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Lisa Lutz and David Hayward
Heads You Lose
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Putnam Penguin
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-399-15740-8
Publication Date: 04-05-2011
306 Pages ; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 05-15-2011

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction  Non-Fiction

Reading has many rewards. The process of looking at the words on the page and drifting into a story is unique, and rarely mined as effectively for entertainment value as it is in 'Heads You Lose' by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward. This hilarious, compelling and even affecting novel literally beheads any vision you might have had of the metafiction genre. After reading 'Heads You Lose,' you'll realize that metafiction means reading squared — and it's exponentially more fun. 'Heads You Lose' is a breeze to read even as it mines complicated literary critical analysis for easy laughs.

The conceit here is very simple. An "Editor's note" explains that Lisa Lutz decided to collaborate on a mystery with her current friend, and one-time romantic partner, poet David Hayward. She would write the odd-numbered chapters, and he would write the even numbered chapters. They would mail the book back and forth, and include brief notes to one another. These would be printed in-between the relevant chapters, as would the author's notes and comments one on another's portions, as footnotes. Lisa had already written the first chapter about brother and sister pot-farmers in northern California who find a headless body in their front yard. After the Editor's note, we read David and Lisa's opening letters followed by the first chapter.

Then the fictional — and metafictional — violence begins.

The mystery novel in 'Heads You Lose' is set in and near Mercer, an imaginary town in the rural boondocks of Northern California. Paul and Lacey Hansen are the brother and sister pot-farmers who find a headless body in their yard. They can't report it to the police, so they move it off their property, thinking it will be found soon and the investigation will take off without involving them. Unfortunately, the body returns (still headless) to their property, so Lacy and Paul find themselves thrust into the roles of amateur sleuths. Someone in Mercer is not who they appear to be, and it's not just Lacey and Paul.

Lutz and Hayward have way too much fun with their collaboration, and it's infectious. Lutz, author of 'The Spellman Files' apparently writes her parts with a fast pace and a sure hand. Hayward's parts supposedly focus on descriptive prose and goofy, oddball characterization. But the letters in-between the chapters reveal a different set of motives, and the reasons why the romance went awry. As the novel progresses, the writers compete with one another, bicker, kill off one-another's characters, and undermine one another's work. Chapters reach beyond absurdity into satire. The reader soon begins to wonder whether the novel itself is the true victim in this mystery.

The fact of the matter is that in 'Heads You Lose,' Lutz and Hayward make something remarkably sophisticated look dead easy. The letters and chapters that fire off the novel seem to be quite real. Perhaps they are. For readers the distinction soon becomes enjoyably academic. The lines between fiction and reality are blurred in a manner that is entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. The mystery genre itself takes a few shots that one hopes it will survive. They mystery novel they write is funny and very satisfying in its own light.

But in retrospect, as readers, we can go back to our reading experience and truly enjoy the smart, twisty ways in which Lutz and Hayward have played with our concept of the novel. We get to think about proofreading, copy-editing and the revision process. The part played by selling novels struts its stuff. The letters are always a highlight, and rather than interrupt the narrative, they make it even more page-turningly compelling. The writers use characters to strike at one another. The plot itself is a device by which the one-time couple manage to create a whole new means of bickering. This is the battle between men and women taken to a very unique plane.

On one level it, you will read 'Heads You Lose' — and you should read it now, while it is in first editions — as a fun and charming mystery complicated by the authors' notes. It's a hoot. But there is a lot of there there. Lutz and Hayward know when to ham it up, they know when to back it off, and the layers of conceit are many. This book is a very un-serious but very smart dissection of the writing process. It's a funny, unusual mystery. It's the story of a romance that went bad for a lot of good reasons. This is metafiction, fun-squared. There's not much like this out there, and we can only hope that Lutz and Hayward's writing relationship survives to give us the many sequels we deserve. Literary criticism and the writing process are for the most part terra incognito in popular fiction. Lutz and Hayward prove you can be smart and funny.

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