The Society of Others: A Novel

The Society of Others: A Novel

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by William Nicholson
     
 

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Cool, clear-eyed, and bluntly cynical, the young narrator of The Society of Others embarks on a journey without a destination. He hitchhikes through Europe only to find himself in a mystifying country where terrorists are inexplicably after him, and so is a sinister government. In a surreal landscape where people are shot to death without reason and social

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Overview

Cool, clear-eyed, and bluntly cynical, the young narrator of The Society of Others embarks on a journey without a destination. He hitchhikes through Europe only to find himself in a mystifying country where terrorists are inexplicably after him, and so is a sinister government. In a surreal landscape where people are shot to death without reason and social control runs deep, he must learn who to trust–and what to stand for. Fast paced and provocative, a gripping philosophical thriller, The Society of Others is an ingenious meditation on the nature of contemporary innocence and identity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Hovers between the wisecracking observational realism of Salinger and the parable dream space of Kafka. . . . A paean to humanism and perhaps faith.” –Salon

“One part spy novel, one part mystical fable. . . . Forges a provocative amalgam of the humane and the homicidal.” –San Diego Tribune

“Both a joy to read and intellectually challenging.” –The Baltimore Sun

“A smart, engrossing allegorical tale—a dystopic fable for the twenty-first century.” –Montreal Gazette

"This is a novel I would dearly love to have written yet one whose message is an antidote for envy. It is exciting, funny, wise, and beautifully written."
—Piers Paul Read, author of Alive

"This extraordinary book, a sort of wild combination of Kafka and The Catcher in the Rye, whirls with its catatonically dysfunctional hero into a maelstrom of violence and danger to learn from oppressed strangers what really matters in a human life, and to face the most terrifying of interrogators, the self. The reader will not escape unchanged."
—Jill Paton Walsh

"It’s a challenge as well as a pleasure, but The Society of Others is a novel that demands attention. William Nicholson is someone we are going to hear a good deal more about."
—Peter Stanford, author of Heaven: A Guide to the Undiscovered Country

"It is thrilling in every sense, but it is also hypnotic, fast-moving, and intellectually challenging, as it twists and turns, leaving you confused, uncertain, even uncomfortable, and yet utterly hooked. A philosophical master class, it is quite staggeringly good."
—Geoffrey Wansell, Daily Mail

