Robert Exley works at the Faculty, a counter-terrorism branch of government in which his father also served. His wife, once a member of the Faculty herself and a supposedly more promising one, is dead. She was hit by a bus years ago and Robert lives with their son, Stephen, who asks him every night how his day was – ‘If I told you I’d have to kill you’ being the standard response – and who writes a diary in code on his mother’s old typewriter, leaving the pages temptingly on display for Robert to decode. This diary is the only way in which Stephen ever fully communicates with his father – assuming he wanted his father to read it all along, for the novel makes it clear, nothing should be assumed.
Divided into two halves, the four or five years before he meets a prisoner in the basement, and four or five years later when he does, the novel is also divided into before Stephen goes to university and when he returns. In the first section we hear Stephen’s imagined telling of his grandfather’s life as a beacon keeper. For his diary morphs into a fictionalised biography rather than a daily account of his life. This telling is somehow implicated in a particular case Robert is handed by a colleague that leads to the incarceration of that prisoner in the basement.
And in amongst all of this is Cioran’s theory on the faculty of indifference, something Robert’s wife Mary was particularly interested in and which returns to Robert’s thoughts often: ‘The slightest deviation from indifference, she said, the smallest flicker of interest is a compromise that shatters the bonds of common humanity. You are free to torture and kill without compunction.’ It’s a faculty because it isn’t a given, like brown eyes, but ‘something you have to cultivate’ (page 61). The idea sits neatly with their line of work, with Beckett’s Endgame – a play Ware quotes as being of particular influence in the acknowledgements – and with Stephen’s imagined grandfather who writes a play that mocks his beacon keeping lifestyle and that forces two of his colleagues into rubbish bins – the Beckett links are veritably screaming here – even though they can’t see to read their scripts and when they take candles into the bins with them they set fire to their eyebrows and cough with the smoke (this had me laughing out loud).
These kind of clever allusions to philosophy and literature, the quotes from The Oresteia, the sense of endless watching and waiting for something that might never happen, the slow decline of days, and the inevitability of conflict, make The Faculty of Indifference both startlingly clever (why is Stephen called Stephen; one wonders if it is a reference to the Joyce’s wandering Daedalus) and sometimes overwhelming. The Faculty employs people to find meaning in a series of potentially random events and it sets the reader off too. What does Robert’s itchy leg mean? What about the knocking on the walls that Stephen hears? Isn’t fiction how we join all the dots? Isn’t the creative imagination an act that takes us beyond the boundaries of indifference?
Nicholas Lezard wrote of Guy Ware’s debut novel, The Fat of Fed Beasts, that it was ‘fleshing out the shadowy metaphysical hints of Beckett’s novels’, something he obviously continues to do in The Faculty of Indifference where the dance of meaning is always in discussion and the labyrinthine mechanics of the Faculty and, by extension, life, pit order and chaos, pattern and fiction, god and myth, consciousness and instinct, the black and white of a game of Go, against each other at every turn. And while you may say that this sets up a series of binary opposites, the novel manages to squeak out of the binary trope by constantly turning expectation upon its head. The Faculty of Indifference is both funny, diverting, exhausting and baffling all at once. Whatever your tastes, Guy Ware is a writer whose name should be part of the contemporary literary discussion. His is a post-modernism that pushes the past into our increasingly confusing world.
I’ll be reviewing The Mercies by Karen Millwood Hargrave next, followed by Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz. You can read my reviews of Guy Ware’s previous novels by following these links: The Fat of Fed Beasts and Reconciliation.