In the fifty-five years since Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, his ideas have been embraced by a proliferating cadre of postmodern writers and thinkers who view meaning and truth as mutable and identity as fluid. Barthes’s core supposition that the authority vested in the creator of a text is chimerical, that the act of writing is not to be elevated above any other interpretive act, has altered theoretical preconceptions of the relationship between author, text, and reader. “We know,” Barthes wrote, “that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” In this conceptual philosophy, the reader, not the author, is the “antihero” who, in the words of Jonathan Culler, “has rid himself of the fear of self-contradiction.”
While not a poststructuralist in the pure mode of Barthes, Toronto writer Naben Ruthnum enjoys problematizing the notion of authorial identity in both his work and his own persona. The author of two bestselling thrillers under the nom-de-plume Nathan Ripley, he elucidates his motivation for using the pseudonym in a coda to his 2017 volume of cultural criticism, Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race:
While my decision to write thrillers under the pseudonym I made up when I was fourteen – basing the last name on Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien and the first on the simplest WASP analogue of my name – came from my desire to write crime and horror fiction alongside my literary fiction, to have two simultaneous careers like Iain Banks or John Banville, I knew the audience could see it another way. They could interpret me as trading one genre for another, avoiding the currybooks that would come “naturally” to me by assuming an identity that I could write anything from – a white identity.
“Currybooks” is Ruthnum’s shorthand for the stereotypical novel expected from writers of South Asian descent, redolent of spices and colourful local costumes, that artificially restricts what subjects or settings such writers are able to address in their published work. “[A]s the tropes and genre conventions around books by South Asian authors have accumulated … the expectations for what brown writers are supposed to do in their work have narrowed,” Ruthnum writes. Far from satisfying these external expectations, Ruthnum/Ripley has always been interested in charting his own path regardless of what the market demands, though he has been equally forthright about the importance of his South Asian heritage to his outlook as both a writer and a human being.
And yet his relationship to authorship is complex, both in terms of his adopted persona as a writer of thrillers and his approach to more literary fiction. In his first literary novel under his own name, Ruthnum employs a layered approach to narration that not only obscures his position as authority, but calls into question the very stability of the work we are reading. Told in the first person from the perspective of Osman Shah, an employee of a tech company called AAP, which creates software for use in universities, A Hero of Our Time constantly undercuts its own narrative by calling attention to its fictive nature, not just in terms of its status as a novel per se, but also in the way the events of the story are recollected and collated in Osman’s mind.
What we are reading is not a first-person account of events as they occurred, but a fictional construction at two removes. The text of A Hero of Our Time is explicitly identified as a written document constructed over an extended period of time by Osman, who adopts the mantle of “author” in the work. He defines what he is writing not as memoir but fiction: “Making a novel is teaching me something,” he asserts at the close of part one. “It’s almost impossible not to lade a scene or a memory with grim foreknowledge.” This is a testament to the godlike authority of the author, who, pace Barthes, is in a position to insert into a work hints and foreshadowings of things to come because, as creator, this god figure has an omniscient view of a narrative that is withheld from a reader, at least on a first reading.
But it is important to note that the so-called authority here, the person asserting a privileged access to the entire story arc in the book, is not Ruthnum himself, but his creation, Osman. It is Osman who is fictionalizing his own experience – crafting and shaping it into scenes and a story with a discernible beginning, middle, and end – leaving the reader buried under successive layers of psychic distance.
And this is before getting into questions of Osman’s relative reliability as a narrator. To what extent are we to take Osman’s stories or confessions at face value? As an employee of a tech company who is conversant in the efficacy of narrative to implant a desired idea or emotion in his interlocutor’s head – to say nothing of his stated approach to creating a novel, or novel-like work, in the course of unfolding his story, what is reliable and what is ambiguous at best?
One thing that seems reasonably certain about Osman is his extreme self-loathing, a character trait manifested most obviously in his low body image. Overweight and prone to flop sweats, Osman is constantly castigating himself for what he sees as his physical inadequacies. He worries over his “oily face, impregnated with its sebum custard, and the souring mollusk pheromone stench that drifted through the helpless cloth over [his] armpits.” When he removes his t-shirt he marvels at his “rolls frowning over each other,” and when he cries, “albumen tracers of sob snot” dribble from his nose. Over the course of the book, Osman subjects himself to some of the most vicious descriptions of physical grotesquerie this side of a Martin Amis novel.
Osman’s self-flagellating evaluation of his physique and deportment is “tiresome to read about, to hear about,” he confesses in one of the novel’s metatextual addresses to the implied reader. He chalks his obsession up to his inability to escape from the confines of his physicality: “Whether I’m round with skin so stretched it bruises purple simply by coming in contact with existence, or whether my bulges flatten so quickly that I’m flat over my skeleton and my skin hangs off me like a folded collection of elephant ears underneath my sweaters, this is where I’ll be when they come for me, this is where I’ll be found.” It’s a realization that takes on a particular irony in that the first time we encounter Osman, he is telling a self-deprecating story about being harassed by airport security as a result of his skin tone.
