You Were Never Really Here

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You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames)

Yesterday, while N. and his brother played vintage games (such as Street Gangs, and one that involved a knight wandering around a castle, killing bats and snakes), I bought a book on the kindle app on my phone and read it. We’d gone out the night before for N’s birthday, during which I had a very long and interesting conversation with someone about an Indonesian Christian who praised the coming of colonialism (I know…). So the next day I wanted something easy to read, relaxing, perfect for a Sunday afternoon of lounging about, like ya do. So what better choice than a novella filled with VIOLENCE, GRIMNESS, and THE TRAUMA OF AN ABUSIVE CHILDHOOD?

I wanted to read this book because I loved the film (one of the best I’ve seen this year, along with First Reformed and Netflix’s I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore). The film genre of “Joaquin Phoenix plays a lunatic” is one that I decidedly enjoy, and I also loved how it reminded me of Taxi Driver. The book definitely did not disappoint, though (SPOILER WARNING): the book is decidedly different from the film – most specifically, the book ends MUCH earlier than the film does. The film also gives more dialogue and presence to the kidnapped girl, which is good. I did read an interview with the author somewhere (who incidentally used to date Fiona Apple, and had a song written about him) that he’s writing a sequel – I wonder how similar the sequel will be to the film, or not… if it’s a George RR Martin kind of situation…

I was surprised by how much this book reminded of The Remains of the Day – not only in the sense that Joe, the main character, is somewhat of an robot, but in the sense that (like Stephens the butler) he was deliberately CONDITIONED to be that way (in Joe’s case, by the Marines and FBI). This… is something that fascinates me about masculinity, about young men who are purposefully PROGRAMMED to be mindless killing machines. Or unknowingly allow themselves to be. As Homo Deus would put it, putting the lizard brain over consciousness.

Overall, You were Never Really Here would be perfect to teach in a novel writing or crime course (and indeed, I might very well use it this academic year): it’s very short, very well-written, and very readable. What I found particularly interesting about the book, in contrast to the film, was how much we were able to go inside Joe’s head – whereas in the film, you’re just “watching” him (or seeing his flashbacks). OK, this is a very Basic Creative Writing 101 observation, but it’s true. Joe’s interiority is presented in a very matter of fact, almost deadened way that I often found very funny (because I’m a dark, sick person):

“Joe lay in bed in his mother’s house. He thought about committing suicide. Such thinking was like a metronome for him. Always present, always ticking. All day long, every few minutes, he’d think, I have to kill myself.”

“He was aware that he was not completely sane, so he kept himself in rigid check, playing both jailer and prisoner.”

“Joe tortured himself, imagining what McCleary’s toes must look like. He thought of putting them in his mouth. Joe hated his own mind. He wished he could be put down like a dog.”

Yeah. So clearly, self-hatred and trauma are a big element of this character. There’s something brutally comical about how he approaches every situation so logically, so coldly: “He thought of burning the house down, but he didn’t want to risk killing any neighbours. The house would have to be left intact.” He’s even explicitly compared to a weapon at one point. Is this… the future of humanity? In terms of automation?

Another impressive achievement of this book was its handling of action scenes, or “choreography,” as my students like to call it. Not that I’ve ever tried writing a complicated action scene, but what made the ones in “You Were Never Really Here” compelling (and there are indeed quite a few setpieces) wasn’t just the force of the violence, but these beautiful, unexpected observations, like this one.

You break your adversary’s fingers, you have an immediate advantage. It frightened even the hardest men to have their fingers snapped, and in a fight, like a dance, you often held hands.”

Comparing a fight to a dance – wow! Never thought of it that way before. Playful and memorable.

What was also very interesting to me were the parts where the narrator is just so DIRECT with the reader about Joe. In the sense that it’s the narrator who’s giving us information, as opposed to Joe himself:

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started.”

At his core, Joe was a very angry boy who had never gotten proper vengeance on his father, which is what a boy like Joe needed. Though it’s not always vengeance; sometimes it’s justice.”

So explicit! Some of my students would definitely be like… YO, this is TELLING, not SHOWING. But I think it creates a lot of pathos for Joe. SEE… WRITING HAS NO RULES… U CAN DO ANYTHING…

The last thing I want to say about this book is that there are two VERY interesting moments in which we leave Joe’s head and enter the consciousness of two other characters – this is something we definitely don’t (and indeed cannot) see in the film. I won’t spoil it, but both moments tie in very beautifully with this passage (I know I’m sharing a lot of excerpts here, but I can’t help it):

Joe knew that all human beings are the star of their own very important film, a film in which they are both camera and actor; a film in which they are always playing the fearful and lonely hero who gets up each day hoping to finally strike upon the life they are meant to lead, though they never do.”

These brief forays into the other two non-Joe characters are like sneaky glimpses into these other films – and the idea that everyone thinks they’re the star of their own story, when they’re really just… cannon fodder. It reminds me how I used to feel curious as a teen about the nameless and faceless henchmen who get massacred in films, like those poor dudes getting killed by raptors in the long grass, in that one The Lost World scene.

Overall, this was exactly what I want out of fiction: down, dirty, and readable.

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Filed under contemporary, fiction, review, violence

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