The Cry of the Sloth: The Mostly Tragic Story of Andrew Whittaker, being his Collected, Final, and Absolutely Complete Writings.

A novel, written by Sam Savage, published in 2009. The back cover of the book bears this biography:

"Sam Savage received his bachelor and doctoral degrees in Philosophy from Yale University, where he taught briefly. He has worked as a bicycle mechanic, carpenter, commercial fisherman and letterpress printer. His debut novel, Firmin, started life at a small non-profit press and went on to become an international cult hit."

In the photograph on the back of this book he looks a scruffy, withered and bearded old man. Firmin is apparently about a rat that can read and lives in a bookshop.

To be honest, the main reason why I bought this book was that I could buy it as a hardcover. Lately I've noticed an overwhelming predominance of paperbacks on my shelves, and this makes me feel somewhat illegitimate as a reader for some reason. So when I was looking around the bookshop with time to spare, and I saw a hardcover book with an interesting title and a picture of a typewriter on the cover, I couldn't resist. The only difference between a paperback and a hardcover is a piece of cardboard, but there is a totally irrational sense of permanence about a hardcover book.

It's a novel about a man, Andrew Whittaker, who is falling apart. He is an obscure writer who seems to think little of any work that isn't his own, and he runs an obscure literary magazine called Soap: A Journal of the Arts. He wants to make his magazine successful, but isn't trying very hard to do anything about it, lost as he is in a sea of vodka and with too much time to think. He pines for his adulterous ex-wife, has a rivalry with another magazine that lacks his artistic integrity, makes token efforts to maintain the buildings he rents out, keeps receiving annoying letters from writers whose work his magazine has rejected, and will take any opportunity to tell people about a crackling noise in his chest that bothers him so. He sees himself as a tormented man, who would be doing OK if only the world would let him be. I can't help but imagine Andrew Whittaker looking exactly as Sam Savage does in the tiny photograph on the back cover, with his unkempt hair and that desperate look in his eyes.

The book is written, as the subtitle suggests, as if it is the collected works of Andrew Whittaker. Although he mentions his literary works occasionally, the book contains barely a short story, the rest being mostly letters to his wife, his tenants, the bank, an old university friend, his rival magazine (writing under a pseudonym), and an aspiring high-school student whose poetry seems not to be his only interest. It's interesting to only see one side of his correspondences, and you soon start to wonder how much of what he says is rational or justified and how much is his lonely paranoia. Still, I really don't know if this kind of thing is original at all. I've never read one of those "a life in letters" compilations, where James Joyce writes erotica for his wife and Anton Chekhov keeps saying he's a hack, so I'm not sure, do they include the responses from the recipients, or some kind of brief summary? Do we ever find out whether Mrs. Joyce wrote steamy letters too, or was it all just a bit creepy for being unreciprocated? I don't know, but I think that this book probably would not have worked if it were written in the normal, narrative way, since there really is no narrative, just one man in a cluttered house with a typewriter.

I feel about this book in a similar way to how I did about The Catcher in the Rye: it's a book about a character, with next to no events surrounding that character, so the book is mostly a good long look inside their head. The book is much like a portrait of Andrew Whittaker, and perhaps a setting-conflict-action-resolution narrative would be a bit like the painter asking the model to run around the studio. Now that I think about it, though, most good books can have an interesting narrative as well as a three-dimensional character, so perhaps it's all a post-modern literary statement of some kind. Or perhaps it's just not a good book, I really can't tell. All I know is that I enjoyed spending time with Andrew Whittaker, and after a while I stopped finding him quite so annoying and came to understand and even sympathise with his perpetual exasperation. I could understand why he would send a six-page letter to his bank manager to explain his financial situation, and I started to think that the world was just being unkind to him by putting up one obstacle after another. And in the end I had a feeling that his life was indeed Mostly Tragic, and that such tragedies must go unnoticed every day. Still, if I were to meet a man like Andrew Whittaker, I am sure that I would be doing everything I could to get away from him as quickly as possible, because despite his sorrowful and sensitive inner self, on the outside he is still an abrasive old crank.

Not since Catch-22 have I spent so much time thinking about the final words of a book. Often when I start a book I'll peek at the last word, to see if I can glean some great insight from it before I've even begun, but so far it has proved fruitless. Generally the last word is something rather ordinary, like done, city, me or which. I'll put the last few sentences of this book here. They may well mean nothing at all, and only seem to do so because they are at the end, but for some reason I kept thinking about them for days and days.

You see, there is nothing for me to do here anymore. I am embarking because I am bored, because I am frightened, because I am sad. But really because I don't find my jokes funny anymore. Looking back over them I ask myself if they were ever funny, or did I just make them seem so by my laughter.
Your faithful correspondent,
Andrew Whittaker.

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