by Nick Vafiadis
Publishers Weekly recently released an article titled “5 Essential Mind Blowing Novels.” It’s no surprise that breakout-author Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall made the list, given that it’s told from the perspective, or perspectives, of a schizophrenic. Filer’s debut leans on themes of resilience, love, and the thin line between shrewdly woven fictions and our true identities. From the start, Filer’s deft writing confronts readers with the unsettling idea that entire arcs of our lives can sometimes be distilled down into a handful of strange intense moments – the face of a schoolgirl, the swing of a tire from a branch, the feeling of dirt in one’s hands. These are the images that Filer’s protagonist Matt clings too as he sifts through the past for himself, after accidentally causing the death of his brother.
As the scenes of Matt’s childhood progress, Filer spins these moments into entire self-contained narratives, that when looked at later blend together like the dots on a pointillist painting into the picture of Matt’s life. All the while, readers get the sense that these seemingly disparate vignettes are building like sediment into something else entirely that is at once familiar and strange – just maybe, our identities, or at least some kind of story for us to tell ourselves about who we are. After all, aren’t stories all we really have to go on when we wake up in the morning, a memory of the story of ourselves?
When Matt tries to make sense of these seemingly scattered moments as an adult in a mental ward, he begins to realize that a few of the defining moments of his childhood, especially the ones dealing with his brother, outline the shape of his own true self. He begins to understand that the seemingly mundane moments of his past dictated the choices he made in life that added up to his own narrative. Dizzying shifts in Matt’s perspective provide the initial momentum into Filer’s self-questioning rabbit hole – a place both surreal and all too real at the same time, where skinned knees, static televisions, and silent dinners are the only images that feel like dry land in what is otherwise a treacherous trek into the id. As the book teaches you how to read it, and the characters become more familiar, you realize just how fluid, fragile, and abstract their identities are. Part of this comes from Filer’s dynamic play with character roles, making character arcs feel like roller coaster rides in the span of mere pages. For example, the role of the mother is depicted at first as a source of love and support for Matt. Then turning on the dime of a single event, the role of mother turns into the role of stranger, sadist, and saboteur, before returning back to friend again. And when you do finally get your bearings here and there between pages, you’ll find yourself squarely planted in front of a sobering revelation – we are the moments. Filer is able to accomplish this by replacing typical exposition for his characters with artful smatterings of these moments—a word that takes on a new level of significance once we’re shown what a lasting impact these ordinary moments of everyday life have on the characters as they feel their way back through their own memories for significance.
But are moments all we are? The book had me asking this tough question. Are we as individuals anything greater than the sum of every moment that proceeds from birth till death? Is life anything more than isolated moments falling forward into each other like dominoes? Filer had me revisiting my own life’s moments. The highs and lows, as well as list of things I’d like to edit out. And then I really started to think: am I these accomplishments? Or lack there of? As I raced through the pages of The Shock of the FalI, I soon realized that I wasn’t just reading to find the truth about Matt’s identity, but the truth of myself as well. In the end, I was exhilarated, terrified, and more happily unsure of myself than ever.
The thing that made the story an ultimately positive experience was the bright counter-weight to the broken character of Matt, his brother Simon. In a brilliant irony, Simon, who is the book’s incarnation of kindness, love, and empathy, also happens to die from an injury incidentally caused by Matt himself. In the hard fought battle for the recovery of Matt’s fractured identity in the ward, it is the immortal memory of Simon’s goodness that pulls Matt back together. After getting over the twisted resentment he has for the death of brother and for life itself, Matt realizes that the through-line to the mirage of moments in his past were the moments that were defined by simple love. He eventually decides to submit himself to love’s own domino effect, and it’s only after that, he finds, that he is able to love himself too once more, and re-engage with real life. Only now he approaches it more like a partner in a dance than a detective trying to piece together some vague morbid puzzle.
Because we are able watch all this happen from the top-down perspective afforded by the narrator’s schizophrenia, we are able to see how valuable certain things are outside the boundaries of linear thought. The simple nick-name “Mon Ami,” given to Matt by his father before Simon’s death, takes on a keystone significance once he hears it again towards the end of his stay in the asylum. “Don’t worry Mon Ami. We’ll take this thing on together . . .,” Matt hears his father say. And with this simple sentence Matt is pushed back towards the mindset of his childhood, a time when he could earnestly love and be loved. What makes The Shock of the Fall a great novel, and a terrifying one, is that it forces you to unflinchingly stare love in the face, in all its ugliness, banality, relentlessness, and, most importantly, its simple infinite humility. In the end Filer’s work left me with a simple challenge, to try and see love’s strange persistence through every moment, even the painful ones.