by Steve Saroff
Paper Targets introduces the reader to Enzi, who has fallen through the cracks in society. However, he becomes caught up in the murky world of cybercrime through talent, circumstance, and curiosity. While desperately trying to reset his moral compass, Enzi meets Kaori, a troubled Japanese artist and his problems begin in earnest…
Paper Targets is an interesting, unusual novel that not only moves between genres but also bends expectations of them. The entire narrative is also overlaid with the broad brushstrokes of a noirish romantic thriller yet contains contemporary twists.
As the story unfolds, narrated by Enzi in first person, Saroff’s prose flickers between poetic poignancy and a sharp, stylized immediacy that holds the reader utterly at the moment.
There is a definite sense of foreboding and, in places, hopelessness, highlighted by Enzi’s detached, almost forensic delivery that drives the novel but also reflects his sensibilities and personality.
Enzi tells the reader exactly what is happening and how he responds. This is rarely on an emotional level. Yet, Enzi’s focused objectivity makes the reader keenly aware that he is a deeply complex character with buried vulnerabilities and somewhat flawed.
Violence, or the threat of it, seems to surround him and this is before meeting Kaori. There is a subtextual layer of disquieting events that are shrouded in darkness and blood. Indeed, no matter what landscape Enzi moves through, there is a stark, grey cold that shadows and pervades all areas of the novel.
Paper Targets is, therefore, not a light-hearted read but an incredibly intriguing one. Although Enzi’s words resonate with controlled intensity, his actions radiate with unpredictability. Several narrative strands wind like webs around each other, connected by subliminal motifs with Enzi in the middle, and the reader is never too sure if Enzi is the spider or the fly.
Consequently, there were times I wanted to scratch Enzi’s surface a little deeper, just to uncover a touch more of what exactly makes him tick and motivates his decision-making, especially about Kaori. Although the toxic, almost folie à deux dynamic of their relationship is unsettlingly obvious, it was sometimes too unspoken and abstract exactly what Enzi was gaining from her, and their association.
Kaori is a strong character and well-depicted. Frustrating, unstable, and damaged yet with an undeniable sense of self-preservation and frightening single-mindedness. Is she reliable or even whom she says she is? Just as these questions seem answered, they are subtly thrown back at the reader with added complications.
Saroff makes her paintings and sketches come alive on the page. Kaori can seem one-dimensional, even slightly nebulous, an impression that works well in the novel, yet her art is anything but, and speaks with a truth that she is unable to.
Once Enzi moves into the world of criminal hacking, the reader is treated to some high-level technical information but this never becomes dense and is immensely readable, complemented by Enzi’s analytical tone.
Just after two-thirds, the plot veers into thriller territory for a while with some fairly nasty characters, who could be slightly prototypical but remain convincingly sinister and keep the pages turning.
However, aside from Enzi, one of the most investable personalities in the novel is Pascal Ameto, the bail bondsman. Part chancer, part Touchstone, he deserves a novel of his own.
Paper Targets is an ambitious, innovative, and creative novel, driven by a compelling and enigmatic main character. Highly recommended.