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Minor Indignities
by trevor cribben merrill
 wiseblood books, 233 pages, $15.80

Milan Kundera once admitted in a conversation with René Girard that if he had read the latter’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel before having honed his craft, it would have given him writer’s block. It’s easy to see why: once the secret of great literature is revealed to be its insight into the imitative nature of desire, writers in the know may feel relegated to merely reverse engineering the novel rather than experiencing the writing process as a sort of natural birth. Trevor Merrill, a student of Girard’s at Stanford, overcame the agony of influence, and with Minor Indignities, earned the distinction of having proven his master wrong.

The novel begins the day Colin Phelps, Merrill’s hyper-aware narrator, departs his hometown, says goodbye to his high school sweetheart, and settles into his freshman dorm room at a small, prestigious college near Boston. He has two roommates: Rex, a cooler-than-thou David Foster Wallace—type with an encyclopedic mind, and Arnie, who plays golf, trades stocks and exhibits the sort of preppy, all-business attitude you expect from a future banking executive. Rex and Arnie quickly become both models and rivals for Colin, who feels ashamed of his humble, middle-class origins. The plot emerges as he navigates between three romantic interests: Beth, the homely high school girlfriend he believes he has outgrown; Julia, the good Catholic girl he probably should be with; and Margot, the hyper-sexual modern woman who oozes worldly sophistication and, naturally, occupies the most space in his mind. Each of these characters is going through the kind of identity crises typical of the freshman experience, but this is easy to miss from our vantage inside Colin’s head.

Colin lives in a maze of interiority, ever conscious of how others perceive him and worrying at those perceptions like a scratch on the roof of his mouth. In an early scene, Colin recounts longing for Margot, whom he has just met at a dorm party. She indicates she had known Rex in high school, but the nature of the relationship is tantalizingly obscure. Later, when she proposes they go home together, he admits that he is still in a relationship with Beth. This sets the stage for rivalry, and the intensification of desire to the point of pain: “This was my first experience with the sufferings of desire, the peculiar anguish that comes of hoping the other person wants you back but suspecting and even knowing that they don’t.” He is also keenly aware of how others might judge his aspirations. When Beth visits and shares with his new college friends that he wants to be a writer, “her words made me look like a rank amateur, a pathetic dilettante, or so it then seemed to me.” 

The core dilemma of the novel is whether Colin can come to terms with the inherently social nature of his desires and come to see his friends as worlds of their own with their own desires. In this way he is like the unnamed narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. As with the Underground Man, everything he does, says, or thinks is accompanied by an acute, painful awareness of the awareness of others. He has neither the autonomy he longs for, nor inherited norms suitable to guide his life choices. In 1864, Dostoyevsky’s novella was a prophetic announcement of the modern condition. Readers saw in it an articulation of their own experience of themselves. No longer could we naively be human, enjoy what we enjoy, and decide what we decide. We were now compelled to look to our education and our social relations to decide what was likable, and whether we ourselves were likable. We were, as Dostoyevsky put it, no longer men, but mice. Test tube men of heightened consciousness who look upon the older, less sophisticated men of the past with envy.

Colin, like the Underground Man, is ruled by envy. He sees his roommate Rex coupling with Margot and immediately Margot shines more brightly in his eyes than either his girlfriend, Beth, or Julia, the target of his flirtations prior to fixating on Margot. He earns a coveted spot in a competitive seminar and immediately wonders if it is as good as it seemed. Something more is at work here than Groucho Marx’s refusal to join a club which would have him. Colin is repeatedly, maddeningly, confronted by the question of what he wants, and whether he truly wants it. 

Gustav Klimt explored this theme in his 1889 painting Nuda Veritas, in which a seductive naked woman stands before the viewer, hair flowing over her breasts, a mirror in her hand. But where the mirror would traditionally face the woman who seeks her own countenance in it, here it is turned towards the viewer. You, viewer, are made to look at your own face as you look at the object of your desire. What you want is within you even as it stands before you, and artists like Klimt, and writers like Dostoyevsky, force their audiences to confront this reality. The drama of Merrill’s novel likewise plays out within this dynamic.

At the end of the first chapter, as Colin returns to his room from a welcome banquet, he turns a corner and sees “a young woman [looking] back. Naked, she stood in a pose of burlesque provocation in the middle of an empty common room, one long fingered hand on her jutting hip.” He struggles to resist the desire the sight awakens. That struggle persists as a driving theme. On his birthday, Colin’s grandparents come to town and take him and some of his friends to dinner. As dessert is winding down, the women having retreated to the restroom, Colin’s grandfather quips to the young men: “penis erectus non habet conscientiam” (a standing prick has no conscience). In the next chapter Colin experiences his first successful sexual conquest. After she leaves he “stayed in front of the mirror for a full minute, eyes glazed . . .” before, conscience returning, he snaps out of it and flees, lest any of his roommates should arrive and scrutinize him. The consummation of desire is a scandal to him, a failure even in success. 

But where Modern art shocked its audience by making it aware of its desires, well over a century later this has become a familiar enough trope that Colin both recognizes it and wishes at all costs to avoid confronting its implications for him. He wants his desires to be authentic and free. He wants to master his desires—and those of others. He wants, above all, to be cool. Such coolness is the ability not to react in the face of either the repulsive or the attractive. Coolness is god-like autonomy in a self-contained, immutable state around which all else reacts. The closest anyone comes to this is Rex, who is much imitated by other characters. But true coolness is beyond Colin’s power, so he settles for yielding to his desires, provided he can hide them from everyone except those to whom he chooses to reveal them. But, as for all those who also think perception is everything, sin ever lurks at his door.

Plato posed a similar conundrum with a parable. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a ring that you can put on whenever you want to hide, so that others come to see you as you wish to be seen? The just man might have no need of such a ring; but where can we find a just man? What would a meeting with such a man do for our little world of managed perceptions, what truths would come to light? Of what might we be healed?

In a moment of heightened tension early in the novel, Colin half-ironically attends church with one of his love interests, Julia, the good Catholic. He is moved—to a degree that almost breaks verisimilitude—by a homily in mass to pray, “Please God make me like a little child.” The drama of the novel is overwhelmingly in whether and how such a prayer can be answered.

It is telling that Dostoyevsky initially hoped to title his novella A Confession. Like Augustine before him, he is exploring the interior life of a man to his fullest, but unlike Augustine, his subject is a man for whom God, absolution, and childlike faith have left the stage forever. Merrill, in this delightful book, asks what it would take for underground men to mature into surface dwellers. The answer, only hinted at in the novel, is summed up nicely by Girard: “As soon as we sincerely imitate Jesus instead of our neighbors, the power of scandals vanishes.”

Colin Redemer is director of education at American Reformer.

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Image by RGKMA, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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