This is taken from a letter addressed to Bob, Eric and Juan: “I have received another complaint about the noise. You will have to turn it down after 10 or find another place. Wear clothes when you go to the basement with your laundry. Think of the people in the other apartments, who are not as young as you are, have to get up and go to work, and are religious to boot. None of that is their fault.”
It’s signed, sincerely, by Andrew Whittaker, and it’s just one of many letters, written over the course of four months, in The Cry of the Sloth. This is a book that I bought solely on the recommendation of Nancy Pearl, thanks to this simple review which considers the term “tragicomic”.
Her review is also likely the reason why I picked up a copy of the author’s debut, Firmin, earlier this year on a library browse, for although the author’s name hadn’t fully registered yet for me at the time, something had likely settled in the vague-osmotic way in which the details of authors and titles lurk at the edges of your bookish brain. You know how that is? When something about a book feels familiar, but only much later do you realize the connection that brought you to it?
I’m aware, when I consider both Firmin and The Cry of the Sloth, that their bookishness piques my interest, but their plot descriptions (with that element set aside) and summaries don’t particularly appeal. They don’t necessarily put me off, but nor do they draw me in. Still, there is something inordinately charming about their concept and style, and I not only brought Firmin home without a really good reason (and then fell wholly and completely in love with the book), but bought The Cry of the Sloth later the same day, leaving hundreds of other books for which I’ve longed for much longer.
I think a good helping of this must go to Coffee House‘s publicity department because blurbs like this one for Firmin (which appears on the back of The Cry of the Sloth, skillfully designed to hook the interest of sloth-lovers everywhere) strike a strong chord: “This darkly comic homage to the power of imagination, the lure of books and the desire to live a life that means something speaks to all of us.”
That was provided for Firmin but it actually applies to The Cry of the Sloth as well. There are a number of similarities between the works (I wonder if, somewhere, an English major is working on a dissertation to explore just that…I hope so because I’m certain that both Firmin and Andrew would be thrilled to bits) but they remain distinct for me in my reader’s memory. I think that’s notable because, even with some of my long-standing favourite authors, I find that their consideration of the same themes results in my confusing some of those works. I would never confuse Firmin and Andrew: not possible.
First, Andrew is not a rat. His ex might disagree — and Firmin would, rightfully, be offended by the age-old prejudice — but Andrew’s relationship with Jolie now is characterized by conflict and disappointment; Andrew is furious and sorrowful, vindictive and regretful. His anger with Jolie permeates the text, right alongside his intense loneliness.
For even passers-by have very little time for Andrew. He says: “I love the way their ponytails flick to the side when they jerk their heads around so as not to look at me. I usually send a raspberry after them when they do that. Sometimes they answer by swinging their hips in an exaggerated manner as they stump off, a female gesture that, I must confess, I have never understood.”
Which isn’t all bad, because Andrew is not only jilted lover but also a writer: he can make something of the painful parts of his life. He writes: “God, how I hated them both when I got home! Hated them for making me look like a bumbling fool, and worse, like a bore. Now I feel a new power to write, the sentences just pouring out. I feel the books in a stack inside me. I have only to open them up, open myself up, and read off the words.”
And he is also an editor of a literary magazine with exceptional submission standards. Among the codicils are these warnings: “We do not publish devotional materials, greeting card verses, or anything embroidered on cloth. While satire is welcome, the rule for personal invective is KEEP IT CLEAN. Obscenity is tolerated but must not be hurled in the direction of anyone still alive.”
In each of the facets of his life (negligent landlord, abandoned lover, writer and editor), Andrew is struggling to find balance. It’s this universal pursuit that kept me reading even though it was clear from everything I’d read (in the above review and in the text itself once I began reading) that the emphasis was on the struggle not on the achievement. But Andrew’s voice is compelling: don’t you think? Even these little snippets are entertaining. Even Mr. B.I.P. was seduced on the basis of a handful of passages although he has become adept at avoiding my excessively enthusiastic reading recommendations (it’s self-defense, I know).
I read on, followed Andrew through every letter in The Cry of the Sloth, even when I really didn’t want to know what terrible thing would happen to him next; I would say that it was Nancy Pearl who made me do it, but ultimately it was Sam Savage. Er, no, not even that: it was Andrew Whittaker. But I think Firmin would have wanted me to read on too.
Have you read it? Wanted to?