'The Cutting Room' by Louise Welsh (2002)

Critics seem to be debating about how to classify Louise Welsh’s first novel: crime novel or something more? Personally, I have to call it something more than a crime novel. While there are elements of a detective/crime novel in The Cutting Room — Rilke is, after all, interviewing people to uncover information about a potential murder — Welsh’s primary concern seems to be her characters.

Unlike the usual likable, hopefully memorable detective/main character, creepy-enough-to-intrigue-readers-but-not-overshadow-future-adversaries villain and cast of vaguely drawn characters who service the plot of most crime novels, each of Welsh’s characters seem to pop from the page, from main character Rilke to tertiary characters like Inspector Anderson and Chris. Each has his/her very specific voice and weltanschauung. Welsh seems more interested in presenting a study of characters and of humanity than presenting a tension-filled mystery plot. In fact, the climax of the book, which aside from Rilke’s gumshoe legwork is the most crime-novel-like part of the book, feels artificially imposed on the text. The novel does not build to that realization but rather Rilke’s disheartened mourning of the woman he failed to help in the very last chapter. In fact, the climax further proves that The Cutting Room is not a crime novel: Rilke only seems to imagine Anne Marie’s cries for help as he runs to rescue her — perhaps he imagines them as the cries of the woman from the photograph — only to find that she has protected herself from the villain. Obviously with a main character named Rilke, Welsh has culled material from more literary sources and her use of the Gothic is particularly effective.

Rilke also distinguishes The Cutting Room from other crime novels. Rather than being motivated by money, revenge or even insatiable curiosity as most detectives are, Rilke seems motivated by his conscience alone. Even though he accepts his identity as an auctioneer — he tries to back out of the game with the other auctioneers at the bar but ultimately knows that he will play — he is deeply cynical about his profession. He tells the reader with a mixture of frankness and melancholy how an auctioneer sifts through a person’s possessions, determining what pieces of a person’s life have real value and will sell and what pieces will ultimately populate the graveyard at Bowery House. Rilke feels a connection with the woman in the photograph and feels compelled to ensure that she does become another “body” in the cemetery of the auction house. But Rilke is not cynical to the point of being bitter and unlikable. He is street-wise but the gruesome things that people do to each other still horrify him. Rilke is essentially a very ethical man and yet at the same time somewhat morally ambiguous. He participates in a few activities that some readers might not find too appealing, like his drinking, smoking and drug habits as well as his tendency to engage in various sex acts with strange men. How is the reader suppose to interpret his want to dominate the young man with whom he has sex and his picturing during his orgasm the dead woman who he feels compelled to help?

Welsh’s handling of Rilke’s sexuality is a difficult subject. At one point in the book, Rilke dismisses measuring his homosexuality by counting the number of Judy Garland records that he owns and Welsh does not try in the least to make Rilke seem effeminate. And yet he engages in the cruising scene, having anonymous sex with strangers and balking at the potential of a more long-term relationship with Prof. Sweetman at the end of the novel. So Welsh dismisses one stereotype only to use another. Les exhibits more of the “screaming queen” tendencies and while he is meant to provide comic relief at times Welsh never goes too far so that the reader cannot find Les a dangerous figure when she needs him to seem menacing. And Rilke feels genuine empathy for the other transvestites and transgenders whom he meets, going as far as attacking two men to keep a transgender from being exploited for mockery. Rilke’s identity as a gay man allows Welsh to make interesting observations about social interactions between the sexes and between sexualities.

While Welsh created some interesting female characters, I was a little disappointed that all of the females in the text seemed to need saving. And many of them used/sold their bodies to succeed in the world. I suppose that Anne Marie’s turning the victimizer into the victim suggests that woman has asserted her power and reclaimed her body, but the reader is not witness to that event but rather its aftermath.