By Carly Taylor
“Did anything I had just thought or said make any sense at all?”
This is a question that often plagues the mind of N, the narrator of Sara Davis’s debut novel “The Scapegoat,” forthcoming on March 2. N is an aloof and solitary middle-aged man who works at Stanford Medical School — not as a doctor or a professor, but in a vague position, described by a coworker as “a glorified secretary.” N’s father, a distinguished professor whom he was not very close to, has recently died under mysterious circumstances, and in the opening of the novel, N decides this death merits further investigation.
The analytical attitude our Capricorn narrator adopts towards his investigation runs totally counter to the moment he decides to launch it: In a newspaper that just so happens to be lying open to the horoscopes page, N learns that he’s about to be “uniquely positioned to set things into motion,” and for some reason, he believes it. Thus, our narrator comes to life as a man full of contradictions, who throughout the novel is pulled between his logical nature and his burgeoning tendency towards magical thinking. And who can blame him — the strange events which unfold in “The Scapegoat” hardly seem graspable by a merely logical mind.
While N sets off on a journey to solve this alleged mystery surrounding his father’s death, we readers are simultaneously trying to unravel the mystery of who this weird narrator even is, and why he fails to tell us the very basic information necessary to begin an investigation — what he already knows about his father’s death. The closest thing we get is a description of a dream he had:
“My mind slipped, then, to the dream I’d had the night before the start of winter quarter, a peculiar dream in which I saw my father shoot himself on a bridge above a churning gray river. I also saw a hearse and cars creeping along Palm Drive, spooling out along the Oval, heading toward Memorial Church.”
If you, like me, haven’t seen Stanford’s campus in a year thanks to our lovely friend the pandemic, you’ll be filled with nostalgia at the sound of these familiar place names. Author Sara Davis grew up in Mountain View as the daughter of two Stanford immunologists, and her novel is meaningfully rooted in the campus and the surrounding Bay Area. But this still doesn’t answer the question — what does N really know about his father’s death?
In short, punchy chapters, we follow N through a bizarre string of miraculously connected events, which take him between the Med School, the Arboretum, the Old Mission Hotel San Buenaventura and his dreams. As the narrator tries to determine what happened on the last night his father stayed at the Old Mission Hotel, a guest lecturer with unexplainable insights keeps showing up, and someone is leaving ominous notes on his car that read “STOP SITES OF GENOCIDE FROM BECOMING TOURIST ATTRACTIONS…” and “THE MISSIONS WERE FURNACES OF DEATH.” This hotel, shown on the beautiful cover, seems to be the centerpoint of vaguely malevolent forces which the narrator suspects are behind his father’s death.
While the mystery of N’s father’s death remains obscure until the bitter end, we continually gain insight into the nature of this narrator’s mind and how it comes unraveled despite itself. N’s thought processes are made very explicit to us, almost jarringly so — he’s constantly posing rhetorical questions to himself, reviewing the facts he’s learned so far and noting explicitly the moments where his mind wanders into memories and dreams. But most interestingly, he fights relentlessly against his own impulses to romanticize or philosophize his experiences.
Any time a bubble of profundity rises within him, he pops it immediately: “Death is just the other side of life, I thought. It follows life just as one wave follows the next. And then I thought, How ridiculous, these are like sentiments written on bookmarks; I must be exhausted.” His resistance to any ideas that he feels have no clear basis in reality, however, is challenged as the novel progresses and his dreams and his reality become intertwined.
“The Scapegoat” furthermore has a humorous self-awareness about the tropes of the mystery genre and a tongue-in-cheek-ness to how it subverts or adheres to them. For example, in a chapter near the middle of the book when our narrator feels like his investigation has stalled, he spends a quiet evening at home reading a Swedish detective novel. He describes the passage he’s in the middle of as “easily recognizable to me as one of those little interludes in books like these where there was no discernible advancement in the investigation, but instead we sidle up to the detective in a quiet moment.” We chuckle knowing that we are also in one of those moments in the novel we’re reading.
Later on, he laments, “If only real life could be like this, I thought, thinking of the book, its trends so clearly recognizable.” Our narrator is thirsty for a story that has a rigid internal logic and a neat, satisfying conclusion, like a classic detective novel. But alas, we can tell already that this is not the story Davis has given him.
I know I describe things as Lynchian way too often — I’ll stop doing it when it stops being so goddamned accurate. “The Scapegoat” clearly connects to David Lynch’s works in its banal exterior, bizarre sense of humor and macabre underbelly, but it shares a number of very striking similarities specifically with “Mulholland Drive” (2001). To go through each of them would merit an article of its own. But most saliently, both “The Scapegoat” and “Mulholland Drive” depict in painfully vivid colors just how a sense of failure in our careers and personal lives can inspire delusions and literally drive us insane.
If you enjoy the feeling that Lynch’s work can give you — of a puzzle that can never be fully solved, that leaves many degrees of freedom to the viewer — then this is definitely a book for you. Or, if you just want to hear about the sunny blue skies and dense fog of the Bay, and feel like you’re back on the Farm again for a moment, then this is a book for you, too. Its ending veers so far from anything one expects that it will take your breath away, and you will undoubtedly finish with more questions than you started with. You might just finish it and realize immediately that you must begin it again.