Sense of wonder pervades 150 brief fictions
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.