Paul Neilan’s Apathy and Other Small Victories

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a cynical, white twenty-something slacks off at a job that he hates, is completely apathetic towards all his relationships, and routinely indulges in some bizarre activity to let off the steam of living in a fake, consumerist society. No, it’s not Fight Club or Office Space (or pretty much everything made in the 90s); it’s Paul Neilan’s first novel, Apathy and Other Small Victories. Apathy may not be the most innovative book ever published, but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in its sarcastic, brilliant humor, even if it’s a little disappointing in the end.

In the case of Apathy, the cynical, white twenty-something is Shane, a slacker living in a grotesque, distorted parody of modern American life. His apartment complex is inhabited by weird guys like Mobo, a New Age freak who Shane suspects is having sex with his pet guinea pig late at night, and Bryce, the landlord who waives Shane’s rent on the condition that Shane have weekly sex with his wife. Shane’s girlfriend is a physically abusive corporate climber who eventually gets him a job interning at her insurance company. Instead of working and playing along with all the office team-building exercises, however, Shane comes to work drunk everyday and sleeps in the handicapped stall. To escape the drudgery of office life, Shane goes to his shell-shocked dentist Doug nearly everyday, mostly to talk (or, rather, sign) to his deaf assistant Marlene. One day, Marlene is found dead and Shane is the prime suspect, forcing him on a quest to clear his name that covers most of the rest of the book.

The plot is fairly standard modern-jaded-guy stuff-comparable to Palahniuk, with absurdity and gross-out humor to boot-that wraps itself up nicely, if a little pointlessly, in the end. What sets Apathy apart from the pile, however, is how funny it is. Neilan has a gift for bizarre, hilarious descriptions that show character better than any exposition can. Many of these passages actually had me laughing out loud, including my favorite, Shane’s description of his rent-subsidized sex with the landlord’s wife: “We were like two dead fish being slapped together by an off duty clown, swinging us by our tails, both of us slippery and cold, our eyes open and glassy, looking away. That’s about how passionate it was.” I can’t really improve on the phrase “off duty clown sex,” so I’ll just say this: the rest of the book is just as funny.

This ends up being Apathy‘s main problem, though: Shane has all the cynicism and snide remarks of Holden Caulfield or the unnamed Fight Club narrator, but none of the heart. He’s a little sympathetic just because he’s the narrator, but Neilan never really gives Shane the depth to make Apathy anything beyond funny; by the last page, you don’t really care if Shane if guilty or not, or what happens to him. Combine this with a contrived, deus ex machina ending that has Shane uncharacteristically riding off into the sunset, and you get the feeling that Apathy could have been a lot more than it ends up being.

Like its protagonist, Apathy has a lot of failed potential, but, despite its unoriginality, it’s still really hilarious and entertaining. Neilan has a lot of possibility and is definitely an author to watch, but he doesn’t quite pull it off here, besides all the funny bits. Still, I have a hard time holding anything against a book that uses the phrase “off duty clown sex.”


One Response

  1. great review.

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