by Michael Seidlinger
We’re different today than we were in 1946, when Albert Camus’ The Stranger debuted. Featuring a social outcast who didn’t understand or empathize with his role in society, The Stranger explored an uncomfortable post-WWII world. Michael Seidlinger’s update, The Strangest, does the same thing for the world as it is today, only with social media and cell phones. Times change, people don’t.
Empathy is an underrated resource. It’s how we stopped bashing each other over the head for a loaf of bread or a mate back in yester-years, a resource that Meurks, the “protagonist” of Strangest, deeply lacks and takes pains to explain to us. Most of the novel is the thought processes and relayed conversation as Meurks attempts to navigate a hostile and unintelligible world. He doesn’t understand questions about how he’s doing or about why he doesn’t cry at funerals; he answers with simple yeses and nos, regardless of the correctness of those answers.
In a world of complexity, he seeks simplicity.
When The Stranger came out, it must have been a startling experience. Sociopath was an uncommon word and a fair depiction of such, from the perspective of the one lacking empathy, likely was an “ah-ha” moment. But does a 1940s definition hold up a lifetime later? What does sociopathy mean in this internet era of likes and comments?
Throughout much of The Strangest, Meurks only seems to care about two things: his own biological needs and about his online persona. In a way, he’s the most actualized person. He knows what he needs and what he wants. In another way, he’s a grim reflection of society’s malaise. If he isn’t fulfilling a biological imperative (food, water, shelter, sex), he’s crafting posts online to maximize Internet attention. If one doesn’t work, he deletes it. If another does, he emulates it.
How is that different from the rest of us who engage in online lives and worlds? Are who we represent ourselves as online the real us or only facsimiles?
While The Strangest raises discomfiting questions about the world around us, its devotion to the source material has a tendency to undermine the answers. Divided into two parts, the first deals with Meurks’ navigation of everyday life, of small failures and missed connection. It’s fascinating and engrossing, especially with the introduction of foils in a love interest and antagonist. How Meurks responds to a world that begins to empathize with him clarifies our understanding of mysteries. If the book could have stayed on that path, or found a different road to parallel that of The Stranger, it might have emerged stronger.
Instead, mirroring the path of the inspiration, Seidlinger writes a murder, a trial and the bewilderment of Meurks in the face of society itself. Some might enjoy the journey from the personal to the massive, to the deeply intricate musings of an imprisoned man. And it’s fair to choose that route as Camus did. But what might have been gained by exploring new worlds or new avenues of indictment? With the proliferation of internet crusades, in doxxing, endless tweets and Facebook picture filters (e.g. Paris, gay marriage, Star Wars, etc), what would have happened to Meurks if that world had been invaded?
Regardless of the literary choices, The Strangest is an intriguing, remarkably literate update of a classic in existentialism. Meurks is a fascinating, living character and the prose with which he reaches the reader is lovely and intricate. For those who missed Camus’ classic or who are looking to broaden their understanding of what makes humanity, Seidlinger’s The Strangest is the perfect choice.