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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: First Novel Promises, Fails to Deliver: The Society of Others, by William Nicholson, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

Billed as “a thriller about the meaning of life,” British screenwriter (Gladiator) William Nicholson’s first novel purports to be part Salinger and part Kafka.

That’s intriguing for a minute or so, but ultimately, The Society of Others drowns in its own philosophical stew.

Written as a sort of fable, in the voice of a young, unnamed narrator whose cynicism far outweighs his years, the novel’s first few chapters are full of these sorts of pronouncements: “And what sort of world is it? I would characterize it as remote, uninterested, unpredictable, dangerous and unjust.” And: “It’s like fish. Fish swim about all day finding food to give them energy to swim about all day.” Finally: “My life is meaningless. I’m not getting any happier.”

All this from a recent graduate who’s “in the process of not applying for jobs because the only jobs that would take me are the jobs I do not wish to take.”

What this young man is so unhappy about, apparently, is that his father, a successful writer and, it seems, a fairly happy, well-balanced man, has left the family for a younger woman, who’s just had a baby.

His father has given him money for a just-graduated adventure, but he’s pasted the bills to the walls of his room, which he must be coaxed, begged and wheedled into leaving. He believes his father should support him for the rest of his life because he owes it to him.

He addresses the reader: “You don’t hate me really, you’re just afraid you’ll turn out like me. Maybe you have already.” Actually, yes, we do. No, we’re not. And no, we haven’t.

Nicholson, apparently at his wit’s end, then has his narrator resort to this stinky old clinker: “Life is hard and then you die.”

In a flash that leaves us disoriented, the book switches tracks. Boo Hoo (that would be an apt name for the unnamed narrator) says he will take the trip, and the family calls his bluff.

He sets off “without a destination … The answer is you go, but you don’t know where.” This strikes him as “the cleanest, purest, lightest, leanest, plan in all existence.” Hmmm.

Suddenly, Boo Hoo’s in a vaguely Eastern European country, run by goons under the gun of some despotic dictator presumably – although that’s never made clear.

The narrator may or may not have murdered someone (like the chief of the security police!).

But he definitely becomes involved with the rebel/terrorist opposition. He successfully solicits innocent citizens’ help, endangering their lives.

He is followed by a mysterious, seemingly omniscient Big Brother figure who somehow manages to be always backlighted.

He steals a cop’s motorcycle and makes a run for the border. He’s captured of course, and … well, all this must be the “thriller” part.

The “meaning of life” part comes when an old “priest” comes to the young man’s aid.

This man, who’s of course not who he says he is, is an all-knowing messiah figure similar to John Galt in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

These two play philosophical footsie, sparring in such exchanges as:

“You are life. You live. You contain all existence within yourself. You are God.” … “So, if I’m God, I can have what I want.”

At this point, I just wanted God to end the frustrating experience that is reading this novel.Steve Bennett is book editor of the San Antonio Express-News.

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