Certain stories can happen only in certain places. If you’re going to write a narrative revolving around movie-related theme parks, deranged studio executives, an earthquake and a hard-bitten detective, where are you going to set it except L.A. and its environs? However, with the territory come high risks: You’ll be competing with a lot of writers who’ve already done this sort of thing so much better than you’re likely to. If this risk ever occurred to Marshall Karp, it doesn’t show. The Rabbit Factory is blithely, obliviously guileless.
In the opening scene, a man wearing a “Rambunctious Rabbit” costume is found murdered. He’s one of the drones dressed up as cartoon characters at a theme park called Familyland, a place owned by the fictional Lamaar organization, which is (presumably) just different enough from Disney to avoid legal action. The dead man was a pedophile, and initially it seems that’s why he was killed, but we soon discover that the real motive was both more and less straightforward. He was murdered simply because he was connected to the Lamaar company, and he’s only the first of a great many victims, who include other employees, visitors to the theme park, the crew of the Lamaar corporate jet, and customers at a Burger King that happens to be running a promotion with Lamaar. Someone is trying to bring down the empire, and even when $266.4 million is handed over as “ransom,” the killings don’t stop.
As Mike Lomax, the detective hero of the novel, says, “It’s a serial killer, plus big bucks extortion. And now . . . you got your terrorism factor. Three mints in one.” Events lead back to the studio’s begetter, Dean Lamaar, inventor of Rambunctious Rabbit, a less-than-brilliant animator by all accounts, but a great businessman. He was a dreamer of all-American dreams, but also an abused child, a racist, a homophobe, an anti-Semite and (it turns out) a father killer. Dean has now passed on, and Lamaar is owned by a Japanese consortium and is a serious player in the entertainment-industrial complex: running TV stations, making adult-themed movies and about to open a casino in Vegas. Dean must be turning in his grave.
This is Marshall Karp’s first novel, although his résumé tells us he’s not exactly a novice, having worked successfully as an advertising copywriter and as a TV and movie producer. Nevertheless the book suffers from that first-novel syndrome of throwing in everything including the kitchen sink. The plot is full of preposterous and unguessable surprises, while scores of characters flit through the book’s pages. If we’re being kind, we’ll say they’re drawn with broad strokes. One female character has “wide dark eyes, creamy caramel skin and that lustrous black hair that so many Mexican women are blessed with”; another is a flight attendant whose “thick red hair had that lustrous shine you see in shampoo commercials.” A male character is described as having “thick dark hair and a sharp lean face like Sean Penn, only without the scowl.” I think readers are entitled to expect a writer to try harder than this.
Then there’s Karp’s sense of place: An office building is “your basic low-rise, earthquake-resistant Southern California office building”; a synagogue is “a typical, modern-day Southern California synagogue.” Ojai “offers perfect weather, clean air and safe, friendly neighborhoods.” Highland is “a nice wide street.” The novel might as well be taking place on an empty sound stage in Toronto.
In the end, the whole farrago is gorgeously, hilariously, cherishably bad: an out-of-control Simpsons plot, though without the humor, irony or intelligence. Certainly Monty Burns’ plans for demonic evil are both more inventive and more plausible than the ones on display here.
Geoff Nicholson’s most recent novel is The Hollywood Dodo. His new book, Sex Collectors: The Secret World of Erotic Consumers, Connoisseurs, Curators, Creators, Dealers, Bibliographers, and Accumulators, is out in June from Simon & Schuster.
THE RABBIT FACTORY | By MARSHALL KARP | MacAdam/Cage | 632 pages | $25 hardcover