Personal turmoil, terrorism, a haunted past and a future that’s slipping away like a fistful of sand: Steven Gillis has made a valiant attempt with his second novel, “The Weight of Nothing.” While the Ann Arbor native’s first book, “Walter Falls” was met with critical acclaim; his second endeavor struggles to deliver a repeat performance.
Gillis’ latest work details a rough patch in Bailey Finne’s life. A talented musician, he languishes in graduate school far too long because he refuses to finish his dissertation. Readers learn the details of Bailey’s mother’s death and his father’s inability to overcome it, as well as the impact the situation has on him and his older brother. Bailey finds himself in and out of troubled love and facing a looming expulsion from his graduate program. He befriends Niles Kelly, a troubled somnambulist and philosophy student, who must cope with losing his true love as well as his father after a terrorist explosion. Both Bailey and Niles lack the stability of loving parents and lose themselves after the loss of their loves. Bailey wanders around aimlessly, while Niles slashes himself in his sleep. The two seek out closure together in Algiers but end up on different paths.
Overall, Gillis effectively weaves together seemingly unrelated narratives. For most of the novel, his writing feels effortless as he combines layers from at least three perspectives into a rich and in-depth narrative. His strong voice never gets in the way of the story and is subtly nuanced with important additions that create a third dimension of the two main characters.
An exciting plot strengthens “The Weight of Nothing.” The micro-stories that make up the larger narrative are compelling in their own right, keeping the reader interested. But Gillis eventually loses steam, disappointing involved readers with an ending that seems too contrived. Bailey and Niles’ behavior in the end seems out of character. Gillis lets the puppeteer strings show as Niles’ story climaxes and Bailey’s resolution ignores the emotional weight instilled in previous events.
One wonders about the stereotypes that this work could perpetuate. The terrorist responsible for the death of Niles’ father is as flat a character as they come. Fox News might advocate this kind of portrayal, but educated readers should be insulted. Osamah Said Almend, an anti-American engineer cast as a Muslim, is driven not just by his hatred of American greed and wastefulness, but also apparently a bad one-night stand. He is never developed into a real character — he’s just a bad plot device that Gillis tries to legitimize by giving him stereotypical traits. This unfortunate choice detracts from the overall effectiveness of the plot and can make Osamah’s story tedious to read. Overall, Gillis writes well, and his main characters are believable. “The Weight of Nothing” is a quick and enjoyable read despite a few significant shortcomings.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars