(Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2018)
There’s a part of me that wishes I had someone else’s life. This notion is often provoked by the particular vicissitudes of my experience on Earth thus far, but it’s become evident over my forty-odd years that nearly all lives contain some substantial level of unpleasantness. And nearly everybody, it seems, wants to be someone else.
I am reminded of an old joke I heard about a bunch of disgruntled souls sitting around a table with God in heaven, and he told them to each put their number one problem from their former lives in the center of the table. Then he said he would send them back to the earthly realms but that they each had to take a problem, of their own choosing, from the pile with them. They each end up taking their own problem back.
My takeaway has always been that these individuals don’t want anyone else to have to experience their own suffering. But, as I grow older, my thoughts have shifted to a somewhat cynical view: we don’t want to go through anything outside our own understanding because it is rather daunting and exhausting and we’d rather just sit this one out, thank you very much.
But, in a sense, we do go outside of our comfort zone on a daily basis. We listen to stories from friends and family and coworkers. We watch TV, read, go on social media. No matter how we might try to avoid it, it’s inevitable that sooner or later we find ourselves uncomfortable and in someone else’s shoes.
In reading Martin Riker’s debut novel Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, I stepped into Samuel Johnson’s shoes, which was odd since he spends most of the novel in other people’s shoes. Murdered as a young man, Samuel jumps into other people’s bodies and lives along with them, essentially seeing and hearing what they see and hear.
But these aren’t fascinating individuals he inhabits. Most of them are banal creatures thoroughly devoid of any lust for life. They betray a terribly human desire to be transient in our own lives, to observe the game rather than play it. While being a passive observer in their own lives protects these characters from the full effect of their hardships, it is really just delaying the inevitable confrontation.
Since Samuel Johnson’s vicarious experiences are not worthy of attention and the people whose minds he inhabits are weak and ineffectual — stock characters of sorts, thoroughly bereft of any dialogue or monologue with the universe — one has to wonder what Riker’s aim is as a fiction writer. Isn’t it possible for his main character to inhabit the mind of someone with gusto, verve, etc? Why such inferior personalities?
But there is something to be said about the characters that Samuel Johnson inhabits. They reveal in ourselves an inability to engage with the world. Whether it’s a fair-to-middling saxophone player who is too afraid to follow his dreams of becoming a writer or an alcoholic businessman with no home life, we see people who have taken a backseat to their own lives. Are we these people?
However, there is satisfaction gained from reading this book. It comes from the idea that sometimes just being is enough. That sometimes we must merely exist in our lives. That sometimes you just need to accept the fact that you’re (apologies) a creature without any emphasis.
This kernel of Riker’s novel feeds the idea that we believe absence is essential in some weird way. However, once absence is achieved, it is fairly easy to lose the ability to regain ourselves.
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Andrew Condouris lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey with his wife.