If the old standard of “showing versus telling” is really the cornerstone of fiction, then The Nihilist is about twenty-five percent story and seventy-five philosophical treatise. The actual story in this novel (and I’m resisting the urge to put the word novel in quotes) is couched somewhere between slim and nonexistent. The book honestly seems to be little more than a vehicle for the author to expound on his philosophical viewpoints. Page after page after page of them, be it in straight dictation to the reader, or in stiff, unrealistic verbal debate between the main character and someone, anyone else.
The main character is an ex-punk who eventually marries his college sweetheart and becomes a tenured philosophy professor. He has a few buddies from his punk days, back when they were in a band called, you guessed it—Nihilism. He talks with them. They debate. He talks with his wife. They philosophize. He teaches his students. They discuss issues pertaining to philosophy. Everything from death, to life’s purpose, to fiction, to the grading of papers, to the purpose behind dreams is discussed in exhausting philosophical detail.
Yet, hardly anything of note actually happens, which is kind of infuriating for a novel, you know? You never get a particularly good sense of anyone’s inner life because everything reads so stiff and robotic and academic. People converse like term papers. Even the wacky anecdotes about the nameless professor’s punk days are so bland and formulaic any potential velocity is totally robbed. I mean, yes, okay—eventually the protagonist develops stomach troubles, mourns the death of his friends, shits his pants, shoots fire from his nipples… but it’s all to the rich cadence of so much navel-gazing. It’s virtually impossible to care.
Philosophy and fiction are at odds with each other because one is about showing, and the other is about espousing one’s theories. Theories win here: pages and pages and pages pass without any dialogue or advancement of the story. I really do hate to bag on someone’s work, but pages of academic rumination on the meaning (or lack of meaning) of life does not make for compelling fiction, whether or not you warn people in the subtitle of your novel or not.
It’s possible that Marmysz is an excellent philosophy professor. In fact, I’d bet on it. He certainly knows his material, and he’s clearly given these issues a lot of thought. But if one is going to use fiction as a vehicle for ideas, there’s got to be as much story as there is documenting and essaying and expounding. And The Nihilist has way, way too much of one and not remotely enough of the other. –Keith Rosson (No Frills Buffalo, 119 Dorchester Rd., Buffalo, NY 14213)