Drifting in and out of consciousness (oxfordhacker) wrote,
Drifting in and out of consciousness

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'Apathy and Other Small Victories' by Paul Neilan

Remember when I said that I had decided to post more often, and to work my way through my 'to read' pile? In an ingenious attempt to combine both of these schemes, I hereby begin a Week Of Book Reviews (Hopefully). I don't think I'm very good at reviewing, because when I'm faced with a good book I fear that I will fail to do it justice. I over-think everything that I write anyway, but thinking hard about good writing and then trying to write about it can be utterly paralysing. Caution: This introduction may constitute a spoiler as to my feelings about the upcoming book.

Reason for reading: I have a book-acquisition technique which has served me well: when an interesting-sounding book is mentioned in conversation or on-line I add it to my wishlist before I forget about it. This means that every birthday and Christmas I am greeted with a selection of books that look very much to my taste yet come as a surprise. This was one such, though I'm characteristically unaware of how I came across it in the first place. I can see why I might have liked the sound of it, though.

Synopsis: Shane is a rootless, hapless young adult. He has bad habits and no real friends, but his real problem is his indifference towards everything including himself. In the course of the book he has regular sex with two different women (unsatisfactory for two different reasons), gets a shit temp job which he treats with even more contempt than it deserves, and has awkward conversations with his landlord and neighbour characterised by mutual incomprehension and distaste. There's a vestigial plot about him being a suspect in a murder of the most sympathetic character, but it's quickly and anti-climatically resolved.

Review: If the above synopsis evokes a book lacking in pleasure and point then it has done its job. Of course, given the title, one could convincingly argue that the author has done his job too. It certainly isn't badly written, has some nifty turns of phrase and did convincingly convey (indeed, induce) the protagonist's feeling of empty despair. It has a stab at making his indifference almost heroic, but in the end he can't even convince himself that it's anything other than a failing. Discussing books over dinner the other day I said that I don't like books that are about people being unpleasant to each other (not that I demand no unpleasantness, just that I don't want to read a book that's about it.) This book is about someone being unpleasant to himself, which is arguably worse.

I am therefore in danger of that cardinal sin of reviewing: criticising a book for not being what I wanted. My objection, therefore, applies more to the marketing than the book itself. The blurb and review quotes all present this as being a humour book, and it isn't; or if it is, my sense of humour differs fundamentally from that of the reviewers (and presumably of the author, unless he thought he was writing a cry for help but was too polite to correct his chuckling readers). It has some witty lines, but they're in service of a fundamentally grim book. It's not the first time I've been baffled by this approach to humour, so I concede that there must be a mindset that finds grotesque characters intrinsically hilarious, presumably because they exaggerate human foibles. BBC Radio 4 occasionally does comedies like this, where apparently the entirety of the fun is expected to arise from characters reacting unreasonably and inappropriately. They leave me in a sort of uncanny valley of characterisation, and profoundly glad that I don't recognise their depictions of humanity.

Illustrative excerpt from Amazon review:
The main character is someone you feel a great connection with as he acts out all the different things that you wish you could do in your office job (feel asleep during work, cut people down with comments, not care about anything generally).
Tags: books, reviews

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