A Beckettian comedy about er… death?

The Faculty of Indifference by Guy Ware

I don’t often include a publisher’s blurb in my reviews, but felt the need with this novel – The following comes from the back of the paperback:

Robert Exley works for the Faculty: he spends his life making sure that nothing ever happens. In counter-terrorism, that s your job.

His wife worked there too, She s been dead for years, but somehow she s never far away. Now their bookish son is leaving home. He writes an encrypted journal Exley feels obliged to decode, to read the things they cannot talk about.

When Exley takes on a colleague’s case, it leads to a flat full of explosives, guns and cash. The trouble is, it’s the wrong flat. And when he finds a man in an orange jumpsuit shackled to the floor deep beneath the Faculty’s offices, everything he things he knows turns inside out.

Reading that, I was sort of expecting a thriller about terrorism, with a jaded office worker caught up in stopping a terrorist plot at its heart. On the most simplistic level, this novel is a terrorist thriller. Something shocking happens about 70 pages in for instance that is the stuff of nightmares with onward ramifications. However, the blurb on assorted websites includes more, which adds a rather different perspective, being much more reflective of the novel itself…

His father worked there, too, and spent a lifetime on a mountaintop watching out for signals, hoping not to see them. His bookish teenage son, Stephen, writes an encrypted journal Exley feels obliged to decode, to read the things they cannot talk about. Lately it s all about the boy s grandfather. And even if it s mostly fiction, Exley knows there s only one end to that story.

The Faculty of Indifference is a comedy about counter-terrorism, torture, boredom, suicide and death by natural causes. Trapped between the memory of an intolerable past and the anticipation of so much worse to come, Exley finds there’s nothing he can do but live.

I’m glad they qualified the blurb, for it is a book of many layers, intellectual and metaphysical, laced with quirky black humour, that made it such an interesting novel to read. I was intrigued afterwards to find out where Ware’s title originated. ‘The Faculty of Indifference’ comes from a quotation by the Romanian nihilist philosopher Cioran (1911-95), which made perfect sense after I’d read the book, whichever way you read it. The full quote is here:

Once man loses his faculty of indifference he becomes a potential murderer; once he transforms his idea into a god the consequences are incalculable. We kill only in the name of a god or of his counterfeits: the excesses provoked by the goddess Reason, by the concept of nation, class, or race are akin to those of the Inquisition or of the Reformation”

From A Short History of Decay, 1949

I should tell you a bit more about the book. Robert Exley’s job in counter-terrorism is typified by the old but true joke that whenever his son asks him how his day was he replies, ‘If I told you I’d have to kill you.’ Robert and his son have little in common, Stephen taking after his late mum Mary, who was mown down by a bus in her prime, but they find a way to communicate through Stephen’s diary which he encodes using a book cipher, but conveniently leaves said book for his father to find. A copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations owned by his mother is the first. Robert must however, get help from colleague Warren to decode the pages, and it is Warren who spots the trends in Stephen’s mental health before his father.

Stephen is also writing a fictionalised biography of his grandfather, Eyquem, who was a beacon keeper. Maintaining and patrolling his high point, alternating shifts with his colleague – just the two of them for six months at a time. It is Eyquem’s turn to devise some festivities the next time their replacements arrive, and he chooses to have them put on a play – which is Beckett’s Endgame. I must admit that this strand was very strange indeed, and of course, we don’t know how reliable Stephen is as a narrator. Eyquem’s tale is weirdly funny, contrasting with his son’s darker life in which he is struggling to find meaning.

Robert does have some lighter moments, particularly in the flashbacks to his life with Mary who was a philosopher at heart, like Stephen. Indeed before they married Mary and Robert had debated Cioran and the faculty of indifference in the pub! I rather liked Mary.

…she said most people never thought of indifference as a faculty. They assumed it was a given, like having brown eyes, about which there was nothing to be said worth saying. But really, she said, it’s something you have to cultivate. It takes work.

This is a very clever novel, keeping you on tenterhooks waiting for (Godot) something to happen, but all the time lulling the reader, waiting for you to become indifferent to events, then BAM! Something does happen, or a revelation is made. The whole process of how the Faculty works (or doesn’t) is mentally exhausting – it’s not Big Brother, but one hopes that real life is different to both! And I haven’t even mentioned the prisoner in the basement and the game of Go that Roberts plays with him that adds yet another layer, as you consider the premise of that so simple, yet so complex ‘game’.

It’s an erudite novel, building in all these allusions to classical literature, there’s the ‘gloomy Romanian’ as Cioran is called by one of the characters, and there’s Beckett; with Endgame being a particularly apposite title (not that I’ve seen it, I just knew about the dustbins). Ware gives a list of the works that informed the book at the end.

For a non-thriller, I found this novel rather thrilling! But not in that way. Instead, I was thrilled to be made to think about all kinds of things, philosophical: from not being able to talk about what you do and the role of pessimism in modern life, practical: how book ciphers work and finding someone to play Go with, and imagined: wondering who the enemy Eyquem was looking out for was. Ware leaves the reader wanting more – and that’s a good thing! (9/10)

Source: Review copy – Thank you! Guy Ware, The Faculty of Indifference, Salt, 2019, paperback original, 320 pages.

BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

5 thoughts on “A Beckettian comedy about er… death?

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was very different to, and better than, what I expected when I perused the Salt catalogue and requested it! Very black in its comedy, and very thought-provoking. I’ve ordered his first novel now.

Leave a Reply