There’s an interesting line at the end of Stephen McCauley‘s funny new novel Insignificant Others, and how I interpreted it pretty much determined how much I ultimately liked this book. The main character writes to another character: "Begin with the truth. Everything else will fall into place."
But from start to finish, we’ve just spent the entire novel following the actions of a deeply (and hilariously) self-deluded man.
In other words, I interpreted that line to be ironic, and I found the whole book to be a satire of this sad and pathetic man.
Truthfully? Had I not quickly decided that the book was satire — if I’d thought I was being asked to sympathize and relate to this man, as opposed to laughing at him — I don’t think I would’ve liked it nearly as much, because his problems are all (a) mostly ridiculous, and (b) almost entirely self-induced.
McCauley, of course, is the author of a number of popular gay-themed novels, including The Object of My Affectionn, and fans will be happy to know that his famous wit is firmly intact. At one point, the main character wryly points out that, as kids, we listen to everything everyone says, even as we pretend not to, while as adults, we pretend to listen to everything everyone says, while not really listening at all. Trenchant!
Insignificant Others, which has both the perfect title and the perfect book jacket, opens with a man, Richard, discovering that Conrad, his partner of eight years, is seeing another man. He can’t get very outraged, however, because he’s been carrying on an affair with a closeted married man, Benjamin. Richard and Benjamin even have their own apartment.
Richard thinks he’s doing Benjamin a favor, giving him an "outlet" for his gay self while he’s living his life of non-stop lies.
It should be said that this is probably not one of McCauley’s "major" works. The story is told in an interesting sort of stream-of-consciousness style — there are no real chapters, just section-breaks headed by a short caption. The result is like being inside the mind of a carefully constructed man who only deals with that which is right in front of him — someone who never ever sees the whole picture. The effect definitely suits the character, and it works.
That said, after the very intriguing opening, the story itself doesn’t really kick in until at least a third of the way through. McCauley’s clever quips and easy style are enough to make it readable, but the whole book has the "Chinese food" quality to it: you finish it, and a half-hour later you’re hungry again. Except for a few particularly enjoyable quips, there’s not that much memorable about it.
Still, this is a solid entry from McCauley, and fans of his work will definitely find much here to enjoy.