Tobin Harshaw
Thus a young man finds that salvation comes from within. Although different people will read the end of his story in different ways, I prefer to think Nicholson's narrator succeeds in escaping from the prison of detachment. When all is said and done, he cares. It's another lesson that doesn't suffer from repetition.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Nicholson's screenplay for Gladiator featured some tight dialogue-also a component of the author's Tony-nominated The Retreat from Moscow on Broadway in 2003. After three YA novels, Nicholson's first-person debut novel for adults rewrites The Stranger for the war on terror era, with mixed results. A young, unnamed, nihilistic British protagonist hitches his way "deep into Europe," his destination determined by the first truck that stops for him. After the truck driver runs a checkpoint in an unnamed former eastern bloc country, the protagonist is abruptly deposited, thrown from the truck moments before it is captured and set ablaze by thugs. Its contraband: books by a politically minded philosopher . It becomes steadily harder to suspend disbelief as the protagonist, with innumerable wry asides, tries to negotiate with the members of a "movement" with whom he falls in, to cope with a murder he has unknowingly committed and to get back across the border. Movement characters like Petra, Egon and Eckhard are little more than props; the philosopher's wisdom, threaded in throughout, doesn't help. The moral of the story-you snots in the West don't know how good you have it-comes through so early that the protagonist's final transformation to good, loving citizen and son feels redundant. Agent, Clare Alexander, Gillon Aitken Assoc. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The alienated, misanthropic narrator of this fabulistic Bildungsroman leaves England one day and sets off without a destination in mind. He hitches a ride with a philosophical truck driver who is smuggling books into a nameless Eastern European dictatorship. When the driver is killed in an ambush by the secret police, the narrator is left to make his way alone, not knowing where he is or how to get home. He first falls in with a gang of violent revolutionaries, only to escape them and befriend a gentle schoolteacher who sees English poetry and the teachings of a native philosopher named Leon Vicino as a way of opposing the state. Then the narrator is captured and seemingly released by the secret police, after which he encounters a priest with a surprising secret. The novel's dreamlike atmosphere reflects the unnamed narrator's psychological state as he journeys from isolation and fashionable nihilism to an appreciation of the importance of human connection. Nicholson, who won an Oscar for his work on the screenplay for Gladiator, pulls off with aplomb what could have been a rather didactic exercise. Recommended for public libraries.-Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From the British playwright, screenwriter, and author of an award-winning children's trilogy: a first adult novel about a hitchhiker's nightmare journey into a police state. He lives with his family but stays in his room, eating alone. Our nameless narrator is a recent college graduate who would rather sponge off his father than job-hunt, his spiritual malaise caused by his parents' divorce. Then he decides to take a trip, no destination in mind. He gets a ride on a truck on a three-day run, speeding through the friendly Europe of euros and open borders to arrive at a grim, heavily guarded frontier. After a difficult crossing, he and the trucker encounter a roadblock manned by armed thugs, where the trucker is tortured and killed, though the hitchhiker jumps free. The thugs burn the books from the truck, but the hitchhiker salvages one (he also has a mysterious envelope given him by the trucker). He walks to the nearest town, where a beautiful young woman contacts him, and he falls asleep in her car. He wakes to find himself in a room with a dead man. Chief of security, says the woman, Petra, member of a revolutionary cell. Those books, written by a gentle humanist now in exile, were intended for readers listed in that mysterious envelope. The hitchhiker has no choice but to join the cell. After another roadblock and shootout, from which the revolutionaries emerge victorious, Petra tortures the lone survivor. That's too much for the hitchhiker, who races into the woods. All this is wonderful dark suspense, but how do you top it? Nicholson peaks too soon, before the halfway point, and the thrill is never quite recaptured in the second half, as the hitchhiker makes discoveries abouthimself, his profound love for his parents, and the importance of kindness to strangers. There'll be entertaining cat-and-mouse games with the secret police, leading to an extravagant Hitchcock-style climax, and a closing postmodernist twist provides an existential dimension. Highly promising, even if flawed. Agent: Clare Alexander/Gillon Aitken Associate

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400078219
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/03/2006
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
919,450
Product dimensions:
5.28(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

One

I'm writing this by the light of a new day, with a pen on paper, the old way. No seamless corrections possible here. I want to see my first thoughts, and the words I cross out, and the words I choose to replace them. First thoughts are usually lies. Vicino says, Write something about yourself, then write the opposite. Then open your mind to the possibility that the second statement is true.

I'm not a bad person. I'm a bad person.

I didn't mean to kill the man in the reading room. I did mean to kill the man in the reading room.

What happened afterwards wasn't my fault, don't blame me. It was my fault. Blame me.

So this is the story of how everything changed. I'm not going to tell you my name. If you want a name, use your own.

Begin with a day picked at random, recalled without hindsight. I must do my best to make you understand what I was, because only then will you understand what I have become. The operation has been a complete success, but, as they say, the patient died.

On this random day from all that time ago, longer ago than yesterday, I'm sitting alone in my room, the blind down over the window and the door locked. There's music playing to which I am not listening. The television is on, with no sound. I'm not watching. It's just there like the crack of light on the windowsill and the pressure in my bladder that tells me I need to piss. Maybe I'll go soon. I'm doing nothing in particular. I do nothing most days. You could say it's what I do, like it's my occupation. This is not a problem. I don't want anything. I have the animal needs like you do, to eat and excrete, to mate and to sleep, but as soon as the needs are met they go away, and everything's the way it was before. That stuff is necessary. We're not talking desire.

I don't even want money. What's the point? You see something you want to buy, you get excited about having it, you buy it, the excitement fades. Everything's the way it was before. I've seen through that game. They make you want things so they get your money. Then they take your money and then they've got it, and what do they do? They use it to buy things someone else has made them want. For a few moments they think they're happy, and then it all fades and everything's the way it was before. How stupid can you get? It's like fish. Fish swim about all day finding food to give them energy to swim about all day. It makes me laugh. These people who hurry about all day making money to sell each other things. Anyone with eyes to see could tell them their lives are meaningless and they aren't getting any happier.

My life is meaningless. I'm not getting any happier.

My late father says, "Your mother tells me you spend all day shut up in your room."

I say, "She does not lie."

