In the process of reading this work, I started thinking of it as a coming-of-age novel. After all, of the three main characters, it is the first-person protagonist who goes through the life changes. The other two just carry on in logical conclusion. But our hero's transformation is certainly more than gaining maturity through telling adventures or the enchantments he absorbs. No, it is the exposé of a reign of terror rationalized in a philosophy of heinous narcissism. Besides being a source of some questionable boners(1) along the way, Finishing Touches becomes a primer for the obtainableand usefuldevelopment of a psychopathic personality fitting for predation in this modern age. None of that I-was-born-without-a-conscience whining. You're captain of your own Pequod here, fella, and mainstreamers like Gone Girl ain't even in steerage.
Tom Sutherland is a young American medical doctor who, at an occupational crossroads, decides to return to the carefree days of his youth before treadmilling his life with the demanding hours of a full-time General Practice. He acquires a flat in London for 6 months, moves in, and puzzles over what to do for the duration. In a bar, he meets Dr. Roger Nordhagen, an older cosmetic surgeon who backslaps him into a drinking gauntlet through neighborhood bars with teeth and sawdust floors to private burlesque strip clubs with names like "Feathers". Nordhagen is very successful and well-known, a bit eccentric, and certainly magnanimous with his self-image, as he explains himself by remarking on his clients that God had taken off early the day of their making and he was adding the "finishing touches"(p.23). In the ensuing weeks, Nordhagen impresses on Tom the traipses and traps in the freedom money brings without marked direction. Cautious but delighted, Tom sees his "previous life drifting away like a continental plate"(p.49), and toward a more salacious and unencumbered lifestyle.
Then Nordhagen nudges him toward Lina Ravinal, his assistant in his practice, who "looked too good to be only human. . . Maybe a goddess"(p.52), and Tom is strapped in tighter than Richard Petty at the Indy 500. She takes him to her home which is in Church-yard Bottom Wood. This is an historical park where buried below are thousands of burned-up, infected people from the Black Death centuries ago. Fucking him seals the relationship. Tom knows this will never be a traditional match, but it'll be unparalleled, extremely carnal, and intense.
Thus begins Tom Sutherland's journey into illimitable madness, unintelligibly fed with his rational mind fully operational, or so he assures himself. Lina sutures up the bond by forcing him to murder, and he still doesn't see its insanity.
Tying off the final thread, Lina explains:
Tom realizes he is captured in a highly-charged game of Poweras in Power Over Somebody/Thingand that he was groomed into it by both Lina and Roger. He can't change what he's done nor forget it, ever. "I'd taken a human life, thereby surrendering the last of innocence. There was a malignancy in me I could not explain away"(p.108). He bails to the Continent to free up his mind, and, after some woeful drinking and carousing call girls, he slides all of his winnings into the pot called Lina. Now this killing "may have been an act of blood and temporary madness, but I could see now that it bound Lina and me together in a way that could never be undone"(p.112). Lina's response? "The point of love is that it's alive, growing, changing. It's not a fixed thing, and it never can be. It's a part of the force of nature, and so it serves nature's ends, not ours"(p.118). Still not believing there's self-delusion present(2), Tom declares "Lina was the only anchor in my life"(p.147).
The final reveal comes when Nordhagenwith Lina tagging along, of coursegives Tom a tour of his cellar.
Now, I know this is a stretch, but Nordhagenpre-justifying his behavior by referencing the site to Cabbalism as if past atrocities explained present oneshas surgically removed both legs and arms of twelve people, stuffed them into individual cabinets with life support systems connected. Roger maintains his "unbridled obsession"(p.157) from a control booth where he plays music, shows them movies, and discusses various points of etiquette, morality, and the philosophy of cruelty(3). It is certainly "the blackest, most impossible nightmare, something that blew to smithereens the most primitive notion of humanity."
Dr. Roger Nordhagen has made himself a god to "them hanging motionless in despair"(p.152). To him, the why(4) of it is irrelevant. Importance is now, and what actions follow. Lina parrots him. Her sophistry is almost comical:
More surprises follow, but there's a little deus ex machinery taint in the discovered sub-basement below the cellar which is full of old bones, discarded limbs, and a convenient quicklime pit. Everything gets tossed into that decomposition hole, including the living torsos, but not crazy old Nordhagen. They poison him with alcohol so as to trigger an inheritance. Tom likens himself to Pol Pot. I think he's being too easy on himself.
Nordhaven's estate millions brings them security and shielding. They sell all the real estate and travel. Later rebuilding, they pick up on murder games. For instance, Lina will bring a pickup home, seduce him like a dominitrix to get the agenda of pain started, then slit his throat so she and Tom can fuck in the blood. Or, to break up a boring day, they'll go to Hyde Park and airgun people with flechettes soaked in saxitoxin for instant death. Tom even admits they're sociopaths, but qualifying it with, "I think all people are sociopathic, or most of them, if only by omission and indifference"(p.231).
In their global roaming, our carnal couple pulls in a 13-year-old from Thailand. Tom feels they saved her from all the streetlife nasties like hunger, heroin, hooking, and an early ending. They call her Asia 'cause she doesn't speak English. Her language is touchie-feelie to sexual contact, and, although Asia sleeps with the adults, Tomor, more accurately, author Tessierdoesn't get explicit, but chooses to lay it out fuzzy like "we shared the same bed as equals. . . pleasing one another sleepily . . . Lina and I were two people, two bodies, but one life, one love. With Asia we were now three, but still one. Not a triangle, but a trinity"(p.233). Tom and Lina are very proud when Asia brings home her first victim.
"We took death as far as we could," Tom says, "but in the end . . . even terror turns to numbness"(p.232). And now with Asia, they evolve out of murder to mere maiming. We leave our loving and happy triad performing lobotomies on their captured and letting them loose in crowds.
In the end, Tom reflects back on his odious deeds with a "strange curiosity"(p.234). He sounds strong, content, determined. And now, "it's stepping-out time. See you there"(p.235).
Man, this is a subversive little book. Ya think? The very idea that the bonds of affection could be immeasurably enhanced by torturing and slaughtering other human beings for no other reason than the couples' happiness is detestable. Talking meta-wise, the authorial challenge is to take an average, middle-class American kid and turn him into a monster, but without taking away his intellect or ability to love and bond with other human beings. The arguments for culling the species seem absurd taken out of the steady immersion of the prose. The rest snorts down like a gutting for the mere sensation and ego rush of it. These episodes don't always work a suspension of disbelief, but the cut is close enough to feel some confidence bleed out, and, when a credibility sulfa pack doesn't quite cover the wound, any sense of safety drips out.
To hell with those supernatural explanations for odd malfeasances. This, mucker, is horror at about as far as I want to take it.
1)I'm no prig, but attaching true eroticism with gushy, wetwork murders is possibly the Last Taboo. Scenes like on p.228 slip perilously close, especially if you have any sympathy left for the characters at this late stage in the novel.
3) Cross-wired logic for sure, Lina references an archaic definition of cruel as being "a relentless thirst for life, an irreversible determination to live." She takes it to Crazyland with, "without life there is no pain; without pain, no life. To be cruelthat is a state of clarity and control. As long as you choose life, you also choose someone else's death"(p.161). This is what she ascribes to when she catch-alls with "everything is everything."
4) After all the de-sensitizing intellectual bullshit, Nordhagen breaks loose with this little gem of charity: "There are just too many goddam people"(p.181). His future plans were for more cabinets and more quadruple amputees.