The Lake by Gerhard Roth
Review by S. D. Stewart
With The Lake, Gerhard Roth takes the classic crime novel and runs it through a meat grinder. The loose, disjointed plot centers on Paul Eck, a disillusioned pharmaceutical salesman who receives a letter from his long-estranged father inviting him on a fishing expedition. The arrival of the letter unleashes a rush of horrid memories and associations into Eck’s already fragile headspace. What follows is a series of brutal crimes that may or may not be connected and appear to involve Eck in at the very least a tangential way. Throughout the course of the novel, Eck attempts to “investigate” these crimes while popping an ever-changing cocktail of his own company’s products with increasing regularity, as well as swiping prescription pads and stamps from the doctors he visits on sales calls in order to acquire pills outside his own stock. While the narrative is told in third person, it follows Eck closely, and so much of what the reader experiences is filtered through his drug-addled mind.
Twenty years prior to publication of this novel, Roth’s second novella The Will to Sickness appeared, reading very much like a case study or staging ground for this book, concerned as it is with a solitary character living in a fractured mental state and obsessed with the visceral details of the world around him. Paul Eck is in some ways like Kalb, unstable and dissociated from his surroundings, yet still possessed of a blurry desire to connect with someone, at least on occasion. While The Lake inches closer to a traditional narrative than this earlier novella, it is still far from traditional in its approach, while at the same time maintaining the page-turner quality of a good mystery. I was reminded at times of the structure and themes of Joseph McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge, for both these postmodern “mystery novels” are less concerned with solving the crime(s) than they are with exposing how information is transferred, interpreted, and utilized for the purposes of obtaining and exerting control.
It’s difficult to read and review Roth without at least considering for comparison his fellow Austrian countryman Thomas Bernhard, who shared Roth’s wide-ranging criticism of the Austrian state and singled out some of the same aspects of society at which to direct his vitriol. In particular, the medical establishment is fair game for gleeful target practice by both of these writers. Bernhard’s hatred of doctors appears to have been rooted in his experiences being treated for lung disease as a young adult, and manifests itself in his prose primarily as straight (and amusing) disparagement. Roth’s fixation goes a little further. As the son of a doctor and having at first considered the profession himself, in his writing he relishes describing sickness, disease, and injuries, as well as the corresponding medical procedures used to treat them. At the same time, in this novel he deals out sharp satire on the way both the medical and pharmaceutical establishments peddle drugs to unwitting patients, with the latter establishment even incentivizing this act by the former, without any consideration for the long-term effects of these drugs.
Roth’s vision of the world is dark and cynical. Paul Eck is a complex character to parse, in part due to his near-perpetual state of drug-induced disconnection from reality. But when one examines what he is escaping from and why, the sharp commentary Roth is delivering begins to take shape. There is a scene where Eck in his drug haze stumbles upon a politician holding a public rally. The menace of post-Nazi conservatism in the speaker’s words grows to a fever pitch as the spectators cheer louder in a state of mesmerized control. Somewhere in Eck’s brain an understanding of the danger of this man clicks, but Eck’s reaction is perverted by the effects of the chemicals in his bloodstream. It’s a powerful scene in the book, and just one example of how underneath Roth’s jagged, nonlinear storytelling (itself a statement on modern life), there is a framework of deep concern over societal issues.