The Almost Lizard by James Higgerson
Not many can spend their final few weeks on this earth writing their autobiography, a to-the-minute summary of all that has occurred within their lifespan. But most of us leave this world not of our own volition. Most of us make the decision to hang on in there as if life is some precious gift that we must savour every moment of. Not me. I’ve run my course and the day I finish writing my life story – today – is the day I have chosen to die.
Yup, we know how this book is meant to end from the first page. This whole novel is in the form of ‘possibly the longest suicide ever committed to paper.’ The book is not about how it ends for Danny Lizar, but how it got to this point…
As in most memoirs, Daniel starts by telling us about his parents. His mother, Jacqui, was the favoured older half of a pair of identical twins, born either side of midnight August 31st, meaning they were forced into different years at school by an unbending system and never bonded the way most twins do. His father, Malcolm, was brought up in a Blackpool B&B where he learned the trade as a youngster and charmed the guests. They met when Malcolm, who had been dating twin Anne, unwittingly slept with Jacqui, and realised she was the real love of his life, further alienating Anne of course.
So the stage is set-up for family life chez Lizar, (Daniel never explains where his father got his surname from). As a child, Daniel has a fairly normal life, although his father works away during the week as a restaurant manager, and he doesn’t find out about bad Auntie Anne for years. He does have a best friend though in Alex, and their parents also become best of friends too.
The seeds that will grow up to shape Daniel’s life are sown when he becomes addicted to watching soap operas on the TV with his mum, while his dad is working. He cautiously tries some of the things he sees on screen - he changes the story he was meant to read to a younger class to a deliberately nasty and provocative one he composed, and is secretly pleased by the reaction from the kids and their parents. He seeds rumours to rid himself of friends he doesn’t want – this deals with the Dominic problem, but he upsets Alex to in the process – but not for long.
Daniel starts to get obsessed, and out on his paper-round, he replay scenes in his head, writing himself into the script. Before long he has developed his own soap concept ‘The Almost Lizard’, and it stars him as ‘Danny’ – and his family and friends, he imagines the storyline, framing and filming it in his head.
But then, Daniel takes it to the next step. He makes his life into the soap, and begins to use anyone who can move the storyline along in real life. He manipulates them all – as Danny. He uses rumour, being disruptive in class, cultivating the wrong type of friends, saying things for effect – anything to get the scene in the can.
He saves being normal Daniel for home where he studiously makes sure he keeps up with his homework so his parents and the school aren’t too concerned with his behaviour.
However, Daniel is well aware of the power of the cliffhanger ending to soap episodes, and how they save major ones for Christmas. The Lizars and Alex’s family, the Proctors always spend Christmas together, and Danny engineers a spectacular climax that took weeks in the planning and that will blow the two families apart.
Being Danny has become an addiction for Daniel. His real and fantasy personalities are becoming integrated into one. He tries to disengage from his soap, but when the sniff of a good new storyline comes along, he knows he shouldn’t do it, but he can’t resist, even if he has to play the victim sometimes – as a lead character, he has to keep his popularity up after all. There is almost nothing that Daniel/Danny won’t do to get the shot.
It continues right up into college and one eventful holiday with friends to Majorca before something happens and real life catches up with Daniel – making him a character in someone else’s storyline…
Higgerson just about pulls it off with his creation of Daniel, whose voice tells his story with the requisite drama, leavened by humour – it’s not all darkness. He manages to keep just enough of the normal, likeable teenager that Daniel can be in his narration to make us care about what’s going to happen. All the time we’re waiting to see whether Daniel is able to snap out of being Danny, to stop being on the road to becoming a fully-fledged sociopath.
Knowing from the start of the book that Daniel intends to die at the end of it, we can read his story as a confession, finally atoning for all the wrong-doings, the manipulation, the hurtful deeds and words, all done to the people he cares for the most. This allows us to have some sympathy with him as he realises the repercussions of all that he has done.
Call me cynical, but you can also read this confession in another way – with Danny, not Daniel as its author. The arch-manipulator, an unreliable narrator making us, his audience – for we should never forget that he needs one, part of his story too. That thought gives me the creeps slightly!
At 460 pages, this book is long – although it does have two lives, Daniel and Danny to chronicle. It was in the best soap tradition, thoroughly page-turning and full of big moments and cliff-hangers. Some actors in soaps end up typecast and mistaken for their characters in real life when their personalities are quite different; we the audience tend to encourage this in our celebrity-obsessed times. Daniel is sort of the reverse of this.
An interesting and thought-provoking debut from a promising young author. (8/10)
P.S. The quotation at the top is from the song ‘Don’t let me be misunderstood’ which was written in 1964 for Nina Simone. I was previously only aware of the hit version by The Animals from 1965.
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The Almost Lizardby James Higgerson, Legend Press paperback, March 2013, 460 pages