The Society of Others
by William Nicholson. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 240 pages. $23.95.
The temptation to write a "novel of ideas" has lured many a writer into dangerous territory, especially when such ideas are of the existentialist kind. Because these works probe serious questions, such as the meaning of life or whether there is a higher power governing human behavior, the probability of failure is very high. More practically, novelists who wish to impart great wisdom to their readers often forget to include minor details like a great story, carefully crafted characters, and an engaging plot. Philosophy is much easier to swallow when a compelling story line is attached.
Fortunately, William Nicholson, known primarily as a writer of screenplays and books for young adults, doesn't skimp on novelistic essentials in his pursuit of intellectual ones. Rather, the claustrophobic thriller-like structure acts as a necessary and palatable framework for the ideas the author explores, such as the self, altruism and whether humans truly desire absolute freedom.
We meet our unnamed protagonist, a young man newly freed from college, as he stews in his bedroom. He keeps the door deliberately locked so his family can't bother him (as "unconditional love is just another scam") and wishes only for the freedom to do what he desires - namely, nothing at all. His aimlessness guides his actions, and when on a whim, he decides to hitchhike out of England, a truck chooses him rather than the other way around, setting in motion a violent series of events that leave him trapped in a totalitarian European country (also unnamed). He must rely on his wits, the kindness of strangers and fortuitous encounters to escape - but, in doing so, changes those around him and most of all himself.
Perhaps others would have fleshed out the ideas contained in this novel to one double the size, but The Society of Others benefits from slimness; hardly a single word is wasted as the illusion of simplicity is deftly maintained. Even seemingly random digressions, such as when our protagonist speaks of an old lover who slept with him "because she couldn't think of a reason not to," illuminate his initial contempt for society and foreshadow the personality alterations that are to come. The novel's climax, set in a concert hall where Mozart's Mass (in C minor) delights a capacity crowd, conveys beauty and godliness in a tangible and accessible manner without ever preaching. In fact, Williamson's gift throughout is that he presents ideas and actions without apparent judgment.
Ultimately, Nicholson's novel succeeds best as a chart of growth. The protagonist begins as a petulant, flailing stereotype of disaffected youth, but through terror and strife - imagined or otherwise - he learns to confront fears of his own or others' making. It isn't so much that he morphs from unlikable to appealing but that he takes the trappings of heroism and makes them his own.
Balancing an entertaining story with larger ideas that cannot be fully solved is beyond the scope of many a novelist, but through talent, breadth of scope or sheer bloody-mindedness, William Nicholson has produced a book that's both a joy to read and intellectually challenging.
Sarah Weinman's crime fiction column appears monthly in the paper. Visit her blog, "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind," at www.sarahweinman.com .