Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing (2016)

If it’s true, that “new thoughts only happen at the edge of what we already know”, then Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing has provided me with plenty of new thoughts.

Book Thug, 2016

Book Thug, 2016

Job Shadowing is a novel which pools at the edges of the shape that I recognize as fiction. It would be difficult to fill out the answers to the kinds of questions my sixth–grade teacher would have asked me to consider for a book report.

Who is the main character? What is the conflict they are facing? Did you like the book? What is the author trying to say?

“Most goals, she gets to thinking, most don’t just involve other people. Most require paying other people, and some require convincing or manipulating other people. Most involve wedging oneself into new situations that demand a response from others. She hopes that whatever happens with Caslon will demand as little manipulation as possible. She hopes they can figure out a place of equal ground.”

But that’s to be expected when the main character is only a shadow, an amorphous version of some original self.

A self which has…what? Disappeared? Dissolved into the surroundings? Degenerated into a “drab and flat observer”?

“But more: encountering a famous person give the feeling that a door might be opened, an opportunity might emerge from out of the wealth or power, and that such an opportunity can be / capitalized on, or so she likely considers since that is her frame of mind as she listens to the possibly famous man.”

If human beings are able to recognize their shadows beginning around the age of nine, how long might it take for the shadow to become more significant than the person?

What happens when one no longer even recognizes oneself, one’s own scent and shape?

What happens when one does recognize it, but sees it to be inferior and vacuous: does one identify with it still?

“Because a starting place is an opening that is all potential. One place it often comes from is a question or a problem. Without a question or a problem we just go on as is, without looking for a starting place. The world without questions just carries on by sheer inertia.”

Characters in Job Shadowing are wrestling with these questions, or have been wrestled to the ground by them, left to lie inert on the page, flat and unresponsive.

When does a life not feel like a life? How could a second self help, a double presence, another life to live as an extension of one’s original life?

If one assembled a postcard of the lives of the characters in Job Shadowing, maybe the five images could include: an abandoned strip mall, a blindfold, a disco ball reflecting pink and white points, of light, a cupcake with wax numbers ‘2’ and ‘3’ stuck in the icing, and a faux-fur panda costume.

And what is included takes on a significance if only for what is excluded. For “defining some things means excluding most others”.

“Art is the act of exclusion.” Statements like these hover at the edges of something-like-story.

  • “Perhaps the authors wrote what happens next, but it is likely there was nowhere to go from there.”
  • “Time seems both free and wasted.”
  • “Unhappiness can be disastrous because of its incredible tendency to spread.”

What kind of story can be told when the present tense no longer feels that intense? When no tense can bring a reader closer to what’s real? When the “dull realization of the constant present” weighs down what-might-have-been-a-story?

If documentation is proof of something happening, what does it mean to read a story about nothing happening? What happens to the character, consigned to the flat page, when s/he risks blurring into the background, all in a fruitless effort to please the boss and keep a job which seems meaningless to begin with.

“I see myself in him, am willing to believe the answer will come from a book. I want to believe that words from a book could unravel our situation. […] But another part of me knows that such a book would have no answer. Rather it would simply present the contradictions by which we live our lives, offering no solutions or even consolations, just ways that someone might constantly interrogate them….”

Job Shadowing unravels our beliefs, observes the kinks and twists and snarls, and leaves readers wondering whether it matters if the yarn splits.

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