Narrative manipulation as madness

Paul Cleave’s Trust No One’

3 minute read
A confusing book about confusion: author Cleave.
A confusing book about confusion: author Cleave.

The question seems a parody of a Lit Crit short-answer test prompt: What do you have at the intersection of shifting points of view and Alzheimer’s disease? (Use only the space given.)


No. What you have is New Zealander Paul Cleave’s newest novel, Trust No One. Designated by the tiny subtitle “a thriller,” Cleave’s story seems pitched to Generation X, those currently 35 to 50 years old. Its central character is a successful crime novelist who has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. At 49, Jerry Grey’s life and career are crumbling.

The shifting points of view involve two tales, both Jerry’s, whose chapters alternate. These two stories’ starting points are several months apart and handled differently. Moreover, just to confuse things in a book partly about confusion, the first chapter is not the earliest point of the novel. The book’s start point is what we would call Chapter Two but is called “Day One.” Those chapters with “day numbers” are second-person narratives in which Jerry addresses the more disoriented “Future Jerry” in a journal. The alternating, untitled chapters are, initially, later in time and told from the third-person limited point of view, technically. In other words, despite the changes in voice from second- to third-person, only one character’s thoughts are revealed (Jerry’s), and his disease in those passages has progressed further.

That Jerry, in the initial presentation of the book, is quite effectively disturbing.

Disgust and chills

In those opening pages, Jerry sits in a police interrogation room, alternately ogling an attractive blonde detective and confessing to a murder he committed — except, wait — that blonde is actually his daughter, Eva, and the crime he’s confessing to occurred in one of his novels. When he realizes what is actually going on, he is sickened by his lust, and he sees that the actual cop in the room isn’t taking him seriously.

That short chapter ends with Eva assuring her father, who has been returned to his nursing home, that everything is going to be all right. However, at that point Jerry’s mind is still on “Suzan with a z . . . how it felt when he killed her, back before he wrote about it. Back when he embraced the darkness.”

With his alleged murderer effectively having two stories rather than simply “his say,” Cleave moves into interesting territory. Arguably, however, that territory involves unfair terrain for the reader, since the narrator of the untitled chapters presents contradictory versions of Jerry’s interior monologue. Seven pages after the seeming declaration of Jerry’s guilt in the murder of “Suzan with a z” above, Eva is again trying to straighten out her father’s thoughts for him, denying the existence of that person. Jerry’s reaction? “He thinks about Suzan and how she doesn’t exist outside the pages of a book he can barely remember writing.” Does “he thinks” actually serve as a qualifier there, continuing to slyly point to Jerry’s guilt? If not (I think not), that would make three initial versions of the past — two in the third-person presentation of Jerry’s mind and another in the journal chapters. No, make that four versions; sometimes Jerry purposely writes in his journal as Henry Cutter, his crime-writing pen name. That persona gets a different typeface.


Will the reader lose his or her mind along with Jerry?

Murderer or not, overcomplicated or not, Cleave’s Jerry is sympathetic, but questions arise. When was the last time a murderer called himself “silly”? Can such silliness be the equivalent of actual pathos if the feeling flies away? And finally, since pathos and guilt are, ordinarily, mutually exclusive, does that make Jerry — no matter what he says — innocent? The answer to that, with four Jerrys telling the same story, could be inside another character’s quotation marks. One or another Jerry has to quote accurately, right?

What, When, Where

Trust No One: A Thriller by Paul Cleave. Atria Books, 2015. Available from

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