‘Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged,’ Virginia Woolf wrote, disparaging the kind of fiction associated with Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells. It’s a proposition that might appeal to Simon Okotie. But before deciding whether it has merit he would want to see whether an apparently symmetrical arrangement of gig-lamps might not, on close examination, prove ever so slightly asymmetrical and as such bear some relation to life. As a self-confessed ‘public transport enthusiast’, he would also doubtless pause to consider the modern equivalent of the gig-lamp (if indeed it is equivalent), the headlamp, as seen on buses, trams, cars, lorries etc, and to measure its kind of symmetry, which usually (though not exclusively) takes the form of a paired arrangement at the front of the vehicle. And since his novels are set in the present day, he might also find it hard to resist touching on the very different associations of the word ‘gig’ in our current economy.
When I say that Okotie might want to do all this, what I mean is that the fictional detective (or detectives) whose mental processes he transcribes would insist on it. The investigations carried out in his three novels – Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? (2012), In the Absence of Absalon (2017) and After Absalon (2020) – are nothing if not assiduous. But the trilogy isn’t so much crime fiction, or even spoof crime fiction, as an absurdist comedy about overthinking, or over-and-above thinking, or above-and-below-and-side-to-side-and-in-between thinking. In the first novel a man called Marguerite investigates the disappearance of Harold Absalon, the transport adviser to the mayor of an unspecified city; in the second novel another detective, who remains nameless, investigates the disappearance of Marguerite during his inquiries; in the third Marguerite returns, unscathed, to resume his investigation into the disappearance of Absalon, now presumed dead. The crimes aren’t solved; it’s unclear that they even are crimes or that they ever took place. Nonetheless, resolution of a kind is arrived at, and there’s the payoff of humour throughout, with riffs on everything from pizzas and central locking to multiple phone extensions, ejector seats and king and queen-size beds.
As a detective you have to watch your step, in order that your operations remain clandestine, and no detectives in literature have ever watched their steps as literally as Okotie’s two detectives. Much of the first novel is taken up with Marguerite’s efforts to walk along the top deck of a bus and descend its stairs; the whole of the second with his successor’s attempt to gain access to a house by a front gate and front door; and the whole of After Absalon with Marguerite’s descent along a ramp leading from a pavement to a pedestrian subway. In real time, each foray might take a minute or two. In fictional time they last an eternity. No action can be performed without first being scrupulously examined, and examination invariably reveals a problem: the insufficiency of saying ‘he put one foot in front of the other,’ for example (when one foot is also put to the side of the other), or the paradox that walking down a ramp requires upward motion (the raising of one’s feet).
If the laws of motion, gravity and geometry come under scrutiny, so do those of language. ‘He swept up the stairs to the front door of the townhouse,’ one chapter begins, and the rest of the chapter is given over to explaining that in this case the word ‘swept’ denotes rapidity and doesn’t involve a broom, which isn’t to say that such implements might not be used in other investigations, given that ‘adopting the identity of, say, a road sweeper would be the best undercover means of observing covert criminal activities that one would not be able to observe were one to be wearing the traditional investigative garb of trench coat and Fedora.’ The humour lies in the pedantry and literalism. And in the assertion of rapidity, when – mental activity aside – everything in Okotie’s fiction happens in slow motion. Researchers have calculated that the average person has 48.6 thoughts per minute but with an Okotie detective thoughts come faster than that, deferring resolute action. You wonder if he’ll ever reach his destination or remain suspended in time like Zeno’s arrow. There’s a touch of Charlie Chaplin about him, or of John Cleese in Clockwise, as mediated by Beckett. This effect is enhanced by his appearance, which little resembles that of a detective, even one who’s down-at-heel: he’s poor, owns only two pairs of trousers, and wears battered old boots and a jacket with leather-patched elbows. In fact he looks a bit like a tramp – or so we infer, early in the first book of the trilogy, when he’s roughly ejected from the hotel where he’s been following Isobel Absalon, wife of the missing Harold, a pursuit that will lead to him hopping on a bus and then, because he fears that he’s now the one being followed, hopping off it again.
Okotie says his trilogy was ‘inspired by a Black man, known as Marigold, who was often seen in Norwich during the 1980s unofficially directing traffic on the inner ring road wearing yellow rubber gloves’. From Marigold it’s a short step to Marguerite (a name which also fuses Maigret and Magritte), who has a delusion of directing operations beyond his control. The style has been called digressive (Eimear McBride: ‘I’ve never seen anyone use digression so cleverly before’), and it’s certainly Shandyesque. ‘It was with these thoughts that he came to the end of the chapter, wondering what, if anything, might occur between this ending and the commencement of the next chapter.’ But Okotie has disputed whether his fiction really is digressive and you can see his point: it’s not so much that his detectives go off on tangents but that everything they observe, however minute, is potentially germane to their investigation and must be exhaustively scrutinised before being ruled out. George Eliot talked about the human need to filter, lest madness ensue: ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.’ Marguerite isn’t well wadded and neither is his successor. But it’s cerebral rather than emotional overload that burdens them. Their brains give them no rest. They can’t take a flight of stairs without pondering the word ‘flight’ and noting how it isn’t applied to spiral staircases and asking whether that’s because spiral flight is associated with fighter planes plummeting to earth after being shot down, an association that might be offputting to anyone minded to invest in, or simply descend, a spiral staircase.
