MAEVE FLY by CJ Leede (BOOK REVIEW)
“Here is the truth, the one that so few of us know:
You do not need a moral and noble story to do what you want. You do not first need to be a victim to become a monster. Your loved ones need not be taken from you so that you might drink and brutalize and chase the sublime. Life is fleeting and meaningless and crying to be seized from behind and fucked into obscurity.
This is my story, and you cannot control it. No more than you can the ever-lower dangle of your sex or the warming of this fat, lazy prison rock floating in the semen-splotched dark.
My name is Maeve Fly.
I work at the happiest place in the world.”
Maeve Fly (2023) by CJ Leede is a remarkable horror debut from an exciting new talent. The novel explores the seedy underside of Los Angeles through the eyes of Maeve Fly, a depraved serial killer who works as everyone’s favourite ice princess in the city’s most famous entertainment park. The novel is part toxic psychogeography of LA as the epitome of the American Dream, part pitch-black comedy offering a nihilistic side-view on humanity, part a dialogue in engagement with transgressive literature ranging from Georges Bataille to Bret Easton Ellis that explores why this field is so male dominated. And Maeve Fly is an instant addition to the canon of great horror antiheroes. Utterly compelling even at her most brutally sadistic, she retains just enough humanity to absolutely fascinate the reader even as she viscerally repels them. Leede has created something marvellous and horrifying, and in her indelible eponymous protagonist, the blood-soaked, charismatic female corrective to literature’s long history of compelling and murderous male psychopaths.
Maeve Fly is the twenty-seven-year-old granddaughter of Tallulah Fly, once iconic but now forgotten actress. She lives in her grandmother’s house as her grandmother slowly dies on life support. By day she works at the magical kingdom, bringing joy to untold children with her only friend Kate Green, an aspiring actress who plays the ice princess’ younger sister. By night she stalks the town’s most decadent dive bars, modelling herself after her misanthropic literary heroes from the pages of Dostoevsky or Bataille, or sitting in her room listening to Halloween music and doxing strangers on the internet. Her grandmother shares her passion for violence and murder, and has trained her to hide her instincts so that she can function in society, but with her grandmother’s imminent death and Kate finally getting a real movie role, the two people in her life are moving on and leaving her to her anger and her alienation. Things spill out when Gideon, Kate’s handsome and popular brother, moves to town, providing a lightning rod for Maeve’s dark desires, which soon threaten to swamp her and overcome the balanced life she’s made for herself.
Much of the novel’s power comes from Maeve’s voice, which Leede beautifully captures. Characters like Maeve are a delicate balancing act – we need them to be charismatic and interesting enough that we are drawn into their jaundiced view of humanity, even as their extreme violence and sadism disgust us, otherwise the story doesn’t work. From Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho to Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, we must be fascinated by these moral black holes if we are to continue reading. Maeve is an incredible creation. She is witty, brutally funny in her nihilism, educated and highly literate. In place of Bateman’s bland treatises on Phil Collins, Maeve has pithy and insightful reflections on Dostoevsky and Bataille. She chooses racists and homophobes as targets for her internet harassment. And her core fears of abandonment, of losing everyone she loves to death or their careers, of dying alone and unloved, are a deeply relatable part of the human condition. So we warm to Maeve, we find ourselves rooting for her, until we are blindsided by her self-absorption, her sadism, her brutality and violence. That visceral discomfort, as Leede makes you invested in the fate of a murderous psychopath just to shower you in gore and violence, drives the heart of this compelling and disturbing novel.
Maeve Fly is a breakneck horror thriller with a deliciously nasty protagonist. But it’s also a feminist study in the history of transgressive literature. Why is so much transgressive literature written by men, and why does so much of it focus on violence against women? Why is violence against women, particularly against a protagonist’s loved ones, used as an acceptable springboard for masculine tales of brutal, bloody revenge? Where are our great literary female antiheroes? And why are we as readers so much more forgiving of male antiheroes? Maeve, influenced as she is by the greats of misanthropic literature, is well aware of her literary heritage and the unusualness of her place within it. Much of Maeve’s contempt at societal conformity manifests as her frustration at having to perform femininity, in the deeply misogynistic context of a Hollywood where young starlets are expected to sleep with powerful and abusive directors in order to get ahead. Maeve’s most murderous instincts wind up directed at the director who takes advantage of Kate as her career takes off, and the band who unthinkingly use her grandmother’s image without permission as a source of cheap titillation and second hand glamour.
But none of this excuses Maeve’s horrific violence, nor is it meant to. As with Patrick Bateman, Maeve is a moral vacuum, and this makes her rather a lonely, pathetic figure, even as she wields her wildly destructive rage. Leede emphasizes the true horror of Maeve’s existence, which is that she knows her inhumanity permanently separates her from the rest of humanity. After her grandmother’s death and Kate’s inevitable departure for her acting career, Maeve is aware that she will spend the rest of her life horrifically alone, an empty predator with no one left to anchor her to the human race. Leede’s final sadistic twist of the knife is that it turns out Maeve could have made a suitable connection, but her narcissism and self-absorption prevents her from seeing this until she has destroyed it, sealing her fate. Leede has written a gory, darkly hilarious and utterly convincing horror masterpiece, and I eagerly await whatever she does next.
Maeve Fly is available now from Titan Books. You can order your copy on Bookshop.org