The Anonymous City by Benjamin S. Farmer

Writing a meditation on mental illness isn’t easy, and it’s not a subject an author can lightly dispose of with an afternoon’s work. In this case, the story and writing does a good job of attuning the reader’s mind to the oppressive uncertainty and madness that afflicts the main character. As a tool for nurturing empathy in the reader, this book is a success. As a work of fiction, however, this novel has severe shortcomings. The story is awkwardly paced and there’s not one iota of levity to be found. As a result, the book is difficult and exhausting to read.

At its best, the book pulled me in with its grim tone and the main character, Alex’s, fading grip on reality. The author does a great job of conveying how Alex feels by keeping the reader confused as to what’s real for a good portion of the book. Towards the end, there’s a particularly clever bit where it turns out one of the most significant moments in her adult life was a cruel prank that, because she believed it to be real, pushed her into an inescapable spiral.

The author also shows how different people try to help Alex and fail miserably. The character who comes the closest doesn’t really enter her life until late in the game, and by then he’s about as ineffectual as his good intentions. I left the book with a sense that Alex was always going to have a difficult time dealing with the issues she had, but a parade of misguided people that failed to properly help her greatly exacerbated her issues.

Either they wouldn’t listen, refused to look head on at the full scope of her illness, or tried to fall into it with her in false sympathy instead of buckling down for the long haul it would take to work things out. The tragedy is Alex seems like she could have made it if just one or two people had done the right thing at the right time in her life. So, as I’ve said, the book is an interesting meditation on mental illness.

Unfortunately, the pacing is completely off. The entire first portion of the book is set in a different world, however real it may be, than the bulk of the book. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but the author lingered there for too long. The book is seven hundred pages on an e-reader, and it took until past page 100 before it really engaged me. The rest of the book was better, but it should have been shorter than it was. By how much, I can’t say, but there was a lot of fat where the author kept conveying messages that he’d already successfully communicated to the reader.

The pacing and length became quite problematic as the book wore on because there was never any relief for the reader. There was never a sweet moment, a bit of humor, a breath of fresh air, only longing, despair, and suffering. Although this effectively put the reader in Alex’s mindset and allowed for a great deal of empathy, it also made it exceptionally hard to read the book. It took me two weeks longer than I expected because I would have to spend several days working myself up to read just a hundred pages of it. Each time I did, I felt gutted and drained afterward.

Let’s be clear: in this sort of book, you want to do that to your reader. But doing it for the entire novel, without relief, weakens the narrative. It would be not only appropriate but necessary if this was a short story because you have to use every sentence to make a single point in one. In a novel, however, moments of levity are necessary to keep the reader going. It’s not so much about mirroring reality as it using the appropriate mechanics to make a book readable. It’s the same reason Shakespeare put the drunk in Macbeth, or the gravediggers in Hamlet. There is a somewhat positive, hopeful note at the very end, but there needed to be something prior to the last page.

I’m giving this novel the rating I am because it made me think, it hung with me whenever I put it down, and it disturbed me. That’s not to say it was a good book. It wasn’t. But it wasn’t bad either, and any time a book gets inside my head like this one did it’s a sign the author has real talent. I give it a 3/5.

You can pick up a copy from Amazon here.

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