Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Hidden Life of Humans: An In-Depth Look Into Nothing

A Review By: Amelia
I judge books by their cover. I try not to do it all the time, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Sometimes it’s a great experience, sometimes it leaves me just feeling shallow for having been so stupid as to fall for a pretty cover in the first place! The Hidden Life of Humans is a book whose cover I judged and decided to read because of it. With a close angle shot of a big dog (who is, frankly, adorable) I figured it would at least be an experience. Unfortunately, it was a rather boring one.

Single and on the downhill side of forty, Dana Jaeger isn’t exactly where she thought she would be with her life. Her ex-husband is slowly dying, an unlikely romance with a P.I. is testing any limits she believes herself to have, and a dog she’s agreed to dog-sit–a mutt capable of consuming lawn movers–she begins to look a little deeper and see that maybe this is not entirely where she should be. She looks past who is she to try and find the promise that lie between who she is, who she claims to be, and who she might yet become.

Erika Ritter, the author of the piece is a Canadian playwright and humorist. She writes from experiences that she’s had but she also studied drama at McGill and the University of Toronto so she knows how to embellish and tell a good story. She’s written and hosted programming for CBC Radio, two of her plays have been produced at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, and she has several published novels.

The two main characters of the piece are Dana, a forty year old, unmarried woman who’s a hack writer for a corny television show and the only relationships she has are weekend affairs with married men (a group she’s dubbed The Marrieds), and Murphy, an untrained dog that’s big enough to use a lawnmower as a chew toy but also has a mired of deep, undog-like thoughts that he needs to contemplate. They’re an interesting pair in premise, but together in the novel they always felt a little disjointed from each other. I guess that’s what the author was going for as Dana contemplates her life from her point of view and Murphy contemplates his from his. They also contemplate each other’s lives which could have been hilarious. Personally, I just felt it all a little hackneyed, like Ritter had thought about the jokes a little too much and gone with her sixth choice instead of her first.  

The whole novel takes place in Montreal, Canada in Dana’s rented, slovenly town house. There are a few parts where there’s a dream sequence in a strange place, or a car ride with one of Dana’s few friends or many ex-lovers but those are few and far apart. It’s actually kind of disappointing to have such a beautiful and lively city as Montreal be so misused by an author. Dana’s place is fine–it fits her character well–but to have so little else in the story, well, it just seemed like a waste to me. It, like the humour, felt hackneyed. Here’s a character that doesn’t know what they’re doing with their life so let’s make sure they live in a dirty apartment and don’t venture out much. It’s a character archetype that’s hard to do anything new with, if you know what I’m saying.

The novel’s main selling point was a supposed to be a poignant look at the “human condition” through Dana’s eyes and that of straight-forward, no-nonsense Murphy the dog. Through these two characters we do get a glimpse of human nature that maybe we hadn’t thought about before, but beyond Dana and Murphy, the path gets a little muddled. There’s Carl, a lying lover, Mark, the gay and dying ex-husband, Karen, a loud-mouthed, multiple personality stand up comic that doesn’t get comedy – it all just felt really extreme. Dana’s character was very low-key and these other characters (especially the insufferable Karen) get in the way and never really add anything of their own. They’re kind of just mindless space filler to make the book appear more alive than it really is because, although this is a book that appears fleshed out (for lack of a clearer or more concise way to put it) it really isn’t.

The Hidden Life of Humans is a strange book. I didn’t like it all that much, but I didn’t hate it either. My main problem was that it didn’t really offer anything profound to how I look at the world around me and that was the book’s whole selling point! It kind of tricks you into thinking it is with a human protagonist that’s–quote, unquote–not doing so well so she appears a lot more insightful than she really is, and a dog protagonist which is just ridiculous enough a concept to keep you from realizing that what he’s saying, isn’t exactly philosophical.

My final thoughts on The Hidden Life of Humans is that it’s bland. Readable, but bland. You’ve got characters that have “real-life problems”, but those real-life problems are just so plain. Dana is a forty something who sleeps with married men, yeah, well, so what? None of her actions ever come back to bite her in the ass so all those unsavoury affairs are just useless details implanted to make her feel more fleshed out than perhaps she really is. The book is kind of just a big in-depth look into nothing. But, I suppose since it’s a book about life for a mostly average person, an in-depth look into nothing rings pretty true to form.

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