Long Review of Oblivious

This is a review of Oblivious that appeared on The No-Hoper Blog (one of my favourite blogs incidentally). I’ve put it on its own page as it is a bit longer than the others. And it compares me to Milhouse from The Simpsons – most celebrities claim they know they have made it when they make it into The Simpsons, so I’m not sure what this reference says about me. At least I’ve moved away from the Dr. Nick tag that I was stuck with some years ago by virtue of a physical resemblance…

“One of the best things about ebooks is that you can read a substantial amount of sample material before parting with any money. I speak as a Scotsman.

So when I discovered that Neil Schiller, who had found the No-Hoper, and even thought his opinions worthy of comment, had work available on Amazon, I thought I might look a little further. It didn’t cost me anything, you see, and I’m a Scotsman. Did I mention that?

Oblivious is a collection of short stories, which is very handy for the lazy reviewer – just read a couple, add a little BS, and you’ve probably got enough to go on. Well, the first story (which gives the collection its title) was enough: I was persuaded both to part with seventy pence (a paperback edition is available for £7.33) and to read the whole book.

The thing
First things first. (And bear in mind that it’s only the ebook that I’ve seen.) The cover image, dark and lonely, conveys accurately the atmosphere of the stories. At first glance, I took it for an American prison – I’m not entirely sure why – but it is in fact identifiable only as a dingy, high-vaulted corridor with tables and chairs either side, and a few blazing lights serving only to emphasise the gloom. A lone figure walks away from us.

I think the prelims could be better. I’d like to see a title page followed by a copyright page (though I think it enough simply to have the copyright symbol on the title page) then the table of contents and the stories.

And I have a quibble over layout. Paragraphs are spaced rather than indented. This may be Neil Schiller’s preference, but in general I prefer indentation for narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Otherwise it’s fine. None of the distracting typos and failures of formatting which disfigure so many indie books. I don’t think “summer” should be capitalised, but that apart, I can’t remember anything that jarred.

The stories
There are twenty-one stories, ranging in length from fewer than seven words (six, to be precise) to more then three thousand. Almost all are first-person male narratives. There is one female narrator, and one and a bit third person narratives; one story (You) is couched in the second person. The narrator is seldom named. He could be anybody. He is anybody.

There is the prisoner in his cell, there is the man crushed by grief and guilt over the death of his daughter, there is the grown-up son paying a rare visit to his disintegrating father. Schiller makes us look at those bits of our lives that shame us and embarrass others – the saddest bits, the bits that can never be put right; the bits we must hide from the world, because the world doesn’t want to see them.

For the most part, the anonymous narrator reveals only gradually, or perhaps only at the very end, what is really going on. And all the tales, like all our lives, are really about the past. Something has happened, or has always been happening, and this is where it has led to: “Nothing ever starts. Not really. At some point you simply realise that you’re in the middle of something that has been going on forever.”

Every story in Oblivious presents us with a bleeding chunk of someone’s existence, and in it we see the whole life. There is a reason for the brevity of the tales: they are distillations; more words would only dilute. It is in fact difficult to see where Schiller goes from here. I hope he hasn’t written himself into a cul-de-sac.

The prose style is carefully honed, Having had a rest over the weekend, I’m feeling up to a metaphor today, so let’s try one. Schiller goes at language like a sculptor at rock, hacking and hammering until it takes on the shape he wants . . . but no, that’s not quite it. It’s not so much the shape he wants as what he believes to be the true shape. Michelangelo thought he was freeing his figures from the stone in which they were trapped – and he often left them still struggling to make that freedom complete. Neil Schiller is in the same line of business.

Samuel Beckett and Homer Simpson
Oblivious presents the bleakest picture of human life that I’ve seen outside the work of Samuel Beckett. But there’s a crucial difference.

Beckett tells us that life is without meaning and thus without hope. He even got as far as rejecting words, because words have meaning. Breath consists of a cry, an inhalation, an exhalation, and a cry. That, to Samuel Beckett, was life. There was no more to say; or rather, there was nothing to say.

But Schiller is sure that there’s something there, if we could only get to it. Beckett says that nothing means anything; Schiller says that everything means something.

I’m struggling, as you’ve noticed, to express myself. But I’m pretty sure that, when it comes down to it, just about everything can be elucidated by reference to The Simpsons, so here’s my last throw of the dice.

Samuel Beckett is Homer Simpson: What’s the point of going out? We’re just going to wind up back here anyway.

Neil Schiller is Milhouse Van Houten: This is where I go to cry.”

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