Thursday, June 12, 2008

Engleby by Sabastian Faulks

Though it is jarring, the way certain moments in Sabastian Faulks's novel Engleby kick us right outside of the narration, it is actually more disturbing how often this doesn't occur. How convincing is the singular voice of Mike Engleby, lifelong loner and the narrator/diarist in whose palm we readers are sitting. And we are convinced by him partly because Engleby is clever-- a working class boy winning a place at a prestigious university after all. He comes at us with facts and not nonsense, framing his narrative to show his disdain for others' ignorance, his superiority over practically everybody. Engleby's address is broad and general, solidly inclusive, but once in a while it catches us: something is not right here.

But that these "catches" don't come more often, that our empathy towards Engleby can come so readily, this not only cements his control of the narrative, but also highlights the distance between him and the rest of the world. Because our easy empathy is something of which he is incapable; Engleby is scarcely aware of his own self, let alone that of another. His diary functions as an exercise towards empathy, but usually a failed one: "I wonder if we can ever know what it's like to be someone else. I doubt whether [his classmates] really know what it's like to be themselves." Because, of course, Engleby doesn't know what it's like to be himself, and so his diary also acts as a self-by-proxy. An identity pinned down where his actual self can't be.

So what are the "catches" then? Engleby's supposed immersion into a group of friends at school that don't seem to know him, a moment where he approaches two girls in a bar and they "[back] off as though appalled", his complete lack of impact upon the world around him, and then moments where he lets certain things slip. Like that he was in a mental institution once: "It was like... the centripedal force of Engleby had failed and I began to fly apart, into my atomic pieces."

It is a particular challenge to create a loner, the mark of a loner being that the world won't reflect him back. No friends to flesh him out, even family is kept at a distance, no water cooler banter. Moreover Mike Engleby is challenging because while he doesn't even reflect himself, he is smart enough that this could be quite consciously done, his construction of the narrative altogether deliberate, and so due to his unreliability, what are we meant to believe?

"My memory's odd like that," Engleby tells us very early on. "I'm big on detail, but there are holes in the fabric." Which is some ways is quite convenient for Sabastian Faulks, I suppose, that his character's gaps come at such moments that propel the narrative right along. And there are some similarly facile points throughout the text. Engleby in the 1980s disagreeing with his one friend about the future: "'And apartheid,' I said. 'I suppose you're going to tell me that'll soon be all over, too.' But then these weak points become less so when you consider their veracity, that it is in Engleby's character to be deliberate about most things (for example the girlfriend he manages to acquire in his thirties, and that he spends long drives rehearsing whatever he will say to her).

This meandering-sounding exploration of lone self-hood has a centre, however-- the disappearance of a girl Engleby had had feelings for at university. The terms of their relationship in typically vague Engleby fashion, though there are suggestions something is not right. That he had stolen her diary years ago, his infatuation with her, that we can see him misconstrue her feelings for him, these mysterious "holes" in the fabric of his memory.

There are certain unreliable narrators whose reality seeps into between every other line (I'm thinking The Remains of the Day) and then those unreliability is to deflect reality, to keep something at bay. Engleby being the latter, and so reading becomes an act of decoding, of spotting those "catches" when the world creeps in. The missing girl, discovered murdered years later, and Engleby trying to understand what he may have done, we as his readers faced with the discomforting possibility of our own empathy with someone who's been a killer all along. There we've been all the while, right inside his head.

Engleby's obsession is with time, with other people's perception of sequence and causality, which he supposes to be such a limited perspective of time's dimensionality. And of course he senses that we will try to address his experience with our puerile understanding of cause and effect-- that Engleby is this way because he abused as a child, that his father abused him because of his own limitations. That the torture he is forced to endure when he goes away to high school only exacerbates his trauma, culminating in Engleby becoming an abuser himself.

So it is true that Engleby achieves the "heightened" experience of "time as it really is-- non linear", as his experience goes in a circular fashion. Moreover as a victim of trauma, he doesn't put the past behind him, but rather relives his experiences over and over again, and these holes in his memory are an attempt to deal with this.

Engleby's singular perspective is broadened towards the end of the book, as the text begins to include witness statements and psychiatric reports. Which reads as a bit of a cheat, really-- I wonder what the novel would have been without these. Though of course they provide a bit of context, resolution for our feelings about and towards this complicated character. It is jarring (but a relief?) to finally read an outsider's perspective of Engleby, to realize the inaccuracies of his perspective, and then of our own gathered through him.