Book Review: The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei

By his own admission Eric Nye is an asshole, ‘and not loyal to anyone, not even [him]self.’ He’s what you’d get if American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman and Mad Men‘s Don Draper gave birth to a man-child. “Chief Idea Officer” at Tate, a New York City ad agency, the bonus on top of Eric’s already six figure salary is dependent on him firing 50% of his staff – a task that he carries out with “HR Lady”, relishes and draws out for his own entertainment.

‘We pretend with each other in big, long sighs that it was difficult work, very hard, we would go out afterwards and have a nice meal and get shitfaced and take limos home and expense it because of how difficult it was.’

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SO; all appears to have been going as well as could be expected in the life of Eric Nye until “Intern” entered his life. After an almost one night stand, Eric finds that despite the fact he can’t remember her name, she’s now interning at his agency. Intern soon begins to stalk him, turning up wherever he may be to the point where Eric starts to question who’s stalking whom. For no logical reason, he can’t seem to get her out of his head, leading to his slow unravelling… Another chance encounter leads to a complaint against him being filed with HR, but there’s something about Eric that makes it very difficult to believe everything he’s telling you.  Is the intern to have a cathartic effect on him?

Eric is a darkly fascinating character. A guy who says things like ‘For no reason I consider hitting on birch-like juice girl but I fear there is too high a chance she will say yes‘, and ‘I sit in a deck chair and face away from the beach; something about the ceaseless idiocy of one wave after another strikes me as profoundly imaginative‘, and who dismisses a beautiful view of the New York skyline as it’s ‘trying too hard.’ That he’s a jackass is no question, but he’s a hilarious jackass. Or at least I thought so. Even when he’s making certain staff members jump hoops, knowing full well he’s about to fire them, you can’t help but laugh because his cruel indifference knows no bounds (especially because at the office, when he’s not firing people, he does absolutely nothing).

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Living in a false world devoid of any real interactions, Eric struggles with his ‘unalterable inability to deal with [his] unreality.’ It doesn’t appear like he’s able to stay still; restless, deeply jaded and dissatisfied with what life has to offer:

‘Waiting, I realise, isn’t the time between things, it’s the thing itself.’

There are deep echoes of American Psycho here, but if you find the endless listing of material possessions to be boring, you’re missing the point entirely. That listing is what makes American Psycho a classic. The essential difference between Nye and Bateman is that Nye is mocking himself when he reels off his material possessions, aware of some of the absurdities, whereas Bateman loved himself (interestingly, Nye experiences self-loathing) and his possessions; full stop. What struck me as being quite amusing is that Eric neither desires or needs any of these ridiculously expensive items he owns, but he buys them because he can, and often bespoke so he can prove a point.

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For all that Eric lacks in character, he makes up for with the precision of his societal observations. He mocks the Brooklyn hipsters in a way that is so scathing, so sharp; I could not have articulated it better myself:

‘Never before have I seen so many people in one place who are exactly the same: the same age, the same race, the same wardrobe, the same facial hair, the same taste in music, socioeconomic background, college experience, shoes, political beliefs, and hair; but I suppose what really unites them is the shared fantasy that they are rebels.’

He goes to an art show called “Show Us Your Tits!” which features ‘lots of photos (taken, it seems, by anyone who can push the button on a camera) of girls flashing their breasts…I can’t decide if I like this show because it’s not really art at all, it’s just stupid, or if maybe I hate this shit because it’s trying so hard not to be art and there’s nothing more arty than that.’ Haha. Every major city has these hubs; in London the equivalent is Shoreditch/ Hackney.

Underneath the layers of dark wit and narcissism is an intelligent commentary on corporate America where we are told that ‘Advertising is how corporations outsource their lies.’

‘You see, what I think is interesting about what I do is that I personally don’t believe in what I do, or should I say that I believe very strongly that technology is actually destroying us as human beings, it’s taking away the fundamental truths about our humanity and making us pay to get them back: it’s called Creating Value.’

Without spoiling too much, the example he uses was quite an eye opener for me, showing how we have learned to buy back what was fundamentally ours to begin with.

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This is a highly entertaining read that is, in parts, hilarious, and although Eric is indeed an asshole of the highest degree (as it says on the spine of the novel, he’s ‘a character you’ll either love or hate. Probably hate.’) I couldn’t help but be taken in by his unashamed self-centredness.  And what, exactly, is the Deep Whatsis? Well, you’ll just have to read to find out.

I received my copy of The Deep Whatsis from the publisher (Other Press) via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott

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‘If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife, I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her…I went into a dark room with my camera for a time, and I came out with a photograph of a woman I had never seen before.’

Meet Alex Peterson – loner, Oxford graduate, successful lawyer, and married to Rachel, a vivacious English graduate from the same college. Alex is that person ‘looking on groups from the outside….that is how [he] felt for most of [his] life…On the edge of things, apart from people, not wanting to be among them.’ One summer night, after a dinner at their old college, Rachel is found on the grounds, brutally murdered. At first, with ‘stories circulating in the room which were not [his] own’, the police suspect Alex, but he is soon cleared by a witness – Harry, Rachel’s old tutor at Oxford – and so the mystery of Rachel’s death remains a gaping hole.

What was Rachel doing out by the lake where she was killed? Why has Harry provided him with an alibi? Who is that mysterious shadowed figure seen fleeing the scene?

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Alex is trapped in his grief and that winter, with an invitation from Harry, he returns to Oxford to try and find out what happened to Rachel. Harry sits Alex down and over the course of the novel he slowly reveals an interconnected chain of actions and decisions made years before, back in Alex and Rachel’s undergraduate years, that may have led to the murder at the centre of the narrative. And so we are transported back to 1990s Oxford where piece by piece, Rachel’s identity is put together. Moving back and forth to various times and places, and pierced with flashbacks, this is a layered text where, in a classic case of unreliable narrator, we can never really be sure if we can trust what Alex is telling us, or if what Harry is telling Alex is the whole truth.

I can completely understand why this book has been compared to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ as it’s also a story of secret cliques and magnetically alluring ringleaders. It’s a highly atmospheric novel, giving you a true sense of what Oxford is. The prose is so precise, the language so luscious, and there’s something about the way the words just trip off your tongue (I had to read it our loud at times because it was so beautiful) that make this book a remarkably accomplished debut.

The ending, however, was wanting – I was waiting for a twist that never came and it ended rather speculatively. It would have been a more satisfying read if we were given something more, but perhaps this has more to do with the fact that the book was built up to be a thriller when in actual fact it’s a contemplation on grief and uncertainty. The ending doesn’t detract from the fact that the novel is immersive, is truly a pleasure to read and is one of those rare achievements that is a literary mystery.

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