If an Okotie detective were typing this piece, for example, he would pause to reflect on the rightness or otherwise of the word ‘type’ being used given the absence of a typewriter, and would perhaps allow that it can be justified since a keyboard somewhat resembling that found on a typewriter is being employed, but he would also want to test the aptness of alternative word choices, such as ‘input’, and to consider the difference, if any, between ‘input’ (used as a verb) and ‘put in’, beyond the obvious re-arrangement of (and addition of a space to) the same five letters, before he moved on to weigh up the advantages of using the verb ‘compose’ instead, an advantage arguably compromised by the fact that a piece, as it’s known, is often drafted in a notebook or on scraps of paper, before being typed or input on a keyboard physically attached or virtually connected to a word processor. This thought might prompt others on the subject of ‘composition’ and even (because they were once instrumental to the process of a piece of writing making its way into a publication) ‘compositors’, but he would also at the same time be observing the movement of his fingers on the keys, as they’re known, and how only certain fingers actually touch the keys, even though their fellow fingers, being attached to the same hand or hands, move along with them, that’s if fingers can ever be said to be fellows, and leaving aside the question of whether a thumb can be included in the finger count and if so whether ‘digit’ (despite its other arguably distracting associations) wouldn’t be a better word than finger to use in this context …
And so on. Okotie does it much better, of course, in sentences that sometimes stretch to pages, but you get the idea. As well as highlighting the vagaries of language, it’s a mode that makes you more conscious of human movement through space – of the intricacies involved in removing a set of keys from one’s pocket, say, and of how so much of what we do is done instinctively, in a cloud of unknowing, a cloud which Okotie’s detectives, through elaborate ratiocination, determinedly dispel. If Zeno is one influence, another reviewers have pointed to is Zen – not Aurelio Zen (the detective who featured in eleven crime novels by the late Michael Dibdin) but the meditative self-awareness associated with Zen Buddhism (the dedicatees of Okotie’s three novels – Maitreyabandhu, Danayutta and Sanghasiha – are all associated with the London Buddhist Centre). The Okotie detective is not, though, a man at peace with himself. His mind is too full for mindfulness. He’s also troubled by ‘unfortunate’ bodily needs, notably when tailing Isobel Absalon and becoming aware of ‘stirrings in his groin that are traditionally associated with arousal’. He goes on to calculate the different parts of her body towards which his penis will be angled according to how close to her he gets.
In fact Marguerite (not to mention his unnamed colleague) has such an active libido that his pursuit has as much to do with sex as crime-solving. And it’s not just Isobel he’s after (with her ‘motherly protuberances’ and ‘lustrous hair’), but the woman in the tight pinstriped suit waiting at the bottom of the ramp in the third book, who may or may not be the same ‘luscious lady’ with ‘shapely legs’ and a ‘short, snugly fitting blue pinstriped suit’ who mysteriously pays his bus fare in the first one. There’s also the bus conductress he will have to brush past in order to make his exit, ‘the thought of which made his stomach tingle and flutter slightly’ and fills him with ‘sweet delight’.
Where such desires are only lightly touched on in the main narrative, which gives us the detective as metaphysician, the inner man comes to the fore in the trilogy’s footnotes, which offer a tantalising supplementary narrative or back story. First rather than third-person, inserted roughly every other chapter and bearing little or no relation to the words they affect to annotate, the footnotes have a more lurid tale to tell: of how Marguerite worked in the same office as Harold Absalon; of how he envied (and was humiliated by) him; of how his career picked up after Absalon disappeared; of how when colleagues began calling him ‘Harold’ he took on some of his mannerisms; of how he pursued Absalon’s wife, ‘went at it like a maniac’, put cameras in her bedroom and was shocked when examining the footage to find that ‘the figure I witnessed getting into that king-sized bed night after night, and doing all those unspeakable things to her, was me.’ Marguerite’s boss, Richard Knox, has also been sleeping with Isobel, while the footnotes in After Absalon conclude with the revelation that Harold, discovered rootling through a wheelie bin, is alive and well. While the footnotes supply one ending, the main narrative leaves us with another: Marguerite’s arrival in the arms of the woman in the tight-fitting pinstriped suit, an embrace which he hopes will ‘continue indefinitely in the sense of it, rather than the description of it, being open-ended, which is to say, without end, at least without an end that we can see beyond the end’.