He says, "There's a big wide world out there. You're not going anywhere so long as you stay shut up in your room."

I say, "There's nowhere to go."

He hates that. My negative attitude. I could tell him he's not going anywhere either. But why pop his balloon?

I like my room. I said before I don't want anything, but this isn't entirely true. I want my own room. I don't much care what's in it so long as it has a door I can shut and lock so people don't come asking me to do things. I expect maybe I'll spend the rest of my life in my room, and at the end I'll just die here and no one will find me and that's just fine with me.

This big wide world: first of all, it's not so big and wide. Really the world is only as big as your experience of it, which is not big at all. And what sort of world is it? I would characterise it as remote, uninterested, unpredictable, dangerous, and unjust. When I was small I thought the world was like my parents, only bigger. I thought it watched me and clapped when I danced. This is not so. The world is not watching and will never clap. My father doesn't get this, he's still dancing. It makes me quite sad to see him.

Cat says my world view lacks depth and is merely bitterness. I dispute this. I feel no bitterness. I see things as they are. Nature is selfish. All creatures kill to survive. Love is a mechanism to propagate the species. Beauty is a trick that fades. Friendship is an arrangement for mutual advantage. Goodness is not rewarded, and evil is not punished. Religion is superstition. Death is annihilation. And as for God, if he exists at all he stopped caring for humankind centuries ago. Wouldn't you?

So why leave my room?

My education, such as it was, has ended. I have graduated. I'm supposed to be excited about his. My late father has put aside some money for me, quite a lot, a thousand pounds, so that I can have one last great adventure before real life begins. What kind of sales pitch is that? I mean, real life, bonjour tristesse. Appreciate the gesture, but truthfully there's nowhere I want to go and nothing I want to do.

For as long as I can remember I've been at some kind of school. I don't believe I learned anything at all. It was like half-listening to the safety announcement, the kind they give you on planes before take-off. The voice says this is really important, and to please listen carefully, but you still don't listen because it's not going to happen, and if it does you're dead anyway. However I admit now when I look back that the class system gave life a shape. One year followed the next, and without any decisions having to be made on my part I moved up from one class to the next, as if I was climbing a giant staircase. Now here I am at the top, and before me lies what is laughingly called the real world.

I am in the process of not applying for jobs. I'm thinking of becoming a journalist, or possibly a film director. It's hard to decide. Journalists meet a lot of interesting people and get to travel and do their work in short bursts, which means they don't get bored. Film directors spend years on one project and have a seriously bad time if it fails but they get to meet attractive young women and eat location catering. So it's hard to decide.

I'm joking of course. I have a not impressive degree from a not famous college in a not useful subject which I have already entirely forgotten.

"There are any number of jobs out there you could do," says my father, looking at me with faux-sprightly eyes. Despite or perhaps because of the fact that he left us, he knows it's vital that he does nothing to undermine my self-confidence. If you believe in yourself you can do anything. That's what my father believes. It's the post-Christian faith that has replaced faith in the resurrection. Now each of us is supplied with our own personal resurrection. We get to pump ourselves up out of the tomb.

I don't disagree with this. I just ask: why bother?

Anyway my father points out to me all the great opportunities there are out there for me, but neglects to name them. I fill in the gaps. I could join a corporation and sell things I don't want to have myself to people who don't need them. I could be a teacher and tell things I don't want to know to people who don't want to hear. I could be a soldier and kill people. That would be alright if it weren't dangerous.

My friend Mac is going to be an aid worker in Nepal. This is hilarious because all the aid they need in Nepal is getting out from under all the people like Mac who've gone there to find meaning in their lives. They've sucked all the available meaning up and now there's none left for the Nepalese, who have nothing to do except carry explorers' bags up mountains and sell them drugs. Mac says he doesn't care, at least he'll see the mountains. I tell him the thing about a mountain is when you're on it you don't see it. You need to be far away to see a mountain. Like at home, looking at a postcard. Mac says you stand on one mountain and look at the next mountain. I say, Then what? Mac says, You're a real wanker, you know that? Yes, Mac, I'm a real wanker. The genuine article. A simple pleasure that does no harm to man or beast. Be grateful.

