Not an enjoyable novel, perhaps, but a thought-provoking one. Sontag is known for her criticism and philosophy, and it would probably be fair to say that she has a certain cult appeal among adolescent literature students that’s based more on a love of precocious grey-bestreaked intellectuals with exciting love lives as it is an interest in her actual criticism. I guess that probably includes me. Until picking this up in a charity shop over New Year I didn’t even realise she had written novels, and the idea of something as potentially pulpy as a thriller (as this edition was classifying itself) was pretty intriguing. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t your average high-octane Michael Crichton.
Dalton ‘Diddy’ Harron is your average 33-year-old American bachelor, with a reasonably good job promoting microscopes, an apartment in the city, and an innocuous charm that means he gets on with everybody without really knowing anybody. Or, in Sontag’s words, ‘Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Hardly the same. Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives.’ For he is also barely recovered from a deep depression culminating in a suicide attempt. Taking the train to New York for work, he strikes up a flirtation with a blind girl in his carriage, and while they are stopped in a tunnel, he goes out to investigate and kills a railway worker. These two bizarre events become the points around which Diddy’s world rotates, as he tries to unpick why he killed the railway worker, whether he will fall under suspicion, and whether it even happened – Hester, being blind, can neither confirm nor assuage his fears. The writing is, as has often been described in reviews, very Kafka-esque – Diddy veers between perplexity at his own actions and paranoia at being discovered. Similarly, the difference between dream and reality becomes increasingly blurred as he shuts himself and Hester into a suffocating apartment in which vision becomes increasingly unreliable and is certainly no guarantee of truth.
I’m in two minds about this novel. It’s a thriller without any real thrills. The murder occurs relatively early on, and we’re not so much worried about whether Diddy should have done it, or whether he gets caught, as what the point is supposed to be. That seems to me to be the driving force behind the novel – what are we getting at? The ‘visual’ imagery – Diddy’s job working with microscopes, Hester’s blindness, the constant juxtaposition of vision and insight – sometimes seems to be heavy-handed but does feed into this constant question. It is more a rumination on philosophical issues, conveyed through a novel, and I think approached from that attitude, it’s much more successful than if you try to approach it as an entertaining or diverting read. As a narrative, it becomes rather tedious, but Sontag has loftier ambitions. However, it does mean that it’s quite hard to argue with more frustrated reviews like this one on Goodreads, or this from a contemporary New York Times reviewer, who complains that the novel ‘skips, shuffles and snoozes’ over philosophical notions of reality and perception. The revelation at the end isn’t much of a surprise, and if I’m being honest, was something of a relief.