Friday, October 22, 2010
Full disclosure: the author is a friend of mine.
The ability of people at a certain age to use their friends as a surrogate family, especially if they have friends of both genders with different enough personalities to serve various roles within the group, is something that has been noted more than once and not just on sitcoms. But in large cities, the dynamic is different as you have to spend much of your time in close proximity with people you, at best, are indifferent to or, at worst, actively dislike. Pariah is a novel about people who are forced by circumstances (read “zombies”) to depend on people they don’t like very much just to survive. It is an active demonstration of Satre’s idea that “Hell is other people.”
Trapped within an apartment building by streets full of the walking dead, the characters become parodies of urban dwellers who can’t make or do anything themselves because they assume they can always buy whatever they want from a store. Cut off from any stores, they have little else to do but slowly waste away and turn on each other with what little energy they have left. This state of dwindling entropy is eventually interrupted by an inversion of the archetypal modern urban horror story, the murder of Kitty Genovese. In 1964, Ms. Genovese was attacked and ultimately murdered after coming home from her job as a bar manager. It was reported that many of her neighbors heard her scream for help but did nothing because they did not want to get involved. The case became the perfect symbol of how callous and selfish people are in big cities. As is often the case, the truth was more complex and more interesting. One of Genovese’s neighbors did yell down and in fact frightened her attacker away for a while. Another neighbor phoned the police. Later sociological experiments inspired by the case indicated that the more people who are involved in a situation, the less responsibility or control any one individual feels. If something traumatic happens in front of you and no one else is around, you feel the full responsibility of the situation. But if the same event happened and you are part of a crowd, you are more likely to leave the responsibility to someone else. It’s not that “we don’t want to get involved” but “we don’t know what to do but hope someone else will take care of this.”
As mentioned, Pariah breaks the stasis of its trapped apartment dwellers wasting away by introducing Mona, who is the opposite of Kitty Genovese. Instead of being attacked while her neighbors watch, Mona is able to walk the streets without harm, surrounded by the zombies yet somehow repelling them. She is safer in the streets than the people are in their apartment building. It’s not long before she becomes their delivery person, at first picking up the bare necessities like food and water, but soon going on expeditions for items to pass the time and entertain. But once someone’s situation is no longer life-threatening, are they necessarily going to be a better person? How much of our actions are determined by our surroundings?
My only complaints with Pariah have to do with the pacing. The novel is made of three sections and I read it in three sittings, which probably accounts for my sense of impatience with the first third of the book, despite its merits. To wit: it’s hard to keep a situation of hopelessly trapped characters interesting for a length of time. Fingerman uses flashbacks, plot twists and comic scenes to get around this, but my enthusiasm for the book didn’t really begin until Mona’s appearance. I think the final third is the strongest section of the book, as Fingerman’s vision of hell as other people, both living and dead, comes to dominate.