By Jeff Somers
“Ah, what shall I be at fifty
Should Nature keep me alive,
If I find the world so bitter
When I am but twenty-five?” – Tennyson
At fifty? Rather consider what you will be at thirty. By then you will have graduated from apathy to full bitterness, on your way to becoming a real bastard:
Daniel Quinn was a rarity: a truly nice guy, albeit going slightly brown around the edges in his mid-twenties. Fill a guy with beer and coat him with rejection often enough, and even the nicest guys will wither into something more resembling a bastard. Dan had enough mothers-milk niceness in him to go another ten years before becoming a real bastard, but he was beginning to show bastard tendencies, and everyone who knew him simultaneously rejoiced and despaired at the thought.
Daniel Quinn is one of three young men in Lifers desperate for change. The other two are Trim, a poet who works at a video store, and Dub, the narrator, who has a decent job at a publishing house. (Exactly what Dub does at the publishing house isn’t clear, but whatever it is he’s sick of it.) Despair over their lot in life leads the three to come up with a plan to steal a load of office equipment from Dub’s employer.
It’s a petty score, but these are not big men.
In most new contemporary fiction the plot is of less interest than the presentation. This is in part because the current generation of writers are such engaging stylists, but it is also due to the fact that few people seem to care about such things as structure anymore. The present literary age is one of wit, and while we may be tempted to disparage wit as so much empty entertainment (as I admit to doing in my review of Douglas Coupland’s Miss Wyoming), it may be that writers like Coupland and Ellis will be with us long after Rushdie and Ondaatje are forgotten. At least we can say they are succeeding on some level.
Lifers is a fun, honest book – the kind that makes criticism seem almost beside the point. Its minor failings are almost predictable for a first novel, like the conventional positioning of the narrator as an unhappy but attractive medium between two failed extremes. Reading Somers I was reminded of how the loser is perhaps the most difficult character for any author to create. The loser is the anti-anti-hero, the outcast who doesn’t even succeed at being cool, the failure who can never be redeemed. Despite his feelings of inadequacy, Dub is always recognizably a hero: intelligent, sensitive, decisive, desirable.
One reason the genuine loser may be so hard to find in today’s fiction is because the social and cultural environment is now seen as so degraded anything remotely human automatically rises above it. It may be significant that the morality of the crime in Lifers isn’t even a passing consideration. The only thing the hero is concerned about is what effect it might have on his life. Whatever revenge one can take against this corrupt, fallen world is just since it is also inevitably trivial, as Dub is finally brought to understand.
But back to superfluous criticism. Somers is a talented writer, but not always a careful one. There are, for example, a lot of inconsistencies in his narrative. (For more on problems with consistency in the contemporary novel, see my review of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke.) At one point Dub compares his limited wardrobe to that of the office workers he sees downtown, saying that he only owns “a pair of Chucks, and a pair of soft leather loafers.” Yet thirty pages earlier he told us he had “six pairs of Converse Chucks” under his desk. Did he throw them out?
This may be quite a minor thing, but there is a whopper of an inconsistency relating to Chick’s knowledge of the plan. (Chick being the chick. The nicknames are all a little much, and don’t help when some of the characters slip into stereotypes.) Throughout much of the book there is a lot made of the fact that Chick is in the dark about what the boys are up to. Yet in Chapter 3 Dub makes it clear that the conspirators have “told her everything.” She is said to be an “unknowing confidant.” Why then does she spend the rest of the book wondering what’s going on? If she’s been told, how can she be unknowing?
None of this will affect anyone’s enjoyment of the book, or their appreciation of the lives it represents. One hesitates to call Somers a distinctive voice, at least yet, but he is entertaining and his vision is important.
Review first published online August 1, 2001.