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Beyond the manicured lawns and polished exteriors of suburbia lie darker secretsisolation, infidelity, even abuse. No one knows this better than Nick Walsh. Hidden away in his childhood home, he spends his days and nights drunk, high, and emotionally crippled by grief and anger over the murdersuicide of his parents. When Nick’s resentment toward his suburban neighbors turns to revenge, his actions reveal secrets he never could have imaginedespecially his own. Norah Vincent’s Thy Neighbor is an audacious, darkly funny, and deeply unsettling debut novel that charts Nick’s descent into obsession and surveillance, and the liberating discoveries it brings.
Vincent’s previous booksSelfMade Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man and Voluntary Madness: Lost and Found in the Mental Healthcare Systemwere works of immersive journalism, where she inhabited worlds foreign to her in order to intimately experience the lives of others. She brings the same sharp perspective and nuanced understanding of humanity to Thy Neighbor, her first work of fiction. Nick’s caustic humor and lacerating rantsdirected at himself as much as at othersare filled with insight into the darker aspects of the human condition, railing against superficiality, selfindulgence, and the casual cruelties of everyday life. Yet there are a small handful of characters who escape Nick’s loathing: Mrs. Bloom, a neighbor who has endured the tragic loss of a daughter and a granddaughter; Miriam, the young daughter of a dysfunctional family; and Monica, the mysterious woman with whom he has struck up a romantic, if unusual, relationship and who seems to harbor as many secrets as he does. As he assembles a technological arsenal of equipment to spy on his neighbors in their own homes, only Mrs. Bloom and Monica are left undisturbed.
Alone in his basement, Nick watches screens flickering with the disturbing behavior from the homes around him, entertained and appalled in equal measure. But as he begins his surveillance, small pink notes begin to appear in his home, poems that seem to be written in his own hand yet he has no memory of writing them. Soon, a stranger reaches out to him online, sharing cryptic messages hinting at their dark, shared past. The watcher has become the watched.
Vincent brings together multiple, seemingly divergent narrative threads to weave a story that is both a compelling mystery and a social satire. Through Nick, she provides astute and witty commentary on everything from Facebook to Hamlet, while following the chilling path of depravity and denial that culminated in the death of Nick’s parents. His emotional progression from a toxic mixture of grief and anger to the seeds of kindness and moral obligation is compelling, and while he remains a flawed person, his attempt to forgive himself for the sins of his parents is alltoohuman and deeply moving.
Norah Vincent is the author of the New York Times bestseller SelfMade Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, as well as Voluntary Madness: Lost and Found in the Mental Healthcare System. She has written for Salon.com, The Advocate, and the Village Voice, and was an oped columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She currently lives in New York City.
In your first book, SelfMade Man, you disguised yourself as a man in order to immerse yourself in maleonly environments in hopes of learning what it feels like to be a man in today’s society. Now you’ve written your first novel, a firstperson narrative told in the voice of a young man. What is it about the male experience that you find so appealing and artistically productive? Did you draw on the experiences from your first book when creating writing Thy Neighbor?
As I discovered while researching SelfMade Man, there are still a great many things that cannot be said, or are not well received when they are said in a female voice. I simply felt that this narrator couldn’t be as brutally honest and unlikable as I needed him to be without being male. I found it interesting that people were very critical of this character nonetheless, finding him too harsh and dark and hateful, yet he is far less caustic than many a character created by male writers writing as men. This would seem to bear out the experiences I had when I was disguised as a man, getting away with a lot more, talking more brashly and rudely, yet often being judged less harshly than I was when I did those same things as a woman.
There are some scenes in this novel that readers might find challenging; for example, the scene early in the novel with Dave in Nick’s kitchen (p.27-29). Some might find that scene darkly funny, others might find it disgusting. Why did you decide to take the book to extremes like this? Did you worry you might try to lead your readers too far for their own comfort?
It was one of my primary aims in the book to make people uncomfortable, to make them squirm and then to ask them to think about why they were squirming. I have always been interested in the margins of culture, what we consider acceptable and what we don’t and why. I know where the line of decorum is, I draw it myself, and then I purposely step over it because I want to see what will happen. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just when things get interesting.
Tolstoy famously began Anna Karenina with the line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Nick’s neighbors, with their cookiecutter suburban fašades and dark secrets, seem to satisfy both aspects of that statement. Do you agree?
Yes. In fact, Nick makes reference to that very line, though as he says, he mangles it. He knows that the fašade of happiness is only a fašade, true and even sufficient for a few, untrue and insufficient for most. He is very interested in privacy and what a doubleedged sword it can be, giving us the safety to thrive unharmed, yet also covering terrible crimes. What we do when we’re alone, and when we think no one is watching, can be truly horrible. The worst parts of human nature can flourish unchecked and with disastrous consequences. These stories crop up in the news every day, as one did most recently in the case of the three women held captive for a decade by Ariel Castro in Cleveland, and the response is always the same. Shock. “We had no idea,” the neighbors always say.
Do you believe that a person is only truly himself when he is alone and believes no one is watching?
Yes. I believe that we wear masks with everyone. We can’t help it. All of our social interactions, even the ones we have with our supposed intimates, are on some level acted.
In the age of social media, selfpromotion, and online tools tracking our every purchase, our expectations of privacy have changed. How do you define privacy? How much of your life do you share with the public?
