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A Lonely Man

By Louis Rogers.

Chris Power, A Lonely Man (Faber, 2021)

It starts in a real bookshop at a reading by a fictional author. Robert Prowe is at Saint George’s English bookshop in Kollwitzkiez, Berlin, for the launch of a novel by someone called Sam Dallow. It’s there that he meets another man, Patrick Unsworth, as they both reach for the same book — Antwerp by the real writer Roberto Bolaño. In a different novel these interacting real and fictional parts might come as a matter of course, but from the beginning of Chris Power’s A Lonely Man they are charged.

A Lonely Man is Power’s first novel, following his 2018 story collection Mothers. Its protagonist, Robert, has also written a short story collection; in the style of Bolaño, Power seems to give Mothers — or at least one story from it — to his character. As A Lonely Man opens, Robert is looking for inspiration for the novel he’s been commissioned to write. He finds it when he meets Patrick at the bookshop. Patrick, also English, is drunk and heckles the reader. Later Robert encounters him spread across the pavement after a bar fight. They exchange numbers and when they end up meeting for a drink, Patrick explains that he’s a ghostwriter, until recently employed to write the memoirs of an exiled Russian oligarch. His lucrative situation was brought to an end when the oligarch was found hanging from a tree — an apparent suicide. Now Patrick has fled to Berlin, convinced he’s being pursued by whoever was actually responsible for the man’s death. Robert is sceptical, but he’s found the idea he was looking for.

Robert’s method as a writer is briskly established: he takes stories people tell him and turns them into fiction. This may not be so unusual, but Robert is strikingly unapologetic about it. We learn that this practice has tended to irk and sometimes appall people, and that Robert is entirely unrepentant: “When you tell someone a story, you give it to them”. Robert summarily resolves to use Patrick’s story for his novel. And he doesn’t just need the kernel of the story to inspire his own: he continues to pump Patrick for the entire, blow-by-blow account. What is at first a hard-bitten, wryly disillusioned picture of the process of writing fiction becomes something more surreal, even verging on satire. Robert’s total reliance on Patrick stretches credulity, but instead of sending it up, Power coolly recounts what starts to seem like the remorseless laziness of Robert’s craft. Robert isn’t superstitious: he depends on Patrick in a purely instrumental sense, gripped by obsession only in terms of direct gains.

Robert has moved from London to Berlin with his Swedish wife, Karijn, both having quit jobs in advertising to live cheap and bohemian lives on the continent. They have two young girls. Robert, the lone man in the family, is liable to be tetchy with them all for getting in the way of his writing, a notion he acknowledges is unfair. Karijn is dismayed at Robert’s plan to mislead Patrick when he first, innocuously, mentions it. But like a disgruntled child, Robert scowls away her inconvenient disuasions and carries on, telling neither Patrick nor Karijn what he’s up to. Along with the possibility that Patrick isn’t so deluded about his pursuers, it’s these secrets that propel the plot.

The book is soon alternating between Robert’s life — taking his kids to kindergarten, trying to write in cafés, visiting his family’s summer house in Sweden to sort out a broken boiler — and Patrick’s account of being drawn into the circle of the oligarch Sergei Vanyashin. Patrick tells his story to Robert in meetings at bars and cafés. In each of these episodes, Patrick’s speech is overtaken by sections of third person narrative, which turn out, loosely, to be the novel Robert is writing. This much is indicated by Robert’s reflections on them, admitting to inventing certain parts or pondering whether some line or conceit works. But the characterisation of these Russian sections as Robert’s is discreet to the point of equivocal: no obvious markers start or end them; Robert’s illustrative reflections are intermittent, and they are written in the same unadorned third person as the rest of the novel. While they are distinguished by a fictive pall — the characters and events are boilerplate stuff, Vanyashin, his heavies, and his younger mistress all verging on cartoonish — they are free from the knowing, explicit gestures that often signal fiction-within-fiction.

