‘Yes perhaps. But what is too much anymore?’ – Senseless by Stona Fitch

I love books with one word titles. I prostrate myself in obeisance if the whole book then wholly derives from the title or spends its entire duration explaining it. Ergo I love Senseless. An American is taken hostage in Belgium and his captors torture him in a very systematic way over 40 days, to render him ‘senseless’. But they are not pursuing any ransom. What need for one, when they are coining it in online subscriptions from a worldwide audience to tune in to this latest reality show. Their ideology is a wooly anti-globalisation, one that sparks division within their own ranks as to both theory and praxis. Thus this is not foregrounded, rather the torture and voyeurism are spotlighted. Their acts are therefore also ‘senseless’. A delight in the violence for its own sake. Symbolic and token, yet grounded in the basest materialism possible, that of the human body. The nightmare of a middle-ranking functionary puts one in mind of Kafka. But the assault on the senses is more akin to Huysmans’ decadence meets De Sade. Thus the body of the book is concerned with the gradual stripping away of the hostage’s senses one by one. A stripping away of what it means to be human. In isolation, the hostage conjures up memories to preserve his sense of self. Such memories become increasingly important, linked with embedded sensory prompts that he holds on to, now that he can no longer experience them anew. If they take away all of his senses, will he lose all memory too? He is certainly being reconstructed through this most harsh of plastic surgeries. But the past memories also reveal darker sensations, hints that perhaps he is guilty of the moral myopia his kidnappers accuse him of. He once contracted a middle-ear infection by swimming in an abandoned quarry, against the express wishes of his father; this is what he now draws on to compare his deafness induced by the torturers. He has felt it, or at least a version of it before. And we come to realize that the finer pleasures he was used to experiencing, an open air concert or a good wine, do not come for free, but at the expense of somebody else, economically speaking. There are some wonderfully rendered childhood memories, the selling something to a blind boy and his Father’s imposed reparation for it being particularly memorable. That has stayed with me long after the book is finished.

It’s very hard to write of human emotions without distancing the charge through metaphor. Fitch avoids this through his set-up. A study of sensory experience, memory and the removal of both, in order to plot an emotional journey. Throw on top of this some biting social satire, of the insatiable appetite for reality TV, of political fanaticism, both of which lead Fitch to pose the very trenchant question through the mouth of his torturer-in-chief: “Yes perhaps. But what is too much anymore?”

Any Cop?: Readers of a nervous disposition might find the torturers’ ‘de-sensitising’ of the hostage tough going, but if you have the stomach for it I recommend this heartily. A novel for our senseless times.

Marc Nash

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