A sequel to Death of a Superhero, Anthony McCarten’s new novel In the Absence of Heroes relocates the Delpes from New Zealand to Watford, North London to tell the story of a family playing out their grief in a techno-saturated reality. The novel begins with a list of statistics about contemporary internet usage which, depending on your own online savvy, will strike you as either alarming or taken-for-granted: 50% of the people online lie about their age, weight, job, marital status and gender; 20% of the people going online will experience negative impacts on their life; use of the internet is a contributing factor in nearly 50% of all relationships and family problems; 11% of people going online are becoming compulsive or addicted; women are now online more than men.
In the Absence of Heroes is most compelling in those moments when it relents and takes a breather from driving home its message. The scenes at Blackstable Cottage, which treat us to thoughtful and often surprising interior monologues of Jim, offer reprieves from the exploration of technology’s influence in our lives. In the countryside, away from the suffocating influence of London and the slightly one-dimensional presence of Renata, the prose yields a bit. Minor but welcome turns of thought surface in which Jim begins to come alive as an unpredictable presence. Pulling into the cottage one Friday evening, for instance, Jim looks at the house that is the decisive symbol of the career he has spent his life constructing, and he sees something he has not before: ‘Jim barely recognises this house he now owns. What had been its appeal?’ In this question, we see a glimpse of a gorgeous little awakening. Jim, free of the constraints of the plotline, happens upon what seems almost like an independent thought. In moments such as this one and the brief scene at the trout pool, Jim Delpe becomes a character capable of what the writer Grace Paley has called ‘the open destiny of life’.
In the end, fiction is the mental and emotional experience of character. There can be no doubt that ideas are important to us as readers, but in fiction moral workouts are secondary pleasures rather than driving forces. While I never lost interest in the question of the centre of In The Absence of Heroes, I did on occasion wish I could put the issue of technology aside so that I could get down to what was most human in the novel: the troubled emotional sea that the Delpes happen to be navigating with the assistance of pixels and megabytes. There is something in the novel’s relentless obsession with the digital divide that comes across as a tic rather than a trope, and by the last chapters of the book I found myself praying for a power outage.
THOMAS GOUGH is the pen name of Thom Conroy, who lectures in Creative Writing and English Literature at Massey University in Palmerston North. His fiction has been published widely in New Zealand and the United States and recognised in Best American Short Stories 2011.