Waiting for the Man

by Arjun Basu

Long-time readers will probably know how often I like to go out on a limb and suggest some fairly outlandish things––making presumptions about deeper meanings or even an author’s mentality when settling in on specific techniques used. While the discussions that result can sometimes feel not far off from taking a stab in the dark, they usually come from impressions of something tangible within the work. Not far along in Waiting for the Man, I took particular notice of the prose. The narration is extremely choppy, to me sounding like a real go-go businessman, as our protagonist was shown to be. Because the synopsis seemed to entail someone dissatisfied with his daily existence, I assumed the story would be about finding a simple happiness, and I thought that we would start to see a change in cadence, opening things up to longer, flowing, vibrant sentences, to denote this change taking place. (Think of it like a subtler version of the inner/outer dialogue Terry Fallis employed in One Brother Shy.) And I was beginning to suspect I was onto something when this started to happen with things he actually cared about––talking about someone he was romantically interested in or regarding scenery that took his breath away in a place he loved, for instance––but then reverted to the original prose when he got transported back to the real world. However, as the book progressed, no substantial, lasting change took place. This is a great example of a time where I thought I found something significant, but the theory fell apart as I read on. To craft a review that actually brings something meaningful to the table in a sea of reviews, I believe that one not only needs to be open and observant enough to pick up on something unusual such as this, but honest enough with oneself to scrutinize the theory while reading, and be willing to drop it if things fall apart. I don’t think you can properly hit on significance from a flimsy base––an important lesson for writers of all stripes.

Apparently, I still enjoy using reviews as a vehicle to discuss more general writing concepts, rather than just talking about the work at hand. But, honestly, a review for Waiting for the Man is a reasonable place for this, at least in that it will bear more similarity to the book I’m reviewing. Basu’s story is about Joe, a successful man in his mid-thirties with a good job in a Manhattan advertising firm. Getting hit with a strong bout of melancholia stemming from a lack of fulfillment in his life––explained by his father as a mid-life crisis––he starts to dream about a mysterious thin, black man (dressed like a pimp, sometimes riding a white horse). He starts to feel happy when interacting with this Man, and he starts seeing and hearing Him in his waking life, though no one else can. When the Man tells him to wait, Joe does just that: sits himself on the front stoop of his apartment building, waiting for … he doesn’t know what. Waiting for the Man is made up of two narratives, alternating between the two from chapter to chapter, the first consisting of the attention his wait draws from the surrounding world, along with a growing media frenzy and fame. The second narrative looks at the aftermath, seeing where he winds up after setting off on a cross-country journey when the Man urges him to go west.

The first chapter of Waiting for the Man reads effectively like a summary of the background events to get us caught up to what brought Joe to the step, and it contained basically all that I figured would make up the plot when I picked the book up. I recalled something similar happening in André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, a book I loved, so I became intrigued as to where we would be going from here. However, an issue arises because the author decided to run through the significant changes within his protagonist in such an abridged fashion: We don’t get to witness the growth when he goes from mindlessly working a job he’s supposed to like to understanding his underlying dissatisfaction to responding to the situation strangely. Skimming over a potentially strong character arc limits how compelling the plot can be. Of course, the extent that this matters has a lot to do with how much the author actually wanted to tell a story, and I don’t think that was the point of Waiting for the Man, odd as that may sound. Basu starts us with a protagonist who is already hugely self-aware and he has him basically passively observe the unfolding situation around him. The overt exposition reflecting on the modern world reads almost like a series of small essays hidden within a work of fiction, and I think this is the main source of my disappointment with the book, that I came in expecting a story and was treated to more of a commentary.

In addition to misunderstanding the focus of Waiting for the Man going in, I found myself surprised by the main argument as it began to come into view. I seemed to take for granted that a story criticizing modern society would suggest that the trick to happiness is to escape it. According to Basu, this is a pipe dream. The world we find ourselves in is so interconnected and both the world of marketing and the cult of celebrity have become so pervasive that it’s impossible to actually leave it. Rather, the true path to satisfaction is to carve out a little place within this world where you’re free to do what makes you happy. This idea in and of itself could have potentially been interesting enough to either drive a collection of essays or even to keep some meat just below the surface of a decent story to make it something special, but because Waiting for the Man finds itself somewhere in the middle, because it reads like brief opinion pieces scattered through unrefined fiction, it comes off wanting.