critical eye

Blurry verge

The line between democracy and a darker social order is thinner than you think
September 3, 2013

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.

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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.

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.”

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.

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