So here I am in the process of not applying for jobs because the only jobs that would take me are the jobs I do not wish to take. It's exactly like sex. The women you really want are the ones who don't really want you. This is not a coincidence. Things that are out of reach are desirable precisely because there's no chance you'll get what you want. Getting what you want is to be avoided at all costs. Ask for the moon.

You may be wondering how I propose to live, given that I have no means of earning my living. I propose to be a parasite. To be precise, I propose to live in symbiotic parasitism. My host and provider is of course my father. My father makes a lot of money, he can afford it. I'm not expensive to run. And if you're thinking, Why should he keep you? I reply, Because he asked.

Think about it. I wouldn't be at this party if he and my mother hadn't invited me. Between them they hauled me off some cloud where I was peacefully bothering nobody, and fixed me up with a helpless needy baby body, and made me dependent on them. They never said, Here's the deal, we look after you till you're not cute any more, then you're on your own. If they had I would have said thanks but no thanks. I'll stay incorporeal on my cloud. It was all their idea. So now they've got me.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't about what happened between the two of them. That's their business. My mother's totally cool about it apart from calling my father "the late" which is relatively modest in the retaliation stakes. You won't hear me sadding on about broken homes either because absolutely nothing is broken and everyone's good friends with everyone and my mother and Gemma are like sisters, particularly now that Gemma is pregnant, though with a considerable age gap. So I come from an expanded home. I like Gemma too, despite not knowing what relation she is to me, maybe step-partner? Also I admit it kind of throws me that she's so attractive, especially when I catch myself looking longer than is strictly polite at her mouth.

My father of course is guilty which is not my problem, and if it makes him more inclined to go on supporting me, why should I complain? It's not such a bad deal for him. A small financial outlay buys him the comforting sense that he's doing his duty. So don't give me a hard time about not getting a job.

This morning, on the day before it begins, I have a premonition. This is not as significant as it sounds. I'm always having premonitions. Like when I see a nice-looking girl coming up an escalator towards me, say, I'll have this premonition that she'll smile at me and I'll get off at the bottom and go up her side and she'll be waiting. Or I get a message to ring home and I have this premonition that a jumbo jet has crashed on our house and all my family are dead and I'm alone in the world and a homeless wanderer. None of these things ever happen but the premonition happens, so maybe the wonders and disasters are still to come, stacked up somewhere in my future. Maybe some time soon they'll all happen at once, in a sequence of rapid-fire explosions like a firework.

This particular premonition is that someone is calling me. I listen, and hear nothing. So then it seems to me not that someone is calling me, but that someone is wanting me. I think about it some more, and realise there isn't a someone, only the wanting. So this is my premonition: I am wanted. This is a new one on me. There's nothing to get excited about in it, so I forget about it. But it doesn't forget about me. It comes back, from time to time, like something I'm supposed to do but have forgotten. It annoys me.

My mother's upset because I don't come down for meals any more. It's not the food I mind, it's her face watching me as if it hurts her just to see me eat. Or not eat. I'm not much of an eater. I prefer to sort it out for myself, without all the fuss and conversation. So long as there's bread and cheese or a bowl of cereal I'm okay. It turns out to be easier to eat at night, when they're all asleep. I don't even switch on the kitchen lights. I just leave the fridge door open and eat by the light that comes out from behind the eggs.

Cat found me eating like this the other night. She was out late with her boyfriend doing I hate to think what and she came creeping in and saw me and said, "You are so sad." I just looked at her and went on eating. I could have said, Oh yes, and you're having such a great life? I know that so-called boyfriend of hers. He's famous for going out with plain girls because they fuck on the first date. He's an animal. Cat says she doesn't care and anyway all men are the same including me. This is true. I have a so-called girlfriend who I only want to see for sex, though I go along with the rest of it for the sake of appearances. She doesn't know this. That is, she knows it very well, but I never say it and she never asks and I suppose she must be getting something out of it or she wouldn't go on seeing me. Her name is Am. I think she's disappointed in me.

Actually I'm a disappointment to everyone who cares about me. Both my parents are disappointed in me. My grandfather is disappointed in me. My godmother Sheila who never forgets my birthday and keeps photographs of me as a baby is disappointed in me. They used to want me to have hobbies and ambitions and a great object in life. Now they just want me to get a job. What can I say? It hasn't happened. I quite liked films for a while, and they all thought this would give me a direction in life. But my interest waned.

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