This is a novel about a thirty-eight year old single man, whose horizons have never stretched beyond living with his mum. ‘Oh dear’, you might think. But wait… On the death of his mother, the MC begins writing letters to a celebrity that his mum admired from afar – the Hollywood actor Richard Gere – and therein he explores ‘…philosophy and friendship, alien abduction and the mystery of women.’ Thus, instead of being some three hundred page homily on the ‘dark night of the soul’, it’s pitched as a serving of philosophy-lite, interwoven into a story that is quirky, warm and life-affirming. All of which is true. And moreover, the premise, the central idea, is very clever indeed.
Upon reading the first few letters, though, it becomes clear that the MC is not a soul slightly off-kilter, but someone who increasingly comes across as seriously unhinged. Urgent questions surface: is he going to actually post the letter, or is this some cathartic exercise, to be followed by chanting or punching pillows? If intended for posting, does he expect Richard Gere to actually read it? And if by some miracle he does read it, is he expecting him to get to the end (it’s way too long for a realistic 1st fan/celebrity exchange), or even, reply? (It’s waaay too intimate, uncomfortable, even).
And this jars, not because mental health is an unworthy subject, but rather as it does not feel like the MC’s (in)sanity in intentionally being played upon. Why? Because the character is calibrated for sympathy. Right from page one, the reader is supposed to be washed over with warmth and tenderness towards a distressed soul – without qualification. By way of illustrating the contradictions, the MC confesses in letter #1 how pretending to be Richard Gere eased his own sense or failure and inadequacy, and how he once sat in a library for three hours, quietly observing a young librarian going about her work. That last example in particular, illustrates the gap opening up between intention, and the reality of interpretation. For we are meant here to glimpse the man’s loneliness, his quiet yearning, but in the absence of any context he’s in real danger of seeming sinister, a pervert, even. And if that weren’t enough, we then learn that he ties his own hands to his bedposts, in an effort to stop himself from masturbating. Which leads nicely to the MC on pornography:
“…on his screen were two naked women on all fours like dogs, licking each other’s anuses… Do people really enjoy looking at women behaving in this manner?”
Really? So we’re now meant to believe that a 38 year old single, heterosexual man has almost no familiarity with pornography. So onto insane and perverted, we’ll add retarded, too. Clues are indeed given that the MC has some genuine problem, that he is ‘different’ – for example, there is a scene where he recalls his peers at school calling him ‘retard’ – but is he compromised in some specific way, ‘special’ in a ‘Forrest Gump’ way, or just idiosyncratic, but otherwise medically normal? Resolving this question is crucial to how the reader approaches the MC, and thus, that it is left hanging, is disruptive. (One could argue that the ambiguity is deliberate, that the reader is intentionally being tossed among the waves, but this reviewer’s impression is to the contrary). The result is that one is forever uncertain about the emotions the MC invokes – should one let the sympathy flow, or rather hope he gets put out of his misery, or at the very least, sectioned..?
This issue aside, the novel is genuinely enjoyable, with many of the MC’s observations of his own life, and that of the world around him, bearing an arresting, piercing precision.
Any Cop?: The story is light, off-beat and funny, and moves along at a just perfect pace. The novel was a pleasure to read, despite being denied a firm handle onto the MC’s ‘handicap’.