Book Review : Sarah M. Chen - Cleaning Up Finn (2016)
There's always been an unfathomable gap between the concept of law and justice. Our system is not designed to right personal wrongs unless a token culprit becomes a symbol for a bigger problem. Unfortunately, public opinion can sometimes fail to right wrongs too. Is there a cosmic balance between good and evil or is it just something we're hardwired to wish? This is the kind of difficult existential questions novels are meant to answer (or at least try to). It is certainly the question that looms over Sarah M. Chen's first novel Cleaning Up Finn, a Hitchcockian thriller about the virtues of karma.
Finn Roose is the kind of person that undermines the very fabric of America: self-involved, opportunistic and infuriatingly law-abiding. He constantly takes advantage of people, yet he never delves into criminal activities. When Finn convinces an underage girl to spend the night on his lawyer friend's boat with him, it seems like he has wronged the cosmos once more, but the girl vanishes into thin air at the end of the night and a massive search it launched. That's when Finn's life starts coming undone and the universe comes knocking for a first payments on his numerous karma loans.
Famous noirist Dennis Lehane once referred to noir as a: "working class tragedy." I would say this definition isn't quite sufficient to capture the complexity of the genre, but it's not fundamentally wrong. Cleaning Up Finn is, like the classic Greek Tragedy, meant to be catharsis. It's meant to help the reader find an emotional release. Characters like Finn Roose are unfortunately a dime a dozen in reality, but the appeal of Cleaning Up Finn is to confront him to his karmic violations as if there were a cosmic balance of good and evil he would've tipped with his self-serving behavior. It doesn't mean Cleaning Up Finn isn't realistic or anything, but its main concern is to make Finn pay for being an asshole in the most satisfying possible way.
I called Cleaning Up Finn a Hitchcockian thriller at the start of this review and I also stand by that. Both are heavily influenced by the Greek Tragedy, but what made Hitchcock special (and what makes Sarah M. Chen's novel interesting) is that the universe is the antagonist and that it is not necessarily evil. Once the world turns on Finn Roose, it sets an ominous chain of events that operates independently of the character's will. It will always find him wherever he might hide and it's his cosmic duty to suffer what seems to have been planned especially for him. So Cleaning Up Finn is very classic in its form. It doesn't exactly reinvent anything, but it has a clear sense of purpose and it's very competent at what it does.
Cleaning Up Finn really is what I expect first novels to be: straightforward, fast-moving and not overly ambitious. Sarah M. Chen delivered a fun, fuel efficient and satisfying tale of poetic justice that doesn't try to be more than it actually is. Whether you're into Greek tragedies, Alfred Hitchcock or old school Michael Douglas movies, you'll get a kick out of Sarah M. Chen's existentially indebted protagonist and the exquisite tortures she puts him through. If there really is a balance between good and evil in the universe, novels like Cleaning Up Finn are a part of the solution in the greater scheme of things. Because when you start dreaming of stuff, it's when it can become real, right? Right?