First things first. This is one of those books that will have you paging backwards as you read the last chapter, seeing it all with new eyes. You’ll be tempted to re-read the book, picking up signs and ‘Aha’s’ as you go, but nothing can really prepare you for this novel’s ambitious premise.
The Inside Out Man is a Faustian tale that opens with Bentley Croud, a down and out jazz pianist, telling us his name is not Bentley Croud. He is simply Bent – a misshapen state.
Bent takes us briefly back to his dysfunctional childhood and then plunges us into the murky bar life he inhabits, playing for an audience that’s a ‘shapeless mass of teeth and smoke’. It’s a dismal picture. Then Bent discovers that his absconded - and now dead - father has bequeathed him a mysterious key.
At the same time life seems to take an upward swing (or rather reach a high note) when Bent is offered a large amount of money to play piano for jaded millionaire, Leonard Fry. At the end of a wild weekend during which Bent plays the piano almost round the clock, Leonard makes him a bizarre and tempting offer. Leonard wants to be locked in a room in the house for a year to see if he can find the meaning of life. All Bent has to do is feed him three meals a day. In return Bent gets to live as lord of the mansion – with a living allowance and full access to all Leonard’s cars, toys, and lifestyle.
The catch? Well there seems to be none, although an analytical mind would soon realise that there’s not much real freedom to roam when you have to be home to serve meals three times a day. But for the worn-out pianist it seems like a dream come true. And then it turns into a nightmare.
Strydom has created a complex and clever tale that made me think of John Fowles’s The Magus and the games people play in their exploration of the human condition.
What were his literary references and inspirations when writing the book? As far as literary influences go, there have been plenty of great examples of similar subject matter, from the existential dread of HP Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti, to the twisted mental machinery of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, to Edgar Allen Poe The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher. I can’t ignore the influence of Hitchcock either, or Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.
Bent and Leonard are complex and compelling characters. They’re also not always likeable. At one point a character called Jolene tells Bent: “you creep me out! …you bore me…” I found myself nodding in agreement. But how important is it to like your main characters? Author Claure Messud famously blasted an interviewer when asked if anyone would want to be friends with the protagonist in her book The Woman Upstairs, replying: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. What really makes fictional characters worth reading isn’t likeability, exactly, but complexity, richness and the intangible charisma that keeps readers invested in their story.’ This perfectly sums up Bent and Leonard. How does Strydom feel about them? I guess they aren’t likeable, but I’ve never found likeability to be the strongest reason for investing myself in any character. Hopefully being interesting is always enough, and “interesting” is pretty neutral. I don’t know – maybe we’re rooting for them, but maybe not; maybe we want to simply see how far they fall. Perhaps it even makes us complicit in their actions, us wanting to know how dark things get, even urging them on, but knowing that as the reader, we can do so from a safe, guiltless space.
There’s a line in the book where Bent questions if people are aware of their own madness and as he debates what is real and not real, the reader finds himself questioning his own sanity. Like the Mad Hatter once said, are the best of us insane? Is Bent the best of us? Or the misshapen parts we hide?
I’ve always been interested in the workings of the mind, and how reliant we are on our perception to very much dictate the world in which we live. That’s a simultaneously terrifying and liberating notion: that reality is governed entirely by the way in which we perceive it, and that, in the same physical space, one person’s mind can interpret the space as a prison, while another, as an opportunity for exploration. That felt like something I wanted to delve into, to test in a (relatively) safe imaginative space.
I don’t know if all the best people are insane. It comes down to what we interpret as sanity (in insanity) in the first place, and whether we attribute negative or positive connotations to it. I don’t necessarily think running into the woods to wear nothing but animal skins and have conversations with clouds is necessarily insane. As far as I’m concerned, I feel the mainstream world demonstrates far more examples of insanity, with so-called normal people in so-called respected positions compulsively hurting themselves, the world and each other for illusory gain. I don’t get any of that shit. It doesn’t make sense. But our friend in the woods – well, I get that a bit more, and for me, sanity is about the common sense, and there doesn’t seem to be that much of it going around. Rapper Immortal Technique put it nicely: “Universal truth has nothing to do with mass appeal”.
There’s a theme of happiness in the book – the search for it and ultimately the questioning of its existence. What does true happiness mean for you? You can be happy if you accept that it has nothing to do with getting anywhere, that it isn’t a destination, but an honest choice in a given moment, within the context of what you perceive to be your life journey as a whole. There’s nothing you can get or do to be happy, not even, let’s say, something as profound as starting your own family. You’re only happy if you bring an existing happiness into your family and even then, with more love comes more fear, so you’re constantly working towards a sense of emotional and intellectual balance. That’s the best you can hope for, I reckon. Recognise this, accept it, embrace it, and chalk it up to the gloriously rugged tapestry of your life as a whole, and you stand the chance of a life pretty well lived, I think.
You’ve written a very evocative description of Cape Town’s shadier side, saying ‘It’s a city of good intentions…but then a good intention isn’t worth anything.’ Rendering a tourist idyll in such real and unflinching colours feels like another twist in the tale. Is this your Cape Town? I grew up in Cape Town, and yes, I’ve seen the darker side of it, but anyone who’s lived anywhere long enough will occasionally stumble into its dark side (usually at 3am in the morning, an hour or two after you should reasonably have gone home), but I’ve also got my beautiful spots, my fun spots, my comfortable spots, and everything in-between. That’s the privilege of my particular perception. Cape Town is never actually mentioned in the novel, and the reason is that I didn’t want anyone else’s connotation of the city creeping in. It’s too many places to too many different people. This is very much Bent’s city through Bent’s eyes, and, as bit of dramatic irony, I suppose, that adds to the unreliability of his character, since we’re aware of his subjective myopia even while he isn’t.
In the beginning Leonard Fry tells Bent money is not a corrupter as money simply ‘digs the real you right up. Anyone who loses himself to money never had a real self to begin with.’ Is money then the great leveller – exposing us to who we really are? Right, but then Leonard also contradicts himself later on by saying that the money’s the thing that’s been hiding his true self from himself (Bent remarks on this contradiction). The point is the contradiction, how Leonard hasn’t reconciled it and is going into the room for that very reason. With money comes more options, and options can make things confusing. We can forget what’s real and what isn’t, what we want and what we think we want. We can lose perspective. We can also do good, I guess. Better ourselves and the world. Bottom line, I don’t know that it levels us, but it certainly tests us, and there must be something having money has to say about what we’re really made of. Maybe a few books down the line I’ll get to find out.
What does the writing process look like for you? Are you a 1000 words a day, mornings in the shed or a 9-5 writer? I’m a ‘when-I-can-I-can’ kind of writer. I’m not sure a secluded getaway cabin in the woods would help me knuckle down. Too much silence, probably. I write in a flurry, any chance I get – lunchbreaks, 3am in the morning, in the bathroom, wherever – and I have the feeling it’s how I work best. I don’t have a study or even a favourite spot where I sit. I also don’t write every day (there are plenty of better, more experienced authors who will tell you it’s crucial), but I think I make up for it by writing in my head, all the time. That’s where the story forms, solidifies, where the characters find their way. The laptop’s just when I turn it into words. I don’t consider it a big deal.
Fred Strydom studied film and media at the University of Cape Town. He has taught English in South Korea and published a number of short stories. He currently works as a television writer and producer in Johannesburg, where he lives with his wife and son, two dogs, cat, and two horses. The Inside Out Man is his second novel; his first, The Raft, was published in 2015.