Tuesday, September 30, 2008

SENSELESS by Stona Fitch

Two Ravens Press, £8.99, ISBN 978-1906120313

There is a theory that the best of novels engage in an ongoing dialogue with their readers. Not something one would immediately assume to equate with any kind of genre fiction, but time and again I have defended the genre by saying that – at its very best – crime and thriller fiction can engage with the world in ways that other forms can never hope to do.

And books like Senseless – described on the author’s website as a literary thriller – only prove the point.

Elliot Gast is an economost. Just one of many professionals who help keep the world of commerce running. He is nobody important. And yet one day he becomes the focus of the world when he is kidnapped off the streets in Belgium by an extremist group. The group hold Gast in captivity. The captivity itself is nothing on the surface. He is fed, watered and made comfortable.

And then they start to deprive him of his senses.

One by one.

It’s a compelling and chilling premise, one which instantly grabs the reader. Of course for many the premise poses the question of how are his senses removed? And it’s a question with a chilling answer. But not simply in the visceral matter of the torture. Senseless also engages and challenges the reader with a second twist: the entire captivity is broadcast live on the internet.

As Gast is tortured – for crimes he cannot account for – people all over the world are watching the feed as the extremists – can we call them terrorists given their reluctance to spell out their grievances? – proceed to mutilate and deprive their victim. He is encouraged to play along, to give the audience their scream.

And slowly, we realise, that the audience is not simply the faceless millions on the fictional internet described in Stona’s book… but ourselves. In one particular passage, Gast talks of seeing a news report in a bar about two men who survive a gruesome accident. While he momentarily feels empathy, he then goes about his life as though nothing had happened. During his incarceration, he realises what a monster this made him. As we, the readers, realise that after reading of Gast’s tortures, we too will return to our lives. After all he has lost, we have lost nothing.

Except maybe some part of our soul.

The book, however, refuses to act as pure condemnation. Fitch is a more subtle writer than that. Any discomfort we feel is brought on purely by realisation of our own complicity; he does not explicitly scold the audience.

And are we to truly believe that the author wrote the novel before the reality TV boom? While in the early 2000’s there were reality shows, they were yet to reach the dizzying heights they have now. And somehow, this makes Senseless even more unsettling and plausible than it may have seemed during its initial release days after the events of 9/11.

Shades of grey play throughout the narrative. There is uncertainty and fuzziness in certain motivations. The “terrorists” who take Gast of the streets remain shrouded in mystery. We do not know for certain what they want. Their goals are unclear even if their methods are frighteningly obvious. Are they delighting in terror for terror’s sake? Are they making some political statement that hovers tantalisingly close to our – and Gast’s – realisation?

Senseless is a disturbing and disturbed book on many levels. Its deceptively simple surface narrative touches on deeper and more complex themes, allowing it to be read on many levels. The very ambiguity of motivation and psychology leaves you searching the narrative for clues as to some reason why, engaging with the text on a level most thrillers seem to forget. This is one hell of a novel; smart, dark and unnerving.

And for the more viscerally oriented among you; you’ll never look at a cheese grater in the same way again.

Russel McLean for CrimeSceneScotland, 30/09/08