Liam Howard is a photographer, specializing in making custom holograms that are exhibited in galleries around the Chicago area. When traveling on the L train one day, he is captivated by a young man’s breathtaking beauty and Liam follows him off the train just to speak to him. Thus, Liam’s friendship with Gary Adrion begins.
Liam persuades Gary to pose for him for one of these holograms, but when Liam unveils his work, Gary is overwhelmed by the image of himself conveyed within it. Gary immediately wants to hold on to this image forever and though Liam warns him, Gary flippantly declares that “I’d give my soul to always look like that . . . Sign me up, Devil.”
When Gary’s wish is granted, his corporeal form shows no sign of the chemical or sexual excesses he participates in, but the image held within the glass dome alters in a frightening way. Will he be able to hold onto his soul and his friendships just for his beauty to remain?
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a book I have a copy of and have always meant to read. I am, however, familiar with the basic story and know that in A Face Without a Heart, Rick R. Reed has been able to capture the chilling atmosphere and sense of foreboding that exists in Oscar Wilde’s original. This is evident from the outset of the novel when Liam finds himself following Gary:
I began to be seized with fear, a real cold terror masquerading as common sense, that told me to get back on the train and on with my orderly life.
The reader too is aware that everything about this encounter is wrong, but we know that without it there will be no story and though Liam is distracted by this “ethereal” beauty that stands before him, we know that there is a darkness behind Gary’s facade. Partly, this is because Reed chooses to tell his story retrospectively, beginning with a horrifying prologue told from Gary’s point of view, the events of which do not actually take place until the latter stages of A Face Without a Heart. These images of blood and death never truly leave the reader, but I still hoped on some level they were a dream sequence and Gary would redeem himself.
The interesting aspect of A Face Without a Heart is that it is not just told by Gary and Liam. Each chapter is told in the first person by a variety of narrators, which include Gary and Liam and their mutual friend, drag queen Henrietta. Henrietta very much shares and encourages Gary’s lifestyle and his obsession with youth and beauty. It is true that I wondered about the relevance of Zoe and Davio and the chapters they narrate, but quite rightly Reed does nothing in this novel without a purpose. Both of them bring a strong emotive quality to A Face Without a Heart and the significant effect of Gary’s selfishness upon the lives of others.
Reed’s story does not have a determined time setting. There are echoes of the past in the camera equipment Liam uses, as well as his speech patterns, and the way that Gary collects antiques. Liam’s holograms also seem futuristic in nature and yet there are very contemporary themes, including drug use and AIDS. Whilst Reed ensures that A Face Without a Heart has a relevance, this ambiguity also destabilizes the reader and intensifies our feeling of discomfort about events.
In my opinion, it is no coincidence that Gary’s drug of choice is called “Seven.” A Face Without a Heart is a moralistic story and I am convinced that the name of the drug has links to the Seven Deadly Sins – pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed – all of which appear in some form throughout the novel. I really like the fact that Reed does not insult the intelligence of his readers and connections like this are clever and thought-provoking.
A Face Without a Heart is correctly categorized as LGBT fiction, but it is not a romance. There are elements of love, especially that which Liam feels for Gary, although this could just as easily be lust, Gary’s definition of love for Zoe and the love between family and friends. Liam is gay and Gary, himself, feels he is heterosexual, but in the throes of his excesses could be more rightly identified as pansexual because of his sexual experiences.
Despite A Face Without a Heart being shocking, I was left with an overriding sense of sadness. Reed’s writing is powerful and its impact has stayed with me; he shows how retellings should be approached successfully.
I would recommend A Face Without a Heart unreservedly to both fans of Oscar Wilde’s original and those who may have only heard of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
A review copy of this book was provided by DSP Publications.