“filler” books: Gavin Extence’s “The Empathy Problem”

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I’ve been reading The Empathy Problem slowly over the last few days – one interesting feature of the novel is that its chapters are very short – a page or two, so it’s easy to pick up and put down. (Maybe a little too easy to put down, which is why it took me a few days to get through.)

The Empathy Problem is about Gabriel, one of the 1%, a high-flying, thoroughly successful hedge-funder, who finds out that he has an inoperable, fatal brain tumour and finds his life changing accordingly. It’s set during the 2011 Occupy movement in London.

It’s a perfectly fine read. It isn’t too sentimental, (although I found the trope of evil hedge funders and city financiers vs their downtrodden secretaries and personal assistants a little done), there’s some nice commentary on the misconceptions about government financing etc. I found the love interest, violinist Caitlin, a little Manic Pixie Dream Girl-ish, and could never quite comprehend Gabriel’s interest in her. I really enjoyed his psychiatrist! She seemed to be the most complex, grounded female character. Gabriel himself was likeable enough – he kept trying to paint himself as like some evil, purposeless hedge funder, but he really just seemed to be someone who was really focused on his job, expected others to do theirs, and who got some personal satisfaction and fulfilment out of his work. As to the basic ethical nature of that job – the book went to great lengths I guess to suggest that apathy to the human condition is in itself fairly problematic – the job didn’t seem to influence world events one way or another, just try to profit off them.

I haven’t read any fiction which heavily featured the Occupy movement, so that was really interesting. The book was good about not stereotyping characters and showing  a range of motivations.

Okay, having written all that out, I realize that maybe it just wasn’t that great a book. I found it easy to read, unoffensive, but it was just kind of a filler book. It didn’t fill me with rage, but I also know that in about a year I’ll have completely forgotten about it.

I’m still thinking through a few thoughts about these filler books. I don’t think every book I read has to be an epic journey through emotions, or personally transformative and ground-breaking. I do think that at the very least there should be some “shimmer” – sort of like when you tilt a jewel and a new facet flashes out at you – something that shows me a new perspective or a new thought. It doesn’t have to be blinding, just a glint will do.

I think there is place for books that just entertain – humorous books, or essays. These “filler” books sit outside of that category – they’re readable, but not LOL worthy; I wouldn’t go back and re-read them for the yuks.

They’re just meh. But as a friend said, sometimes you don’t know when a book is going to be meh until you’ve read it. And maybe meh-ness is a good palate cleanser in between more moving reads. And maybe also one man’s meh is another man’s yeh?

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