The Outgoing Man, by Glen Neath (review)

Glen Neath The Outgoing Man   Portobello Books £9.99 paperback

Here’s a first novel about a man who doesn’t know why he’s following whose orders, who doesn’t know why he’s stuck in the hotel to which he’s been led, who exists in an anonymous space run by anonymous authorities, who may or may not be political assassins, and who include figures with names like X or D. Sound familiar?

Yes, The Outgoing Man is a Trial re-run. It’s Kafka-lite, almost completely shorn of any obvious purpose, other than to take us on an entertaining journey through the vaguely conscious mind of its central, unnamed figure. Technically, the novel consists of two “postcards” sent by a former “outgoing” man from some sort of safe house to an “incoming man” who has supplanted him, an incoming man who is in the process of being supplanted himself. Almost nothing is made of this framing device. Almost nothing is made, either, of the way in which what is described in the first “postcard” is the first leg, and I stress, leg, of a journey (variously to Sole, Neefoundland, Thiland and very near Cnut. There is even a sort of cod-Sterne map provided unless we miss these wretched puns. This part of the trip gives paronomasia a bad name).

There are no chapters in the two monologues, just pauses. Any sane reader would be screaming, Give us a break, and a decent one. It’s like being stuck in a lift with a deadpan comedian, waiting for a punchline which never comes. You have to keep going, or you risk losing any grip of what is (or isn’t) going on.

Nonetheless, Neath is a promising writer. His nameless narrator – thick in the way that Gus is thick in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, which its situation sometimes resembles – is a genuine creation. His bewildered, usually slightly embarrassed account of events, particularly of a cack-handed attempt at seduction, is very cleanly and clearly rendered, and there are some nice, surreal turns of phrase (“my lungs were folded up and stuffed into the top of my shirt”). Once it’s clear that novel’s going nowhere in particular, it’s enjoyable as a parody of almost every Kafka-Pinter nightmare you’ve ever read. Instead of satirising the faceless, featureless environments – Neath is good at erasing the background, which is a hard stunt to pull – the novel concentrates on making mock of its narrator. The fun here is following the bumbling brain-waves of the speaker.

This isn’t a novel from which you’ll learn anything. It’s peculiarly pointless, all surface, enjoying itself by subverting the genre, and testing itself with a little experiment at the end. Artful and cheerily disposable, it might be called “Who cares what happened to Joseph K.?” That’s the 21st century for you.


From The Independent