In The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, the titular hero—a comatose “Wacko Boy”—speaks in an irresistibly childish voice, combining perverted drivel with a pre-Victorian fervor for capitalization. Big, adult concepts like Emotional Work, Always Lie, and Extreme Punishment demand full-sized letters and respect. The victim of a bizarre domestic crime, Louis lies in his hospital bed, happily playing Death Game and tuning out the “blibber-blobber language” of his hovering family and friends.
Meanwhile, scatty with melodrama, the rest of the cast glides through the automated motions of any murder mystery, repeating requisite phrases (“I wanted to cry, or scream, or both”). Spearheading the panic is Pascal Dannachet, a coma specialist whose mildly offensive theory that vegetative states are a matter of choice—a protective “Off button”—shapes the whole plot. A psychological thriller in the most literal sense, this witty, uneven book becomes a high-stakes exercise in Freudian analysis: Dannachet—technician of the unconscious—plumbs the childhood traumas causing Louis to “hide.”
And just as any whodunit giddily accumulates drama at the end—murder! love! it was actually an abortion! fire!—Ninth Life erupts into a flourish of emotional disorders: Louis’s mom has something “more complex than Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy,” and Louis (before losing consciousness) is so worried about turning into a rapist that he ingests one contraceptive pill a day, hoping that he’ll “grow bosoms like a lady.” The mother-son relationship is a psychological bust, so clogged with oedipal hate that Dannachet doesn’t even need to concern himself with the police. Emotional Work becomes a form of Detective Sleuthing—a way of weeding through those sadistic fantasies, which have grown a little too real.