He uses his South Asian appearance in the context of a humorous tale meant to disarm his listeners; he is stymied when one of his AAP colleagues, a white woman named Olivia Robinson, appropriates his anecdote for the purposes of a subversive power play. “Instead of feeling abject, targeted – which, totally, I understand you are – what about feeling how scared of you people are?” Olivia asks, simultaneously demonstrating performative wokeness by way of her apposite interjection and neutralizing the power Osman’s story proffered for him. “Isn’t it powerful that there are spaces in this world where you’re not you, but a menace? No one’s ever scared of me.” This is Olivia, who will become the book’s central antagonist, at her most conniving. She makes a claim for the power Osman wields by virtue of causing others to be afraid in public – a dubious use of power to begin with – while also making her the aggrieved centre of the story.
The approach is typical of Olivia’s snake-in-the-grass method of using her racialized colleagues – in addition to Osman, she pulls similar stunts with Nena Zadeh-Brot and, particularly egregiously, the wheelchair-bound Vikram Chandra – as pawns in her single-minded pursuit of power and prestige at AAP. Complete with a biography that includes surviving cancer, Olivia is preternaturally adept at locating where people’s sympathies lie and using or undermining this for her own purposes. She is a figure of hatred for Osman, who can’t understand why Nena refuses to disavow her erstwhile friendship with Olivia, whom she hired and about whom she retains a more clear-eyed attitude than most: “[I]t’s too late to do anything about Olivia,” Nena tells Osman. “She’s just going to happen.”
How Olivia happens provides fodder for much of the satire in A Hero of Our Time. Her strategy in selling AAP’s products to Anthony Mockton, an administrator at a college the company is targeting, is to make him fear for the future of his institution and his own job; this is done in part by Osman interjecting a story Nena had related about a disgruntled sessional lecturer who killed himself in his car. Police found an unloaded AR-15 rifle in the deceased professor’s trunk. Osman’s depiction of the institution, and Mockton’s place in it, is a masterpiece of satirical rhetoric:
When my father was at the university, there were fewer people like Mockton, and the administrators that did exist were mostly red and hearty, dressed in boring suits, and quietly worshipful of the professors, like my father, who were department stars. They’d subscribe to the TLS and humbly contribute to barroom conversations before paying too much of the tab and leaving early. Now they all looked like Mockton, had business degrees and new PhDs in education administration disciplines that had been conjured into being by people with business degrees. Now they asked sessional professors to bring their own brooms and garbage bags to their shared offices, because the unionized janitorial staff was overtaxed.
Osman’s understanding of campus culture is acute enough for him to recognize that stories of precariously employed sessional lecturers’ despair, like that of the recent faculty suicide, are sufficient to frighten Mockton into investing in a product that will most likely result in making him redundant; Osman recognizes this sleight of hand in Olivia because he is fluent in it himself.
Which is where the various levels of irony at work in the novel coalesce, although not in such a way as to imply any simple reading of Ruthnum’s densely layered text. It is perhaps germane to note that the first act we encounter Osman engaging in is the telling of a story; he gulls Mockton by relating (not to say appropriating) Nena’s tale of existential emptiness and professional frustration on the part of the dead sessional teacher. That Osman is a storyteller is inherent in every aspect of the narrative, which should give careful readers pause.
Osman had been estranged from his father before the older man’s death, but one key conversation toward the end of the novel seems significant. His father tells Osman that what he wants from the end of his life is a series of “false memoirs” to accompany the false teeth he had recently had implanted. “I want to give a public who doesn’t know me a story that they’ll like to hear, one that will provoke interest in my deeper works. I can’t be disingenuous on the page, but it comes naturally to you.” The notion of giving anonymous readers a story they would like to hear is reflective of Ruthnum’s ideas about South Asian writers’ unconsidered recourse toward currybooks; it is also antithetical to the savagery of the narrative on offer in A Hero of Our Time. But the observation that disingenuousness comes naturally to Osman should force a reader to carefully consider the ways Osman presents the characters in the novel, not least himself.
In his coda to Curry, Ruthnum writes:
Thrillers, at least the kind that I want to continue writing, offer something wonderful to writers: you’re supposed to defy the conventions that you flirt with; you’re supposed to endlessly surprise the reader, to lead them into the unfamiliar. This, of course, is something that can be said of high literary novels, as well – they’re meant to initiate us into an experience of the unfamiliar, or a different experience of something we believe we’ve felt or done before.
The layered and tricky narration in A Hero of Our Time is part of this process of defamiliarization, calling attention to and calling into question the relationships between author, text, and reader, while simultaneously reasserting Ruthnum’s own authority as the puppet master manipulating the strings as surely as Thackeray did in Vanity Fair. When the latter writes, at the close of his novel, “Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets,” he is addressing the reader directly and underlining the artificial nature of what has gone before. When Osman refers directly to “you” the reader, it is he who is speaking, though it is Ruthnum who is controlling what is said. This is a postmodern destabilization in which the presumed centre is constantly shifting.
It is significant to note the preposition in the novel’s title. Osman is a hero of our time; not a hero for our time. That is, he is fashioned out of the raw materials of the consumerist, narcissistic world in which he and, by extension, we live, rather than being someone fundamentally outside the bounds of his society who rises to the occasion and shows us the error of our ways. Osman’s final success is predicated on his ability to game the system, not on a willingness to overturn the system entirely. That he is left alone at the novel’s end is the realization of his core desire all along; how much of what he has related is true is a question every reader of Ruthnum’s slippery, serpentine narrative will have to determine for themselves.