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Books: Damon Galgut's 'In a Strange Room,' reviewed by Ron Charles

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 10:16 PM

IN A STRANGE ROOM

Three Journeys

By Damon Galgut

Europa. 207 pp. Paperback, $15

I'm weary of dreary.

I know it's an act of book reviewing apostasy, but I've had it with the exquisitely crafted sighs of depressed men. And that's not just the eggnog talking. Honestly, how many times do we have to praise the stark story of a wandering, alienated man that Hemingway perfected in "The Sun Also Rises" way back in 1926?

Every year adds two or three "haunting masterpieces" to this respected subgenre. This year's top entries included Joshua Ferris's grave "The Unnamed," Dinaw Mengestu's somber "How to Read the Air" and now Damon Galgut's "In a Strange Room," which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. The lyrics differ - a little - but the melody of these dirges doesn't change: existential angst gliding along one spare, cool paragraph after another, like a Giacometti statue strutting out of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I've put in my time with these narrators, and I've praised their harrowing stories and stylistic elegance, but Galgut, a South African novelist and playwright, has finally worn me out.

"In a Strange Room" is a collection of three autobiographical travel tales that have won praise since they were first published in the Paris Review and now come to us bound together as a novel. In each of these stories, "he goes on somewhere else. And somewhere else again . . . He feels no connection with anything around him, he's constantly afraid of dying."

In the first story, "The Follower," our shell-shocked narrator is drifting through Greece when he bumps into Reiner, a strikingly handsome German dressed all in black. "He has a sullen sort of beauty," Galgut tells us, "with long silky hair that falls around his shoulders." They end up in the same hostel, where they engage in Brief Conversations Fraught With Tension:

"How long are you here for.

"I'm also going in the morning.

"Are you going to Athens.

"No. The other way. To Sparta.

"So you've seen Mycenae already.

"I've been here two days.

"Ah."

Damon can't shake the German or engage him in any real intimacy or use a question mark. "He is worn down by the constant presence, like some kind of dark attendant angel, ironic and brooding, his face almost petulant."

The hunky German walks around with his shirt off, sits on the edge of Damon's bed, daring him to make the first move. It's a scene of homoerotic passive aggression straight from a British prep school memoir of the 1930s. Except this is the 21st century, and there's no way to explain why these two modern, unattached adults imagine their relationship should be so burdened with the threat of transgression. They keep up this dance of denial for 70 pages, leading each other on a cruel walking challenge across Greece. "Was what happened between him and Reiner love or hate," the narrator asks, "or something else with another name." But we dare speak its name nowadays, Mr. Galgut, and it's not so shocking or titillating as you suggest.

Admittedly, it is highly atmospheric, and the sense of menace can be exciting, as in Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," but there's no escaping the artificiality of this performance. The story's creepiness and ambiguity are a substitute for the emotional profundity it makes a claim to. Vacillating erratically between first and third person, the tale is all poses grasping after Cormac McCarthy and J.M. Coetzee.

The second story, "The Lover," offers us more of the same: "the same state of nothingness, the drifting from place to place." Galgut explains that "he has lost the ability to love, people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is. . . . In this state travel isn't celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself." But I would argue that he's in exactly the opposite state: He luxuriates in his self, whipping his lust and ennui into shiny peaks of spun sugar like this: "His loneliness resounds in him with a high thin note, like the lingering sound of a bell. . . . A thin column of grief rises in him like mercury."

This time he's in Africa on another of his "aimless and awful walks," when he meets three European tourists. "The younger man has from up close a beauty that is almost shocking, red lips and high cheek-bones and a long fringe of hair." Jerome - with the lips - barely speaks English, which cuts down on the awkward conversation, so for some 50 pages Damon and he stare at each other with enough unconsummated desire to melt everything but their own bashfulness. "As he settles himself for the night he rolls his eyes up and finds Jerome in exactly the same position, looking back, and for a long arrested moment they hold each other's gaze before they both look away and try to sleep." I just wanted to grab this sad-sack narrator by the shoulders and shout, "Get a job, man, or a boyfriend or a Chia pet or anything!"

And to a large extent, he takes that advice in the third and final story, which is genuinely compelling. In "The Guardian," our peripatetic narrator is wandering through India, but this time he's escorting a friend, an actual friend, "somebody he loves and who makes him laugh. Somebody he wants to protect": Anna is a manic-depressive woman who requires a complicated regimen of psychotropic medications to keep herself from slipping into obsessive behavior and suicidal madness. He's taking her along with him to give her "a couple of months away from home, a chance for Anna to find herself and stabilize." Almost immediately he realizes just how self-destructive she is and how wholly unprepared he is to control her.

What follows is a terrifying experience of torn affections and Third World medical care (Note: Don't get sick in India). After so many static pages of vague despair, it's doubly shocking to be hurled through this ordeal as Damon races to save a friend so set on destroying herself. Here, finally, we see what Galgut can do - what he did in "The Good Doctor" - when he wrenches himself out of his head, when his story is rooted in the details of specific people enduring actual challenges.

Plenty of sophisticated, sensitive readers have praised these stories, and I don't doubt their insight or their critical acumen. But how much you enjoy this novel will depend largely on how moved you are by oracular pronouncements such as: "A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it's made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there." At this stage of my life, this seems like a small room rather than a strange one, and I'm tired of sharing it with men who have nothing more to tell me than how dispirited they are.

Charles is The Post's fiction critic. For a new episode of the Totally Hip Video Book review, go to wapo.st/totally-hip.

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