:: Article

The Overhearing

By Anna Aslanyan.

Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist, CB editions, 2014

“All over North America, the trains sound an added sixth in its first inversion when they blow their horns. It’s an E chord, so that would be G sharp, B, C sharp and E, in that order.” This is from one of many monologues, ranging from one sentence to a page and a half, arranged by Will Eaves into a beautifully complex choral work. The Absent Therapist is a slim book with no single plot, yet the author’s decision to call it a novel seems justified: these confluent streams of consciousness amount to a narrative in prose where every comma is vital for the flow to run as it does. The fluidity with which these miniatures merge puts you in mind of Eaves’ poetry, present in his other novels too, but never in such a distilled form.

I’d venture to say that the book reads exactly as Eaves intended it to read because he is sure it does, just as he is sure he can use the trains as a tuning fork. His ability to put the right words in the right order is not so much to do with experience – one of the novel’s narrators confesses: “Other people’s stories make more sense to me than my own” — as with perfect pitch. For things to get into focus, the author has to rely on someone else, someone close to him: “I see them because he saw them first. Writing is an extension of that.” Another possibility is to rely on the passage of time, when your own story becomes distant enough to be writable: “We might as well be writing about a different person, and in fact we are.”

Although The Absent Therapist differs radically from Eaves’ earlier, traditionally structured novels, there are some familiar motifs to it. A scene where a teenager is cornered by a gang whose leader’s “tie was worn fat and short so that it looked like a big cock” is reminiscent of The Oversight, as are birds in a South London garden. When someone’s stories are compared to “bronze miniatures: small sketches of domestic living and discontent pressed into some harder surface”, you are reminded of This Is Paradise. The thespian line — “we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are earning a fortune” – is a flashback to Nothing to Be Afraid Of. Irony has always been one of Eaves’ trademarks, and this book is no exception: “Neal and Ursula are both epidemiologists, which makes it sound like one of them caught it off the other, but they only work three days a week each, and that rather brings them down to earth in my eyes.” And when it’s time for a deeper theme to emerge, it’s quietly mixed into mundane observations, like this one, referring to the renovated King’s Cross station: “The departures are done by the lady reading the timetable with a gun to her head. She’s real, I’ve met her. I know she sounds synthesised, but she’s not.”

While Eaves’ first three novels are centred around London and the West Country, this book is more diverse. Moving from the “Wardour and Soho Academy of English” to a swimming pool in Australia, from a rare book shop in Lewes to a gold-poor brook in Emory City, the narratives follow a trajectory that may at first glance look arbitrary, but has in fact been carefully planned. The voices you hear give the impression of having been selected with some degree of randomness — “a story worth telling”, the author says, can be found where you least expect it — but their arrangement is precise down to the last dropped aitch. There are a plumber and a prince, teachers and hustlers, angry young men and batty old women. The subjects are just as varied and include computers, learning disabilities and “the point of boxer shorts”.

Computers, “too connective [and] tyrannically social”, keep cropping up in the novel as one of its themes related to emotions: real, fake, artificial and inborn. There are subtle points on the human condition and the way it is perceived. The narrators don’t pretend to have more emotional baggage than the man in the street, and the author, serving as their amanuensis, doesn’t pretend to know it all either. His recipe for understanding people is: “If you want to know what someone’s like, don’t, do not ask. Leave them be.” This is your only chance to see and hear — overhear, if you are lucky — for yourself.

One of my favourite sentences in The Absent Therapist is this single-line poem: “Where do you get your tired ears from?” It invokes a host of images, from an old man with overgrown ears to a dog cocking its ear at every rustle. It also reminds me of one of the characters in The Oversight, a choral master who has a “fine inner ear” and a peculiar taste in art, judging by a breathtaking installation in his basement. The title of Eaves’ first book refers, among other things, to the protagonist’s ability to see in the dark. The therapist of this novel’s title is an ideal listener, someone whose ears, tired though they may look, are capable of hearing things.

Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 21st, 2014.