“Palahniuk with its punches pulled” – The Listeners by Jordan Tannahill

IMG_2022-5-29-192719When I first heard what Jordan Tannahill’s latest, The Listeners, was about, I was reminded of Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination. The latter, released about a decade ago now, concerned a light that broke out across the world and was luminous in all kinds of ways (whilst still remaining somewhat under-rated – it’s one of those novels I don’t see getting mentioned a lot but it warrants far more attention than it got); the former concerns a sound, heard by our central protagonist and then a slowly burgeoning group of others, and its effect upon their lives. I’ll tell you up front and from the get go – it ain’t as good as the Brockmeier by a long way.

Let’s start with the hum:

“…it sounded like someone was idling their engine in the driveway. Or like an airplane flying overhead, that low atmospheric roar; except it never got further away, it just kept going for hours and hours.”

Our narrator, Claire, a high school teacher, tells us the story from a point future hence, when all of whatever it is we are about to read has been blown out of all proportion (she is regarded as a villain and something that has happened on Sequoia Crescent, the street where she lives, has tarnished the lives of many etc). In terms of the what of that set-up – Claire hears a hum, it gets between her and her husband Paul and her daughter (who is a mouthy, bad-tempered so and so) and then she starts to befriend one of her students (who also hears the hum) and then a slightly larger group of people (who all hear the hum) and there are a few theories as to what the hum is (background noise of the world, local highway) which are discussed.

And then the novel seems to become a sort of sowing circle in which this group sit around and discuss things and practice yoga (an early scene of temporary disharmony is interrupted by a woman doing a yoga pose on a coffee table and harmony returns – this was the first point at which I thought, hmmm, maybe this book is not for me) – and eventually the group learns to channel the hum in an almost sexually meditative way. And, you know, the rest of the world doesn’t understand and some people lose their jobs and some people lose their shit but (and this feels crucial) it never really builds up the kind of steam that you think would really make it past the local news. It’s not enough, is what we are saying.

What’s more – and because, as the novel failed to charm and delight us, we started to be picky – Tannahill has a slightly overbearing sense of making Claire a bit “I’m every woman”. So we get blocks of text like the following that feel like a bit much or ladled on a soupcon too thick:

“…hysteria was a psychic wound that we as women still bore; a wound inflicted from centuries of our symptoms, our instincts about our own bodies, our pleasures and our afflictions, always being the first to be discounted and discredited, even by other women…”

And

“I don’t think anyone who isn’t a woman living on her own can fully appreciate the amount of time we spend imagining and fearing this exact scenario. The number of times we feel a presence behind us as we turn off the lights. Or catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of our eye, and whip around to find an empty room.”

It’s that ‘our’ eye line in the last sentence that jarred the most for me. Claire feels like a type. A cipher. Lacking in distinctive edges that make her a fully rounded human in her own right. Even though she feels “a kinship” with “mangy interlopers” in the form of coyotes, Claire is – to put it frankly – a little dull and a little irritating.

All told, we’re going to file The Listeners under disappointing and try to put the whole thing behind us. As far as Tannahill is concerned, though, we would heartily recommend a read of Sara Gran’s Come Closer – a novel which also begins with a noise and firmly remains within a relatively limited purview (that of our narrator) whilst never losing it’s thrills. The Listeners could learn a lot from Come Closer.

Any Cop?: The Listeners has the feel of a lesser Palahniuk, a Palahniuk with its punches pulled (as if Fight Club was rewritten as a Sewing Club). A little dry, a little melodramatic, a little bit opportunity missed.

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