Experimental narratives have long been part of the literary tradition, which also means they have made their way into the crime fiction realm. Recent books like Janice Hallett’s The Appeal (told entirely via email communications) or modern classics like JJ Abram/Doug Dorst’s S (using handwritten marginalia and loose ephemera to expand the narrative) and the Edgar-Award-winning Young Adult novel, Sadie, by Courtney Summers (which incorporates a multi-voice podcast between the singular voice of the book’s protagonist) all prove that there are countless ways to alter the traditional novel format in order to tell the most compelling story possible. The writing team using the moniker L. R. Dorn will most certainly be added to this list with their debut, The Anatomy of Desire.
The Anatomy of Desire is presented as a transcript to a true crime documentary with the speaker of each monologue or statement clearly identified, followed by what that person actually had to say. These statements range in size from a mere sentence to longer diatribes. There are longer sections that transcribe what happens in the courtroom, but again only via the use of dialogue. Since it is immediately clear that the novel serves as the foundation for a fictional docuseries, readers are conscious of the fact that the writer/director Duncan McMillan is manipulating the proceedings by choosing what is revealed and when it is disclosed to the audience in order to elevate the tension in his finished product.
At the heart of the story is Cleo Ray, a young woman who was raised in a strict, conservative environment by ultra-religious parents. After asserting her independence, she has established herself as a fitness expert and has risen in the ranks to become one of the world’s most famous social media influencers. When a leisurely canoe excursion in Inyo County, California (an extremely conservative location) ends with Cleo on the run and Rebecca Alden – the friend she was with – drowned, that perfect life begins to crumble to dust.
The docuseries transcript highlights key moments in the narrative from Cleo’s arrest to the public outcry, the trial – with both the prosecution and defense case presented, and finally the resolution and aftermath. The courtroom aspect of the novel works well to keep readers flipping the pages anxious to know what the verdict will be. Reader’s loyalty will no doubt shift multiple times throughout the exposé. Since there is no exposition in The Anatomy of Desire, L. R. Dorn expects the reader to do the work of building the scenes in their mind, imagining how they unfold, and ultimately drawing their own conclusions. The two authors that make up L. R. Dorn both have backgrounds in screenwriting, which serves them well here. They have the skills necessary to bring characters fully to life with only the use of their spoken words and dialogue. Readers may find it a bit disconcerting at the start, but it is not very long before one could identify each speaker without even needing the provided attribution tags.
The Anatomy of Desire is inspired by Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Readers familiar with that classic work will notice similarities in names and set-pieces from that earlier work, but L. R. Dorn is intent on making this a tragic morality tale for the modern age, so topics like the power of social media, celebrity idolatry, fluid sexuality, and the clash between conservative ideals and liberal freedoms are forefront.
The Anatomy of Desire would be a success even for a veteran author, but the fact that this is a debut is quite astonishing and portends for greater things in the future. There are certain to be many fans anxious to see what comes next from this inventive writing duo.
Disclaimer: An e-galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the author. No promotion was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.