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The Society of Others

By William Nicholson

William Nicholson is the author of the play Shadowlands, about the life of Cambridge don and religious and children’s writer, C S Lewis. He also wrote the screenplay when the story was filmed by Richard Attenborough, starring Anthony Hopkins, and got an Oscar nomination for his trouble. Since then he has written more Hollywood movies including, most recently, Gladiator.

His new novel concerns an unnamed young man (‘I’m not going to tell you my name. If you want a name, use your own.’), recently graduated, who sees little point to his existence, or to that of anyone else in the world. He keeps to his room, requiring little. Then his screenwriter father, who has just produced another son with the young woman he left our hero’s mother for, gives him £1000, so that he ‘can have one last great adventure before real life begins.’ But, as you may have guessed, there’s nowhere this chap particularly wants to go. ‘What kind of sales pitch is that? I mean, real life, bonjour tristesse.’ As he tells us, ‘Every scheme collapsed under the weight of my lack of enthusiasm. Macchu Pichu, Goa, Bali, Kathmandu: how do you choose?’ His breakthrough comes with the realisation that he doesn’t have to have a destination, thus solving the problem of being responsible for any decision he might make. So he hitches a lift from a truck driver at a motorway service station, unable to hear when the driver tells him where he’s headed, because of the engine’s roar. ‘‘That’s fine,’ I say. ‘Drop me off there.’’

 

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This sets in train a series of adventures in an unspecified, totalitarian, Eastern European country, in a story that is in equal parts fast-paced thriller, madcap comedy, horror splatter gore fest, and dreamlike moral fable. There are some laugh out loud funny moments, like the discussion about the history of western philosophy with the aforementioned, autodidact truck driver. The tone is droll and deadpan, the prose as crisp and well-turned as one would expect from a writer who earns his living in movieland. The title of the book turns out to be also the title of a well-known book of wisdom, repressed in the police state the central character finds himself cut loose in, written by a near-mythical figure called Leon Vicino. In my opinion, it’s a distinct disadvantage that we never find out where we are, as the quasi-mystical atmosphere that takes over towards the end borders on mumbo-jumbo, as half-arsed mysticism so often does. We have travelled far, for an ending that would not be out of place in a self-help manual.

Still, there are enough laughs on the way to make one feel that one’s journey has not been entirely wasted.

First published in the Irish Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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