One way of experiencing all this could be disappointment: the book is patchy and the patches fail to completely cohere. But I found that faint incoherence compelling. At one point, Robert returns to London for the wake of a friend, also dead by suicide. Entering the funeral home, he is confused by the sight of a second, identical lobby, “as if he were looking into a mirror from which his reflection was impossibly absent.” He identifies the difference with “momentary relief”: a dustsheet and workmen who are renovating this second room. Power keeps us guessing at the relationship between the rooms of his novel and denies us the relief of orientation.

Something about this elusiveness echoes the loneliness — and specifically male loneliness — that, per its title, runs throughout the novel. Robert is outwardly sociable but profoundly solitary. His relationships are stifled. While he and Karijn have an active social life, share domestic chores, and communicate in warm, grating wisecracks, Robert keeps things from her. These secrets are unsettling not so much for being secrets as for the undeveloped way they exist alongside the supposed intimacy: there seems neither dissonance nor habit about them. Robert’s mode of operation is an unostentatious self-isolation, and most of the other men in the novel — including Patrick, Vanyashin, and Liam, the friend whose wake Robert attends, seem to share a version of it. The novel concludes with Robert resolving to contain and obscure all that has happened, an act of swallowing that brings out all the occlusion and self-insulation that has preceded it. The memory of a three-day bender with Liam is characterised by visible camaraderie and a paucity of connection. And with Patrick he shares the hollowest of friendships, which at no point feels less genuinely communicative than when Robert (coercively) exhorts Patrick not to bottle things up and “talk about what’s going on”. By the end of the novel we are encouraged to wonder if they ever really knew each other at all.

Metafiction, with its Russian doll structure, lends itself to depicting solitude. It can be a way of redoubling a character’s interiority: Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, for example, elegantly alternates between the life of its protagonist and the novel he is writing, the overlaps and discrepancies seeming to speak for his subconscious. Meanwhile, Ben Lerner’s 10:04 becomes the novel its protagonist is struggling to write, a trick that A Lonely Man seems to be limbering up for, but from which it finally drifts away. Both Zambra and Lerner write in the first person, using it to bring us inside their character’s solitude: Zambra’s voice has the unhurried frankness of a diary, while Lerner’s is a claustrophobic interior monologue. Other lonely male novels have, conversely, used the first person to generate a solitude from which the reader is exterior and which can be looked in on. Teju Cole’s Open City and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day are both told in exquisitely poised voices between whose cracks we come to glimpse self-deceit.

Power, unusually for his subject, uses a third person. Conventionally his style of narrator — attached to a particular character, with insights into only their thoughts — is called a ‘close’ third. But we are never quite sure of how close Power’s third person is. It does immerse us in Robert’s world, taking for granted his particular cosmopolitan milieu, in which languages overlap, friends and second homes are spread across Europe, and disturbing infringements come from beggars and refugees. But we are not quite in his head. Our insight on the emotional or reflective goings-on of Robert’s mind are limited. We receive reports of abrupt visitations of intense feeling — “He suddenly felt extraordinarily happy”, “The sunset was devastating” — but are unsure if the bluntness is Robert’s stylisation, even his indulgence, or a reliable judgement from an elucidating narrator. When Robert kisses and propositions another guest at the wake, then literally runs from the encounter, his feelings are barely registered beyond the immediately physical. Is this flattening of feeling Robert’s, or a decision by our ghostly, hard-to-place narrator?

This uncertain proximity is familiar from Power’s excellent Mothers, in which extreme moments and decisions in characters’ lives are narrated with a reticence that cumulatively produces a powerful atmosphere of searching doubt. That reticence lends itself well to the already curtailed and suggestive form of the short story. Over the course of a novel, it’s intense and sometimes baffling. I enjoyed it, but I’m not certain it worked. A Lonely Man is finally solitary in the way of its male characters: apparently open and expressive but in fact spiky, suspicious, and self-involved. Did I ever really know it at all?

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Louis Rogers is a London-based writer.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 7th, 2021.