The point of Charles Blackstone’s debut novel, The Week You Weren’t Here–and it’s obvious that there is a point to be made–isn’t initially clear. We are introduced to Hunter Flanagan, a twenty-four-year-old aspiring writer who obsesses over both his possible admission into the many graduate creative writing programs he’s applied to and the dozens of failed relationships in his past. The narration is third-person stream-of-consciousness, and it seems nary an iota of thought is excluded from the novel.
The reader is told of Hunter’s past and present girlfriends in snippets. Two Jessicas, Lila, Dewey, Hilary, Kate, Miriam, Simona, Jane, etc. They are spoken of with such fleeting description that one might assume Hunter cares nothing for them, but his relentless obsession with the women in and out of his life suggests he cares too much, and it’s not too long before it’s clear that it’s best if Hunter just let them go. The lesser obsession, getting into a graduate writing program, is something in which Hunter has little faith. He reaches the same conclusions for each of his obsessions. Doom is pending, regardless of a good or bad outcome. If it’s good, he’ll screw it up.
This novel wasn’t written for the story, but for the telling. Blackstone is deft with the stream-of-consciousness narrative, the best choice for a storytelling method given the subject matter, which would be too banal otherwise. Stream-of-consciousness is difficult to pull off without confusing the reader, but there is little puzzling over the prose here. Blackstone makes it look easy.
It’s not until the midway point of the book that Hunter commits an action of real consequence, when, despite having developed a crush on Dewey, he advances things physically with Kate–not all the way–though he’s not even interested in her. Prior to this there is such an absence of story that Blackstone seems to be making the point that he doesn’t need one. He doesn’t employ suspense to propel the novel forward; instead he relies on acute verisimilitude. The novel isn’t about what happens to Hunter, it’s about what has or might happen. The protagonist’s inner life is presented in such proximity that we are supposed to be overwhelmed by what we recognize of ourselves in him.
Hunter, unfortunately, isn’t equipped with the originality of thought to carry the novel. If only his scene with Kate, the strongest in the book, had occurred much earlier, say page one. In the early chapters, given no dramatic actions in which to react, all we know of Hunter is that he doesn’t understand women and seems to lose interest in one when the slightest flaw is revealed or if someone new appears. It’s no surprise that he requires a couple of cocktails before a date and it’s disappointing when he compares his life to the characters on the TV show Friends. It’s not uncommon to find people in real life who have the same problems and destroy their relationships with members of the opposite sex, nor is there a shortage of those who compare their lives to a TV show, but these are the types of details that disclose who Hunter is. But if the object of a novel is to reveal something unique about the human condition, and if we’re going to be privy to Hunter’s deepest thoughts, shouldn’t he be more original? Or is Blackstone saying there’s just not that much depth to human beings?
The few scenes described in the moment are among the strongest passages in the novel, leaving one wishing there had been more of them. With these scenes we get a sense that there’s some urgency in Hunter’s present, and it’s there the characters’ true selves are best unveiled. Hunter’s going to be haunted by what happens either way, good or bad, so we know that in his head the story won’t advance. The scenes are the only instances Hunter is relieved from his obsessions. The same is true for the reader, proving the proximity to his inner life to be much too close. It’s in this sense that the novel’s greatest strength–the method of storytelling–is also its greatest weakness. Blackstone has the goods, but let’s hope that in the future he delivers them, from page one to the end, with a story. For all of Blackstone’s artistry, much of The Week You Weren’t Here feels like a writing exercise–writing a story without actually having one.