Usually, a large part of the decision to read or not to read a particular book rests on what that book is presented as ‘being about’. Interviewers spend a good deal of time trying to prise this ‘aboutness’ out of an author. Blurb writers are presumably graduates of some secret course where they learned the occult skills of Alchemical Literature, distilling sloshy gallons of words down to a couple of pipette-able drops of essence.
The problem of ‘aboutness’ is that a lot of clarifying attention seemingly has to be paid to plot, or at the very least the author/blurber/reviewer needs to avoid straying too far into abstractedness. We need a few lines about the main character(s) and a taste of what’s going to happen to them. Then, thus grounded, we might be susceptible to a few words like ‘alienation’, ‘community’ or ‘redemption.’
But Rus Like Everyone else doesn’t lend itself easily to this process. For a start, although the book is ostensibly about the eponymous Rus, that ‘Everyone Else’ in the title isn’t there just for show; there’s a huge host of complex characters that have all got complex stuff going on for them. And whenever I tried to summarise Rus’s story or do a quick sketch of the other characters, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d done them all a disservice, as if I’d somehow trivialised them. In fact, I couldn’t help but read my words in the style of that bassoon-voiced guy who features on all the trailers for feel-good Hollywood hits of the summer:
Meet Rus. He’s a twenty-something guy who’s been living in an illegal structure. He’s surviving off the debit card his mother left him when she and her lover ‘followed the birds’. His daily joy is a trip to Starbucks. But Rus is about to get a letter. And that’s going to everything.
Or the following character summations: An old woman who is incredibly invested in a day-time tele-novella. A war veteran convinced that he is being monitored from a white van outside his house who also has trouble deciding whether his green suit and yellow blouse is appropriate attire for a war memorial ceremony. A secretary who wakes one day to find she can no longer see colours. A man in a coma who dreams he is the Queen’s gardener.
Aside from it being difficult to say what the book is about, the main problem was a sudden suspicion of any authority I had to say anything, plus a scepticism about the accuracy and intelligibility of anything I did say. (I realise that in admitting this—as a reviewer—I’ve shot myself in the foot so many times that I’ll never be able to get through airport security unmolested again.)
Then I started to wonder if there wasn’t something in Rus Like Everyone Else that accounted for this feeling. Stay with me here. The nearest I can get to it is to say that reading the book made me feel keenly one of the many weird paradoxes of being human, i.e. that we seem so different and so similar at the same time. We are both deeply strange and deeply familiar to one another. This probably affects how we communicate. That’s not a particularly profound or original statement, but then again, I don’t think that a lot of great literature has to broadcast profound or original statements. Rather, it can remind us of what we already know or feel, and make us feel or know it more intensely. Rus Like Everyone Else made me feel both how separate and how connected people are. It’s short chapters jump between characters, and sometimes some of these characters come together and flourish, escaping from their loneliness; other times they come together and enhance each other’s loneliness; and other times the connections between them are present but ambiguous.
I’m still feeling the after-effects of that heightened awareness as I (try to) write this review. Scientific Equation: I read X so now I’m thinking Y. Layman’s terms: The book did something to my brain. Excuse to the author and this magazine’s editor: The book made me do it. Now I’m thinking that here I am, a stranger, with the job of telling you—another stranger—whether or not you should read this book. But I don’t mind admitting this. I’m honoured and privileged to have read a book that made me feel honest enough with myself to hold my hands up in front of you and say ‘I can’t neatly explain why, but I think you should read this book.’
Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Edinburgh, producing short fiction and reviews for various publications. Along with his partner he runs The Rookery in The Bookery, a website dedicated to the review of translated fiction.
Rus Like Everyone Else was published by Unnamed Press in November 2015.
Note: A short story by Bette Adriaanse was published in Structo issue eight, and we interviewed her about her début novel here. We ask our book reviewers to be equally critical of books by authors who have appeared in the magazine as books by authors who have not.