Bad Faith by Jesse Tandler
Posted by Paul Samael on Monday, April 30, 2018 Under: Book reviews
We seem to be living through an age that puts an unhealthy premium on “authenticity”. Politicians who are said to have this characteristic are excused any number of glaring faults - just look at Donald Trump or, closer to home, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and (at the opposite end of the spectrum) Jeremy Corbyn. They can say or do things that would be career-ending for other politicians – but they are tolerated, even praised for this, because they are regarded as being “true to themselves” when they behave in that way (no matter what the cost in terms of the adverse impact of their words or actions on others).
“Bad Faith” by Jesse Tandler is about this problematic obsession with authenticity - but it’s more concerned with its impact in the domestic sphere than the political arena.
The novel starts by introducing us to two of the main characters, Malcolm and Saul, when they are still students, trying on French existentialism for size. But of course, they aren’t left bank philosophers drinking coffee in bars next to the river Seine, they are High School students in California. My immediate reaction to this was they were pretending to be something they weren’t. And I had much the same reaction to their enthusiasm for the music of Tupac – because after all, they are not poor black kids living in the hood (in fact, Malcolm has come into a very considerable inheritance). And then there is research student Melody, who (as a social science experiment) has set up different profiles of herself on dating sites to see what reaction this provokes from potential suitors.
Because of this perceived lack of authenticity, I initially thought I wasn’t going to find these characters very sympathetic – but I kept reading and I’m glad I did because once the novel gets into its stride, you realise that they are just trying to find out who they are and what they want. It also struck me that in my initial reaction to these characters, I had fallen into the trap of measuring people’s value by the highly dubious benchmark of “authenticity” – the very thing I was complaining about at the start of this review.
For example, am I really saying that people who are not black cannot appreciate rap music? And why am I judging two teenagers so harshly? After all, trying on different belief systems for size is what you do when you’re a teenager, precisely because you’re trying to find out who you really are. As for Melody’s various alter egos, I’m in no position to criticise – I do the same kind of thing myself by writing under a pen name. This is the trouble with the quest for authenticity; it sounds so simple at first, but it’s not easy to find out who you really are - and when you get there, you might discover that you don't like what you find as much as you expected to. Or as the quotation from Sartre at the beginning of the novel puts it, “we do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are – that is the fact.”
And a very uncomfortable truth it turns out to be for Saul, the character at the centre of this novel. He was doing a PhD, but dropped out after he got his girlfriend, Connie, pregnant. Now married to Connie, he remains attracted to her sexually but doesn’t consider her his intellectual equal – and feels that his job teaching English in a High School is beneath him. You could say that he views his life as "inauthentic" because he considers that his “true self” can only be realised by pursuing an academic career with a different partner.
Saul’s problem is that he thinks he can be true to himself just by following his desires – when it is his own tendency to follow those desires which has driven him off the path of an academic career and into a situation where, if he leaves Connie, he will also be abandoning his responsibilities to his daughter Natalie and Connie’s son from a previous relationship (with whom Saul has developed quite a positive and touchingly portrayed relationship).
Meanwhile, Saul’s ex, Annabelle, comes to visit so that Saul can spend some time with his son (Saul got Annabelle pregnant too, but she decided to go back to Germany to raise their child). Saul keeps fantasising about getting back together with Annabelle - something which is not lost on Connie, who may not be Saul’s intellectual equal but is more than a match for him in emotional intelligence. At the same time, Saul’s best friend, Malcolm is plotting to try to get Saul’s academic career back on track, by applying (in Saul’s name) to get him onto a another PhD programme (which Malcolm plans to pay for, using part of his inheritance).
By way of a contrast to Saul’s scratchy relationship with Connie, we also get to see the burgeoning romance developing between Melody and Malcolm. But exactly how “authentic” is that relationship? After all, their first date is arranged by Malcolm’s friend Jamie, who responds to one of Melody’s fake profiles by impersonating Malcolm (because Jamie thinks it’s about time Malcolm got himself a long term girlfriend)?
What I hope have managed to convey here (without giving away too much) is that for a literary novel, there is an unusually intense focus on plot – to the extent that, despite my misgivings at the start, I found it very hard to put down. Saul’s narcissism and other weaknesses could easily be a turn-off for the reader, but the author does an excellent job of keeping us engaged with his story .
For me, the novel really hit its stride once the narrative began to focus more on Saul in Part II (about a quarter of the way in). In Part I, which focuses mainly on Malcolm, Melody and Jamie, I wasn’t entirely sure where things were going – but some of this is scene-setting for later on in the novel and, as noted above, the relationship between Malcolm and Melody is an important contrast to Saul’s relationship with Connie. I would also have liked to have found out a bit more about Jamie – but all these are very minor criticisms of what is otherwise an excellent literary novel.
Last but by no means least, this is not just a good story – it also made me think quite hard about the slipperiness of “authenticity” as a guiding principle for what we value in life. There are no easy answers to the questions it poses, but one thing was clear by the end; much as we might like to reduce the recipe for happiness to a fridge magnet-style motto like “be true to yourself”, life just ain’t that simple or easy (and heaven help us all if we persist in believing that it really is that simple or easy).
At the time of this review, “Bad Faith” was available free of charge from Smashwords and as a paid-for download from Amazon.
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