The reviews are in for Sam Savage’s novel, The Cry of the Sloth, and all seemingly unanimous. “The funniest anatomy of literary mediocrity since Max Beerbohm’s Enoch Soames,” writes the London Times, “A triumphant achievement” exclaims Kirkus, “Like a punch in the solar plexus,” states Bookslut. I’d been curious to read what others thought of Savage’s follow up to his successful Firmin; it had come to me heavily hyped and I so wanted to love it. But I don’t love it – though I admire its crackling, intelligent prose – so I wonder, is it me?
Savage’s characterization of a small-town literary wannabe during four months of the Nixon era is a funny expose of a mediocre scribbler’s attempt to pursue a life of the mind. Whittaker funds his literary pretensions and writer’s block by renting dilapidating real estate. He is self-absorbed, sad, lonely, delusional and harmless – who has no idea that his letters are so much more moving and articulate than his torpid, mannered novel-in-progress.
The book unfolds through correspondence and diaries, none more amusing than Whittaker’s responses to submissions to his journal, Soap. I chuckled and cringed, having been both the executor and recipient of just such heartless missives, though I’d never be so frank as to admit “I turned down your last submission due to its lack of merit, the fact that you are Canadian has nothing to do with it.” My particular favorite is the following, which describes the occupational hazard of being an editor: “Reading this new material was like walking on a thick pile of soggy sheetrock. One thinks, after finishing one interminable sentence, with no verb or subject in the offing, and having finally reached the relative safety of a full stop, that one will just not have enough strength for the next sentence, not enough willpower to haul a clogged boot out of the sticky mess and heave it forward into yet more mess, until one finally really can’t, and doesn’t, at which point one lets the whole thing slide off one’s lap and onto the floor.”
Nevertheless, Savage’s book is deeply sad. “There is a mildew on everything,” Whittaker writes, “and I myself am feeling quite mossy in spots.” Whittaker is a man who knows his life is slipping away from him, each precious day sacrificed by inertia, “We make choices so early,” he contends, “on the basis of practically no information, and then we end up with these different lives that we are really stuck with. It is all so depressing.” Yes, it is. Unlike Ignatius Reilly (from A Confederacy of Dunces) with whom one reviewer compared him, Whittaker knows his schemes are ridiculous and lacks the self-deluded, bullet-proof ego that could save him from perceiving his own tragedy.
His inevitable decline is exactly that – inevitable. And although the reader can’t predict the exact trajectory of his descent, Savage’s smarts can’t quite compensate for this lack of surprise. I began to skim about a quarter from the end. Why are we still kicking this man, I thought, when he is already down? Could this be another novel that may have functioned better as a novella? The Cry of the Sloth is a masterfully executed exercise in irony (and an astute portrait of melancholia) that keeps going long, long after its painful point has been made.
(As an afterthought, The Cry of the Sloth is an epistalory novel, and I wonder if this was part of its challenge for me. The epistolary form is hard to master: it necessitates distancing the reader from the action while simultaneously risking the sometimes-suffocating intimacy of the first person. I can only think of three that really worked for me: Dracula by Bram Stoker and parts of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, both appealing because of their 19th century thriller hokiness, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, because the reader tends to forget its form as the book progresses.)