The Society of Others by William Nicholson

Matt Weir

The novel unintentionally answers one of modern literature's most puzzling questions: What if the characters in Generation X actually had to do something?"

The Society of Others

Publisher: Doubleday
Length: 240
Price: $23.95
Author: William Nicholson
US publication date: 2005-01

I'm always wary of criticizing a guy whose resume on is longer than any book review I write. William Nicholson wrote the screenplays for both the Oscar-slaying Gladiator and Nell starring Jodie Foster. He's written the Tony Award-nominated play The Retreat From Moscow and also the best-selling children's trilogy The Wind on Fire. Why not an adult novel?

The Society of Others is that first novel, a topical thriller/philosophical coming-of-age adventure. The unnamed narrator, a twentysomething non-participant male, cannot connect with his contemporary England surroundings. He protests by hitchhiking across the continent without a planned destination. He ends up in an anonymous country controlled by a police state and full of terrorists and scared civilians. There he murders, gets involved in three separate movements and tries to stay alive. In short, The Society of Others unintentionally answers one of modern literature's most puzzling questions: What if the characters in Generation X actually had to do something?

We've been inundated with various types of slacker anti-heroes since Douglas Coupland's infamous novel hit in 1991. Of course, modern American literature could afford such musings in the 90s. What was there to do besides reflect on the angst of comfort and material success?

But 9/11 and its aftermath changed that outlook completely. We live in a time -- with war and terror and struggle and fear -- where something actually needs to be done. Four years ago Nicholson's main character would've stayed right home in England and never moved. Now he's itchy, packing up his bags and making a run. College-aged America seems to feel the same way he does; they're full of '90s angst, but deep in the back of their minds they know they will have to confront '00s problems.

The unnamed narrator begins his story with amusingly self-assured whinings worthy of Coupland: "When I was small I thought the world was like my parents, only bigger. I thought it watched me and clapped when I danced. This is not so. The world is not watching and will never clap." It sets the tone of the book right away; we know this character and we expect him to loaf around his whole life, wryly commenting on his divorced parents and waxing philosophical on the pigeons outside his window (note: he does both of these things fairly quickly in the novel).

But when he makes his move to the unknown and the action starts, it is gripping. The semi-truck-through-the-road-block is worthy of Gladiator, and the 'talk show or coercion?' interrogation sequence leaves a truly ridiculous image in the reader's mind.

And that's the inherent strength and weakness of The Society of Others. With its pacing and interesting visual ideas, it echoes Nicholson's screenwriting strength. Nicholson excels at crafting suspenseful situations and dichotomies, but when push comes to shove, the action falls flat on his sometimes clunky and light prose. In one of my favorite Should Be A Movie moments, police state goons chase the main character through the poorer section of the large city's poorer district. To evade the "two men in dark glasses," the main character ditches his noticeable clothes and becomes part of a totally ridiculous bar brawl. It's fun and quick and good. But the character's rationale for these actions comes out muddled and confusing, and the reader is left with a good segment of an action movie that doesn't fit into the novel too well.

And when this Generation X reject starts fighting and making real-world decisions that impact lives, he starts to appreciate life and living. But the narrative voice seems completely different than the boy on page 4.

We should all talk more. Television isn't talk, nor is the internet, nor, contrary to appearance, is the phone. What Eckhard and Ilona and her family and friends are doing round me is conversation. Conversation uses words, voice tones, faces, smiles, silences, hand gestures, leg movements, comings and goings, all the knit and tangle of humanity. Why don't we value conversation anymore? Why do we go chasing after louder sounds, brighter colours, hotter liquor, higher highs? Why do we behave as though talking with friends is for the old, the poor, the sad? This is one of the very few roads out of the land-locked country of vanity.

Most of these observations come out of his reading a fictional philosophy book called The Society of Others over which the government kills a truck driver in the beginning of the novel. The gist of The Society of Others within The Society of Others (bear with me here, please) is that life is best lived when you're hard at work and living simple. So there is an explanation for these sudden sentimental thoughts and feelings, but the transformation feels forced and incomplete. It's true the protagonist goes through some pretty heavy situations here, but the totally un-ironic, unguarded and laughably clichés-stitched-on-pillows phrases and ideas he tosses around seem way too cheesy for the character. Plus, he keep vacillating between "love me" and "I hate you" mindsets whenever it seems to suit the situation.

It's for these reasons the main character once again seems more suited for a movie than a novel. These words need interpretation, someone to connect Nicholson's dots. And with all these slacker-actors making action movies now (Owen Wilson, anyone?), maybe it's a good time to see The Society of Others, a well-intentioned novel with some good ideas and brilliant moments, on the big screen. Then maybe Nicholson will have another trophy for his mantle.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.