs this off and poses on two stacks of books because, as Jezebel tells her, “They’re not perverts.”
In the last 50 pages, Sly tries to mimic closure with plot-twist after plot-twist, each more unrealistic than the last, and Keira’s character takes a turn so drastic it gives the reader whiplash.
First, Micah has sex with Jezebel behind the bar, which is completely unrealistic for his
generally-passive character. Then, Keira decides she will do whatever it takes to be with him, which includes pretending to be trans.
Thankfully, Jezebel calls Keira out on this, and if she didn’t I might have burned my computer in outrage. However, Micah is completely fine when he learns that Keira is pretending to be trans solely for him, which might have been interesting had Micah’s character been more deeply explored beyond his, like nearly every character’s, love of reading.
The novel throws in a mishmash of social issues — gentrification and the political climate — without an ounce of consistency. It attempts to captivate a changing world where art is dead, but without a clear arc. These side conversations fall as flat as the characters.
But by far the most tragic element of the book is that it is sprinkled with good, well-written moments where Sly is clearly trying to delve into foreign territory. The best scene is the mural Keira paints in her new apartment in the last segment of the book. It’s well-described and really gives a glimpse into her character never seen in the previous 140 pages of the book. She’s artful and cares about her art and I wish that were her primary motivation. However, the mural is just mentioned at the end and never referenced once previously.
The book tries to tackle the complex subject matter of sexuality, love and lust, and it crashes and burns. I wish the author had consulted the demographics he describes in the book before publishing it because they might have pointed him in the right direction for such complex territory. Instead, the book does more harm than good and wasted the ten days it took for me to read it.
But if you want to feel this confliction for yourself, it’s available for $12 as a paperback from Amazon or $3 as an ebook for Amazon Kindle.