“The Gimmicks” by Chris McCormick is set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide; it follows the journey of two inseparable friends — brothers, really — who embark on two wildly different paths. One brother, the reclusive and, frankly, one-dimensional Ruben, is obsessed with righting the wrongs of the Turkish denial of the genocide, and joins the guerilla-terrorist organization The Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). The other brother, the massive, unibrowed and personable Avo, leaves for America to try to help Ruben before he recognizes his toxicity, deciding then to pursue a short professional wrestling career to try to get back to his teenage sweetheart, Mina, in Armenia. However, the central plot revolves around what happens between the years that Avo leaves for America in the late ‘70s and the 1989 search that Avo’s former wrestling manager, Terry Krill, embarks on a journey to find Avo after losing contact with him in 1980. It soon becomes apparent that no one has heard anything of Avo’s whereabouts for years, and the novel’s focus is to fill in the intervening years of Avo’s life, slowly unraveling the truth of what happened, why he left and where he is now.
Using this framework, McCormick crafts alluring characters, paints a heart-wrenchingly vivid portrait of the scars that history can leave and questions the different ways we can express our national identities. The passages dealing with these elements and ideas exemplify “The Gimmicks” at its most powerful. McCormick deftly establishes Avo as a sympathetic character, and by placing him at the center of an unresolved history, McCormick gives the reader the fearful anticipation and curiosity that Krill and others searching for Avo feel. The book gradually unravels the enigma surrounding a character that the reader becomes emotionally invested in, and adds excitement to the prospect of the tendrils of time frames stretching to meet each other, and thus fill in the missing history. The truth seems painfully just out of reach, which endears the reader to the characters all the more so.
In contrast to Avo, Ruben and his juxtaposition against his brother sow unease in the reader, as the truth unravels and the reader can be no more than a passive spectator to the self-destructive vortex of Ruben’s personality and radicalism. He reminds the reader of a family member who is always just out of reach, slowly drifting away and hopelessly sabotaging the lives of those in close proximity. All you can do is watch and shake your head. To this capacity, Ruben is an effective plot device. But while the book bills Ruben as a main character in its blurb, Ruben ends up being relegated to the sidelines as a sinister and abstract force that the reader might end up loathing. Because, as effectively as McCormick uses Ruben as a source of conflict and disruption, what results is an unlikeable caricature. Later in the novel, when McCormick attempts to provide insight into Ruben’s state of mind, it is too late: His role as a toxic influence was solidified early on, and whatever kinship Avo ever felt toward Ruben becomes more elusive and confusing to the reader.
In spite of Ruben, though, McCormick is still able to deliver a somber and poignant character-focused narrative. However, he mismanages the plot resolutions, and the unfulfilling conclusions bogged this novel down. The resolution to Avo’s story arc in particular undercut the entire narrative that led up to it, mostly because there was an absence of a resolution. The reader is presented the fundamental facts and narrative of what happened in those missing years, but McCormick doesn’t explore what these truths actually mean, and, more importantly, why the reader should even care. Ultimately the novel ended up where it began, with all of the damage, harm and conflict that was revealed over the course of the novel never being addressed, or redressed, for that matter.
The journey to reaching the truth is rendered cheap, and becomes a trivial exercise in curiosity; Especially telling of this are the conclusions those who are trying to find Avo reach. For an entire book’s worth of earnest searching and uprooting of characters, the truth doesn’t end up having any significant impact, and one begins to wonder why such an effort was made to skirt around the solution to begin with, aside for the sake of narrative power.
The plot ends up feeling unfinished, and the lack of satisfying closure renders the 400 pages of buildup moot. Terry Krill, whom the reader is supposed to project themselves onto as an outside party looking for answers, ends up in the same place as the reader, but somehow with even less of a resolution. While this can be an effective strategy to accentuate a story’s poignancy and bittersweetness, Krill seems content without the resolution that he spent a long and emotionally draining investigative process trying to find; this does not sit well with the reader.
With such a powerful buildup, “The Gimmicks” conclusion was incredibly confusing on an emotional level. This distress I felt raised interesting questions, though. Should a book that meditates on the Armenian Genocide, extremism, obsession and history-denial have a fulfilling or satisfying ending? More importantly, isn’t the frustration and futility of the novel’s resolution emblematic of how we can do nothing to undo the atrocities of the past, aside from continue forward? I will continue to wrestle with those questions, and as I do, though I am ultimately dissatisfied with the novel, I continue to ponder the relationships we have with history, and if “The Gimmicks” can provide insight into the nature of those relationships.