Véronique Darwin Reviews New Fiction for EVENT 51/2

Véronique Darwin Reviews:

Mike Steeves, Bystander, Book*hug Press, 2022
James Clammer, Insignificance, Coach House Books, 2021

There is a certain kind of person whom the first-person narrator of Bystander by Mike Steeves is keen to avoid. Peter calls this figure, often a handyman, the ‘monologist’ because of the way they force others ‘to listen as they describe the most mundane aspects of their life.’ Hiding from one, our narrator admonishes himself: ‘You are a thirty-five-year-old man with an enormous amount of professional responsibility and power… But you behave like a prisoner waiting in line at the cafeteria.’

If this bystander is like a prisoner, where is he trapped? Not underground, like the unnamed narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, a book Steeves has cited as inspiration: Peter Simons is a wealthy businessman who lives in a high-rise apartment, where he sits on his balcony both observing and ignoring his neighbours. He’s not trapped in his job, where he’s comfortable and successful, or in the solitary life he chose after travelling abroad for work had tired him. No, he is trapped only in his mind, and we are right there with him. The book-length block of text he produces is a true feat of communication for someone who explains, ‘Every time I order takeout, or nod hello to a neighbour…I always feel as if I am communicating in a language I don’t understand.’ Peter’s fight-or-flight response if he is approached? ‘My first instinct in every problematic situation,’ he says, ‘is to scatter money all around me.’ Since, like the scattering of cash, a monologue is a solitary and somewhat embarrassing gesture, our narrator might be fooled into believing he has no audience, but here we are, his readers, standing at the edge of Peter’s financial perimeter, forced to listen. Depending on our own resolve, we might even empathize.

Peter’s monologue, reminiscent of a prison confession, is both an account of and a response to a discomfiting series of events. Less like scattered coins than a line of bills doled out one by one, the novel increases in value as we stick around. What begins as a series of tedious events—a long conversation with his parents, time spent reading ‘long-form articles’ and watching ‘prestige TV’—grows tense when Peter witnesses a next-door neighbour’s last moments of life, and then notices a smell begin to seep into his apartment. After watching more TV and reading more articles, Peter discovers the rotting body. Remaining quiet, he implicates us as fellow bystanders.

Insignificance by James Clammer offers a narrator who mediates between the reader and the protagonist’s monologue. Interjections like ‘The need to mention the weather, to make a complaint in fact, has been pressing for some time so we might as well deal with it now’ create distance from our protagonist, a middle-aged plumber named Joseph. We meet him on his first morning back on the tools after time off due to a mental health episode. Beginning with a lengthy description of a complex siphoning procedure, the book initially sounds all too worthy of its title, but soon the narrator’s odd use of language elevates plumbing to a heroic, even orchestral, feat:

This search for the drain-off cock was a preliminary, in no way did it qualify as an overture to the task-as-a-whole, hardly even a tuning up, yet in it one might look for auspicious signs. It was a bearer of portents—not in the strictest sense critical, its state of utility or otherwise could determine whether the job was to be an easy or a difficult one.

And the tank does portend something significant: around noon, ‘the man Joseph’ is visited at the job site by his son, just out of prison after having served 10 years for poisoning his mother.

Much like with Bystander, the reader of Insignificance is caught up in and carried by the text. Buoyed by river-like run-on sentences, we dip in and out of Joseph’s and others’ consciousnesses, floating like the unmarked dialogue through a well-navigated dream state. There is guidance along the way: the narrator of Insignificance is self-aware and often reminds us we are reading. For instance, the narrator qualifies the introduction of a character by saying, ‘We’d like to get to know her better,’ or suggests that we ‘listen in to what Edward’s saying.’ This frequent shift in focus offers something that Bystander doesn’t: breathing room. Rather than standing in the corner of a smelly apartment listening to a man debate and defend his position in a series of events, in Insignificance we’re looking down from the stands with a fellow witness, questioning the meaning of the events themselves.

This use of distance is integral to producing the unsettling effect of these two somewhat eerie novels. Engrossing, mysterious and loquacious in their own peculiar ways, the two texts place reader and narrator in the position of bearing witness, perhaps therapeutically or voyeuristically, to violence. There is the quiet, avoidant, interpersonal kind of violence around whose central dramas the novels are built, but there is also a deeper kind of personal violence that suggests each novel’s monologue might be doing something like healing for the protagonists. For instance, in Bystander, our storyteller looks back on himself: ‘What I saw from the perspective of my neighbour’s balcony was that I wasn’t even the hero of my own life story.’ At lunch with his son, Joseph of Insignificance thinks, ‘The reason I didn’t visit…was because it would probably have destroyed me, there’s the reality for you.’ We sense as reader-cum-therapist that the story that needs telling is one the character cannot yet access. This is a large part of why these novels stuck with me long after I finished them.

It’s curious that while both novelists are interested in their protagonist’s self-awareness, each novel is able to stay quiet, at least for a while, about certain key details. Some of these are expected (the backstories and provenance of important symbols like a hibachi barbecue or a three-pronged knife), but some of this mystery is harder to explain. To what end is Peter Simons hiding the nature of his important business job or the city in which he lives? Why is the narrator of Insignificance speaking in such a lofty, quasi-biblical tone? This curious, almost casual, use of mystery and elision appears to be an integral part of both novels’ projects. Peter and Joseph are clearly fearful of the world, as evidenced in moments of outright xenophobia. Peter goes from talking to no one to engaging in a ‘suicide-bomber knock-knock joke cycle.’ Upon encountering a stranger, Joseph suggests that ‘if they were foreign and certainly they seemed to be, might it not be possible to deport them?’ Indeed, this fear might extend to their own selves: isolated and clearly seeking connection through his monologue, each man has become his own stranger.

Near the end of each novel, both protagonists find themselves face to face with a stranger. Perhaps it’s a chance for our main character to share his story: not the one we’re reading, but the one he would tell after having worked through this one. Reading them both, I enjoyed imagining that the stranger was the protagonist from the other text. Peter’s preoccupation with the handyman who monologues in Bystander is turned on its head in Insignificance. Here, the handyman is the one ‘who kept the world turning,’ even if as it spun, ‘his feelings came last in every one, they dropped through the cracks, they were lost, unimportant.’ If they met, the two men would remain silent, wouldn’t they? That, or they would talk, and talk, and talk.

Novels are containers with questions that are often resolved through their own text. Will these men work through something and come out somewhere new? How are we, the readers, complicit in this process? Peter says: ‘The only reality that I’ve ever been willing to accept is the one where I am who I think I am.’ Both novels ask: what if you aren’t?

Véronique Darwin