In his first novel, Socrates Adams doesn't seem that bothered about giving you an easy ride. Yes, there's the humour, a requirement for the 'alt lit' canon, and the thread with which he pulls you into his yarn, to have you wince for his characters and cringe through the situations they create for themselves. But it's not the laughs that make this debut an impressive one.
It's the mixture of everyday melancholy and absurdity rendered relatable, even controllable, which makes this a worthwhile journey into the mind of this 'everyman'. Not that Adams' protagonist, the suitably named Ian, is quite an 'everyman'. It's just his circumstances that make him that way; working a demeaning job, striving for superfluity to fill a purposeless existence, functioning as a mechanism in a sewage system that floods muck onto everyone involved.
Ian's job is to sell tubes but he is hopelessly failing to meet his targets, thus his condescending, alpha male boss demotes him to the position of 'Tiny Shit Head'. His boss gives him a tube that he must look after, to treat it like a daughter. He names his tube Mildred. As you can probably tell, events slowly become colourfully demented, much as Ian does, through malnutrition, obsession and confusion. Written in delirious, panicky sequences reminiscent of Hamsun's Hunger with added fridge-licking paranoia, Adams is more jaunty and aware of the humour of his situations, and opportunities to carefully and expertly place amusingly desperate exclamation marks.
Narrated by Ian, and sometimes Mildred, our Tiny Shit Head divides his time between work, looking after his tube, completing online surveys, quivering from constant surveillance by his boss, and saving for a holiday in the French Alps. He also meets a girl, Sandra.
Though, from this description, this plot may seem knowingly "quirky", it is a much darker and more satisfying read than most that carry such a cursed tag. And its success, though demonstrating some imaginative design, is more in its style than its story.
For one, Ian's obsession with "rapport building" is one of many through-lines in the novel. It's a running joke (or accurate observation) of Adams' that "all human interaction is sales"; selling yourself, selling a product, all human movement some knowing or unknowing avenue for manipulation, a sentiment which fits in well with the creepy modern resurgence in neuro-linguistic programming, 'life coaching' and other cultish money holes. It works also as an effective turning point for Ian, and the realisation that his entire life is controlled by inculcated desire for one thing after another.
But this 'realisation' isn't just lamented, or moaned about, or even stated plainly. It is, if anything, disguised by the narrative. Going with this subtle approach to an idea that many have tackled, there isn't any of the 'bleeding heart' histrionics that can be common to this territory. Adams understands: noticing these things doesn't make him unique, only human, and his writing shines because of it.
While it's never made completely obvious whether Ian is really being observed by his boss (or whether the voice of his boss is himself, or if he really works selling tubes, or if he's just waiting for repeated death, or if he's actually in a coma, or etc.) Adams' message couldn't be clearer, or more welcome.
It seems to be about becoming deliberately human, or human deliberately, rather than existing merely by accident, or for someone else's misuse. It's to go against the flow of this crappy avalanche. And the paradoxically humanising aspect of merely realising you are in a brutally dehumanising job.
Adams reads as if he has worked at his writing enough to cut out the unnecessary stuff. The removal of a yearning heart and an over-emotional façade. His is a novel that is quite direct and always going somewhere. Only occasionally toward the end can we see the writer's voice slip and push plot over character to develop the direction of his story. In these moments some lines do seem superfluous, some sequences stretched out to bulk up any sudden changes in tone.
This goes a little way in countering the originality of the opening pages, of which, at the outset particularly, small flashes appear on every page, building to create a whole that is wholly original, even if somewhat familiar in structure, and perhaps rushed in its surprisingly hopeful ending.
The epilogue rescues this.
Everything's Fine seems the work of a depressive staving off depression by writing. That seems to be the feeling left by the final page, and marked all throughout, in a familiar message refreshed; that perhaps in creation we might find a place in all of this destruction. Even if that purpose and that position is to transfer sewage from one place to another, muck flushing over the open eyes of art. A heartening message, no doubt. And a beautifully eloquent one made in a near-perfect epilogue. Creation is a conduit through which life/death passes through. Or maybe it's the other way round.