Top positive review
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A pleasing mixed bag
on 16 May 2005
Sometimes you don't choose books, they choose you. So it was with this, a thought-provoking novel that I had never read a review of, never seen, never knew about and whose author was unknown to me. I was browsing a local bookstore, found it staring up at me, read the blurb on the back about a young man (I am one), on a journey through Europe (which I am considering), who finds himself in a Kafkaesque nightmare (I hope I don't!) and rethinks his life (would be nice). So I bought it, and I honestly can hand-on-heart tell you that it has made me completely reassess my relationships with pretty much everybody I know. My family all of a sudden look a great deal better than they did 2 days ago - it sounds callous, but my love and respect for them has grown. I read this book in two sittings, the only reason it took that long was I had to go away and think about some of the story before being prepared to continue.
As a story, Society of Others starts out in a rather plodding way. The first chapter or two there are undertones of that "I want to win a Booker"-style: young man, disenfranchished with life, dislikes his family, life has no direction, etc. I thought I could smell the rest of the story from there. I think at this point I only put the effort in continuing because I related to the character. I underestimated Nicholson as a writer, that isn't where this book heads.
The story isn't like that at at all. It's insane. It's beautiful. It makes no sense, and yet that's the point. In the early chapters there were the subtle undertones of an influence from Banks' 'The Wasp Factory' which were all another red herring (or were they?). It all starts to get uneven, unsettling, unsure... I think that's the point.
The influences here are wide and varied. The narration is often rich, sometimes not particularly well paced, but all rather hypnotic and surreal in its own way - not maddeningly so, but there. The story takes us through a journey that makes no sense yet in the same way, is the only journey that could be taken for this young man.
If this all sounds rather philosophical, rather airy, then yes, that's the point. If you're the sort of person who liked Zen/Motorcycle Maintenance, liked Sophie's World, likes to think, likes to explore your own mind and those of others, this is an enjoyable book. At times it feels like it's trying to be a Clancy or something like Ipcress File, other times it feels like Vonnegut has been at the typewriter and is trying to squeeze some Bokonism in there and other times still it's just a story about a guy who is really, really lost.
And therein lies the clincher - this is all about being lost. It's all about sacrifice and not always the sacrifices you make for others, but those made for you.
I'm going to be reading a lot more Nicholson from now on. I originally considered giving this book 4 stars because the pace shifts and some parts are just wholly unbelievable, and I'm not sure they weren't meant to be. It's hard sometimes to suspend disbelief and there are weak spots here. Whilst the writing sometimes felt patchy to me, on the whole, the overall effect that I walk away with is pretty brilliant. When a novel makes you think a little more about others in the World around you and less about yourself, well, how can you not give it 5 stars?