I’m always wary of criticizing a guy whose resume on imdb.com 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.