Today’s quandary: to review a Nick Walker novel is to spoil the pleasure of reading one. In fact, it’s difficult to enjoy even a second read, compared to chewing over the vivid complete picture it has left in your mind. I was lucky, picking up Black Box and Helloland together with a handful of other secondhand books, and in the weeks they sat on my to-read pile I forgot their spoilery blurbs.
Thus: the short version: worth reading, just not on a flight. Trust me on that caveat.
Walker has a consistent style, presenting snippets of a disparate group of people, grounded in one method of information dispersal. In Black Box, the method is a series of audio and videotapes, and in Helloland, calls through a hotel switchboard. The stories move through one story in “real time”—a transatlantic flight or one morning shift in reception—interspersed with flashbacks. The effect is playful even when the subject matter is grim, a winking reference to the flashback episodes of slight tv sitcoms, and reflects an internal discipline that imposes artificial frameworks for the challenge of solving them in prose.
The experience of reading is similar to putting together a massive puzzle on a rickety card table. Opening the book dumps a mess of unrelated colors and shapes in your lap. The spare wording offers a few clues to latch onto and set aside. Then, a flashback puts together a corner and two borders begin to stretch along the table’s north and east borders. Characters form just enough to fill the bulk in ourselves. The final chunks fall into place more quickly than hands can put grooves and protuberances together and the full picture becomes obvious—shocking and unintuitive, but obvious once complete.
This archly postmodern style will enthral or repel the reader within five pages.
Both novels thematically centre on the temporary escape of travelling, specifically travelling in climate-controlled technological wonders that create an artificial world—one that could seem like slipping into heaven compared to the chaos of the natural world below. Each also offers the hidden threat, or enticement, of death in the hostile airless vacuum that surrounds it. What brings people to escape or die, indifferent chance or the malicious actions of others? In all situations, others are blamed for the work of fate and vice versa, while those affected stagnant in obsession with their traumatic moment.
Those who focus on the past, demanding remittance or trying to make amends, are doomed; escape is only possible for those who forget and choose to live without past or future.
One glaring flaw in both novels: relationships fall apart in grandly realised detail, but characters come together because one has nursed a resentful crush and sufficient wacky, offputting events have passed between them—which the object of affection ignores without explanation rather than quickly changing her address and routines. All of these objects would be played by Natalie Portman—unbelievably pretty and blandly quirky, with no awareness of her attractiveness or potential solo success: the educated boy’s fantasy girl.
This affect, however, is potentially balanced by the choking cynicism of both books. All lives begin as compressed and plagued by unsatisfying human connections—palpable pain of life ticking away unlived—and most pathetically focus on the magic bullet of a new relationship or affair with someone they barely know, more fantasy than reality. Other people’s wants and thoughts don’t exist in their plans.
The connections that do form—if weakly made—are meant to contract that futility. Does it matter more that the relationships won’t last beyond the final page or first honest conversation, or that in connecting at all, both partners have stepped out of their solipsistic malaise? Only outside the navelgazing of one’s past and current needs lies any hope for a future.