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.”
It is Snowman, the tragic herald of this political indeterminacy, who voices the strongest denial of it. As he considers the current British government: “This talk, growing in their circles, of galloping authoritarianism, of outright abuse of human rights, of the curtailment of essential liberties, of the neutering of opposition and dissent, was hugely overblown.” No other character is so sure, which I don’t think is accidental. This novel demonstrates that the only prospect scarier than the thin line between democracy and some darker social organization is the blurry line. The House of Journalists may have already crossed that moral threshold; even at the book’s end, nobody knows. Given the present geopolitical climate, this could all very well apply to our world. Imagine that. Here we could be, all of us, on the blurry verge.