Sara Davis’s debut novel, The Scapegoat, starts out like a typical office novel. N, the narrator and an employee at a California university, is reading a newspaper in the break room, waiting for a pot of coffee to brew. He is making small talk with a colleague, which he’s not entirely happy to do. “As a rule,” N explains, “I maintained a careful neutrality toward my colleagues. I preferred not to involve myself in university gossip, or department politics, aware, without regret, that I had chosen for myself a somewhat lonely stance.”
N’s narrative, however, breaks hard in another direction once we learn that he is looking into the suspicious death of his father, with whom he had a difficult relationship. “There is always some regret, I would imagine,” he reflects, “when there is a sense that where there might have been connection between family members there was strain, with death’s finality precluding any rapprochement.”
The investigation takes N to an open house at the property where his father once lived. There, he discovers a mysterious note written on hotel stationery that reads, “Saturday, 10 am, MC.” Not long afterward, he agrees to drive a visiting lecturer to her hotel following dinner; it’s the same hotel. He accompanies the lecturer to her room, where, after she falls asleep, he discovers a briefcase containing a stone carving “covered in a dark and viscous sludge.” When he returns to his car, there is a flyer on the windshield demanding, “STOP SITES OF GENOCIDE FROM BECOMING TOURIST ATTRACTIONS.”
This series of apparent coincidences leaves N “with the feeling that the explainable world was somehow slipping from my grasp.” Later, he is racked by bizarre dreams featuring the lecturer, the hotel, and the briefcase. He tries to convince himself that he’s being paranoid—“It was just like me, I thought, to think the worst of things, to go over every minor thing with a fine-toothed comb”—but he can’t bring himself to let the investigation go.
Even if he could, it wouldn’t matter, for the investigation won’t let N go. His enmeshment pushes the novel to a denouement as weird and frightening as any I have read. To call the final act of The Scapegoat unpredictable would be a massive understatement; Davis wraps things up on her own terms, expectations be damned.
That’s part of what makes The Scapegoat such a thrilling, audacious book. There’s no pigeonholing it into any neat genre demarcation—it’s a literary novel that incorporates elements of horror and noir mystery. N’s narration, whose occasionally florid diction highlights his increasing sense of dread and disassociation, is reminiscent in some ways of H.P. Lovecraft, and it suffuses the novel with a suffocating terror that escalates as the book draws to a close.
N proves to be a fascinating character. Laconic and reserved, he interacts so carefully with others that it approaches rudeness. He has a traumatic backstory to which he alludes, but he provides few details; we are left to fill in the blanks on our own. Here, Davis’s restraint pays dividends—by mentioning N’s past only briefly, and doing so relatively late in the book, she deftly provokes our sense of apprehension, making the suspense all the more uncomfortable.
The Scapegoat is a slim book, barely 200 pages, and it’s remarkable how much Davis manages to do with so few words. This doesn’t come at the expense of the plot; she says exactly what she wants to say. She is a truly talented author, but she’s unshowy, not in love with her own prose.
What’s most impressive, perhaps, about The Scapegoat is the careful construction of its plot. As we begin to understand what’s happening, little elements from earlier in the book—a brief description of N’s father, a performance by a choir of a Mahler song cycle, a newspaper horoscope—reverberate with greater significance. It’s not an easy technique to pull off, but Davis makes it look effortless.
The Scapegoat concerns itself with doubt, and its ending, while clever and disturbing, is bound to leave readers guessing. Is N unreliable, or is everyone else? Is he who he says he is? Does he even know? It’s the kind of book that begs to be discussed with friends: What happened? What did we just read?
“We have one dream and then each year we make it a little smaller, all the while saying to ourselves that it’s to be expected, after all,” N reflects late in the novel. For him, perhaps there is an inverse: as his dreams shrink, his nightmares become unbearably large. The Scapegoat is definitely the stuff of nightmares, hugely unsettling and impressively creepy. It’s a remarkable debut from an author whose imagination seems unlimited.•