At this point, I think it’s pretty safe to say that privacy has almost ceased to exist. We are watched and being watched everywhere, and everyone is quite literally carrying a camera. Orwell’s predictions have come horrifyingly true. Technology sits in opposition to privacy. The more technology has progressed, the smaller, the more relentlessly public the world has become. Privacy is absolute solitude, perhaps even total sensory deprivation, but who in this modern world has that? And truth be told, who would want it? After all, that way madness lies.
As for how much of myself do I share with the public, well, my soul, good and bad, is bared in this book, so I suppose quite a lot, and probably to my detriment.
Have you ever looked into a neighbor’s house and wondered what their life is like? What would people think about you if they got a glimpse into your home?
Many, many times. I walk by houses and I wonder what is going on in them. Far too often I worry that it’s bad things, and I suppose if there was one thing I was shouting from the rooftops in this book it was a call for vigilance. Notice things. Far too often a child who has been missing for decades is being held captive next door. The idea of it absolutely horrifies me. It’s going on somewhere right now, right next door to someone who has no idea.
As for what people would think if they caught a glimpse into my home, well aside from some pretty comic habits that tend to center around bodily functions, and some pretty shameful canoodling with my dog, there isn’t much. I spend a lot of time writing and reading and tearing out my hair.
Nick invokes Hamlet on a number of occasions, seeing a connection between himself and the famous prince. Could you go into greater detail as to how you see the parallels between Nick’s circumstances and Shakespeare’s play?
Well, of course, Nick is a Hamlet figure, every bit as selfabsorbed and selfimportant in his despair as the prince was, and by turns, as Monica points out, interesting and highly annoying as a result. Hamlet as I see it is primarily a ghost story, and so is Thy Neighbor. There are a lot of distractions and red herrings in Nick’s story, as there are in the play, but the central plot is supernatural. The living people in this book are far less important than those who are dead, and even the living are already halfghosts themselves existing on the boundaries of what is real and what is pictured, whether on television screens or in the mind’s eye.
Nick is also Horatio. The story of Hamlet is really Horatio’s story. He is the narrator. He is the person who lives on at the end of the play and is enjoined by Hamlet to “tell my story,” but he is also the stealth hero of the play all along, the ghost hiding in plain sight. So while all along Hamlet is front and center compelling us to engage with him, as Nick says, he is really just the decoy. Horatio is the man to watch, and if at the end of the play you haven’t properly connected with him, you’ve missed something very significant.
After Robin is shot, Mrs. Bloom whispers something into her ear that Nick can’t understand, but he says it “sounded like pages rustling” (p. 279). Each reader will have his or her own idea of what those words might be, but when you were writing, did you have a clear idea of what she said? If so, could you give readers a hint?
In part I meant it to be nonsense, the mad ranting of a woman in shock who is desperately aggrieved. But in part I think it’s also an apology and a mea culpa, an acknowledgement of all the things she denied for so long.
All of the characters in Thy Neighbor are complex, but which did you feel the most empathy with and which did you find the most challenging to write?
I think I liked Mrs. Bloom the best. I think she made the longest journey from ignorance and denial to hard won understanding and wisdom. She even manages to find some peace. I found Monica the hardest character to write. She is enigmatic and she doesn’t show her hand. She treads a fine line between compassion and contempt, and she knows far more than she ever says. That was hard to capture, and truth be told, I’m not convinced that I succeeded in capturing it.
When can we expect your next book? Will it be fiction or nonfiction?
I really couldn’t say either way. Writing is very slow and hard for me. Let us hope for rain.
- What was your initial reaction to Nick? How did your feelings toward him develop over the course of the novel? In what ways is he a sympathetic character?
- What is Nick’s justification for spying on his neighbors? What is Monica’s reaction?
- From choosing our clothes to updating our Facebook status, we present to the world a consciously crafted version of ourselves, yet we rarely think about the likelihood that those around us are doing the same thing. Why is so compelling about the lives of our neighbors? And why might we assume that they are somehow easier, happier, or better than our own?
- The dark underbelly of suburban life is a favorite trope in fiction and film. What other TV shows, movies, or novels have tackled this topic? How do they relate to Thy Neighbor?
- Why did Jim Walsh kill his wife and himself? Why did Robin record their final conversation?
- On page 261, Nick presses Monica to reveal her most painful secret, but she refuses, arguing that it would be a loselose proposition: either he dismisses her secret as lightweight or she shames him by sharing something more painful and tragic than his own. What is Monica’s secret?
- A few paragraphs later (p.262-263), Monica explodes at Nick, infuriated by his claim that his pain has been “fuel” for him. “It’s the luxury of the loved and whole and privileged person to seek out reasons for pain and make them into food,” she says. “Real, total devastation isn’t like that.” Reread her speech in light of what you know about her past. What is she really saying?
- Which neighbors does Nick spy on? Why does he choose those people in particular? Does their behavior surprise him or does it confirm his opinions?
- What is the significance of the poem at the beginning of the book? How does it reflect the events of the plot?
- Monica is connected to each person in the Walsh family in some way. What is her relationship to each? Who, if any of them, has the best understanding of her?
- On p.195, Katz says that Dr. Cunningham told him, “Your worst professional regretsthe ones that haunt you all your lifethose are much less likely to revolve around the things you did than the things you failed to do.” What is he referring to? In your own life, has this been true, either on a personal or professional level?
- Why does Monica run into Gruber’s house at the end of the novel?