Today, we are in conversation with Mike Steeves, author of Bystander, a novel which goes deep into the psychology of its bewildered protagonist, Peter Simons, as he faces a moral crisis.
Peter Simons doesn’t spend much time at home in his apartment, thanks to his job at a multinational company. So when he returns after being away for nine months and notices a strange smell coming from his neighbour’s apartment, he initially tries not to get involved, but when a body is discovered, Peter’s carefully cultivated detachment begins to crumble. And when new people move into the vacant apartment, he gets caught up in a petty dispute that will bring him to the brink of moral ruin.
Is Bystander a novel-of-ideas or a soliloquy? Is Peter Simons a deep thinker or is he a captive to social convention? Is morality relative or definite? Where is the line between cynicism and the sincerity? And are we alone in a city, an apartment building, or in community? In our interview, Steeves elaborates on the shapes and tensions that drive this novel forward. He also talks about his writing process, the significance of the “public gaze,” the great apartment novels that serve as a literary lineage for Bystander, and much more.
B*H: The ethical stakes of Bystander are laid out on the very first page. I used to think that if I ever had to face a moral crisis, says protagonist Peter Simons, not only would I know what the right thing to do was, but I would actually do the right thing. What follows is the breakdown of this assumption. Is Bystander a ‘novel of ideas’?
When I think of a novel of ideas I think of The Magic Mountain, or I think of writers like Umberto Eco, or Iris Murdoch and their novels about concepts like semiotics or phenomenology, novels that usually feature a discourse of some kind between characters who maybe represent these ideas. In my book the narrator is largely talking to himself, and I’m not sure if the ideas being turned over in his thoughts are given the sort of discursive treatment that characterizes these more programmatically structured books, or if the ideas in Bystander are MacGuffins that simply enable the drama of the narrator’s mind. But I’d like to think that it is a novel of ideas, just not many of them. Two, three max.
B*H: Peter Simons is an over-thinker. He obsesses over everything from a turn of phrase in an email to a funny look from a stranger on the street. But he is also an under-thinker, relying on reductive stereotypes and social conventions when engaging with others. Can you speak to the overthinking / under-thinking tension in his character?
That contradiction is the central thing in the book – the central irony, or dilemma, or paradox – like here you have this person who is hyper aware, but in many ways his engagement with the world is all surface, no depth. This works as a source of comedy in the book – in the most fundamental way of getting to watch a person think they are doing one thing when they’re doing something else – but it’s also a source of something in the book that’s not funny at all. There’s a part in the book where he’s thinking about how when he traveled for work, he would read about the place he was going to in order to categorize it, because to categorize things you reduce them, you shrink them down to something that can be filed away. This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not so simple because stereotypes are actually useful. They’re a way of compensating for real knowledge or understanding.
B*H: How did the stream of consciousness form come about?
I read a lot of writers who use that form, so I expect some of it can be chalked up to apprenticeship. I don’t know if I’ll always write like that, but since I started over ten years ago it’s felt natural to me. Everyone uses it differently, and after two books I’ve noticed that the form lets me get away with exaggeration, a certain extremity that other narrative styles don’t accommodate so readily, and then there’s the intensity that you can get with stream of consciousness that maybe you can also get from any other narrative styles, but I haven’t seen it as much.
B*H: One effect of being inside the protagonist’s mind is that we are privy to the many repetitions that texturize his thinking. He is always “maintaining social media accounts,” “watching prestige TV and smoking weed,” and reading “long-form” articles that provide “in-depth analysis” on current issues. Can you speak to the choice to sprinkle these phrases liberally throughout the book?
It took me five years to write this book. People, myself included, often interpret this expression – that it took five, or ten years to write something – almost literally, as if the writer woke up, hit the desk and wrote until they passed out, and then went at it again the next day, and repeated this until it was done. So it’s probably better to say that I was with the book for five years, and I think all writers likely do things to entertain themselves during the period that they are with their book, while they are trying to do the more serious work of keeping everyone’s name straight, and going over the timeline to make sure you got the dates right, and so some of that stuff you refer to is certainly me telling jokes to myself. And then, in some cases (of course not all of this sort of thing makes it into the book) these jokes also work to create atmosphere. They’re like the production design of the language. And finally, this way of speaking is fussy and self-serious and so it contributes to Peter’s comedic profile.
B*H: Like Bystander, your previous novel, Giving Up, takes place mostly within the space of an apartment. What interests you about this setting?
Homes have a rich literary lineage. Apartments are a part of different branch. I think of Kafka’s Trial as an apartment novel. Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters is another great example of the genre. These books are characterized by a hothouse effect, because the mind of the narrators extend to the rooms they inhabit. It’s a dramatic device. The reader is never allowed a glimpse of what things might look like outside. And under those circumstances a cult-like atmosphere obtains. You become entirely dependent on the narrator’s version of events and start to see things the way they do. The way the characters live in these two books – this way of living in isolation while being surrounded by other people – this is something that troubles me enough that I keep writing about it.
B*H: Among other things Bystander is unflinchingly funny. It takes Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim—another novel about moral obligation and the failure to live up to doing the honourable thing—as an intertext but then makes it comic. Why the turn to humour?
