Author: Taylor Stevens

2011, Crown

Filed under: Mystery, Thriller

If you were to read The Informationist without any external reference or context, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another half-cooked thriller. Vanessa Michael Munroe is a perfect, unstoppable freelance “agent,” for lack of a better word (Stevens’s, obviously, is “informationist,” but I can’t say I prefer it). She takes an assignment, gallops all over the world, gets betrayed and takes revenge.

Right, so… wake me when the movie comes out, depending on who plays Munroe.

Much more interesting is looking at this relatively bland novel through the lens of its author’s headline-grabbing life story, which includes, quite frankly, more intrigue and pathos than a dozen Munroe novels.

Taylor Stevens grew up in a cult, the Children of God, where female cult members were routinely prostituted. Stevens “prefers not to talk about whether she experienced such abuse herself” (all quotes and info taken from this NYT story). In the novel, her hero’s everpresent rage stems from several formative years spent in an African gang, routinely getting raped until she unremorsefully kills her rapist and escapes. The Informationist is meant to be the furthest thing from a memoir; the echoes between Stevens and Munroe point not toward a telling of secrets, but toward a transcription of dreams.

Munroe has no flaws: she can seduce any man or kill him with her hands; she can talk her way through any situation (quite literally: she speaks 22 languages and can pick up new ones in a snap); and she can even conceal her gender (thus her middle name) and shield herself from the unwanted side effects of her beauty. She exacts revenge diabolically and sadistically, but the next second can love, unimpaired, with zeal and abandon.

In other words, Munroe reads like the fantasy persona of a traumatized cult member who was frequently assaulted and abused over the course of many years. Munroe is a child’s hero: a brash, emotional tornado with a fearsome reputation and the inability to do wrong in the eyes of her admirers (even as she pitches fits and behaves however selfishly she pleases). In this light, The Informationist is heart-breaking, even as its lack of honesty robs it of its potential.

That’s not the only thing the author’s background can teach us. Stevens’s education stopped at sixth grade and she claims to have read only 30 books in her entire lifetime. Since writing famously requires more grindstone experience than any other art—there are no 4-year-old novelists, as there are piano virtuosos, or painter prodigies—how can someone become a talented novelist after so little exposure to the medium?

The answer is that she can’t. Her dialogue is stiff and tin-eared, with everybody speaking more or less the same, despite the language being used or the particular character speaking. The dialogue also carries more than its share of weight and requires far too much exposition and dry factfinding.

Her prose is fair, without either the hiccups of a markedly poor writer like Michael Connelly, or the gems dropped by a talented stylist like James Lee Burke. (It’s a telling detail that a first-time novelist who doesn’t read books can write about as well as the average bestselling mystery author.) She sets much of the novel in Equatorial Guinea, where she lived for several years post-cult, but she doesn’t have a sharp enough eye to make that setting as vivid as it could be.

In terms of construction, Stevens says her chief inspiration was Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, which makes an eerie kind of sense. I’ve never read Ludlum’s novels, but Stevens’s jerky, rushed style, especially during action scenes, reminded me precisely of the hand-held shooting techniques in the somewhat nauseating Bourne movies. It’s meant to convey energy, I suppose, or the sense of actually fighting, but it winds up only obscuring exactly what’s happening.

As a thriller, The Informationist disappoints, as it’s full of cliches, shopworn twists, and rote, unmemorable action sequences. All that’s entirely understandable since Stevens, if she has really only read 30 books, has no way of knowing what’s a cliche and what’s her own new idea. She succeeds, though, in portraying raw emotion—mostly love and hate, or rage—and those moments when Munroe in is in the thrall of those emotions are the novel’s most powerful.

But after they end, when a more seasoned novelist would bring to bear consequences and repercussions, Munroe faces none. Ultimately, the feeling you get reading those moments of emotional crisis—the chilling rush of a deeply held truth being released—does not carry over to the novel’s narrative.

Stevens, in that same profile, is described as both “eager to speak out about her past” and “nervously guarded,” and that’s exactly how the novel reads. It’s the work of a person with big, dark demons pushing to get free, but too much scar tissue to let them entirely loose.

I’ll be eagerly watching for a more honest novel from Stevens, or even a memoir, when she more directly addresses those parts of herself and her history that are nothing more than echoes and shadows in The Informationist.

Until then, this debut might pass a plane ride for you, but it won’t do much more.

Similar Reads: The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum (by Stevens’s own account); The Amateur American, by J. Saunders Elmore; the Burke books, by Andrew Vachss

[Just to be clear: all of my guessing at Stevens’s relationship with her novel is just that, guessing.]