As soon as I had turned the last page of Deborah Levy’s “The Man Who Saw Everything,” I set the book down and opened up my laptop: I had a lot of research ahead of me. It wasn’t to fill any gaps in my knowledge of the book’s historical, behind-the-iron-curtain context, or to learn more about the Beatles’ photo shoot on Abbey Road, around which the book awkwardly pivots; it was in hopes of making any sense at all of the 200 pages I had just read. I needed to find out if there was a coherent storyline I somehow completely missed, if there were any real characters aside from the protagonist, what the themes were (if any) and so on.
Before I got much further, though, I had to pause and ask myself: Is this something I should have to do? Is the book that requires wholesale outsourcing of reading comprehension even worth trying to understand? I realized that if I was still in the dark after reading the thing cover to cover, perhaps I was always meant to be.
“The Man Who Saw Everything” is a chronically frustrating read. It is the experience of walking up to a storyteller whose confidence has drawn a crowd, but who is several paces into their story by the time you get there and unwilling to restart for you, so the best you can do is stick along for the ride — were this uncomfortable experience rendered in print and drawn out to span hundreds of pages. Here is the information you would encounter as you approach: The year is 1988, and Saul Adler is a historian who specializes in the psychology of male tyrants. He has been granted the privilege of travel to East Berlin for his research, and for his host family’s daughter Luna, he and his photographer girlfriend Jennifer Moreau have planned an elaborate thank you: A recreation of the album art from Abbey Road for the Beatles fanatic Luna Müller is, lone Saul taking place of John, Paul, Goerge and Ringo. But Saul gets clipped by a car when he’s traversing the famous crosswalk, and it all quite lite spins out of control from that (early) point onward.
Granted, Levy did try to make the book that ensues about something. That “something” ranges from the art of photography to surveillance, to history, to memory, to masculinity, to sexuality, to family, to marriage, to parenthood — and while it is as tiring to compose that list as it likely is to read it, sadly, the book reads the same way. Worse yet, by encountering these subjects through the eyes of Levy’s unreliable, underdeveloped and almost unstoried narrator Saul Adler, the gulfs between these subjects are widened rather than creatively bridged. All the energy of the novel, which might have been directed toward Saul’s compellingly fraught relationships with his father and brother, or with the East German love of his life Walter Müller, is absorbed by Levy’s quest to figure out what the book’s about, sparing nothing for narrative momentum or climax.
I think this energy drain helps explain why, so often, Levy’s writing registers as lazy, as unmet potential. One of the strategies with which she tries to cohere her disparate themes is to repeat buzz words and sequences of dialogue. Rather than adding anything to the narrative, however, these have the effect of infantilizing the reader, like those not-so-subtle hints from your teacher that a pop quiz is in store, and that the topic will be the word they keep dramatically emphasizing. For instance, early on, Jennifer makes an observation about her photography that lingers on Saul’s mind: That a “spectre is inside every photograph she developed.” Rather than exploring that concept in subsequent pages, Moreau undermines her own attempt at exploring a thematic question, opting instead to apply the word “spectre” exasperatingly to everything else Saul contemplates, from his father’s death to the distinct scent of Jennifer’s perfume. It is as though Levy fears her readers’ inattention to the point where as long as we remember one word, she’d be content.
I don’t universally condemn the novelist who creates and leaves gaps for their audience to fill. Often, those gaps enact a fruitful contract between writer and reader, promising that meaning can be co-created rather than in one party or the other’s death grip. But the novelist who doesn’t trust their readers enough to tell them anything beyond a meandering list of themes they want to touch on isn’t writing a novel at all; they’re publishing their idea journal and tricking their audience into doing all the work of finishing their thoughts. Deborah Levy is one such novelist, but she got away with it (and was rewarded for it: See this year’s Booker longlist).
What is the bare minimum you expect from your storytellers? Simply one coherent storyline? Or are you more picky, demanding character development or even thematic development of some sort? Would you ask for trust? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with claiming these values, or with requiring more from writers who don’t meet those standards. Ms. Levy, I expect more.