the society of others

I initially thought the ending was underwhelming given that amazing build-up, but upon reflection I thought – how else could it have ended? This novel is written by dramatist William Nicholson, who also co-wrote the script for Gladiator. You could clearly see the talent in the language. The plot is comparable to The Catcher in the Rye, only our Holden Caulfield in this story chooses to remain nameless, and experiences danger so real and so disconnected from his life that it has the power to either scar him permanently, or change his worldview for the better. Our world-weary protagonist is a young man living in England who would rather lock himself in his room than deal with the hypocrisies of society:

“My friend Mac is going to be an aid worker in Nepal. This is hilarious because all the aid they need in Nepal is getting out from under all the people like Mac who’ve gone there to find meaning in their lives. They’ve sucked all the available meaning up and now there’s none left for the Nepalese, who have nothing to do except carry explorers’ bags up mountains and sell them drugs. Mac says he doesn’t care, at least he’ll see the mountains. I tell him the thing about a mountain is when you’re on it you don’t see it. You need to be far away to see a mountain. Like at home, looking at a postcard. Mac says you stand on one mountain and look at the next mountain. I say, Then what? Mac says, You’re a real wanker, you know that? Yes, Mac, I’m a real wanker. The genuine article. A simple pleasure that does no harm to man or beast. Be grateful.”

”It’s like fish. Fish swim about all day finding food to give them energy to swim about all day. It makes me laugh. These people who hurry about all day making money to sell each other things. Anyone with eyes to see could tell them their lives are meaningless and they aren’t getting any happier.”

He is angry, but I also sensed a deep-seated unhappiness, a disillusionment:¬†“When I was small I thought the world was like my parents, only bigger. I thought it watched me and clapped when I danced. This is not so. The world is not watching and will never clap.” Well, then. His father introduces an addition to the family: a baby with a younger woman. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Next thing we know our young protagonist is hitchhiking in an unnamed European city, and ends up in the midst of dystopia. The driver of the vehicle he rides in breaks through a checkpoint, and he runs away. From where he hides, he sees the man being tortured. Later he learns that the contraband material the driver is sneaking through the border isn’t drugs, or porn, but books. Why?

From here on the novel reads like a thriller. Every now and then the protagonist finds himself debating with other characters about philosophy, and ideology, and faith, and poetry, but the action moves forward. Forward and fast. The narrative has a dreamlike quality that I love.

Read an excerpt.

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