Thursday, December 27, 2012
In the past twelve months, I read smart books (What It Is Like To Go To War), epic books (Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures), droll books (From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant), and quirky books (Shine Shine Shine), but none of those books consumed me from the inside out like the terrifying Breed by Chase Novak. Be advised: do not start reading this novel at the end of a long day when the dishes have been washed and put away, the kids are tucked into bed, the spousal foot-rub has been requested and received, the glass of wine is drunk and starting to mellow the bloodstream, teeth are brushed, pajamas donned, and all that remains is for you to pick up a bedside book with plans to read “just a few pages” to help you drowse off. Breed is the worst kind of sleep aid imaginable.
I can’t remember the last time I gripped a book this hard, squeezing the pages until the beds of my fingernails turned white. Novak (a pseudonym for Scott “Endless Love” Spencer) flips the Rosemary's Baby formula and makes the parents the monsters.
When we first meet them, twins Adam and Alice are prisoners in their own home—a dark townhouse full of odd smells and sounds. We soon learn they are locked in their rooms at night for their own protection. Like desperate fairy tale characters, they eventually escape and then, for most of the book, the 10-year-olds are running for their lives through the streets of Manhattan, trying to stay ahead—sometimes only by a city block—of their parents Alex and Leslie. Novak extends the chase over the course of several chapters (including one fantastic scene in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and never once falters in the novel's unrelenting suspense.
I don’t want to give too much away—only enough to titillate you into buying the book—but here are the basic nuts and bolts of Breed's plot: Alex and Leslie Twisden have fabulous jobs and their newly-married life a luxurious town house on Manhattan's Upper East Side seems to be headed for a happily-ever-after ending. There’s just one problem: they can’t conceive a child. In desperation, they consult with a fertility doctor in Slovenia who turns out to be a total nut-job—somewhere between Joseph Mengele and Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown in Back to the Future. It’s no spoiler to tell you that, after a pretty horrifying medical procedure and some rough, furniture-breaking sex, the parents get what they want: two beautiful babies.
All seems well and good. After disappointment and despair, a young couple finds happiness in fertility. But it would be wrong to ignore the warning signs that there could be some nasty side effects to Dr. Freakinstein's in vitro treatment: sudden hair growth for one thing; an odd appetite for another. Our first clue that Mommy and Daddy aren’t all right? When mild-mannered father-to-be Alex pops a plump hamster into his mouth and swallows it in four quick bites ("easily and without question the most delicious thing he has ever tasted"). It gets even freakier after that.
I've already said too much. Breed is not a book to be described, it's meant to be devoured in one sitting, with four delicious bites—one hand holding the book and the other clapped over your gasping mouth.
For all its Gothic horror pedigree, Breed is ultimately a smart commentary on modern parenting. Beneath the veneer of genre, Novak raises some interesting questions: why do we continue to love those who hurt us? And, conversely, how do we stop hurting the ones we love? Breed is a cautionary tale about using science to get everything we want in this world. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes having our dreams come true could turn into our worst nightmare.