The Death Scene Artist, by Andrew Wilmot. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Wolsak and Wynn, October 2018. 300 pages. $20,00, paper.
What makes an actor? Do they have to have star-studded fame, perfect teeth and a reputation for great acting? Or do they have to be closet catastrophes, marred by drugs, relationship issues, anxiety and identity crises in order to create their stardom? Why not both? Andrew Wilmot addresses these types of questions and more with his first independent, and experimental, novel.
M____, or as I will call them M, is at their wit’s end when they are “reunited” with their ex-boyfriend and now film celebrity, D____ (D), when he is featured on television. Lovingly called a “death scene artist” by M, D’s special brand of acting stimulates the morbid sensibilities of M, who feels discarded and disturbed in the wake of their break-up months later. For catharsis, M creates a blog recounting their turbulent life and their relationship with D along with other people’s stories, their horrific deeds and the demanding world of cinema.
The Death Scene Artist has an interesting form to its narrative. Designed like a theatre script, the novel is split into three acts. The prose oscillates between the script format and traditional prose, divided by chapters. The script format comes around when M reminisces about scenes they participated in with D, their voice over (V.O.) being the normal prose narration. Wilmot even gets a little meta and fourth-wall-breaking with M’s voice, serving some nice humor, satire and commentary on the world of cinema:
QUIET FRENCH WOMAN (V.O.) You were like an infant, hallucinating, lost somewhere in a dream. My name was not Mary. Mary was someone else, someone far away, in whatever backstory had been written for your five-minute sacrificial lamb. Mine was a shadow part, a throwaway character script to send you off in dramatic fashion.
Speaking of narration, the story is told from a both a first-person and second-person point of view. Wilmot writes this cleverly at the beginning, where the audience may be led to believe M is addressing the reader directly. Within a chapter, you will come to realize that the “you” is actually D, since M is writing their blog in response to their breakup. Addressing D as “you” forces the reader (in an engaging way) to put on the shoes of D, feeling his discomfort, expressing his anxiety and not singing his praises, for example, when he’s on television at that awards show:
And like a deer in headlights you just stood there, stunned, not at all sure what to do or say. You just shoved your hands back into your pockets and glanced into the camera for a split second before awkwardly staring down at your shoes … I could see you anxiously doing the math inside your head, estimating just how many eyes were on you at that moment, televised or not.
This kind of narration makes the reader feel more embedded in the story as they read along.
M’s main character quirk, their fascination with death, informs most of their decisions and drives the biggest element of the story: M murders people to steal their skins and wear them. As a horror fan, this is such a unique touch to the book and folds in well with the books overarching themes of identity, especially in the world of film and cinema. We get so consumed in our craft, that we begin to lose sight of ourselves. For M, it’s a twisted version of that:
In my closet hang the skinned and stitched body sleeves of a hundred different women of all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities. Each one is a composite, a unique artistic statement carefully pieced together from several worlds’ of experiences … It was an art in and of itself, the pursuit— the creation of a character of your very own.
M also displays a strong voice and character with an outsider personality, which works well for observing others and characterizing them for the audience. The vivid descriptions of the day-to-day activities and interactions of people who work on movies, which really brings the surreal elements of the novel to life as well as paint the scene and “community” of the film creation world:
The illusion of our time together was ruptured by a sudden swarm of bodies crowding onto the set, buzzing around another in practiced urgency … They straightened you out, gave you some water, made you look all new again. In the rush to reset the stage for the next take, you were, however briefly, the most important person in their world—their bend-over-backward-to-make-him-look-perfect superstar.
The Death Scene Artist comments on actors/actresses being remembered more for their roles than their actual person. Do we often keep up with what they do on the side? Their personal business ventures or activism in the world? We usually don’t; we’re more concerned with what latest fashion trend they’re sporting, or what drama they’re up to. We just remember the performance and the characters they portray, not the person underneath the façade.
When it comes down to it, the story, despite its occasional gore, interesting plot points and great moments of characterization and scene craft, is about the fallout of a deep, intimate relationship.
Recovering from the end of a relationship, M’s healing process is recounting experiences with D, albeit in a public way. When one invests a lot of time in a relationship, especially when they divulge personal secrets and vulnerabilities, it is hard to reconcile an invested relationship once it ends, at least in the eyes of the person who invested:
It’s difficult picking up the pieces of a life previously abandoned, seeing what fits, what doesn’t, like sifting through a box of old clothes. Adjusting. Moving on … Not doing anything at all but saying to myself—lying to myself—that I was healing, and that this was all a part of the process and really fuck all of that, because it’s not. This right here, this blog is my process. So let’s get started … good old-fashioned investigative healing.
I think what I appreciate most about this book is the ambiguity of its genre. We are so used to compartmentalizing books and stories into these categories, and I feel like Wilmot is playing those standard publishing conventions. Is this book technically surrealism? Magical realism? Horror? Science fiction-esque? Something else entirely? Who knows. The book has a lot of those conventions, and I’m content with that. Might be poking a little too deep here, but Wilmot may be challenging us to look past genre and categories and at the essence of a novel when it arrives on the shelves: the story.
Presenting an engaging narrative, Wilmot invites the reader to put on the skin of its narrator and see their life of obsession, all jaded film cameras and horror through their eyes.
Zuri Etoshia Anderson is a senior mass communication student at Winthrop University. She is from North Charleston, South Carolina, and is currently living in Hanahan, South Carolina. Zuri is planning on becoming a fiction writer, online journalist, and entertainment media analyst following her graduation in May 2019. Her favorite hobbies include various media consumption, including video games, films, books, news and anime/manga.