The sense of an ending that’s not an ending is a classic modernist trope. There’s also a passage where Marguerite cross-examines himself in the same question and answer format that Joyce uses in the Ithaca section of Ulysses. And characterisation is playfully disrupted by having two unstable protagonists who’re hard to tell apart, one anonymous, the other a man with a woman’s name. So far, so anti-novel. But Okotie doesn’t keep to all the rules of fictional rule-breaking. The three narratives are strictly linear and create a sense of jeopardy (as befits a conventional crime novel) from Marguerite’s belief someone is close behind, ‘hard on his heels’, who needs to be outrun and outmanoeuvred. There are no typographical games, apart from one striking piece of typesetting over several pages and the repetition of the word ‘moped’ 37 times from love of ‘that beautiful term’. Even the interchangeability of the two detectives has a rational, or whimsical, explanation: they’re as painstaking, or nerdy, as each other because of their rigorous training as cadets (though at one point Marguerite, who considers himself to be ‘the golden retriever of detectives’, dismisses his unnamed colleague as ‘errant’). Nor is there any doubt about where the action, so-called, is taking place: the city may go unnamed but we’re firmly grounded in everyday urban reality – buses, subway ramps, a broad tree-lined avenue with a row of showrooms.
Then again, ‘reality’ is a troublesome term here. Whatever believability the setting invites is undercut by the constant reminders that we’re reading fiction. ‘What is taking place for him is as real, for him, as our experience is real for us,’ it’s said of Marguerite, who suspects not just that he’s being pursued but ‘that somehow, from somewhere, his cognition is being monitored’. He’s right: he does indeed have followers – the readers of the trilogy, the ‘whole mass of us … following in his footsteps’. The joke’s not on him for being paranoid. It’s on us for tracking him so closely and for hoping against hope that ‘the thickness or thinness of the remaining evidence’ (i.e. the remaining pages in the book) mean that his investigation will soon be successfully concluded. It’s also a joke on the narrator, for talking in terms of masses and of ‘enthusiasts who were, or are, somehow following Marguerite’s investigation from the beach’, when readers of experimental fiction published by a small press are limited in number and unlikely to do their reading at the beach, ‘the definite article always, somehow, seeming appropriate in this regard even though, clearly, there is more than one’.
Fiction as slo-mo and self-referential as this, where the nearest thing to a cliffhanger is the positioning of Marguerite at the top of the stairs on a Routemaster bus, is a severe test of patience, even for a committed (or commissioned) reader. And the action diminishes with each volume. So little happens in the final book that the first fifty pages of the first look Homeric by comparison. There is, it’s true, the conundrum of the ‘small-wheeled non-motorised vehicle’ which Marguerite can hear approaching behind him and which requires him to spend chapters working out whether it’s a skateboard and if so whether it’s occupied and if not whether he might commandeer it to speed his progress down the ramp towards the woman in the pinstriped suit. Were he to turn his head and look he would know the answer at once. But that would ruin the protracted covering-of-every-angle and inability-to-conclude-the-obvious which is the source of the trilogy’s humour.
Is it presumptuous of Marguerite to think ‘that his investigation was sufficiently seminal to live on, through whatever means ongoingly mysterious to him, into another age, or other ages’? Maybe not: fiction as original as this deserves a long shelf life. By the end the method has been refined to the point where Okotie could write five hundred pages on a man getting himself a coffee from a vending machine (thereby outdoing Nicholson Baker in The Mezzanine, whose protagonist’s obsessive attention to gadgets and appliances is not unlike Marguerite’s). But After Absalon is clearly the culmination of the project: enough is enough, the last pages suggest, ‘the convoluted and, to some, inconsequential inquiry’ has run its course. It’s not so much that Okotie has backed himself into a corner. But there’s a yearning to open the universe a little more, notably when Marguerite’s journey down a subway ramp prompts thoughts about the more ‘hazardous – sometimes deadly – nautical and global voyages that his forebears must have undertaken in whatever direction, from new to old world, or vice versa, in securing slaves, say, or having been enslaved’.
Harold Absalon’s forebears originated ‘from both southern and northern climes’, we learn, and Okotie was born to a Nigerian father and English mother. On the face of it he’s not a political writer, but complications of race, gender and privilege don’t altogether escape him. ‘Harold Absalon’s power stemmed, in my view, from having gone to the right schools,’ one of the first footnotes reads, ‘despite being from the wrong background. Going to the right schools, perhaps having the state pay for that right, had, in short, given him the right accent, the right connections. How else would he have found someone of Isobel Absalon’s calibre?’ How else indeed? But why did Isobel betray him? And was his background a factor in his disappearance? And why does a man like him end up going through wheelie bins? If Okotie has answers he isn’t telling. But there are wider social issues here which he might be tempted to explore. If the trilogy is all about learning to walk – ‘bipedic perambulation’, as he puts it in one of his cumbersome Gradgrindian formulations – the next thing would be to let rip and run.