Kevin MacNeil is a writer prepared to take his chances, pitching this novel in the shadows of RL Stevenson’s timeless classic, producing a tiny artistic nugget, shapeless yet shapely, daring and burnished. Ernest Hemingway once defined “art” as “some
thing made through your own invention that is not a representation, but a whole new thing, truer than anything true and alive, if you make it well enough to give it immortality”.
MacNeil’s novel, though drawing on Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is never slavishly derivative. His Method Actor’s Guide is, in its finest glinting moments, that “whole new thing” of which Hemingway wrote, and from first to last an enticing read.
Thematically, it spirals ever more tightly around the question of identity, spinning a whirlpool that delves into matters of human consciousness and love, with a central relationship that fragments and then coheres: a literal matter of life and death, of touch and go, as the tale proceeds. And, if duality of identity adheres to it, as it did to Stevenson’s classic, then a duality of a different kind – both of structure and of mirroring, presenting the different sides of a single story – is at its heart. It is a duality that conceals a shrewd duplicity, one that is cleverly achieved despite its risk of falling apart.
For at first we are lured inside a narrative which is not what it appears. Its forceful narrator is Robert Lewis (!), a novice actor whose talent is dwarfed by his outsized ego, relating the tale of his early life – a resented pillar-to-post existence as a foster child, followed by acting school (entered fraudulently on a bogus application), where he flowers, and after which he receives his big break in a showcase production of Jekyll and Hyde, playing both leads.
The setting is Edinburgh, a moonlight-seducing cityscape through which our hero travels to rehearsals on his bike – which is the unlikely love of his life, until the appearance of fellow actor Juliette, who steals his heart the moment they meet. Succumbing to ardour, he rushes the courtship, and then, without warning, takes a tumble – it is the bike (and not the love affair) that flies, hitting thick traffic.
Robert is in, then out, of hospital, convalescing before returning to rehearsals, where Mr Woolfe, another actor of devilish, surreptitious charms, has been cast to usurp him.
Rancour and jealousy inevitably follow, as Lewis and Woolfe become loc
ked in an enmity which intensifies once Juliette breaks with Robert, and leans towards Woolfe, whose prospects career-wise seem stratospheric. Juliette’s nature, viewed through the prism of Robert’s perhaps paranoid perception, looks subtly altered.
His fellow luvvies adopt a new terseness; Lewis himself seems on shifting ground, entering states of altered consciousness, sudden shifts that might be dreams or something other. Recalling Picasso, Robert wonders if “dreams are like art … lies that tell a greater truth”.
The jealous rivalry drives the plot – and so centre stage comes a brilliant set piece with Robert commandeering attention at a party thrown by Woolfe, part of the gothic convolutions of plotting and vengeance at which MacNeil increasingly shines. Then something happens, and in an instant the story’s fabric is torn apart, and the tale we’ve witnessed becomes a chimera, and behind it another world, in which all the same characters exist in a different light, is revealed to the reader. A different truth.
Stepping forward into the spotlight comes Juliette, bringing her version of what happened – her version of Robert, and of the bicycle crash, the play, a multi-faceted, plaintive, affecting, newly lit re-run of what has led both herself and the reader to Robert’s bedside, and into an endgame which brings to the fore the novel’s novelty and freshness.
It is a freshness which sees the author take the question of identities and deepen it beyond Stevenson, adding the actor’s dimension (Woolfe’s and Robert’s and Juliette’s), presenting them as creators of new identities through the characters they inhabit – just as the author does.
For MacNeil in a sense is all of them, and none. In an interview in the addendum to the narrative he talks about “the parallels between creating or becoming characters”. The novel’s concluding image combines both conceits: it is that of Robert typing furiously beneath a sky-draped moon.
The writer, the actor, and the moon in a kind of cahoots – the moon which, famously too, has its dark side.