Will Carver has had enough. His last book, which seemed to call for a more involved kind of humanity, saw the development of Psychopaths Anonymous merchandise for gleeful fans of its misanthropic protagonist. So this time, Carver blows it all up: in The Daves Next Door we are present while a potential suicide bomber wrestles with the idea of free will. Merch your way out of that one. (Spoiler alert: maybe a branded screwdriver might be appropriate.) Daves is a serious book, masquerading as one that is not, masquerading as one that is (repeat to fade). It is philosophical, like its characters it is weary, and it is happy to load up the snark just as it challenges its readers and then berates them for taking the challenges at face value.
Carver doesn’t so much address the fourth wall as construct a fifth and a sixth. He explores the idea of interconnecting human stories, from which both tragedy and triumph can emerge. A nurse, worn down by her calling and her past, is both inspired and an inspiration. There are guardian angels, out to accelerate a death so they can better afford their rent. There are characters whose stories are defined by their relationship with others – such as a widower’s son and the son’s wife – and those who try to define themselves.
Carver and his narrator are having none of it – any of it. The narrator is grappling with their own philosophical musings. They don’t know if the mission on which they are embarked is any good or not, or even if they will go through with it. So they ask us questions, about our preconceptions of who they are, their religion (if they have one) or their motivation. And they ask us questions. And they ask us some more. We scream that we’ve had enough. But then it’s half implied that we were idiots for taking them seriously in the first place. Was this what the pioneers of post-modern fiction had in mind? See, this question thing is catching.
The question above all, is what to take seriously and what not. Carver’s narrator apologises that they haven’t bothered to make the characters relatable, except that maybe they have. There is a set of lyrics for a song that someone’s listening to, and I think about looking them up. The following page asks what was the song that the neighbour was listening to. We know we’re being played with. The nearest we get to truth is when the narrator has had enough of whimsical folk philosophy and cod motivational language. And yet Carver’s narrator skirts around what truth might be, before dismissing it in a way that makes you think that this is what would be important, if the narrator would let it.
And we return to the characters, who are more interesting than they’re supposed to be. Dealing with mental ill health, devastated by grief, beaten to a pulp by racists on the tube, just ordinary people in middle age, they are on one level fairly unexplored. They are described and dismissed. They are the sort of characters that do not expect to make it into a novel. But they are compared relatively kindly compared against Mary, a conspiracy theorist on social media who is both ordinary and a sociological cliché. And in a 12-way denouement that leans in to the butterfly effect, it’s pointed out that trauma can lead to great things, but often doesn’t. And ‘the problem with the conclusion of any story is that it is not the same for everyone. We are a specifies unified by tragedy, disconnected through apathy.’ It’s a bleak picture.
Answering all of the questions – those expressly posed and those implied – in The Daves Next Door would be a task with no point. Weirdly, that becomes one of the novel’s key strengths. Quite often a novel is quite explicit about what the writer wants the reader to think and where they want us to go. Carver wants us to go, but he’s sure not to tell us where. He tears down our hope, challenges us to build it up again and tells us we’ve got to figure it out ourselves. It’s an unusual approach but one which is entirely typical of this atypical author.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.