GARETH LANGDON finds Steven Boykey Sidley’s Free Association uncomfortably enjoyable.
I am sometimes troubled by the books that I enjoy the most. Not because of any grotesque obsession with violence, or taste for obscure melodrama or science fiction – but because the books I like the most highlight my personal shortcomings.
Free Association is a fantastic novel – but I’m not entirely sure that the reason I feel that way is simply because it is my kind of novel. Steven Boykey Sidley’s fourth novel follows the mind and life of Max Lurie, a down-and-out white male, mostly unsuccessful once-off novelist, now host of popular podcast ‘Free Association’ in which he speaks freely about life, love, and personal distress. It screams white privilege, something which Sidley cleverly highlights by juxtaposing Lurie with his South African producer, Bongani. The novel is structured around extracts from the podcast itself, in-between which a third person narrative takes over to provide the context for Max’s freely associated, pre-recorded ramblings. This style provides a careful insight into the character’s mind, while not neglecting the circumstances which give rise to his thoughts.
Free Association made me feel uncomfortable in how much I enjoyed it. Max Lurie is undoubtedly the epitome of white privilege, living comfortably in Hollywood and free to choose podcasting as a sustainable source of income – an unrealistic choice for most ordinary humans. However overwrought the character of Bongani might be (black, gay, immigrant, foreigner all at once), placing him in opposition to Max allows the reader (especially this reader) to be both disgusted and challenged by Max’s behaviour.
Max’s treatment of women is no different. The podcast speaks often of Anne, his “girlfriend” who is herself a total fiction. As a projection of Max’s psyche, she demonstrates his obvious assumptions about Women as group – she is always somehow against him, he can never seem to please her, he is conflicted by what she thinks about him – all of these reflections solipsistic to the Nth degree and stark indictments of Max’s gender bias. Several other prominent female characters provide little departure from Anne. Roxanne (or Ava to the podcast listeners) is a nubile co-worker with radical political beliefs and a shaved head who somehow overlooks Max’s chauvinism long enough to have sex with him, date him, and fail to reform him as a man in any meaningful way – instead she seems to concede to him in the classic motherly, pitying sense. Pixel aka Bethany is Max’s high school ex, a paragon of corporate female success, writ as disinterested in men, obsessed with her career and money, and powerful enough that Max’s penetration of her deepest vulnerabilities leaves her the expected cliché of a woman – powerful, but still weaker than any one man. This is most evident when Max has to rescue her from a mugger, getting stabbed in the process. You can only imagine the self pitying that went on on the podcast after that.
What made me so uncomfortable about how much I liked this book, as I may have mentioned, is how much of Max Lurie I identified with – I was sucked into each and every one of his self-absorbed rants on the podcast, dying to hear more about what he thought about himself and his world. I felt myself internally nodding, and proclaiming “YES! Exactly!” as I read, chuckling to myself at Max’s darker moments as an act of solidarity. Max, when you think about it, is a vile character – self-obsessed and devoid of self-awareness, uncritical, chauvinistic and a little bit racist. But I loved him.
The novel’s climax is slowly introduced through another ostensibly middling character, initially hidden in Max’s periphery, but soon brought to the fore by a series of shocking events – Jake. Jake is a homeless man, evidently schizophrenic, dirty and alone. He lives in the alleyway near Max’s home and was happily minding his own business until Max felt the need to “help”. Max soon learns that Jake is a failed physicist who, once on the brink of tremendous scientific breakthrough, unfortunately succumbed to severe mental illness, his tragic downfall leading to a life on the street. Jake is probably the most intelligent and level-headed of all the characters in the noveln and thanks to that is keenly aware of the dynamics at play in Max’s life and the world at large.
Max waxes lyrical about Jake on the podcast, but some of his creative licentiousness proves very upsetting to Jake, who snaps. Without giving the rest of the story away, the events which transpire lead Max to a kind of epiphany where, after long conversations with Bongani (remember him, the black friend?), he decides to change tack with the podcast. Now it will be called ‘Outsiders’ and will take a careful look, through interviews, at the lives of everyone on the “outside” – the old, the poor, the mentally ill, the immigrant.
But Max’s progression is undoubtedly set to reinforce the exact same tropes which were reserved, mercifully, for his own mind in Free Association. What Max and Bongani sadly don’t realise is that turning the attention of the podcast outside – hell, even the name ‘Outsiders’ – far from doing those on society’s periphery a service, does little more than solidify the existing prejudice which led to their exclusion in the first place. It will highlight their difference, making them even more weird and esoteric, and even more excluded.
Free Association was a challenging read because it made me mad at myself about how I view the world as a white man. I was mad at Max, but I could see myself in him, and that is the power of any good novel – through identification with character we are made to, more and more, question our own core beliefs. Sidley’s great achievement in his fourth novel is that, while catering to the rather narrow tastes of a self-absorbed white, male, millennial reader, has also brought into stark revelation the shortcomings of that reader’s worldview.
Free Association is published by Picador Africa.