by Stéphane Larue
In The Dishwasher, we follow a mostly unnamed narrator as he tries to crawl out of the gutter of his life. The story focuses on his gambling addiction, how it controls him––mind, body, and soul––and causes him not only to fall further and further into debt and effectively drop out of college, but also to alienate basically everyone he cares about. Hounded by his unmet responsibilities to a heavy metal band who paid an advance for a cover artwork commission that he has yet to deliver and by an ex-roommate who still expects the rent payment the narrator ran away from, he takes a job as a dishwasher at a busy, high-end restaurant. While the intense pace of the work helps him to keep his mind off his troubles, it also introduces more sinister and dangerous elements into his life.
Superficially, The Dishwasher brings to mind a couple of books I’m hugely fond of: Bright Lights, Big City because of the depressing, downward spiral of self-ruin the author attempts to cultivate, and On the Road because of the focus on the narrator’s out-of-control friend––though the similarities fall away when you delve a bit deeper. The deeper similarities, to me, resemble something perhaps a bit more surprising: The Shining, for at least two important reasons. Firstly, because of perceived attempts to describe addiction honestly in both, and, secondly, in structure––both stories being exercises in foreshadowing and a slow building of atmosphere in an attempt to lead to something big.
While comparisons to such famous and influential works may sound like a positive, however, understand that having similarities to enduring stories doesn’t necessarily translate to effectively drawing out in your own book the things that actually made those stories enduring. There was a lot within Larue’s writing that I disliked. The narration leans heavily on tired clichés and weak analogies in an attempt to make an impact. The author makes the mistake of thinking he has to describe every little detail of every little thing, which can be a hard bit of criticism to understand until you become acquainted with authors who do great things when focusing on specific details that have purpose behind them. And the foreshadowing fails on more than one occasion by continually hitting the reader with ominous hints as to where we’re heading long past the point where we can predict where that will be, without moving the plot any closer to that point––apparent attempts to force a sense of gravity ultimately harming growth of this feeling.
The aspect in The Dishwasher I’m most torn about is the portrayal of the narrator’s addiction. When we started getting into it proper within the book, basically everything that was described seemed familiar to me with respect to things in my life that firmly took hold of me, that I obsessed over, but then he began describing things that weren’t reminiscent of my obsessions. This isn’t to suggest that the portrayal was at all unrealistic, rather that my bias that attaches a perceived realism to my perspective made me mistrust it, and it made me realize just how difficult it can be to make things relatable to readers. I wonder if there’s any way to avoid this, and suspect that the only thing you can do is be as sincere as possible. If the portrayal comes from a place of truth, which seems at least plausible in the case of The Dishwasher, it seems reasonable that more readers who share in the experience will relate to the writing. But there will probably still be some number of readers who don’t relate to at least a piece of it, so there’s probably major limits to how well you can avert this harming of immersion.
All that said, the description of the frantic pace and pressures of the narrator’s shifts as dishwasher was probably the thing I enjoyed most with the book, and that definitely doesn’t come from a place of personal experience. The key to making the story compelling likely has less to do with making things match exactly with readers’ experiences and more to do with other aspects of the writing that appeared to work during these passages, such as matching tone with desired responses or doing things for good reason, obviously working toward something, like plot or characterization.