Borges has a great essay about why literary forms that are legitimate and profound in one era will seem hackneyed and sentimental in the next, and why Shakespeare can be the greatest, but if someone wrote exactly like Shakespeare now it would be an abomination. I love Conrad, and I consciously modeled my book on a Conradian sort of theme, but if I told this story in a lush Conradian style with the same lighting and set decoration it would be a piece of literary kitsch. Like a clueless costume drama. Conrad has a profound irony going on, very very deep. But not much in the way of a sense of humour. When I’m writing, I’m not trying to be funny, the humour might be a by-product of taking this character seriously. What’s funny is the way he sees things, or the way he doesn’t see things, as you pointed out in you earlier question. I’m being just as serious as Conrad, but by a different route.
B*H: Simons refers to his “customer service world view,” the principal importance of other peoples’ opinions. Is his retreat into his apartment an attempt to avert or control the public gaze? What is our modern relationship to watchful eyes? And what does it have to do with morality?
There’s probably a bunch of reasons for someone like the main character in this book to act the way that he does, and to become isolated and live a pretty lonely life. The way that he lives is encouraged and enabled by the conditions of his work and the city that he lives in, and maybe also by his background, though I don’t go into that. In a perverse way he’s living out the promise of the good life. He’s got all this money and free time and he does whatever he wants. It’s just that what he wants to do is to live a frictionless existence, which means one without much contact with other people, since other people invariably cause friction. Other people, by this logic of the good life, are reduced to nuisances and obstacles. So there’s that.
You’re right to use the word ‘gaze’. While I was writing the book, I was deliberate about his aversion to being seen. It’s ironic because we do live in this supposedly shameless time where privacy does seem to have been supplanted by something else, but people are still doing their best to keep up appearances, maybe even more than they ever have, even though the veil is supposed to have fallen, we’re all exposed now and there’s no mystery anymore.
The way it all ties up with morality might be the most interesting part. Now that the twenty-four hour horror show is always on, are we obliged to watch? Do you have a moral obligation to maintain a Facebook account so your friends and relatives can see you and what you are up to? Are you obliged to watch videos of executions because they are available to you and they are newsworthy? On and on it goes. How does this access to what was previously unseen affect or alter our concept of our moral obligations towards each other?
B*H: Has the isolating effect of the pandemic changed your thinking on the book, since it is a novel which confronts the dangers of social isolation?
I finished the first draft of this book at the end of 2018. It was a mess, and probably not much fun for the first readers, but the shape and the content of the published book were there, so the pandemic wasn’t a factor in that regard. But it was in the editing and redrafting. So I’m sure stuff leaked in. The thing I recall thinking of the most was the working from home plotline. That whole situation has obviously changed significantly since I wrote the first draft, when working from home wasn’t exactly in the same category as flying cars – I had friends who were already doing it – but it certainly wasn’t a widespread phenomenon and was mostly a thing for a sub-class class of people within a slightly larger sub-class. I wondered if that part would come off differently in a way that I hadn’t intended. Though the idea behind it was the same – that some people are privileged (some might say cursed) to be able to work from the home, which presents them with all sorts of opportunities and introduces dynamics that obviously wouldn’t exist if you always had to be in the same place as your co-workers, which of course had always been the situation until very recently.
B*H: Does Peter Simons really do anything that bad? Is his guilt over his reaction to finding his neighbour’s body outsized?
Bad is in the eye of the beholder. Any moral crisis, no matter its impact on people’s lives, has the potential to expand, to fill the soul of anyone who’s going through it. The main character in Bystander has a very exaggerated perception of his role in the whole affair, so his guilt is proportionate to that. I think that I had him reacting the way he does because it made sense to me that he would.
B*H: Bystander is interested in the effects of cynicism on the individual, and perhaps the broader culture too—a belief that self-interest and the desire to profit drives everything. You write cynically about a cynical character who is self-aware about his own cynicism. Does this form a critique of cynicism? Or does it cancel out into a kind of sincerity?
I got an image of a mise en abyme reading this question. Like I’ve posed two cynical mirrors in front of each other.
I can say that I was being sincere about representing the character. It was my ambition to get down on the page that way of thinking. And it’s a very cynical way of thinking. It’s a mindset that bothered me enough that I wound up spending five years with it, and so I can say that I am deeply serious about the things I write about in the book, even if it’s a pretty bleak outlook. I love the thing that Kafka is supposed to have said about hope, that it existed, just not for us. I don’t think that’s a cynical outlook. To me, it’s probably the right way to feel about hope – it’s real thing in the world, even if it’s a mistake to actually hope for anything for yourself.
B*H: What was your favourite part about writing Bystander?
There were times when I was working on the book and didn’t feel like what I was doing was any good. Those were my least favourite parts. But if the writing was going well and the book was taking shape it was almost exhilarating.
B*H: What do you hope readers will take away?
I hope people like it, and beyond that I know there’s not much point in trying to guess at what will take hold for some people, and what will disturb others. For those who don’t like it, I hope they know it was nothing personal.
Mike Steeves was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and lives in Montreal, Quebec. His first novel, Giving Up, was published by Book*hug Press in 2015 and was a finalist for the Concordia University First Book Award. His work has appeared in The Globe & Mail, Matrix Magazine, The Shore and others.