Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hater by David Moody

First published by its author in 2006 Hater by David Moody was republished in February 2009 by Thomas Dunne Books in the United States and Orion Books in the United Kingdom. The first in a three-book series, Hater was followed by Dog Blood in 2010.

Moody's previous publishing effort, the post-apocalyptic Autumn was originally offered for free online. More than half a million downloads of the novel created enough buzz to lead to a movie adaptation and republication of the five-book series.

The story of Hater begins with a random act of violence between two apparent strangers. The action is then observed by dozens of people on their way to work. Witnesses are torn. Should they assist the hapless victim? Should they try to stop the attacker? Or should they try and make it to the office on time?

"Sometimes having such a dull and monotonous job is an advantage. This stuff is way beneath me and I don't really have to think about what I'm doing." (p. 9)

So says Danny McCoyne, the protagonist in Hater, who arrives at the office a little later than he had planned. With these lines the character introduces his general attitude and sums up a large percentage of modern jobs. We've all been there: moving, talking, and making it through the day, yet mentally zoned out. The only incentive for returning every morning is a paycheck, and there are at least a dozen times a day when that hardly seems worth the sacrifice, the damping down of the soul required for daily survival.

This common state of mind--hovering slightly above and to one side of the physical world--could be relaxing. After all, it is a bit like meditation. It could be adapted into a form of emotional and intellectual self-discipline. But the healthy benefits of meditation rely upon the absence of constant irritation.

Unfortunately, Danny's work environment is not pleasant. His supervisor is obnoxious and belligerent, petty and spiteful. His co-workers can be evenly divided into sniveling kiss-ups and the naturally inane. One of the reasons Danny lingers in his half-there condition is to avoid getting angry enough to erupt at his fellow workers on a regular basis.

When he isn't struggling to contain his temper, Danny is bored stupid by the tedious routine at the government office where he processes fines for parking violations. At the same time, he is a little afraid of the enraged drivers who come barreling into the office hoping to scream their way clear of paying the standard fee to retrieve their impounded vehicles.

At home Danny copes with three small children who compete for his attention and never seem to shut up. His beloved yet increasingly alienated and harried wife finds fault with every move he makes. They seldom make love, and they are always tired. Just as disheartening in a different way, their combined salaries don't go far enough to afford luxuries that might relieve the close quarters and constant sacrifices that currently define their personal lives. They strive to be patient, loving parents, while longing for just one day of freedom, just one whole night of sleep.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Moody has accurately and vividly described the way a large part of the population in Great Britain and the U.S. manage to get by, week after week, year after year. In every area of the lives we have created, our sanity and our self-importance are chipped away bit by bit.

Surviving urban competition is a continual struggle, a deft balancing act. No wonder, then, that some of us go stark, raving mad. We are playing by the rules in a society that demands we behave properly at all times and then sporadically and extravagantly rewards certain individuals who behave badly, sometimes going so far as to call them "mavericks" and heroes.

We strenuously ignore one provocation after another, all day long, without any sanctified form of release other than music concerts and sporting events, which have come to represent far too much to their devotees. This fact is highlighted in the book when an act of violence at a concert is initially misinterpreted and applauded as part of the show.

The first time Danny witnesses someone losing control and directing aggression at another person, he watches with the same mixture of curiosity and disbelief we've all experienced at the spark of a crisis. In our orderly and unsatisfying world, in the midst of all the mundane activity we have contrived, denial is our most common response to the extraordinary.

Danny goes from denial to caution, and then to a gradually dawning recognition that the violence he observes in various public places may not be a series of isolated incidents, but possibly a rising wave of brutality. Something has gone wrong, and no one will explain how it has happened, or how to remedy it. Most frightening, no one can predict which person will be next, in the role of aggressor or victim.

As our protagonist begins to understand how widespread the problem is, Moody draws a meticulously detailed progression to reveal Danny's shifting consciousness. We travel along with the character, smoothly and plausibly, from denial and shock to protectiveness toward loved ones, and beyond.

The final phases of the story are entirely believable in terms of human nature, and I won't spoil them by giving away too much. Moody has achieved something rare and quite moving, with this book, which is to portray the outer boundary of what people are capable of doing, without making the story seem like pure fantasy.

Danny's actions make sense. Furthermore, few of us attain adulthood without witnessing at least one act of inexplicable violence. In addition, we read about such acts in the news all the time:

"Arkansas man sentenced for killing slow hairdresser."

"Canada bus passenger beheads seat mate."

"Arizona boy charged with killing father 'loved his dad.'"

"Man stabbed to death outside a fast-food restaurant in Oxford Street."

Moody has cleverly taken our constant awareness of such events occurring at the fringes of our lives, and fleshed out the individual scenarios for them. Interspersed with scenes of Danny gritting his teeth through another encounter at work or another argument at home, the author presents situations in which people go ballistic with one another. These moments are scarily grounded in natural, nuanced behavior and are set in a context we can recognize all too clearly.

The beauty of Moody's novel is the way in which it depicts people shifting from abject boredom and self-repression to pure rampage. When it occurs, this tumult of energy is both frightening and familiar--exhilarating in an instinctive, animal sense. Worse, the rush that occurs when Moody's characters resort to base brutality is the most normal thing in the world, every bit as human and real as a family cringing in horror at the fragile periphery of it all.

The final scenes of Hater leave open the possibility of either a thematic or chronological sequel. This may be one reason some of the basic questions raised by the protagonist are not answered satisfactorily. A pre-existing state is hinted at, but not played out entirely. However subsequent installments might develop, the theme of this book will be tough to follow: Maybe we ought to find better, healthier, and more satisfying ways of channeling our innate aggression than putting on trendy clothes and making nice at the office every day.

First published in 2009.

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