Sense of won­der per­vades 150 brief fic­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - So­phie Quick So­phie Quick is a Mel­bourne-based re­viewer.

English writer Will Eaves has con­trived to write a book that’s tricky to de­scribe and even more trou­ble­some to re­view. Eaves is a nov­el­ist poet but The Ab­sent Ther­a­pist is nei­ther a novel nor a po­etry col­lec­tion, nor a vol­ume of short sto­ries. It’s more of a ran­dom cat­a­logue of 21st-cen­tury sce­nar­ios, queries, com­plaints and ob­ser­va­tions.

The book takes the form of about 150 short fic­tions, each seem­ingly told from the per­spec­tive of a dif­fer­ent, un­named nar­ra­tor.

These nar­ra­tives range in length from 1½ pages to one sen­tence and vary wildly in sub­ject mat­ter.

One minute, a ge­ol­o­gist is grum­bling about his cre­ation­ist col­league (“He is in to­tal de­nial that New Mexico has any kind of coastal en­vi­ron­ment. It’s crazy”). The next, we’re get­ting a lec­ture from an ad­her­ent of a New Age med­i­ta­tion craze (“Body Elec­tron­ics is a holis­tic pro­to­col with med­i­ta­tive tech­nolo­gies and nu­tri­tional pro­grams”). And in the next story, we’re peer­ing into the Rio Grande Gorge with a ca­reers coun­sel­lor whose part­ner “works with the ed­u­ca­tion­ally dis­ad­van­taged and emo­tion­ally, uh, dis­torted on out­ward-bound projects”.

Some char­ac­ters pop up more than once but the nar­ra­tives are not ex­plic­itly con­nected, nor do they build to­wards any­thing re­sem­bling a plot, cli­max or res­o­lu­tion.

If this sounds like some clever but soul­less experiment, it doesn’t read like one. These mini-nar­ra­tives (it’s tempt­ing to de­scribe them as vi­gnettes, though the word evokes a style too fussy for the elu­sive au­tho­rial spec­tre of Eaves) could be 150 begin­nings to 150 nov­els.

Eaves has a nov­el­ist’s ear for the rhythms and rep­e­ti­tions of spo­ken lan­guage and a poet’s flair for im­agery. One of the most charm­ing and dis­tinctly Bri­tish as­pects of this book is the way many of the nar­ra­tives dart, as if em­bar­rassed, from big philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions to pro­saic hu­mour. Here is one ex­am­ple, from start to fin­ish:

Think­ing is the set of men­tal pro­cesses we don’t un­der­stand. It is the soul in con­fer­ence with it­self. Tur­ing and Plato. Sounds like an Es­tate Agency. Or one of those try-hard butch­ers. Sausages by Tur­ing & Plato. With pork and saf­fron.

Many of the voices speak­ing in this book be­gin their nar­ra­tives mid-rant or mid-re­flec­tion, a tech­nique that calls at­ten­tion to how lit­tle we know, and can know, of strangers. Yet the tini­est snip­pets can be ripe with sug­ges­tion. One nar­ra­tor de­scribes the com­ings and go­ings of an­i­mals and peo­ple around a block of flats at dusk. It’s a tran­quil scene with an evoca­tive con­clu­sion: “It doesn’t last long, this part of the evening. Two cig­a­rettes at most.” How did this per­son come to mea­sure their time in cig­a­rettes? Is this a de­tail that sug­gests a lonely, wist­ful nar­ra­tor? Or is the speaker just a con­tem­pla­tive crea­ture of habit?

The book does hit a few false notes, with some voices less con­vinc­ing than oth­ers. At times, too, Eaves shows off his gift for re­pro­duc­ing con­ver­sa­tional tics at the ex­pense of the reader. A te­dious mono­logue is as te­dious on the page as it is over­heard on the train. But high points out­num­ber mis­fires. This is a very funny lit­tle book and it con­tains sev­eral in­stances of truly star­tling, slap-in-the-face irony. Many of these sto­ries veer off in un­pre­dictable di­rec­tions and some are quite mov­ing. Eaves is at his best, and his warmest, when sketch­ing scenes of ob­scure hu­man tri­umph: sal­vaged pride on a small-town dance floor; child­hood anx­i­eties abated in the ec­stasy of a rain­storm.

Near the end, one nar­ra­tive seems to strike at the heart of the mean­ing im­plied by the book’s form. The un­named, un­know­able speaker is re­flect­ing on the search for ob­jec­tive, con­clu­sive truth: “What draws ev­ery­one on is know­ing that we’re de­nied ob­jec­tiv­ity by the lim­its of our per­cep­tions while si­mul­ta­ne­ously deny­ing that we are de­nied it. It’s ter­ri­fy­ing to think that we’re re­spon­si­ble for what we think about the cos­mos, and what we do in it, be­cause it’s like say­ing there’s no one watch­ing.”

If there’s any kind of cu­mu­la­tive im­pact to the nar­ra­tives, it’s the idea of the in­escapa­bil­ity of our speci­ficity and sub­jec­tiv­ity. But in Eaves’s slip­pery, anal­y­sis-re­sis­tant anti-novel, this is not nec­es­sar­ily a source of de­spair. This is a strange book — some­times bor­ing, some­times ab­surd, some­times pro­found — but it is per­vaded by a sense of won­der. Other peo­ple are an end­less source of mys­tery, Eaves might be say­ing. Grasp­ing the mys­tery might be im­pos­si­ble, but the im­por­tant part is mak­ing the at­tempt.

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