Booklicious: Booklicious Reviews: Numb

September 28, 2010



I know I've already lamented the inaccuracy of back-of-book blurbs, so I won't get into a lengthy examination of the plot summary issues on the back of Sean Ferrell’s Numb (Harper Perennial), but I couldn't get away from the Publishers Weekly quote on the front of the paperback: "This book has a lot of heart."

For the first few chapters of Ferrell's debut novel, I thought they were just gushing like a standard blurb factory, but after getting roughly halfway through the tale of a protagonist with no name, no face (maybe he does have a face, but read it yourself and then think back: what does this guy look like?), and no pain, I realized it was more than that. They'd completely and utterly missed the mark. Numb and its eponymous narrator don't have a lot of heart; they don't have any heart at all. It's not a damning lack; it's actually the entire point.

Numb begins with our amnesiac, anonymous, and somewhat anticlimactic protagonist recalling his entrance into his own story. He strolled out of the desert and into a circus wearing that uniform of namelessness, the black suit, complete with bloodied face and a trail of dusty footprints leading back to nowhere. His circus compatriots welcome him in light of his “talent,” which becomes his identity when they nickname him Numb, and he becomes an instant hit with the crowds but a divisive element in the crew. The phonies don't like him, the real talent encourages him, and he almost gets eaten by a lion. It's a boiled-down first act, but it's enough to catapult him to the Big Apple.


Numb blunders through encounters left and right, never feeling the nails that pin him to bars, buses that run him over, girders he smacks his face into, or the empathy, sympathy, jealousy, and admiration of those around him. Earlier plot devices, like the card in the suit, turn out to be red herrings and leftover bits of first drafts, discarded quickly and glossed over in the narrative while the stars, actors, and agents that inexplicably adopt him constantly point out new, shiny things, short skirts, and whatever pointy object is currently embedded in his nerveless body. The events that comprise the supposed plot ramble on, climbing up and tumbling down strange narrative devices, flimsy showbiz set pieces featuring stereotypical agents and models, and relationships that nobody buys, not even Numb himself. The supposed climax is anything but: a jealous, bitter former friend grasping for glory with personality traits inherited from the likes of Tyler Durden and Johnny Knoxville gets Numb into a world of trouble, except that it turns out to be a small world after all.

When I finished Numb, I was annoyed and felt slightly cheated out of my time and interest, but when I sat down to write the first draft of my review it dawned on me that my approach to the book was self-defeating. Numb's actions don't make sense viewed as a mystery, like the back of the book intimates with the "Who am I?" plot line, nor as an emotional work examining the character of a quintessentially characterless protagonist. Numb is, in a sense, in the same existential quagmire as the reader: he has no idea who he is, and he can't feel the pain - emotional or physical - that he inflicts or that others inflict upon him. With a mindset that takes his lack of nerve, both literal and figurative, into account, the narrative suddenly fuses into a clear, coherent whole. Without pain to guide Numb, he blunders along complacently until he is finally forced to deal with his circumstances, having exhausted his ability to simply slide away on the blood-slicked road. 


Steph said... @ September 29, 2010 at 8:09 PM

Fantastic review. I love how the book changed for you when you sat down to write your thoughts on it. I've had that happen to me, too, and it's interesting. Thank goodness it happens before we spout our initial impressions!

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