Review of Senseless by Stona Fitch

Soho 2001 160 pp. 22.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

Senseless is a grimly elegant first novel, with a studiously ambiguous take on both its protagonist and its subject: the moral responsibilities of global powers to those less fortunate.

Fifty-ish, Virginia-born government bureaucrat Eliott Gast works for the International Business Interest Sector (IBIS), which had been "transformed from an obscure strategy group within the Commerce Department to an independent agency, a matchmaker among U.S. and European businesses."

He presents himself as "a mid-level American economist with relatively little money and even less power."  Although recruited as a potential spy while at Princeton, he found himself "too bookish to be James Bond, not glib or ambitious enough to be an embassy chief."

While at an elegant  business dinner one evening in Brussels, he is kidnapped and imprisoned in an anonymously white three-room apartment. Explaining his imprisonment, one of his masked captors, whom Gast has nicknamed Blackbeard, says, "America today is like the England of Victoria.  Except that its empire is hidden.  Its battles do not take place on open seas, but in the boardrooms of the World Bank, the G8, the World Trade Organization, and your beloved corporations.  Transfer of power does not take place on a battlefield, but via movement of enormous sums of money."

Gast finds Blackbeard's position "laughable--a mix of conspiracy theory, tired anti-Americanism, and globalization mumbo-jumbo."

Married, wealthy and something of a sybarite--"I explored the realm of the senses to avoid the more difficult world of people"-- the obscure bureaucrat Gast can't divine why anyone would want to kidnap him.

Unbeknownst to Gast he is a star on the Internet.  "We are broadcasting you to the world every moment of the day and night. ... Anyone can watch you right from their computer. ... You are like a celebrity ... the first online hostage."  Like a democratized, latter-day Roman victim, Gast will be tortured by the physical removal of all his senses, one by one.  Internet patrons can vote with their dollars for his torture to cease or continue.  The proceeds from both sides will fund his anti-globalization kidnappers.   

Blackbeard explains: "We must do something so audacious that people will notice it.  Small acts .... a bank robbery, a killing ... they simply splash on the surface once and sink, like a child throwing rocks into a pond.  One rock.  One splash.  End of story." On the other hand, "Millions of people have watched you." 

His terrifying captivity borders on the unbearable.  "There is only a moment between when the doctor tells you a shot will hurt and when the needle enters your arm.  Imagine that moment stretched out for days, with nothing to distract you from how much it will hurt, how thick the needle will be, how inept the doctor is.  Any possible distraction was swallowed up by the fear of what lay  ahead." 

As his torture progresses, we learn that Gast's role in furthering globalization was a bit more complicated than he first presented it.  While he appears to be guilty of some of the “crimes” of which he is accused, both he and the reader will agree that his punishment is inappropriate.

Gast's tortures are both inventive and gruesome.  His senses are removed with simple household implements.  The prose is spare and exacting, which only adds to the horror, reminding one of John Burnside’s 1997 The Dumb House.

The clinical objectivity of the point of view is perhaps the most interesting element of this brief tale.  This is neither a liberal diatribe against globalism, nor a libertarian endorsement of global free markets, but a concrete, physical tale of one man's woe.  Its "message," if there is one, is as simple as a child's fairy tale: in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.