The House of Journalists: A Novel
By Tim Finch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
304 pages
Hardcover $26

When reading Tim Finch’s eerie, self-conscious first novel, The House of Journalists, it’s interesting to note the type of journalist Finch is not much concerned with. The book keeps the First World careerists—the beat reporters, the thought leaders, the human-interest purveyors, the literary journalists, etc.—far out on the periphery, even though Finch himself was one of them (he worked for the BBC). The House of Journalists is a haven in London for writers who have fled their countries, and Finch’s subjects—the “fellows” at the House—are political refugees, exiles.

They have been beaten, raped, smuggled, tortured, abandoned. They have witnessed political chaos and barbarity. They have fled their countries, lost their families, and risked everything to write about it all. When they arrive at the house, all they possess, in many cases literally, is their experience, their stories, which are, the novel announces, “not just stories; these are people’s lives.”

The institution depends for survival on both private and public funds, which it ensures by appropriating and sharing those stories. The novel begins in the present with the arrival of a new fellow, AA, whose experience is narrated in the ever risky second person by a portentous “house” voice. This device, though at times cloying, signals a primary function of journalism: to speak for people—for a group of refugees, for AA, for you.

The novel probes and questions the existence of a sort of “hierarchy of suffering.” Finch has one of his characters denounce “juxtaposition,” of all the words she could choose, in the middle of her tale of rape, degradation, and murder, as the “ugly word” she gleaned from the experience. Another character laments the veneration of human suffering: “None of this obsequious shit; this fetishistic reverence,” he says, “none of this: what-those-eyes-must-have-seen and we-are-not-worthy. We despise all that . . .” George Bernard Shaw expressed the core of these excerpts:

What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death you experience all the starvation that ever has been or ever can be. If ten thousand other[s] starve to death with you, their suffering is not increased by a single pang: their share in your fate does not make you ten thousand times as hungry, nor prolong your suffering ten thousand times. Therefore do not be oppressed by the ‘frightful sum of human sufferings’: there is no sum . . . Poverty and pain are not cumulative.

Yet I think it’s difficult for anyone who reads stories of such human suffering—from Rwanda, from East Timor, from Serbia, from Yemen, from Nicaragua—to accept Shaw’s idealistic dictum. It all seems distinctly, oppressively cumulative. This quandary is at the center of both journalism, which is fundamentally about bearing witness, and Finch’s novel.

Finch suffuses his story with chasmal distinctions between the fellows and the Westerners who harbor them. The omniscient collective voice that hovers over the characters notes many poignant differences in their language, where the meaning of a word or phrase is derived entirely from the social context and history of its interpreter. Some examples are painful. The idiom “turns the thumbscrews” is glibly employed before people who have personally known torture. Western hyperbolic usage of “spies,” “interrogation,” and “oppressive” bemuses the fellows. Expressions like “line in the sand,” “go hang,” and “smoke you out,” are radically literalized in their presence. In the eyes of the fellows, we seem to live in a spurious world of Kafkaesque metaphor.

But for all the grotesque divides between the First and Third worlds, there are much deeper connections. Hence the phrase “translates into every language more or less” is quietly applied to simple, kindhearted words: “guarantee,” “good night’s sleep,” and “cherry brandy.” Moreover, humanity’s shared struggle for identity is expressed most ardently by the fellows themselves, iterating basically the same universal theme: a Christian dissident dreams of the food he choked down in prison; an intractably depressed fellow feels his unease lift when he is denied asylum; a young refugee weeps in her bed because she feels safe, only to feel alive when she is evicted out among the homeless.

Within these stories lies the strongest rebuttal to postcolonial Western guilt over the totality of suffering, which found its most terrible expression in Kafka, who has a strong presence in Finch’s novel. Human beings can, in fact, forge identities from absolutely any experience; whether joyous or wretched, wondrous or mundane, we will make these stories our home. The person who has suffered more than you does not have any less of a story, or a self.

Trevor Quirk is a writer living in Saratoga, NY. Find more of his work at trevorquirk.com.