“If you Ghouls have visualised violence and suffering for what you see as your creations, for the sake of drama you must press on and depict it. Truly, you act as gods.”
Treading similar ground to Asimov’s short story Author! Author!, Aleks Sager’s Daemon is constructed around a premise that will probably strike many writers as being wonderful, terrifying, or both: what if one of your characters were able to step out of the pages of your work, and into your everyday world? What if the being who had hitherto existed solely in your mind suddenly began to exist in actual fact? Would you welcome the chance to meet your creature, and – more importantly, perhaps – would your creature welcome the chance to meet you? Would your character thank you for creating him or her, or hate you for it?
This is the problem that faces successful author Aleks Sager when his protagonist, Ivan Ostrowski – whom he has tormented mercilessly, if fictiously – steps out of the pages of his novel, and straight into Sager’s glamorous world of agents and publishers, models and actors, and socialites and social climbers. Ostrowski, enraged and embittered by Sager’s treatment of him, is intent on revenge – and what better form of revenge than to set himself up as Sager’s rival in love? The object of both men’s affections is Natalie, a beautiful but rather vacant model who, by her own admission, hardly ever reads books, and is therefore, at first sight at least, an unlikely choice of paramour for a writer.
Natalie, however, forms one of the many haunting parallels that exist between Sager’s life and that of his literary hero, Aleksandr Pushkin (the fictional Ivan Ostrowski is a relative of Pushkin’s hero, Eugene Onegin). Sager’s passion for Natalie echoes that of Pushkin for Natalya Nicholaevna Goncharova, a sixteen-year-old society beauty who would later become his wife. Just as in the case of Sager and Natalie, the match raised both eyebrows and questions: was Goncharova Pushkin’s redeemer, or his downfall? Was she a good wife in the traditional sense, or not? (Readers new to Pushkin need not worry about these parallels: the Pushkin connection is never laboured or heavy-handed, and Elliot provides explanatory notes at the end, including a short biography of Pushkin.)
Indeed, for a novel that owes much of its inspiration to the life of “the Russian Shakespeare”, Aleks Sager’s Daemon is remarkably un-laboured. The first few pages alone are indicative of this, describing a sexual encounter with hilarious (if occasionally painful) honesty, and an absolute lack of romantic idealism:
“‘There? How about There? Is That it?’ He doesn’t see the humour in the situation. His tone of irritation held just in check guarantees that it isn’t There or There or Anywhere.”
I imagine that many a female reader will be nodding and smiling at this point.
Sager himself is cheeky, complex, arrogant, charming, and occasionally cruel. He wins the reader over just as he gradually wins over an initially unimpressed Natalie. Natalie herself becomes a deeper and more sympathetic character as her life is altered irrevocably by Sager’s love and Ostrowski’s terrifying intrusion into her world. By the time their story reaches its terrible climax (those parallels with Pushkin, remember) we’re rooting for them – and we’re saddened by what happens to them.
Aleks Sager’s Daemon is a rich, clever, satisfying exploration of the relationship between the creature and the creator, of the interdependent nature of literary texts, and of the multi-layered nature of reality. If you’re a reader, you’ll probably appreciate it on that basis alone. If you’re a writer, you may find that it raises a few interesting questions about the misery you occasionally inflict upon your characters. You don’t need to worry, of course: your characters only exist in your own mind, and don’t really suffer – or do they?