But selves are as easy to unbuild as stories are to untell. The tragedy for Finch’s exiles is not their suffering, but the myth of the “fresh start.” The architecture of their selves was already erected in their resistance to tyranny, witnessing of violence, and flight from oppression. As long as they are safe and free, they will yearn for their true home “every second of every day of every year,” as Finch writes. (Note: This passage was in the review copy, but not in the final version of the book.)
Whereas the enigmatic AA remains in the reader’s blind spot throughout the novel, we get quite familiar with the consciousness of Julian Snowman, who greatly distrusts the new fellow. Snowman, the founder and chair of the House of Journalists, is the novel’s moral fulcrum. The reader can sense Finch’s disapproval of this character, but also his pity, even admiration. An apprehensive, pragmatic man, Snowman has taken up the impossible task of reconciling the humanistic ideals of his institution with the capitalistic ethos of the society in which it resides. He needs to benefit financially from the institution’s benevolence in order for the institution (and by extension its benevolence) to survive. Predictably, calamity ensues. The majority of the plot entails Snowman’s transition from the worrisome, punctilious bureaucrat to the paranoid, liberal authoritarian who says things like: “It is not a question of stopping discussion. It is a question of questioning the value of discussion.” He bans the use of the word “disappearance” after a fellow disappears, suspects AA’s involvement in some vague conspiracy to destroy the house, and finally gets drunk on power—plus literally drunk—and does and says things he will deeply regret.
At some point it becomes clear that Snowman has confused the ideals of his institution with the institution itself: “The project [. . .] was more important than any one individual. He never forgot this central truth; that was his great strength.” The irony here, which Snowman never seems to recognize, is that if a “project” founded on liberty violates the liberty of just one individual in order to protect itself, it has betrayed its principle and is no longer worth protecting.
Summarizing his arc in this way makes Snowman sound like a caricature, which isn’t fair. Snowman (note the name) has molded himself into a caricature, into the familiar satire of the delusive figurehead because he believes it is the only archetype that can keep humanitarian institutions financially solvent in Western society. And as far as I can tell, he’s right. So is he a fool or a hero? At the novel’s conclusion one is pretty certain of which, but for a while it seems like he’s both.
Any novel preoccupied with heartless bureaucracy is bound to evoke a sense of futility in the reader. That evocation is particularly strong in Finch’s novel, but I think it’s also a consequence of another kind of futility that Finch identifies. And considering this novel’s journalistic subject, it’s surprising that he locates it in storytelling, in meaning itself. Again and again, characters ruminate on the nihilistic backdrop of the human theater and console themselves with the dazzling spectrum of meanings we ascribe to our experience, with how we dress against that “neutral background,” with the varied stories we invent. The act of storytelling is almost never portrayed as redemptive or significant. That it is ultimately meaningless, like the gray weather the novel repeatedly describes, like the “iron-grey heartlessness . . . where the world begins and ends,” simply does not register to most of us. The book is punctuated by dozens of small ledes and headlines, a structure that intimates the essence of storytelling: organizing a protean reality. Yet many of the characters—especially the writers—seem to think its essence is to pretend a reality, to put words to an endless, meaningless, ultimately blank page.
The book’s jacket calls it an “Orwellian” novel. I think pre-Orwellian is a better designation. One reason I found this novel so unnerving is that it seems to describe what the world looks like before things get Orwellian. Nobody seems to know if it’s darkly indicative that the fellows have a regimented curfew, or that the house is under surveillance, or that “daily records and files on every fellow” are kept. Both administrators and fellows claim that they are “free to come and go” enough times to make the protest suspicious. Mr. Stan, a central character who sits on the governing committee with Snowman, complains that “there is the decision and then there is the process by which a decision is decided upon . . . the distinction is a most important one . . . from democracy to tyranny, from freedom to oppression, is but a small step.”